Three years ago, I fished for barracuda and mahi-mahi off Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic (see below). I want to go back, not only because the fishing was terrific, but also to climb the highest peak in the Caribbean, the DR’s Pico Duarte. It’s been on my bucket list for at least 20 years.
When I visit again, I also want to see sites related to a remarkable humanitarian undertaking this tiny nation embraced some 85 years ago. At a time when Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany and its occupied neighbors of Austria and Czechoslovakia, the far-away Dominican Republic stood virtually alone in opening its doors to the refugees.
Here’s the story.
The virulent antisemitism of the Nazi regime reared its ugly head within weeks of Hitler becoming Chancellor in January 1933. In April, the government orchestrated nationwide boycotts of Jewish businesses. Germany’s 600,000 Jews began contemplating emigration, as did Jews in neighboring countries who feared Hitler’s expansionist aims. The notorious Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped Jews of their German citizenship. By 1938, the oppression was intense, but it wasn’t easy for Jews to get out. And of course, the very worst of the Holocaust was not far off.
Long-time readers of FEE.org know of my personal friendship with one of the heroes of that era, a Brit named Sir Nicholas Winton. A London stockbroker, he arranged for 669 Jewish children to escape Czechoslovakia before World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. A forthcoming film about Winton’s story called One Life featuring a star-studded cast debuts in Toronto soon.
Along with my former assistant Kendra Shrode and other friends and students, I visited Winton a half dozen times, including during the week of his 106th birthday, just two months before he passed away in July 2015. I’ve watched the award-winning documentary about him at least 30 times and I am eager to see Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Winton in the new movie.
When I lecture about Winton, audience members often ask, “Why was it so difficult for Jews to get out of pre-war Europe when Nazi oppression was undeniable?” Many factors played a role: antisemitism in other parts of the world; naivete about Hitler’s ultimate goals and the real dangers Jews faced; and fears of what a large influx of refugees might present to economies already hard-hit by the Great Depression, etc. Yet another factor was the outcome of an international meeting known as the Evian Conference.
As a half-hearted initiative of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, representatives from 32 nations met at a resort in Evian, France, in early July 1938. The single issue on the table? What to do about hundreds of thousands of Jews who wanted to flee the Nazis. Unfortunately, FDR seemed more interested in diverting attention from America’s very restrictive immigration policies than in solving the problem.
Ahead of the conference, FDR’s State Department and Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Ministry in Britain agreed that two matters would not be raised: One was America’s failure to fulfill existing immigration quotas. The other was any idea that Palestine, then under British administration, could be a destination for Jewish refugees. The Brits did not want to ruffle Arab feathers in the Middle East. FDR further undermined the potential of the conference by dispatching a business crony as the U.S. delegate instead of a government official with diplomatic credentials. Meanwhile from Berlin, Hitler let it be known that if other countries would take Jews in, he would gladly let them go.
Over nine days at The Hotel Royal, the representatives in Evian expressed sympathies for the plight of the refugees but ultimately arrived at no agreement or proposal. From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s online Holocaust Encyclopedia we learn this:
Responding to Evian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how “astounding” it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for its treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when the opportunity was offered.
All over the world, a year before World War II even started, doors were closing to Jewish refugees. One of the worst examples was Stalin’s Soviet Union, whose complicity with Hitler to divide Poland proved to be the war’s catalyst. He refused to send any delegates to the conference, and he also ordered that any refugees fleeing from Germany to the USSR be arrested for espionage.
One glimmer of hope that emerged during the Evian fiasco came from an unlikely and unexpected source: the government of dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, a nation of just 1.6 million people. It announced that it would accept up to 100,000 Jewish refugees. Australia said it would take 15,000 over a three-year period. But that was about the extent of it.
Because of the difficulty and expense of often penniless European refugees finding their way across the world to the Dominican Republic, fewer than a thousand ended up settling there before war broke out. And it’s not likely that Trujillo’s motives were strictly humanitarian (he was one of the region’s bloodiest tyrants); perhaps the gesture was a public relations move or a bid to attract Jewish money to the impoverished island.
In any event, it’s a tribute to the people of the Dominican Republic that they welcomed the Jews who arrived there. Most settled in Sosúa, a beach village on the northern coast. Almost immediately, they formed productive businesses (a substantial diary business, in particular), some of which still exist today. There was hardly a whiff of antisemitism in the Dominican Republic.
By October 1941, reports the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the Jewish population of Germany stood at about 163,000 and most of them were eventually murdered in the subsequent years of Nazi rule.
History records the Evian conference as another example of something cowardly and unprincipled politicians do all the time. Facing a serious problem, they form a committee, give speeches, and otherwise run for cover. Thanks to the Dominican Republic, hundreds of lives were saved that would otherwise almost surely have been lost.
For Additional Information, See:
The Power of Good (2002 video documentary on Winton)
The Story of Nicholas Winton by Lawrence W. Reed
History of Sosua by Virtual Treasures
Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua, 1940-1945 by Marian A. Kaplan
German Jewish Refugees, 1933-1939 by U.S. Holocaust Museum