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Reviewed by:
  • Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa
  • Margalit Bejarano
Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa. By Allen Wells. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Pp. xxxi, 447. Map. Illustrations. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $99.95 cloth; $27.95 paper.

The Dominican Republic gained its place in Jewish historiography of the Holocaust thanks to the generous offer of the Dominican Republic's strong man, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, in the Evian Conference (1938), to admit 100,000 Jewish refugees and to grant them concessions for agricultural settlement. The participants in that conference, including 20 states of Latin America, paid lip service to the refugees' plight, but denied their admittance using legal and economic excuses. The Dominican invitation became a symbol of human solidarity in a world that had lost its humanism. [End Page 123]

The background to the Evian Conference was the policy of Nazi Germany (preceding the "final solution" implemented in January 1942) to rid the Reich of the Jews by systematic discrimination and persecution that would force them to leave the country. Following the annexation of Austria, the German authorities accelerated emigration by mass imprisonment of Jews in concentration camps. Liberation was conditioned by immediate migration, but the refugees were trapped in an impossible situation due to the restrictions on immigration implemented in almost every country of the globe. The German authorities cooperated with Jewish welfare organizations in search of legal destinations for the immigrants. At the same time they collaborated with diplomatic representatives of Latin American countries who granted immigration documents—often illegal—for exorbitant prices. The role played by Latin America in the rescue of the Jewish refugees was full of contradictions between official policy and reality, as in the Dominican case, which had gaps between the capacity of the countries to absorb immigration and the official declarations of their governments.

This well-documented study by Allen Wells exposes the myth of Trujillo's generosity to a critical analysis of the story of the agricultural settlement of Sosúa, which sheltered altogether 750 refugees, revealing the gaps between expectations and achievements, as well as between images and reality. The major protagonists in the drama of the Jewish colony were the refugees from Germany and Austria who settled in the Dominican Republic; General Trujillo and his regime; the American government; and the Jewish organizations responsible for Sosúa—DORSA (Dominican Republic Settlement Association) and the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee). Each key actor was subject to internal and external conflicts as well as to transformation of interests due to changing circumstances in the local and global arenas.

The author presents Trujillo's motives towards the Jewish refugees as a political strategy designed to mollify his image and legitimize his regime in the eyes of the U.S. government following the massacre of 15,000 Haitians a year before the Evian Conference. It also served to pursue a policy of eugenics that aimed "to improve the race" of the native population through the assimilation of Central European Jews. In turn, Washington was ready to ignore Trujillo's atrocities in view of security considerations that required hemispheric cooperation against Axis aggression. The relations between the United States and the Dominican Republic had a decisive influence on the development of the project in Sosúa that was carried out as an American rescue project while keeping the Jewish refugees outside the United States. During the war, however, the fear of Nazi spies became a pretext for Washington to restrict the departure of refugees from German occupied countries, limiting the prospects of rescue through the Dominican Republic.

Analyzing the role of the Jewish organizations, and especially the JDC, Wells presents the background and motivation of the key persons involved in the Dominican settlement who supported "Territorialism"—a movement that aspired to create Jewish autonomous settlements outside the land of Israel. Wells argues that JDC conflicts with Zionist leaders caused damage during the refugee crisis and were often contrary to the aspirations of the refugees. While the JDC viewed Sosúa primarily as an agricultural settlement, [End Page 124] the refugees saw it as a way of rescue. The detailed story...


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