When world leaders met at the Evian Conference in France in 1938 to seek solutions for the growing numbers of Jews desperately seeking to escape the Nazis, only one country was willing to provide refuge to a substantial number: the Dominican Republic, which offered to take in 100,000 refugees.
In the end, only 854 actually immigrated to the town of Sosua on the Caribbean island nation, where they lived out the war years in safety. Among those Jewish refugees were author A. J. Sidransky’s great-aunt and -uncle, Helen and Max Grunfeld.
Sidransky will be keynote speaker Sunday, May 7, at the annual Henry Ricklis Holocaust Memorial Committee Yom HaShoah program in Monroe, the theme of which will be “Where Jews Found Refuge.” The event, which will include a viewing of “Sosua: Haven in the Caribbean,” the reading of “Six Million Tears,” and a menorah-lighting memorial ceremony, is cosponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
Sidransky is the author of several books, including his debut novel, “Forgiving Maximo Rothman,” which was a 2013 finalist for Outstanding Debut Novel in the National Jewish Book Awards. Inspired by the tales of his great-uncle, it is a detective story taking place in Sosua and the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, which has a substantial Dominican population.
Sidransky’s second novel, “Forgiving Mariela Camacho,” is largely set in Washington Heights; he is working on a third novel in the series, “Forgiving Stephen Redmond.”
Ricklis program chair Nina Wolff said that Sidransky spoke at a meeting of her Hadassah Regency chapter after his first novel was published and was so interesting that he was invited back to speak after writing his second.
During the Ricklis program, information will be shared about other little-known places of refuge and the people whose actions saved Jewish lives.
“The theme of immigration runs throughout my work,” said Sidransky in a phone interview with NJJN from his home in Washington Heights. “Forgiving Mariela Camacho,” he said, “deals with the Dominican immigration experience, which is a little different from the Jewish experience. The Dominicans came for political and economic reasons, but the underlying response to immigration is always the same — this dislocation all immigrants experience, a desire to start a new life and a desire to go back home, and if you do go back you never find the place you left. It was romanticized in your mind.”
During the war years, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) created and funded the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA).
Jewish settlers were given plots of land and cattle on an old fruit plantation in Sosua. They became dairy farmers and founded Producto Sosua, which was renowned throughout the country for its top-of-the-line milk, cheese, and sausage.
Sidransky’s uncle and aunt were from Czechoslovakia, where they owned a hotel, a restaurant, and a general store in Stitnik, near the Hungarian border.
A gentile employee “came in the middle of the night and told them they had to leave that night because the fascists were coming and they would be taken to concentration camps,” said Sidransky. The employee put the Grunfelds “in the back of a truck and bribed a guard” to take them to safety.
They eventually made their way to Italy, where they met up with other relatives, Helene and Louis, who were also Sidransky’s great-aunt and -uncle. When all non-Italian Jews in the country were ordered to leave or be sent to concentration camps, Helene and Louis boarded a train to Slovakia and were never heard from again. Max went into a camp for several months, and Helen was in hiding until the DORSA settlement was established.
According to Sidransky, “the community in Sosua created the most successful business on the island” of Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti. “For a decade, the dairy farm provided butter and cheese to the top hotels. The bad news is that most of the people had no intention of staying there. They weren’t happy living in the tropics and wanted to leave for the U.S.
“Those who stayed are very successful,” said Sidransky. “There are 70 people still living there who are their descendants [of the Jewish refugees], and the mayor of Sosua is one of those people. They very much acknowledge their ancestry and are proud of it.”
Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo had ulterior motives for inviting the Jews. In 1937, he ordered an attack on black sugarcane workers in Haiti, slaughtering about 25,000. He hoped his newfound generosity would deflect criticism over the attack as well as curry favor with the United States, said Sidransky. The dictator also hoped the Jews would intermarry with his own population to “lighten” the natives’ skin.
Sidransky, who speaks fluent Spanish and frequently visits the Dominican Republic, said his aunt and uncle arrived in December 1940, finding the Dominicans hospitable toward their new neighbors, but the adjustment was hard.
“Where they lived was jungle,” said Sidransky. “My uncle got malaria. The beauty of the story in Sosua is that these Jewish refugees arrived with their world destroyed. These Europeans showed up with wool clothes for the tropics. What allowed that settlement to succeed was the help they got in learning to farm, dress, and live in a jungle from the villagers who lived nearby. Without them that dairy farm would have disappeared.”
The relationship between the two groups was symbiotic, with the Jews welcoming the Dominicans to use their medical facilities and schools, and most importantly, Sidransky said, teaching them how to stand up to their government and demand their rights.
However, Sidransky lays the blame for the settlement’s failure to attract more Jews at the feet of the worldwide organized Jewish community, which, he said, largely “turned up its nose” at the plan, preferring that European refugees go to prestate Israel in the hopes of forcing Britain’s hand.
“There were 350,000 Jewish refugees running around Europe in 1938, and only one leader agreed to take them in,” said Sidransky. “What Trujillo had done was outrageous and he did not have the most altruistic reasons for doing this, but frankly when you have 350,000 people running around and someone makes an offer to take almost a third of them, you take the offer.
“When it comes down to it, the international Jewish leadership did not do the right thing and put its own motives ahead of the refugees.”
Because Sidransky’s grandfather was Max’s brother, the couple was able to leave Sosua after a decade and immigrate to New York through a government program established after World War II allowing Holocaust survivors to be repatriated with family in the United States.