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From a Safe Haven in the Dominican Republic to a Civic Lesson in Washington Heights

October 16, 2013 By:
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Actress Kaitlin Abreu with Sosúa refugee Juliana Biro.

The town of Sosúa, located on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, has long been considered a tropical paradise by vacationers: beautiful beaches, some of the best windsurfing in the Caribbean, plenty of top-notch resorts — in short, an ideal place to escape from the trials and tribulations of the real world.

As an invitation-only audience discovered on Oct. 9 at the National Museum of American Jewish History, for one group of Jews during World War II, the town truly earned its reputation as a refuge.

The event — the Philadelphia premiere of Sosúa: Make a Better World — was part of Hispanic Heritage Month. It was also a centerpiece of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee’s inaugural Latino/Jewish Committee, which, according to AJC director Marcia Bronstein, was created to focus on issues like civic engagement, comprehensive immigration reform and Diaspora-homeland relations — all of which are covered in the documentary.

The Caribbean nation’s role as unlikely haven for European Jews came about as a result of the 1938 Evian Conference. The conference, which was organized by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, brought together the leaders of 32 countries to try to address the need to find safe harbor for the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Out of all of the attendees, only the Dominican Republic’s president, the military strongman Rafael Trujillo, volunteered to receive them.

The result: From 1940 to 1945, some 750 Jews made their home — and a living — on an abandoned banana plantation purchased for their resettlement by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that also provided kibbutzniks from Palestine to teach the new immigrants how to produce the meat and dairy products they eventually became famous for on the island.

This previously little-known tale might have remained so if not for the efforts of Vicki Neznansky, the program director for the YM/YWHA in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Struggling with a way to bring together a community that was roughly half-Jewish and half-Dominican, she discovered the story of the Jews of Sosúa at a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City.

As the documentary’s co-director, Renee Silverman, recalls, Neznansky saw this past example of Dominicans and Jews working together as the ideal entry point to engage the two communities in the present. “She realized that she could bring people together” with the story, “and she knew there was no better place to start than with the kids.”

Neznansky decided that the Y would put on a musical about the events, Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together, with a cast of half Jewish and half Dominican teenage actors. The play, though, would be more of a workshop than a scripted performance, with the real-life experiences of the actors infusing the production.

Neznansky brought in Liz Swados to compose the music and lead the production. In addition to being one of the country’s foremost practitioners of workshop productions, most notably with her 1978 Broadway hit, Runaways, Swados literally wrote the book on working with adolescents in the theater, At Play: Teaching Teenagers Theater.

Originally, Silverman and her partner/co-director, Peter Miller, were only supposed to show up to tape the first day of auditions as a favor to the Y, where Silverman sat on the board. As Miller recounts with a laugh, that plan was thrown out almost immediately. “Within the first 10 minutes of filming, Renee and I looked at each other, and we knew we were committed.”

That commitment meant filming more than 80 hours of material through parts of 2009 and 2010, from that first day to the opening night of the musical.

The end product is a 56-minute chronicle of the difficulties in giving birth to a play, bridging cultural divides and learning from both the mistakes and the successes of the past.

Nothing sums up the difficulties of reconciliation in the film more than the person who made Sosúa possible. Generalissimo Trujillo not only saved the Jews who came to Sosúa; he also provided visas for roughly 4,000 more European Jews who ultimately immigrated to the United States.

Yet his reasons for helping European Jews were not entirely altruistic. Trujillo, a notorious racist, took in the Jews because they were white, which dovetailed with his interest in “whitening” his country’s population. He also was looking to rehabilitate his international reputation, which had taken a major hit when the world learned of the 1937  “Parsley Massacre” — his troops murdered somewhere between 20,000-30,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic (Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola).

“And it did: Overnight, he was transformed from being a pariah into being a humanitarian,” says Allen Wells, author of Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR and the Jews of Sosúa.

“There is irony in one racist dictator trying to push the Jews out of Germany and another racist dictator welcoming them in order to lighten up his own populace,” adds Wells, a history professor at Bowdoin College.

Wells, who is the son of a Sosúa Jew, notes that while Trujillo’s actions saved thousands of Jewish lives, the whole initiative was tinged with controversy from the moment the Evian Conference was conceived. “The U.S. was still in the Great Depression, so you can imagine how much pushback there was against changing the immigration quotas — a 2-to-1 margin.” The participating countries, armed with the knowledge that the United States wouldn’t be changing its own immigration policy, didn’t even want to attend the conference but did so only after receiving assurances from Roosevelt that it wasn’t necessary for them to change their policies, either.

According to Wells, there was much discussion within the Jewish community as well over the proposal — not the rescue aspect, but the plan to take urbane European Jews and introduce them to an agricultural life. “This was a big issue among Jewish leaders in the early 20th century — whether or not Jews could become farmers, and whether or not they should become farmers,” he elaborates. And the stakes were high: If the Sosúa plan was a success, it would entice other Latin American countries to take in Jews under similar conditions. (In fact, only Bolivia did so, accepting 4,000 Jewish refugees during the war.)

For now, even though it will be given a prime-time showing on PBS in 2014, it seems as though the film’s future is in education: The filmmakers are working with Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit that combats prejudice through educational programming, to develop a curriculum that can replicate the cross-cultural success captured in the documentary.

“For the kids we followed, this was a transformative experience — barriers were broken down in a very effective way,” Miller emphasizes. “You just need an opportunity to start talking about it.”

To learn more about the documentary, go to www.sosuafilm.com.

 

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