In July of 1938, in response to the ever-increasing Jewish refugee crisis in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened an international conference in Evian, France, involving thirty-two nations. What came to be known as the Evian Conference is now seen as an unadulterated failure of the world of nations to accept any accountability for German and Austrian Jewish refugees now searching for a safe haven away from Nazi brutality. Only one country—the Dominican Republic—agreed to accept Jewish refugees, 100,000 in total. Led by dictator General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the Dominican Republic admitted 645 Jews from 1938 to 1945, and issued approximately 5,000 visas to Jews during that period.
The Dominican Republic was aided heavily by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (The Joint), which established the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA) through its agricultural arm, the American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation. This organization provided funding and infrastructure to the largely urban German Jewish population who would take up residence as farmers, dairy, and meat producers in Sosúa and other locations throughout the country. Life in this unlikely haven was far from ideal, particularly for those Jews accustomed to the metropolitan centers of Central Europe. Farms failed, the weather was uncooperative, and the small Jewish population meant it was difficult to start a family. Many Jewish men married (or simply took up company with) Dominican women. This is not, however, a story of assimilation into a local population—in fact, quite the opposite. Instead, the Jewish population of Sosúa largely maintained its European customs and sense of identity. This is reflected in the mass exodus that occurred in the years following the war. Today, Sosúa's Jewish population is nonexistent.1
While it would be easy to categorize the Dominican Republic's wartime actions as a heroic antidote to other, much larger nations' apathetic response to the Jewish refugee crisis, such an understanding would flatten the complex situation of this small nation, and the personality of General Trujillo. Trujillo controlled the Dominican Republic (both officially and unofficially) from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. In fact, he viewed the influx of refugees as an opportunity to promote white colonization efforts, and suppress the local black Haitian population at its border. Indeed, one year prior to the 1938 Evian Conference, a massacre of thousands of Haitian immigrants occurred under Trujillo's direct orders.2 Trujillo’s embrace of the (white) German Jewish settlers, then, was far from neutral.
This film, entitled Sosua: Haven in the Caribbean, is a nine-minute advertisement for the supposed success of this German Jewish refugee community. Produced by DORSA, the film depicts the Jewish community as productive, integrated, and family-oriented. The precise intended audience for this film is unknown. Overall, the Dominican Republic is cast as a safe harbor and protector, and its ruler, General Trujilo, as the savior of the refugee community. Tellingly, the film never refers to these refugees as Jews. It also presents the Dominican Republic as an open land of opportunity, with only passing and fleeting images of any native or non-white populations. In short, Sosúa is a virtual utopia, filled with productive and hardworking people who will make it prosperous and fruitful. The reality was far more complex and nuanced.