Winter 1995

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   For hundreds of Austrian and German Jews, the Dominican resort town of

            Sosua represents more than a sun-splashed paradise.

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                                    Golden Cage

 

                                                By Laura Randall

 

    Like the mahogany hope chests that are now sold on its busy streets, the

town of Sosua was carved out of dense jungle 54 years ago. But even the

most intricate of wooden carvings can't compete with the remarkable history

of this thriving beach resort on the Dominican Republic’s northern coast.

 

   In 1940, a patch of oceanfront wilderness on the island that Christopher

Columbus dubbed Hispaniola represented much more than a sun-bleached

paradise for hundreds of Austrian and German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

It was the only place in the world that opened its doors to them.

 

   Amid the bustling markets and street-corner chaos are a few subtle signs

that reveal just how different Sosua is from the country's other decidedly

Latin American towns: streets with names like Calle David Stern and Calle

Joseph Rosen; the sight of fair, blue-eyed residents speaking Spanish as

rapidly and emotionally as any native Dominican; and, smack in the center

of town, a small wooden house with a bright blue Star of David above the

door.

 

  The establishment of Sosua as a safe haven for Jewish refugees during

World War II is one of the few positive deeds anyone can associate with

General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the brutal dictator who ruled the Dominican

Republic for 31 years before being assassinated in 1961. While other

countries were reluctant to receive them, Trujillo offered to shelter up to

100,000 Jews, in an effort to improve the country's relationship with the

United States and, some say, with the hope of "whitening" the nation.

 

    Only about 700 refugees ended up making the rough ocean journey and

settling in Sosua. But that was enough to create a community out of the

wild, one that went on to develop its own school, sanitation system,

hospital, synagogue, and library-as well as a successful dairy business

that would become the chief supplier of dairy and meat products for the

entire country.

 

    Five decades later, the lecheria remains and prospers, as do a sprinkling

of the original settlers and their families. Instead of the few cows and dirt

paths that greeted them when they arrived, though, they now share their

streets with buzzing motor scooters and traveling backpackers. Their former

barracks have been replaced by art galleries, banks, and discos.

 

   Today, Sosua’s personalities rival those of any major US city at least a

hundred times its size. A visitor is as likely to find a menu that lists

coq au vin and weinerschnitzelas as he is to happen upon the rowdy Latin

American pastime of watching a cockfight. On the west end of town, called

Los Charamicos, the Latin community lives and plays in a tropical

hodgepodge of markets, meringue music, and laughter. On the other side of

the beach, packaged-comfort resorts, attractive guesthouses, and waterfront

cafes lure hordes of European and Canadian vacationers each year. It was in this

part of Sosua - known as El Batey - that the first Jewish settlers began their new life.

 

    "We slept in tents while the barracks were being built.  Little by little, we   made a

community," says Felix Koch, who arrived in Sosua by boat in 1941 

after spending time in a Bayonne, France,  concentration camp. A former          

radio technician from Vienna, Koch now  operates an oceanfront inn with his  

Dominican wife, Gloria. Sitting in his comfortable living room, the balding blue-eyed

man recalls the beginning days of Sosua with little remorse or emotion. "They chose

young people and married people with children to go  to Sosua. I  was selected

because  I was 22," he says. He discovered later that the other people in the Bayonne

camp were sent to Auschwitz six months after he left.

 

   Like Koch, most of the settlers were European city dwellers who found

themselves farming for the first time. Those who weren't yet settled on their

homesteads had to endure long rides on horseback or mule over rocky

terrain. The women stayed home and prepared food while the men set to work

cultivating common land for agriculture. "We planted tomatoes and potatoes

and carrots, but the Dominicans didn't eat them," he explains.

"Then a man from Israel came to help and he advised us to start a dairy business.

So we learned about cheese and butter and built a small factory.

This became our success."

 

 Koch still provides the local dairy with milk from 30 cows on his farm on

the outskirts of town. But his own success is also measured in the

half-acre of waterfront land where he now lives. Twenty-five years ago,

before La Union International Airport would open and bring thousands of

sun-seeking vacationers to the area, Koch hung a Room for Rent sign over

his garage and created the town's first semblance of a hotel. "I had 500

chickens in a shed. I threw them out and made a bungalow," he says, the

memory cajoling a smile from his melancholic face. That single chicken

coop evolved into eight attractive bungalows that are perched along a bluff

overlooking Sosua’s spectacular curve of a beach - arguably the best

stretch of sand in the country.

 

   A walk down the hill from Koch's guesthouse is necessary, however, to

experience Sosua’s beach in all its garishness and glory. As soon as the

sand begins, so does the uneven cluster of shops, eateries, and euphoric

mayhem. Vendors beckon and nod to passersby, in an effort to stand out from

the rest of the stands with their similar brightly painted canvases, wood

carvings, and T-shirts ("Because it's a slow day, senorita, I'll make you

the best deal ever," says one fast-talking teenage salesman when he sees me

eyeing a painting of a doe-eyed Dominican child.) At the tiny alfresco

bars, bronze beachgoers shoot pool in their bikinis or sip pina coladas and

agonize over whether to spend the afternoon windsurfing at Cabarete Beach or

go for a glass-bottom boat ride. Along the edges of everything, musicians gather

with a single banjo and a few homemade drums for impromptu jam sessions that

would make many professional entertainers green with envy. Just a few feet

away but divided by a string of palm trees and a stubby stone wall sits the

mile-long beach, where loungers and water frolickers seem oblivious to the nearby chaos.

 

    Also a world apart from the beach activity is Judith Kibel, another

longtime resident who lives in a nearby condominium complex. Like Felix

Koch, Kibel and her husband were among the first groups of Jews to arrive

in Sosua, well before it became a prime vacation destination. Their

50-passenger boat docked in the capital city of Santo Domingo, 150 miles

to the south. "As we were riding into Sosua, I saw little houses where the

floor was earth and the beds were hammocks," says Kibel, who was 27 at

the time. "I said to my husband, 'Here, I will not live.'"

 

    Five decades and two grown children later, Judith Kibel is

still very much a part of Sosua. Her tidy first-floor apartment is adorned with

local art, hand-painted butterflies (a symbol of good luck in the Dominican Republic),

and photographs of herself and her son and daughter, who now live in the United States.

Her Spanish is flawless, although she says, "German is my language-it's still

what I think in." Every afternoon, Kibel can be seen strolling down Calle Pedro Clisante

on her way to lunch at Morua Mai, a thatched-roof restaurant in the heart of Sosua.

 

   A former piano teacher and violinist from Vienna, Kibel says that one of

the hardest things about crossing the ocean so many years ago was leaving

the sweet music of her native city. Her eyes light up as she produces a

carefully preserved program from an orchestra performance she attended last

year in Santo Domingo. "They performed the music of Mozart, Bach,

and Rachmaninoff," she says. "It was fantastic, fantastic."

 

   In this country that is known as the birthplace of sexy, saucy meringue,

such shining enthusiasm over classical music seems wistfully out of place.

But by this time I am used to the anomalies that appear around every corner

of Sosua - menus made up of an entertaining jumble of Spanish, English,

and German; sleek Cherokee Jeeps parked next to motor scooters

in desperate need of mufflers; and the coincidental fact that this haven

from Nazi oppression is now a prime vacation spot for non-Jewish Germans.

 

     Perhaps it's this oddly eclectic mixture that has attracted an

international expatriate crowd to settle on Sosua’s shores over the last

decade. Among the town's 8,000 residents is a healthy sampling of

Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, who have opened specialty shops

and bed-and-breakfast inns, or retired amid palm trees, turquoise bays, and

subtropical temperatures.

 

  At Viva Galeria de Arte, Vancouver native Ann McLellan makes international

visitors immediately comfortable with her laid-back friendliness and shopping

advice ("Coffee, vanilla, and cocoa are the best buys on the

island, but you can get them at Playero supermarket for much less than the

gift shops," she offers.) McLellan and her husband, Robert, opened their

well-stocked Dominican and Haitian art gallery five years ago in a small

shopping plaza that used to be the sleeping barracks for Jewish male settlers.

 

   Around the corner at Patrick's Silversmith, owner Patrick Fagg, who

crossed the Atlantic from Uganda 21 years ago, is one of the town's most

knowledgeable sources on amber. The nearby Cibao Valley is the world's

second largest producer of the fossilized tree sap, which Fagg fashions

into jewelry and sells in his small shop. And the Panaderia Alemana Moser,

a deli/bakery owned by a recently arrived German couple, sells thick German

bread and pastries.

 

     After a day or so of such contrasts, it comes as little surprise to enter one of

only two synagogues in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. What is unexpected

is the beauty and serenity of the pine-paneled room, which is not much bigger

than an average living room in the States. Renovated in 1990 for the town's 50th

birthday celebration, it is one of the few remaining original buildings constructed

by the settlers. Shabbat services are still performed every Friday, although

attendance ranges from a handful of locals to a full house of curious vacationers.

Last year, a couple from Boston who had read about the Sosua settlement flew

down to be married in the synagogue. "They invited the whole community,"

says Ivonne Milz, the daughter of settlers who has amiably agreed to show me

the synagogue and the Jewish Museum next door.

 

    Milz and her friend, Gisela Engstrom, lead the way to the sun-streaked

museum, which was dedicated in 1990 in honor of Sosua's 50th anniversary.

Sitting in all its rusted glory in one corner is the town's first

switchboard, the refugees' only connection to what was happening abroad.

Lining the walls are enlarged black and white photos of the first settlers

milking cows, holding babies, and otherwise going about their new lives.

Engstrom, one of Felix Koch's three daughters, points to a photograph of

her father working on his five-acre farm, which he received upon his

arrival (each settler was expected to eventually pay for his homestead). A

sign near the door reads, "This community was a living demonstration of

working spirit of faith in fife and of the conviction that progress is

always possible." As if in testimony to this statement, recent color

snapshots of local children at community celebrations of Hannukah and

Purim are displayed in the middle of the room. Included among the smiling

faces are the sons and daughters of Milz and Engstrom.

 

   These two young women and their children represent Sosua's future - the

ones with the power to keep the "working spirit" alive or let it fade like

the brilliant Dominican sun into the bahia. Both women, whose bobbed

hairstyles and white jeans would fit comfortably in any U.S. or European

city, live nearby with their families and have no plans to leave the area.

Milz is married to a dairy executive who is also the child of one of

Sosua's founders. Engstrom is married to a Swedish man who works in the

match factory in nearby Puerto Plata and is raising her two daughters

Jewish. They used to think their community would disappear, due to

intermarriage and restlessness. But that's not the case anymore, says Milz.

"Some of the children will leave, but some will stay and make homes like we

did. It is in our conscience."

 

    Other descendants of settlers, like Sylvie Papernick, find themselves

being drawn back to their primitive roots, after years of living and working

abroad. Papernick's parents, Otto and Irene, had long since moved the

family to the States when she accompanied her father back here for the

town's 40th anniversary celebration in 1980. Papernick returned several

years later (by then her father had passed away) to build an inn on a

property across the street from the former home of her childhood best

friend. Comfortable, cheap, and amazingly peaceful, her Tropix Hotel is one

of those out-of-the-way finds that energizes travelers. On weeknights, the

lighted swimming pool is the centerpiece for delicious homecooked dinners

served by candlelight for the rock-bottom price of five dollars. After a

meal of dumplings and Chinese meat balls, Papernick - who seems at least

a decade younger than her 52 years - chats about her past, present, and

future. Growing up in Sosua, she says, was nothing less than idyllic. "It

was a wonderland for kids," she says. "There were no cars. I had my own

goat." But the family left when Papernick was 11 or 12 for the broader

opportunities of New York. Despite years of living in the United States and

traveling abroad, she says she has never lost her affinity for the town

that brought her parents together. Otto and Irene Papernick met on the

two-and-a-half-month trip to Sosua and married soon after their arrival.

"You feel a kinship," their daughter says.

 

   That sense of attachment carries over to Sosua's visitors - although I

found the reasons for it more difficult to pin down. Does it come from the

peacefulness that envelops me as I dine high on a cliff overlooking the

beach at the elegant Marco Polo Club? Is it from being led eagerly by the

hand by a little boy to his father's tiny souvenir shop, which doubles as

the family's living room? Or does it come in the form of 81 year-old Judith

Kibel, who bids me goodbye with the traditional European kiss on each

cheek and a heartfelt "I wish you a good life"?

 

   Maybe I should confine my modern-day sentiments to the words of former

Dominican president Juan Bosch, who visited the settlement in 1962 and

remarked, "I wish we had more Sosuas."

 

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    Reprinted with the permission of the author, Laura Randall, and               

American Eagle. This article appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of  

LATITUDES SOUTH the American Eagle "in flight" magazine

 

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