Though Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the shores of the Dominican Republic more than 500 years ago, the city of Sosua, only a few miles from where he landed, is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary. When a group of 40 Jews climbed ashore, bereft of their possessions and loved ones and surrounded by jungle, they couldn't help but wonder what was in store.
"I could see some houses. I was surprised when I saw lights," said Martin Katz, 82, one of the original Jews to settle in Sosua, along the north coast of the Dominican Republic, in 1940.
Two years earlier, while the Evian Conference on Refugees was taking place in France, ships carrying fleeing European Jews were being turned away from safe harbors, and the doors of asylum were slamming shut around the world.
Within a month after the conference, during which delegates from 32 countries expressed sympathy for refugees but few opened their doors to them, the Dominican Republic's dictator, Gen. Rafael Trujillo, offered to issue visas and resettle up to 100,000 Jewish refugees.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped organize resettlement efforts and made an initial investment of $200,000, which was to be paid back as the community became self-supporting. The purchase agreement with Trujillo, transferring the land to the settlement association and granting citizenship and religious freedom to all refugees, was signed in January 1940.
Over the next few years, more than 600 Jews came to Sosua, mainly from Germany and Austria. After learning the basics of farming, settlers were given opportunity to purchase 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule and a horse, explained Katz, who recalled paying $10 per month for his low-interest homestead loan. The Sosua Jews built workshops, a sanitation system and a clinic. They established a school and a dairy, Productos Sosuas, both of which are still in use today. They brought malaria under control too, said Katz, who managed the dairy for 29 years and "made very good cheese."
The transition from urban sophisticate to tropical farmer was not easy, and once the war ended, many Jews emigrated to the United States. Those who stayed have developed Sosua into a thriving tourist center, where the cultures of visitors and locals alike intersect readily - as do streets with names like Calle Dr. Rosenberg and Calle David Stern.
The shul, built by settlers, contrasts rather sharply with Sosua's barrio of El Batey. The grounds of the temple, shaded by palm fronds and bordered by tall hibiscus, offer respite from the brutal Caribbean sun and incessant buzzing of motorcycle taxis as they weave among cars. The beat of salsa and merengue is palpable everywhere.
The small Jewish community, numbering "a few dozen," according to one resident, meets occasionally for services and for Chanukah, Purim and Passover celebrations. For the past couple of years - since a visiting rabbi and cantorial student from Buenos Aires returned home after spending a year each with the congregation - lay leaders have conducted services.
Locals are familiar with the synagogue and quickly offer directions when asked. In response to a question about Jews in his country, a non-Jewish Dominican businessman said, "We have Jews," and rattled off a few names. "Well, they are Dominicans," he said, "but their roots are Jewish."
Besides a handful of original settlers, now in their mid-80's and 90's, some children and grandchildren of settlers remain and have made their lives in Sosua.
Felix Koch, 82, still runs his guesthouse with his native Dominican wife, Gloria. Of his life he says, "The past is the past. I am here. I am at peace. I am happy."