SOSUA, Dominican Republic — On the eve of Kristallnacht — the night in November 1938 when synagogues burned across Germany and the Nazis arrested tens of thousands of Jews — my father’s family escaped from Berlin and fled to one of the few places in the world willing to take in Jewish refugees. They settled in Sosua, a remote beach town on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. The country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo, had offered the Jews safety in exchange for a promise to develop the land.
This is the story I heard countless times. “It was paradise,” my 89-year-old Aunt Hella would say, weaving my family’s heritage into a little-known part of Holocaust history.
But the story never entirely made sense.
As it was told to me, a small Caribbean country saved my family at a time when more powerful nations such as the United States and Britain refused to do the same. In return, the Jews transformed a jungle coastline into a peaceful settlement with a hospital and a school. My grandfather, a salesman by trade, became the village baker. Hundreds of others — accountants, nurses, tailors — learned to ride horses and clear roads.
The story always ended the same way, and with little explanation. Sosua had been ruined, I was told, its streets overrun by prostitutes and foreigners. The town had become a destination for sex tourism, tainted by pickpockets and drugs. My family moved away, like so many others, and never returned.
My father lives in Santo Domingo, where I was raised, and his parents and two sisters ended up in Miami. People often act surprised when I tell them that I’m Jewish and Dominican, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who knows about Sosua. “Never forget,” people say about the Holocaust. But this part of Jewish history has been almost completely lost, and the story I’d been told seemed incomplete.
I thought I knew the beginning and the end. In July, I left for Sosua to find out the rest. It quickly became clear why so many chose to forget.
The first thing I wanted to see was the beach. I remembered seeing photos of my father’s family along the shore. The refugees would hang their clothes on sea grape trees and wade into the shallow waters. After school, the village children would often have the beach to themselves.
Could it really be that dangerous? I remembered going there as a kid, but I hadn’t been back to the town in more than a decade. I asked Ivonne Strauss de Milz, a family friend and a descendant of refugees who lives in Sosua, to take me there. “Is that the purse you’re taking?” she asked, then instructed me to zip it shut.
The shore was strewn with mismatched umbrellas and beach chairs scattered in front of hundreds of shacks selling cigars, souvenirs, Presidente beer and Dominican aphrodisiacs. It didn’t look that unsafe. But around the beach, several people later told me, tourists can find any type of sex they might want: straight, gay, trans — even illegal sex with minors.
Prostitution has long been a part of Dominican culture, but nowhere does it feel more entrenched than in Sosua. Elsewhere, the industry exists in the grays of life, largely unregulated, widely known but rarely seen.
The sex trade took off in Sosua in the 1980s and ’90s, after a nearby airport opened and foreign tourists flooded the town. Over the next few decades, the hotel industry boomed, and Dominican women, facing insecure and low-paying job prospects, headed for Sosua hoping to find more profitable work. As prostitution increased, it drew more tourists looking for sex, and the town got a reputation as a major sex-tourism destination. Today, a short walk from the beach, on the main drag of Calle Pedro Clisante, dozens of prostitutes line the sidewalk in front of the busy open-air restaurants and bars filled with foreign men.
“Sosua has a before and after,” said Alexandra Lister, a program manager with CEPROSH, a health organization based in Puerto Plata, who has worked with sex workers in the region since the 1990s. “And the ‘after’ isn’t pretty.”
Many longtime locals, such as Ivonne, are upset that prostitution has consumed Sosua’s reputation. Efforts to discourage the trade have failed, and its prevalence means that the town’s businesses — hotels, restaurants, cafes — benefit from it, whether the owners condone sex work or not.
As we drove away, Ivonne pointed out one hotel. It was a three-story building, painted lime green and white, where she said my grandparents’ house had once stood.
A man named Joe Benjamin had lived next door. Before my trip, several people had told me to speak with him. He understood why Sosua had changed. He was the one I was going to see next.
Joe’s family arrived in Sosua in 1947, part of the last refugee group selected by the Dominican Republic Settlement Association, an organization founded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in New York, which sought safety and relief for Jews. In 1938, Trujillo had offered to take in up to 100,000 refugees. In turn, the association funded and populated Sosua, but the outbreak of World War II and a 1941 Nazi ban on Jewish emigration meant that only about 4,000 visas were ever issued.
The association gave farmers such as Joe’s father a mule, a horse, 10 cows and 75 acres of land. In the early days, urban transplants wearing wide straw hats rode horse-drawn wagons from one plot of land to the next. Joe told me that his father, once a furniture maker, got up at 4:30 every morning to milk his cows.
On weekends, a projector would light up at the theater in town for a matinee movie. Joe and his sister would make the two-kilometer walk back to the family farm in the dark. He never told his parents where he was going. Nobody feared anything then.
For decades, Joe, now 76, was an executive with a successful dairy and meat cooperative founded by Sosua’s Jews. Today, he lives in a spacious house on the outskirts of town, in a plush development behind a guarded security gate. He told me how he’d slept with his windows open as a kid. He remembered the town library, the cafe, the nights when everyone gathered around a record player to listen to opera.
But I had heard those stories before. I wondered if that was all he knew.
There was a long pause. “What else is important for me to know?” I asked.
There are things you won’t find in the history books, he said.
Then he made a reference to a best-selling book I had never read, about a fictional small town where sex, gossip and scandal hide behind the pretense of paradise.
“Sosua,” he said, “was a small Peyton Place.”
I didn’t understand. What did a racy novel have to do with my family’s past?
The few published works about Sosua read like history textbooks. But there were other texts and documents that I had never seen, and I knew where to find them.
Next door to the town synagogue that the refugees founded is a small Jewish museum. The synagogue offers services only a few times a year and isn’t visited much, and peeling paint covers the museum doors. Inside, I found a damaged photo of my Aunt Margot’s wedding. Documents on display showed the stains of age. A map of Sosua had lost one of its adhesive letters and now read only “Sosu.” A group of descendants, including Ivonne and Joe, have planned to raise funds for a renovation, but their efforts have yet to get off the ground.
The museum archives were in a tiny air-conditioned room in the back. Dozens of boxes sat on industrial steel shelves, some labeled, others not. It was overwhelming. There was so much history here, little of it digitized, none of it known to me. I started pulling tan and crinkled sheets out of folders, searching for clues.
I found a file for my Uncle Max, my Aunt Hella’s husband. Stashed inside, a form detailed my aunt’s journey from Germany to the Dominican Republic. I had to read it twice. What it said went against every story I had been told about my family’s escape from the Nazis.
They didn’t flee Berlin the night before Kristallnacht. They’d left a month earlier — Oct. 12, 1938 — and arrived in the Dominican Republic in November. A separate list of settlers revealed that the family arrived in Sosua in stages, starting in 1947, much later than I’d thought.
Leaving on the eve of Kristallnacht had always been a key part of our story, a hurried exit from Berlin at just the right moment, before Nazi mobs stormed Jewish neighborhoods, killing at least 91 Jews, and anti-Semitism took a more violent and radical turn. So was their time in Sosua, but the reality was that they didn’t arrive there until after the war.
I had never asked about the timeline. Instead, I pictured them abandoning an apartment in Berlin and finding refuge in a rustic home in Sosua. It was a reminder of how stories, consciously or not, can be romanticized as we retell them, even to ourselves.
I started digging deeper into the archives, looking for anything that could provide a hint about what Joe had told me. Fraying papers, many stashed haphazardly in folders and boxes, detailed transcripts of meetings, vital records, academic papers and memos sent from Sosua to the settlement association in New York.
On one shelf, I saw a narrow light-blue box labeled “exit interviews.” Ivonne, who helps run the museum, had never seen it before, and from the looks of what was inside, nobody had seen it for years.
I pulled it onto the table. Inside were several testimonials from refugees, all men, who had abandoned Sosua and were apparently questioned by the settlement association about why they’d left.
“I could not stay [sic] the sun,” said a 29-year-old Austrian.
“I had nothing to do there,” said a 27-year-old Romanian.
“The agricultural work was too hard for me,” said a 34-year-old Pole.
Then there were two others, Tibor Meister, a 24-year-old Hungarian textile technician, and Louis Lajos Klein, a 28-year-old Czech mechanic, who cited not the town’s conditions, but tensions in Sosua that left them both feeling panicked.
Meister said he was threatened by a group of German Jews in the dormitory.
“I have been attacked by some twelve men while sleeping in my bed,” Klein said. “That is why I preferred to leave Sosua of fear they might repeat it or kill me.”
Until then, I’d heard that people left Sosua in search of better work or education. No one had ever mentioned violence. Could it have been true?
The JDC doesn’t have a record of the incident, but in “Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR and the Jews of Sosua,” historian Allen Wells says the settlement association asked 45 troublemakers — “discontented colonists” whose presence was undermining morale — to leave Sosua for Ciudad Trujillo in 1942. Meister and Klein — and the others — could have been part of that group.
Among other files in the archives, I found an analysis written by former settler Ann Bandler for Columbia University in 1956. She suggested that Sosua’s administration had demonstrated an “impractical idealism” and blamed it for so much of what had gone wrong. With proper planning and management, these middle-class, white-collar Europeans could have built the new life they had been promised. Instead, the early settlers had felt “dispirited and pessimistic” from the start.
“They came to Sosua unprepared, unexperienced, unselected,” the document said. “It is not sufficient to benevolently take these people away from their past sufferings and only deposit them in an undeveloped area.”
A parade of experts, Bandler wrote, had made plans for Sosua, advising the refugees to plant bananas, raise livestock or grow tomatoes; that last effort resulted in such a failure that a large surplus of tomatoes spoiled and was thrown into the sea.
The land they had been instructed to develop turned out to be better suited for pasture than farming, and the Jews ended up finding success in a dairy and meat operation that — ironically — sold pork.
But the administration’s unkept promises and poor directions bred resentment, Bandler wrote, until antagonism toward it became the main bond among the settlers.
The JDC acknowledges that Sosua’s refugees faced considerable challenges. “The context under which these efforts occurred were totally unprecedented: a war raging, the Holocaust in full force and many countries closing their doors to Jews,” Linda Levi, director of the JDC’s archives, later wrote me in an email.
Still, with every page I read, the story that Sosua had been some sort of paradise, the story I had always been told, started to come apart.
Documents hidden away in the archives revealed tensions I had never heard about, between Austrians and Germans, between those who lived in the town and those who had farms, and those who wanted to improve the community and those who wanted to abandon it and emigrate to the United States.
It wasn’t unusual for the Jews to fight among themselves. People screamed at each other at community meetings. Divisions emerged over who would be the boss and how to address the town’s problems.
On a warm night, while one refugee listened to a German radio broadcast, another became enraged by the propaganda, according to a manuscript written by a former resident, Ernest B. Hofeller. “He entered his room, ripped the radio out of its socket causing a short circuit and smashed it,” Hofeller wrote.
One main reason Sosua fell apart, several refugees said in interviews, was simple. It wasn’t only the difficulty of the agricultural work, the infighting, the culture shock or the desire to find a better life in the States.
“There were very, very few girls,” refugee Ruth Kohn, 90, now living in Springfield, Va., told me. Single men had trouble finding marriageable partners in Sosua, giving them even less reason to stay. In 1942, according to the JDC, among a population of 472 were 158 single men and 38 single women.
The settlement association had looked for young men with an agricultural background who could develop the land, and women were less likely to leave Europe on their own. Trujillo also sought out men, hoping that the wave of immigrants from Europe would intermarry with Dominicans and “whiten” his nation’s race.
Settlers had to ask the administration for permission any time they wanted to leave Sosua, and the nearest major town was hours away by horseback or about an hour by car, making romance between Dominicans and Jews difficult. These conditions helped spawn cases of adultery in the small community, constantly witnessed and whispered about.
“You never knew in the morning when you woke up which young man had slept with a married woman,” Kohn said.
But it wasn’t only single men sleeping with married women. The settlers gossiped about both husbands and wives engaging in affairs, Joe Benjamin told me, and the Columbia University analysis mentioned a “sexual turpitude” that had resulted in cases of syphilis.
It made me think of a short passage in “Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua,” one of the few books published about the town, that now made a lot more sense. In the 255-page book, a few paragraphs, easily overlooked, mentioned these dalliances: In 1942, doctors “warned men to stay away from bordellos and unknown women and, assuming their advice would be ignored, to use condoms.”
The bordellos in question were in Charamicos, a poor neighborhood on the south end of the beach. The refugees had populated El Batey on the north end, and those looking for sex would discreetly venture south. Today’s sex industry is completely different, employing women from across the Dominican Republic and Haiti, who take spins around town and on the beach looking for clients.
“Everything is just much more visible,” said Denise Brennan, a Georgetown University professor who wrote the book “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” about Sosua’s sex industry.
Still, it was the Jews — not the tourists blamed for Sosua’s demise — who first visited prostitutes. But that part of the story had been conveniently lost in the retelling.
When I got back from Sosua, I called my Aunt Hella. I told her that the archives told a different story about our family’s journey. She said that the night before Kristallnacht must have been when they arrived in the Dominican Republic, rather than leaving Berlin on that date.
She told me that the first few years in the country were hard — my grandparents struggled to learn Spanish and earn money. Records the JDC sent me revealed more details: In Santo Domingo, then called Ciudad Trujillo, my grandfather tried selling tableware, peddling kitchen coal, working as a carpenter and serving as a messenger. But despite working hard, he said he still couldn’t make a living.
Maybe that’s why he decided to move to Sosua. My Aunt Hella was the first of the family to arrive, after marrying my Uncle Max, one of Sosua’s early settlers, when she was 19. The rest followed her. Aunt Hella and Uncle Max stayed in Sosua only a few years. My grandparents lived there through the late 1950s, while my Aunt Margot and Uncle Vittorio remained until the 1960s.
It was hard getting used to life in Sosua, Aunt Hella said, but she refused to believe the story about the attack in the barracks. That must have happened before she got there, she said. She never saw any violence like that.
I asked her about the affairs.
“Yes, people would trade partners,” she said. “That was a mess.”
Why don’t people talk about those things? I told her that I’d gone to Sosua to find out what had happened. I left thinking that idealism has always been a part of the town, woven even into the stories we tell.
There were challenges in Sosua, she said, but everyone could live however they wanted, far from the Nazis and without fear of persecution.
“They were free,” she said.
That was what mattered, of course. Sosua’s legacy is that it saved so many lives. It’s easier to hide the story’s difficult aspects in a dusty box in a locked room in a small beach town, and it’s more comfortable to remember the town as a perfect haven.
But the stories we tell ourselves become history, and the full version of what happened in Sosua is being lost. The town has become so foreign to those who left that some have vowed never to return, pushing it deep into their memories.
My Aunt Hella told me about one of the last times she visited, with her brother-in-law, Vittorio, more than a decade ago. She stood in the middle of the town, stunned at how things had changed, and turned to Vittorio.
“Let’s forget about this,” she said.