We hired a cab. It got a flat tire on the road from Puerto Plata to Sosua. We were heading for the downtown strip, between a hotel and a bank, where, hidden by a fence and a wall, there was a Jewish historical museum. And, right next door, a small synagogue. We had no guide to show us around, but our driver dug up somebody to unlock the gate for us.
The story behind this scene begins in 1940. The Evian conference had been held in France to gather the international community and discuss what to do about, or with, the Jewish victims of Nazi/German persecution. Lots of tongue clicking and clucking, but no action taken. With one noble and notable exception. The Dominican Republic, in the time and term of the Trujillo tyranny, most graciously and gallantly invited the desperate and despairing refugees to the town of Sosua promising every courtesy and welcome. The guarantee of safety would be backed up and funded by the government itself.
Sadly, tragically and mysteriously, only a fraction of the genuinely and generously invited guests accepted the kind offer. Trujillo’s motivations for the magnificent gesture may have remained unknown, but the little memorial gallery is most elegantly eloquent in its explanatory signage. There is the usual customary museum objection to the taking of photographs of the displays. I can however mention a few items. A pine file cabinet, simple but somehow a handsome and telling relic. It says the urban kibbutzniks unfamiliar with the economy of agriculture, used their skills to organize and record their progress. These pioneers managed to survive and to build a new world with swiftly learned manual talents. Some took local native wives and lived to see their grandchildren and great-grandchildren truly enter the ordinary life of the Dominican Republic. Mostly, however, they did the best they could until, in 1945, they could emigrate to more promising urban postwar places and take up the familiar patterns of their prewar cultures and folkways. This devout “ghost town” struck me as the secret half-buried treasure of the Caribbean world.
The buildings impressed me and brought to my mind words I like to use but have very few, and rare, occasions to do so. Words like “noble,” “honorable,”poetic” and “poignant.” Little white wildflowers grew shyly on the grassy garden entrance space, poking up like greetings. The front entrance of the synagogue has a southern veranda, but we entered by another door: the Sephardic tradition of arranging pews all around the ark does not resemble the design of a church with pews facing an altar. Like the biblical tent, there are doors at each side. The stained glass windows above illustrate Genesis stories, but they seem to say L’chaim – to life itself, in a way that is startlingly modern, like a declaration of environmental respect for all creatures designed by God in six marvelous days and everything proclaimed “good,” with artistic sighs of satisfaction and success, true blessings on the world. In this case, the entire wooden hut seemed to say a grateful thank-you to the Dominican Republic for its fabulous redemption, like any episode in Jewish legend and lore.
It is a moving miniature architectural remnant, proud with its construction and paneling of royal palm lumber. It is not a forgotten or unknown spot on earth, just unique in its cheerful mood. I like to visit tiny synagogues when I travel to escape the winter winds. There is nothing tragic about Sosua – except for the dreadful context that it is unique. The entire tale is steeped in irony. The dictator does a beautiful deed. Simon Wiesenthal wrote “Sails of Hope” to argue that Christopher Columbus was seeking a safe harbor for the Jews fleeing the Inquisition. Harry Ezratty wrote “The Jewish Caribbean” and brought the paradoxes of our hemisphere closer to our own time. From Inquisition to Holocaust.
Our journey – more of a pilgrimage – was inspired in part also by Marion Kaplan’s book “Dominican Haven.” I’m not breaking any new ground here, merely expressing an impression of the quiet and enduring sheer beauty of that act, that brief sojourn, and its legacy, a blessing upon all who may visit the only nation on the planet that opened its heart and its helping hand when the more powerful domains were busy slamming their doors shut. There is a mood of sacredness and spirituality right in the midst of the town, troubled though it may be by tough economic and political times. There is a richness of tone, and our visit brought the four of us together for a few moments of silent prayer for peace in the world. Thanks to Mel and Pat Blake and to my wife Michael – I call her sometimes “Lady Michael” – for sharing this academic adventure.
MIKE FINK (email@example.com) teaches at RISD.