Tropical Zion

General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa

Tropical Zion

American Encounters/Global Interactions

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Book Pages: 480 Illustrations: 26 photos, 10 tables, 1 map Published: January 2009

Author: Allen Wells

History > U.S. History, Latin American Studies, Politics > International Relations

Seven hundred and fifty Jewish refugees fled Nazi Germany and founded the agricultural settlement of Sosúa in the Dominican Republic, then ruled by one of Latin America’s most repressive dictators, General Rafael Trujillo. In Tropical Zion, Allen Wells, a distinguished historian and the son of a Sosúa settler, tells the compelling story of General Trujillo, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and those fortunate pioneers who founded a successful employee-owned dairy cooperative on the north shore of the island.

Why did a dictator admit these desperate refugees when so few nations would accept those fleeing fascism? Eager to mollify international critics after his army had massacred 15,000 unarmed Haitians, Trujillo sent representatives to Évian, France, in July, 1938 for a conference on refugees from Nazism. Proposed by FDR to deflect criticism from his administration’s restrictive immigration policies, the Évian Conference proved an abject failure. The Dominican Republic was the only nation that agreed to open its doors. Obsessed with stemming the tide of Haitian migration across his nation’s border, the opportunistic Trujillo sought to “whiten” the Dominican populace, welcoming Jewish refugees who were themselves subject to racist scorn in Europe.

The Roosevelt administration sanctioned the Sosúa colony. Since the United States did not accept Jewish refugees in significant numbers, it encouraged Latin America to do so. That prodding, paired with FDR’s overriding preoccupation with fighting fascism, strengthened U.S. relations with Latin American dictatorships for decades to come. Meanwhile, as Jewish organizations worked to get Jews out of Europe, discussions about the fate of worldwide Jewry exposed fault lines between Zionists and Non-Zionists. Throughout his discussion of these broad dynamics, Wells weaves vivid narratives about the founding of Sosúa, the original settlers and their families, and the life of the unconventional beach-front colony.


Tropical Zion . . . represents a significant contribution to transnational history because author Alan Wells skillfully interweaves the story of the colony with several contexts that are often studied separately: United States diplomatic history, the Jewish refugee crisis of the late 1930s, the political and economic history of the Dominican Republic, and the protracted history of Jewish agricultural settlement schemes in the Soviet Union and the Americas.” — Tobias Brinkmann, Central European History

Tropical Zion is a well-researched and ambitious book whose contributions to the study of Jews in Latin America and Latin American foreign relations will be used by scholars for decades to come.” — Mollie Lewis Nouwen, Journal of World History

“[A] study that has few comparisons. At its richest, it offers a fresh analysis of the ways in which Trujillo wagered and wangled to maintain political support in the United States. As Wells illustrates, the Jewish refugees of Sosu´ a were pawns in Trujillo’s broader political strategy. In doing so, Wells shows how a study of a sojourn for Jewish refugees, during and after the war, in the Dominican Republic creates a site for understanding Trujillos’s domestic and international political tactics, and helps to trace the swift reversal of his political fortunes.” — Jerry Dávila, Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies

“[A] thorough, serious, and extremely well-documented and well-researched study. . . . [Wells’s] research reads very well and is an important contribution to the history of American Jewry, the history of the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust, and the history of the Dominican Republic.” — Haim Avni, Hispanic American Historical Review

“[A] well-written, keenly researched account. . . .” — Michael R. Hall, New West Indian Guide

“[An] engaging and multidimensional study. . . . This fascinating book is located at the intersection of several fields of history, including diplomatic, Latin American, United States, and Jewish—and contributes to all of them. . . . The most refreshing actors in this compelling drama are the refugees themselves. This tenacious and innovative corps overcame tremendous adversity to build a prosperous enclave based on dairy farming and the production of excellent butter and cheese. . . . The book's engrossing epilogue relates how global tourism inundated that fragile society in the 1990s, transforming Sosúa into a very different and less edifying place. Fortunately, this excellent evocation of the old Sosúa assures that it will not be forgotten, nor will its lessons be lost.” — Eric Paul Roorda, Journal of American History

“[This] excellent work enhance[s] our understanding not only of a little-known immigration and colonization program but of Jewish experiences during the Holocaust, U.S. diplomacy and Latin American responses to it, and the racial and political intricacies of Trujillo’s rule.”
— Sandra McGee Deutsch, Latin American Politics and Society

“A valuable record for scholars, writers, and former colonists and their families. . . .” — Jewish Book World

“Allen Wells presents the first comprehensive study of the rise and fall of the Dominican refugee project. He not only uncovers a little-known chapter in the history of the pre–World War II search for havens for Europe’s Jews, but at the same time sheds important new light on the response of the Roosevelt administration to opportunities to rescue Jews from the Nazis. . . . [A] well-written and impressively researched volume. . . .” — Rafael Medoff, Diplomatic History

“Allen Wells’s book will appeal to Latin American historians, students of diplomatic history, Jewish diaspora scholars, and the general public. It offers each one of these groups a peek into a complex world where a handful of lives were being pulled in different directions by powerful, often invisible forces that they could not fathom. Tropical Zion, meticulously written and thoroughly documented, represents the definitive account of the Sosúa refugee colony, and it should become a classic work of diplomatic and Latin American history.” — Ernesto Sagás, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies

“By any reckoning, this is a successful book. Wells is particularly skilled in weaving together the different narratives of the various actors, and his account of the awkward relationship between the welfare activism of the Joint and the militancy of Zionist groups is impressive. Oral history is also used effectively to add depth to the account of the colony.” — Sharif Gemie, Journal of Refugee Studies

“The growth and decline of the Sosua Settlement is not only well told but also well documented, and the author explains at some length the interesting and evolving relationship between the United States government and the regime of general Trujillo from 1938 until the general’s assassination in May of 1961.” — John M. Handley, American Diplomacy

“This is a remarkable and well-researched book . . . rich in biographical details, vivid images, and archival data. The volume, a gift for Dominican, Caribbean, Latin American, Jewish, and global history, is a useful examination of a small settlement in the Caribbean that became a Zion for Jewish refugees.” — Valentina Peguero, American Historical Review

“This long yet very readable book gives a good and thorough account of how the Jews prospered during that otherwise horrendous time. They worked, and lived in safety till there was no more danger. That they escaped the Germans’ clutches was solely due to General Rafael Trujillo – whatever his motives.” — Alan Sillitoe, European Judaism

“Wells has intimate knowledge of life in the small tropical sanctuary. His masterful narrative is a must read for those interested in the Jewish Diaspora, dictatorship in Latin America and the Caribbean, and U.S.-Dominican relations during the Trujillo era.” — Lauren Hammond, Not Even Past

“Wells has produced an excellent book. . . . 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, International Social Science Review

“Wells perceptively analyzes relations between the US and Latin America and an unusual case of Jewish immigration to the Caribbean during the Holocaust.” — G. Antonio Espinoza, Holocaust and Genocide Studies

“Wells, the son of a Sosúa settler and a historian at Bowdoin College, captures with admirable clarity the historical ironies and personal dramas at this intersection of European tragedy, U.S. diplomacy, and Caribbean caudillos.” — Richard Feinberg, Foreign Affairs

“[A] fascinating tale that combines a passionate devotion for one’s patrimony with the dispassionate critical perspective honed in decades of superb scholarship. It makes for the best kind of history.” — Robert Jan van Pelt, American Jewish History

“[F]ascinating. . . . The reader will find in this excellent book rich hindsight on these and other unintended workings of human action as well as ample documentation to follow the complexities of this historical experiment of Jewish refugees escaping Europe and forced to recreate their lives in the tropics.” — Luis Roniger, Journal of Latin American Studies

“[T]his fascinating book is an important contribution to the study of the role of Latin America in the rescue of Jewish refugees, as well as to a better understanding of Trujillo’s dictatorship and U.S.-Dominican relations. Allen Wells, the son of a colonist in Sosúa, confronts the collective memory of the refugees with the contrasting factors that determined their fate, demonstrating their vulnerability.” — Margalit Bejarano, The Americas

“Allen Wells has written a fascinating book. . . . This is an original, well researched and well written text. Wells discusses the settlers’ experience in the Dominican Republic, at the same time as he sheds light on a wide variety of other, larger issues: U.S. restrictive immigration policies, the attitudes of American Jewry on the eve of World War II and during the war, Zionist and non-Zionist struggles over the ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem,’ U.S.-Latin American relations, the Trujillo regime and the high cost of Washington’s complicity with the brutal dictatorship of the Dominican tyrant.” — Raanan Rein, Latin American Jewish Studies

“Allen Wells has written the definitive history of a controversial refuge for Jews escaping Nazism: an agricultural enclave in the Dominican Republic at Sosúa, created by Jewish charities and the country’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. . . . [A] fascinating, behind-the-scenes portrayal of highlevel negotiations among diplomats and Jewish organizations, coupled with a social history of the experiences of the Sosúa settlers that brings the account up to the present.” — Max Paul Friedman, History: Reviews of New Books

“This illuminating and irony-laden study deftly integrates twentieth-century Latin American, Jewish, and American history with that of the Holocaust. Readers interested in any of these fields will be rewarded and have their perspectives widened. An admirably researched and crafted book, and a touching one, too.” — Peter Hayes, Theodore Zev Weiss Professor of Holocaust Studies, Northwestern University

“This is a masterful study of Jewish refugees who found an unlikely haven in Rafael Trujillo's Dominican Republic, written with the head and the heart by a gifted historian of Latin America. Their full story is firmly anchored here in its salient contexts—personal and local, national, New World, European, global, and temporal. It will be of lasting value to students of Latin American, European, and world history, as well as modern Jewish studies.” — William B. Taylor, Muriel McKevitt Sonne Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

“This is an extraordinary and original contribution to Latin American, Jewish, and U.S. history. In a remarkable work, Allen Wells describes and assesses how and why one of Latin America’s bloodiest dictators was willing to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution.” — Friedrich Katz, Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Latin American History, University of Chicago


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Allen Wells is the Roger Howell Jr. Professor of History at Bowdoin College. He is the author of Yucatán’s Gilded Age: Haciendas, Henequen, and International Harvester, 1860–1915; a co-author of Summer of Discontent, Seasons of Upheaval: Elite Politics and Rural Rebellion in Yucatán, 1876–1915; and a co-editor of The Second Conquest of Latin America: Coffee, Henequen, and Oil during the Export Boom, 1850–1930.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Abbreviations ix

Prologue xi

Part One: The Refugees' Plight

1. "Our Ethnic Problem" 3

2. Think Big 28

3. Jewish Farmers 44

Part Two: Converging Interests

4. "The Eyes of the World Are on the Dominican Republic" 69

5. One Good Turn 91

6. Lives in the Balance 105

7. Playing God 127

Part Three: Growing Pains

8. First Impressions 151

9. Flawed Vision 176

10. Containment 198

11. Trial and Error 219

Part Four: Middle Age

12. The Man Who Saved Souls 243

13. A "Splendid President" 266

14. Golden Years 281

15. "The Beginning of the End" 299

16. Ravages of Aging 314

Epilogue 339

Acknowledgments 355

Notes 359

Bibliography 409

Index 437
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4407-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4389-9
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