Jewish History in the Caribbean

Jewish History in the Caribbean

The Dominican Republic beach town of Sosua offers Jewish history sites By: Mark Rogers
In addition to being a great spot for tourists, the town of Sosua has an intriguing history. // © 2014 Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism
In addition to being a great spot for tourists, the town of Sosua has an intriguing history. // © 2014 Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism

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Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism

Travelers have grown accustomed to recognizing Spanish and African heritage in the Caribbean — a heritage that has a complex history of conquest and slavery. However, lesser-known migration took place in the Dominican Republic in 1938, when the town of Sosua became a refuge for 700 European Jews fleeing the Nazi occupation of Germany. The immigrants were granted a tract of land that was a former banana plantation and began farming and raising cattle. They established their own village called El Batey, a Spanish phrase used to describe a residential area on a plantation. As Sosua grew over the decades, El Batey was absorbed into the city and is now considered the main tourist district of Sosua.

By most accounts, it wasn’t easy for the Jewish immigrants to adjust to life in their tropical sanctuary. There was a new language to learn, a sunny and sultry climate to grow accustomed to and fresh challenges as they took up agriculture. 

At the same time, there was the grateful realization that they were out of harm’s way and far from Nazi persecution. Homesick immigrants established a choir, with Jewish children singing alongside Dominican kids. The Dominican Republic’s plan was to eventually resettle 100,000 Jews, a plan that was motivated by Dominican self-interest, since the immigrants brought many positives with them, including a high level of education. A more controversial reason was fascist-sympathizer President Trujillo’s desire to “whiten the local population” through intermarriage. Visa restrictions and red tape prevented a greater wave of Jewish immigrants from arriving.

Sosua has several modest Jewish heritage sites in the middle of the tourist district that pack an emotional punch for visitors with an interest in this history. The Jewish Heritage Museum’s exhibitions chronicle the story of the immigrants’ new life in the Dominican Republic, with an emphasis on the successful dairy farming enterprise they created. Adjacent to the museum is a small wood-frame house. This is the town’s synagogue, which is open to visitors and where services and weddings are held.

Sosua’s tourism didn’t take off until the 1980s, when the Playa Dorada complex of resorts was built and the north shore of the Dominican Republic became the center of the country’s tourism. With the more recent success of Punta Cana, the north shore has languished, and one marketing push after another has been implemented to bring back tourists.

Sosua’s Jewish heritage is just a fraction of the appeal for tourists. The town itself is a delightful balance of city and sea. 

Much of the beach activity takes place around Sosua Bay and its crescent-shaped beach. Sosua is the type of town where visitors can exit their hotel and stroll down the streets, end up at the beach for a swim and then meander back to shop or find a restaurant. 

Nightlife is lively, with venues within walking distance of major hotels. Two hotels with fine views of the bay include Sosua Bay Hotel and Victorian House. Most visitors to Sosua fly into Puerto Plata’s International Airport, which is only four miles from Sosua.