April 30, 2009 Reported By: Tom Porter
Bowdoin History professor Allen Wells has written numerous books on Latin America, but his latest publication - "Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR and the Jews of Sosúa" - is particularly close to his heart. It tells the story of the 750 Jewish refugees from central Europe who were offered an unlikely sanctuary in the Dominican Republic by the brutal dictator General Trujillo. One of these refugees - Heinrich Wasservogel - was professor Wells's father.
"I sort of grew up with the story, it was like a fractured fairy tale. My dad talked about it all the time, he spent seven years at this farming settlement in the Dominican Republic and like any good fairy tale it had heroes, it had villians. The heroes were refugees who had heroically fled Europe and rebuilt their lives in the tropics, and the villain was Hitler who of course drove them out. I was a little more ambiguous about the dictator Trujillo and the U.S. government at that time. They were very grateful for the fact that this rascist dictator had opened the doors and let them in when very few places would take these settlers in."
It was ironic, says Wells, that these Jews were saved by one brutal dictator from probable death at the hands of another.
"Trujillo had just committed one of the worst atrocities in modern Latin American history. He had killed upwards of 15,000 Haitians who were living and working in the Dominican Republic on the eastern part of the island. He had his army kill these people, they were totally defenseless, they were killed with machetes, it was called the 'cutting down.' And it really scarred relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic until this day. As a result of that he took a lot of international criticism. And he was worried that the United States was going to stop supporting him. The U.S. had supported him politically, economically and militarily. And Roosevelt had just called an international conference to deal with the refugee crisis in Europe. Refugees were pouring out of Germany and Austria, and they were winding up in what were called 'countries of transit', neighboring Germany, like France, Switzerland, Belgium, and these countries were getting overrun with refugees, like my dad, who escaped Austria after the Anschluss in March of 1938 and illegally crossed the border into Switzerland. So Roosevelt called this conference and 32 countries came to it, and 31 countries said they wouldn't take these refugees, including the U.S., which had a strict quota system. The one country that took them in was the Dominican Republic and this was Trujillo's way of repairing the damage from the criticism that he took."
Trujillo's motives, says Wells, were of course far from altruistic. Apart from wanting to curry favor with America and the Allies, he had another more sinister agenda - to whiten the Dominican Republic by introducing more Europeans to the country.
Allen Wells: "Trujillo never did anything for altruism. You know he had always ulterior motives. He wanted to maintain the military and economic assistance, keep the pipeline open from the United States, which supported his dictatorship for 31 years. So he had numerous agendas going on. He wanted to colonize the western part of the country to get these settlements, these agricultural colonies established, to keep the Haitains out of the Dominican Republic, because he was so racist. He didn't stay in power for 31 years for nothing. He was a very shrewd manipulator and he played not just opposition within the Dominican Republic, but outside and pursued his agenda."
Tom Porter: "So let's get back to the Wells family, or the Wasservogel family as they were then - what an extraordinary dislocation to be a central European Jew from Vienna, to end up in the tropics of Latin America."
AW: "For all of these refugees this was a strange new world coming into the tropics. Many of them were urban people. My dad was a typesetter in Vienna growing up. Only a handful had any experience working on the land, so there was a lot of trial and error in those first years, learning how to farm on the settlement. The property that was given to them wasn't the best quality of land, all it could be used for was pasture. But after trying to figure things out and failing more times than not, they mastered dairying, and by the late 40s early 50s they were producing large quantities of butter, cheese, salami, ham. They had a very effective and profitable dairy cooperative on the north coast of the island. So these 750 refugees really did an extraordinary conversion from their past lives."
TP: "What became of the Jewish settlement at Sosua?"
AW: "About half of them left after World War Two. My dad was one of those - he stayed for seven years, and he moved to New York and I was born a few years later. For many of those people, the lure of the U.S. was irresistable and when Truman relaxed the visa restrictions after World War Two, because of all that happened to Jews during the holocaust, many of these displaced persons built a new life for themselves in the U.S.. But about half the settlement stayed on there, and those are the ones who became incredibly successful, and most of those inter-married with Dominicans and there's still the remnants of that settlement on the north coast today."
The Jews of Sosua, says Wells, had mixed feelings about being pawns in a political game. Many of them, though, were simply grateful to be saved, regardless of the motives of their saviour.
"I think my father was emblematic of those settlers who were incredibly grateful for what Trujillo had done. In his mind, Trujillo had saved his life, and saved the life of those who had came. And as he always said, nobody else was willing to take us in at that point. So he could never really see beyond that tremendous gratitude that he felt, and I think that's perfectly understandable for what happened to them. He knew about what Trujillo and the dictatorship was all about, but at least for that small group of people, Trujillo had done something, in his mind, noble."
"Tropical Zion - General Trujillo, FDR and the Jews of Sosúa," by Bowdoin professor Allen Wells, is published by Duke University Press.