Wells, Allen. Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sousa.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Kotlowski, Dean J.
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Spring-Summer, 2011 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 1-2
Topic: NamedWork: Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sousa (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Wells, Allen
Accession Number: 263035421
Full Text: Wells, Allen. Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sousa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009. xxxi + 447 pages. Cloth, $99.95; Paper, 27.95.

Over the past two decades, the literature on the Holocaust has grown richer, both in nuance and topic range. Scholars have broadened their focus from the victims and villains--worthy subjects though those are--to examine the role of local populations in the Naziinstigated genocide. Popular books and films continue to highlight specific case studies and/or the role of unique individuals, such as Oskar Schindler, in saving Jewish lives. And the response of America (and the world) to the refugee crisis of the 1930s and to Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" remains a fruitful field of inquiry, as evidenced by recent studies of how Manila emerged as a haven for a small number of Jews. Allen Wells adds to such works by providing a well-researched and lucidly written account of the best-known Jewish colony, Sousa in the Dominican Republic.

Three themes--convergence, race, and irony--permeate Wells's study. The architects and abettors of the Sousa colony each had reasons for undertaking or supporting this project. Jews in Central Europe were experiencing a new round of terror in 1938, after Germany's absorption of Austria and with Nazi attacks on Jewish property during Kristalnacht. Many sought to flee, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) wanted to help resettle them, though not in the United States, which had a highly restrictive immigration policy, nor in Palestine, where the British government, beginning in 1939, had limited Jewish emigration. At a time when anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments were strong in the United States and elsewhere, there was little that President Franklin D. Roosevelt could do to ease the crisis. Into this mix stepped Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo who, after sanctioning a massacre of Haitians, was eager to refurbish his international reputation, curry favor with the United States, and reap financial (and other) rewards from the Americans. In a lavishly orchestrated public gesture, Trujillo transferred a tract of land on his nation's northern coast to the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA), which worked alongside the JDC and welcomed the first group of refugees in 1940. Born of this mixed parentage (and motivations), the colony at Sousa proved a "gritty, unconventional experiment" that "saved lives" despite its "small size and the numerous obstacles arrayed against it" (p. xix).

Wells is particularly adept at exploring the racial dimensions of the colony. Just as the Nazis considered Jews to be a separate, non-Aryan, and inferior race, Trujillo despised the dark-skinned Haitians who shared the island of Hispaniola and who often crossed the Dominican border in search of work. Under Trujillo, Wells explains, "the nation's Hispanic heritage (White, Catholic, and colonial) was celebrated while its 'Africanness' was denied" (p. xxiii). By settling Jews on Dominican soil, Trujillo sought to preempt Haitian migration and "Whiten" his country with people of European stock (p. 24). The Jews would become farmers, devoted to uplifting the nation's economy, rather than tradesmen competing with native Dominican businesses. Even here, contemporary racial theories remained at work; Jews were thought to be among the "most malleable" people on earth, more than capable of exchanging their urban, European lifestyles for agricultural pursuits in the tropics (p. 35). Interestingly, a color or cultural divide soon emerged between the newcomers and locals: "The settlers all too often looked at their neighbors condescendingly through the blinders of 'civilization' and 'barbarism'" (p. 163). Dominicans, in turn, saw Jews as European--White and Rubio. "Why did he call me blondie," a Jewish boy in Sousa once asked, after a young Dominican called after him, "when I had black hair?" (p. 326).

As such anecdotes suggest, Wells has a keen appreciation for the ironies in this story. Jews came to Sousa to practice communal farming, although they often squabbled amongst themselves. They intended to stay, but many left for the United States as soon as they were able to. DORSA did a competent job starting the colony, but prosperity proved elusive until the postwar years, when new leaders subdivided land into private plots while retaining common areas for pasturage and dairy farming--Sousa's most profitable enterprise. The greatest irony was that this colony of refugees, who had fled one repressive state, came to owe their livelihood and lives to another such regime. Indeed, Wells might have dug deeper into why right-wing authoritarians like Trujillo and Manuel L. Quezon in the Philippines allowed their countries to serve as havens; with little political opposition at home, they no doubt felt free to open their lands to asylum-seekers. The final irony was that as Sousa achieved a measure of cohesiveness and wealth following World War II, expectations among its younger generation also rose. Many of them sought greater opportunities in the United States, and non-Jewish migrants largely took their place. In recent decades, Sousa has evolved into a low-rent resort area that attracts blue-collar foreigners and those who wish to sample the local sex trade. But in the not-so-distant past it was a kind of Canaan. "Sousa served its purpose," one member of the younger generation of colonists has emphasized, "[i]t saved lives" (p. 354).

Wells has produced an excellent book, and it is not surprising that he has done so. The author is a specialist in Latin American history and the son of one of the original settlers on Sousa. Consequently, he has a detached perspective on how and why this colony came about, as well as an instinctive feel for those who arrived, their trials, and their fate. The voices of the Sousaners are heard loudest at the beginning and end of the book, which focuses on the settlement's diplomatic, political, and economic development more than its social or cultural life. Wells has drawn from a variety of archival and oral sources, in Latin America as well as in the United States, to spin a fascinating tale of negotiation and compromise, escape and rescue, settlement and mobility, progress and decline.

Dean J. Kotlowski, PhD

Professor of History

Salisbury University

Salisbury, Maryland
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