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Jews in the Dominican Republic

The presence of Jews in the DR dates back to the time of Columbus. Though Judaism was not allowed to be openly practiced in Spanish colonies, several versions claim that among the first arrivals of Spanish settlers in the New World there were Jews; some even indicate that Christopher Columbus himself could have been Jewish. Later, several Jews settled in the DR during the mid nineteenth century, of which there are vestigial families. The cemeteries of several villages are populated with Star of David marked tombstones with names like Cohen, Levi, Attias, Marchena, Henriquez, engraved on them. According to some an incident in France, known as the Dreyfus Affair, in 1894 demonstrated the openness of Dominicans towards Jews. The Dreyfus Affair exposed deeply held Anti-Semitic sentiments in France; then Dominican president Gregorio Luperon sent a letter to the Dominican diplomat in France asking about the situation of Jews there. In the letter he urged Jews to come to the DR if the situation in France turned troublesome. Though the presence of Jews in the DR is long standing it wasn’t until WWII that the DR would have a Jewish community.

During one of the world’s darkest moments, when it seemed no one else was willing to lend a hand, an unlikely “hero,” Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, stepped into the international spotlight and offered Jews fleeing Nazi persecution a haven. American and European politicians kept their arms crossed as many Jews became victims of the increasing discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Nazi regime; international forums provided proof that the world was more willing to hide the issue at hand rather than deal with the mass displacement of Jewish refugees.

By 1938 the situation in Europe, and in particular Germany, was increasingly more dangerous. And then came the night when everything changed, when discrimination turned from economic, political or social to physical abuse. On 9 November 1938 German mobs units ransacked and destroyed Jewish businesses, homes and neighborhoods. Jews in many German cities were taken to concentration camps and synagogues were burned. The event became known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, and it was caused as a response to the murder of Ernst Vom Rath by a German-Polish Jew living in Paris. Kristallnacht exemplified Nazi Germany’s policy towards Europe’s Jewish community and left many Jews with only two options: flee Europe or become victims of the growing anti-Semitic violence. But where would fleeing Jews go? Though the Jewish population in Europe numbered into the millions there was no country willing to open its doors and accept large scale resettlement of Jews within their boundaries. And so, at the bequest of US President Franklyn D. Roosevelt, the Evian Conference was convened. Between 6 July and 15 July 1938 representatives from 32 different countries met at Evian-Les Bains, France to discuss the developing issue of European Jews who were rapidly becoming displaced. For 9 days representatives discussed the issue at hand. Sympathy for the Jews was plentiful, but solutions were not. The US was unwillingly to allow large scale migration of the Jews and neither was France, Britain or Austria. Some Latin American countries made minor concessions and allowed for small amounts of visas to be granted, but no large scale solution was passed. The Conference in itself provided no definite answers for the Jewish issue and in light of the increasing problems only one country was willing to open its doors and let Jewish settlers in.

Virgilio Trujillo Molina, diplomatic envoy to the Conference and brother of dictator Trujillo, accompanied by Dr. Salvador E. Paredes, country representative to the League of Nations, announced that the Dominican Republic was willing to allow 100,000 Jews to enter the Dominican Republic. Though there was no definite structure to the Dominican offer it was the only option of its kind made during the Conference.

Ulterior Motives:
Reasons for the Dominican offer at the Evian Conference vary, but most historians will agree that Trujillo made the offer not because he was a good hearted soul, but rather for ulterior motives. By some accounts Trujillo used the opportunity to import 100,000 Jews as a way to propagate his own racial cleansing. By bringing in large amounts of young single Jewish men, the idea was that they would marry Dominican women and “lighten” the race, weeding out the “African” blood found in a majority of the Dominican population. By other accounts Trujillo’s willingness to allow large scale entry of the Jews was more of a political chess play.

In 1937 Trujillo ordered what is known as the “parsley massacre.” During a 5 day period between 15,000 and 30,000 Haitians were murdered on the Haitian/Dominican border. The reason given by the Dominican side was that Haitians on the borders were stealing cattle from Dominican farmers. The mispronunciation of the Spanish word for parsley (perejil) was a distinguisher between dark Dominicans and Haitians. Those who would slightly mispronounce the word were rounded up on trucks or taken into the heavily forested areas and murdered on site. The massacres gave Trujillo a black eye within the international community and he felt that by accepting the large scale migration of Europe’s fleeing Jews he would gain back some of the support he had lost. Either way it was a welcome offer, but one that was more story book than reality, and the execution of such a plan was more difficult than just putting Jews on a boat and sending them across the Atlantic.
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