By A J Sidransky
In the early winter of 1940, my uncle, Max Grunfeld, fled from Slovakia. By ethnicity he was Hungarian; more significantly, he was a Jew. As the third of nine children he was married off in an arranged marriage that provided him with an economic future. His father-in-law set him up in a business, a small hotel in a small city named Stitnik just over the Hungarian border.
In the middle of one night he received a visit from one of his employees, a gentile. He came to warn my uncle. The Iron Cross, the local Nazi group, was coming for him in the morning. His employee helped him escape by truck to Hungary that night. From Hungary my uncle and my aunt made their way to Italy where they intended to try to leave for the United States. On May 10th , Germany and Italy attacked France. My uncle and aunt were trapped. Rather than return to certain arrest in Slovakia, he went into a concentration camp in Comagna, Italy and she went into hiding in Genoa.
That’s where an amazing thing happened that ultimately saved their lives. While in the camp in Compagna, my uncle was introduced to a group called the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA). DORSA was seeking volunteers for a refugee settlement in the north of the Dominican Republic called Sosua.
I am often amazed when I speak about my book, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, to both Jewish and Dominican audiences how few people are familiar with this wonderful story. How did the Dominican Republic come to the aid of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution?
In July of 1938, when the refugee crisis in Europe resulting from the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany and Austria was reaching critical proportions, President Franklin Roosevelt called an international conference held at Evian, France to persuade the nations of the world to open their doors to these refugees who numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The only nation attending that offered to take substantial Jewish immigration was the Dominican Republic. Dictator Rafael Trujillo offered to take up to 100,000 settlers with an initial wave of 10,000.
For the sake of history and honesty, it is important to state that Trujillo didn’t do this out of any sense of altruism. He had ulterior motives. He was trying to curry favor with Roosevelt after the Parsley Massacre in 1938; Trujillo was racist and thought that bringing 100,000 white European Jews would lead to their intermarrying with the Dominican people and thereby lighten their skin.
His motives aside, his actions resulted in the saving of 854 lives. The first settlement site was set up at Sosua, a former banana plantation just east of Puerto Plata. The small number of settlers was not a result of any actions on the part of the Dominican government or people but rather on the part of the international Jewish leadership who didn’t want large scale Jewish immigration to anywhere but British controlled Palestine. They wanted to force the British to open the doors. How tragic their decision was in light of what happened only a few years later.
The settlers where in no way prepared for what they found and experienced when they arrived. I have this picture of my aunt and uncle arriving in Santo Domingo, then called Ciudad Trujillo, in their wool overcoats. They really had no idea. They were simply happy to be safe. The journey over land by lorry took several days. Upon arrival in Sosua, these urbanized Jews, doctors,lawyers, and businessmen, were housed in barracks and taught to become farmers.
And this is where the story becomes so beautiful. You see, just on the other side of the Bay of Sosua was a small Dominican village. Imagine what these poor campesinos thought of these European Jews in their wool clothing – and vice versa.
The villagers came to the aid of the settlers. They taught them how to farm and dress in the tropics. They helped them build their settlement. They taught them about their food and their music. They made them Dominicans. Some from both sides intermarried. Conversely, the Jewish settlers provided the villagers with access to their medical clinic and taught them to demand more of their government for themselves and their own children . These two groups of people, so oppressed, so beaten down, came to each other’s aid to build each other up.
Sosua saved 854 lives but sadly didn’t grow. By 1950, two thirds of the settlers left, including my aunt and uncle, mostly for the United States to join their families there. Until the end of his life, my uncle smiled when he spoke of his time there. He loved it. After the war and the death of their family in Europe, my grandfather, my uncle’s brother, begged him to come to the states. He did and spent the rest of his life searching for something he lost when he left Sosua.
I consider myself very fortunate to have known my uncle and to have known of the generosity of the Dominican people. Many years later, I moved to Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, the heart of the Dominican Diaspora in the United States. I met many Dominicans and became friends with them. One is now my best, most dear friend. I began traveling with him to Santo Domingo. I spend a few weeks at his home in the Capital every winter.
My first trip was in 2010. It was the occasion of his youngest daughter’s first birthday. What did I find there? I found two things. I found the world my uncle had described to me so many times: a world of easy smiles and open doors. A world where what you are doesn’t matter but rather who you are is important. I also found a world I had lost. You see, I too am the child of immigrants. I grew up in the house of my grandparents surrounded by my extended family, also a welcoming place of easy smiles and much love. That world is dead now, sadly. America, at least for my generation, is too far removed from the memory of the immigrant experience, the longing for a better life followed by the longing for a home lost that was all too present in my own childhood.
As I write this, I am listening to bachata, Luis Miguel singing “Como Duele”, as if it’s coming from the colmado across from the Plaza Ecuador. I can almost feel the breeze. I go back now as often as I can. The people in the patio know me. They call me “rubio”. They’re happy to see me every year. The first question they ask is how long I will stay. No matter what I tell them it’s always too short a visit. You see, I have become them. I, like my uncle, am a Jewminican.
About the author: A J Sidransky is the author of three novels, Forgiving Maximo Rothman and Forgiving Mariela Camacho, both set in Washington Heights and the Dominican Republic. Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon is set on the Upper West Side. Learn more about him at www.ajsidransky.com