The settlement of Sosúa was born out of the Evian Conference, which convened in 1938 to discuss possible ways to deal with the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Dominican dictator Raphael Trujillo agreed to contribute a former banana plantation, which became a haven for approximately 850 Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Trujillo’s intentions were far from altruistic — he hoped to both make amends for the recent massacre of 20,000 Haitians and lighten the complexion of the Dominican people through intermarriage with European Jews. But, unlike the other attendees at the Evian Conference, his actions actually saved lives.
Among the settlers in Sosúa were AJ Sidransky's great-uncle, Max Grunfeld, and his wife, Helen. They ran a hotel in the large town of Csetnek (Stitnik in Slovak) in what was then Czechoslovakia, along with his younger brother, LAJos, and sister, Mariam.
One night in 1939, before the war started in September, Max’s gentile employee and friend came to him in the middle of the night and told him that the local fascists were coming to arrest him in the morning. He, LAJos and their wives fled to Hungary that night.
They made their way first to Trieste, where they learned that the visas they held for Palestine were forgeries. They proceeded to Genoa and stayed until June 1940, when Max was interred in an Italian concentration camp in Compagna as an enemy alien. Helen went into hiding, and Lajos and his wife returned to Slovakia.
DORSA, The Dominican Republic Settlement Association, visited the camp that summer to recruit settlers for the Jewish settlement in Sosúa. Max volunteered to go. They lived in Sosúa until approximately 1948, when AJ's grandfather brought them to New York.
Sosúa was one of the best-kept secrets of the Holocaust. When AJ mentioned this chapter in history to people — Jewish, American and even Dominican — he found they don’t know anything about it.
Part of what compelled AJ to write this book was his need to share the story of Sosúa, and to show the world what a little bit of kindness can result in. Life was hard for the settlers. The local Dominicans reached out to them and helped them adjust to the harsh new conditions. With their help, the settlers of Sosúa thrived.
AJ Sidransky has lived in New York all his life and in Manhattan all his adult life, mostly on the Upper West Side. In 2003, he discovered that he had been priced out of the neighborhood and decided to move north to Washington Heights. He discovered a whole new world.
Washington Heights had once been home to a huge Jewish community, most of them German Jewish refugees who arrived in NYC in the 1930s. For many years, the neighborhood was known as Frankfurt on the Hudson.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, parts of the neighborhood east of Broadway became home to a growing Puerto Rican community. By the 1980s and ‘90s, that Hispanic population went from being primarily Puerto Rican to Dominican. Many of these Dominican immigrants were fleeing the growing drug problems in their homeland. In the 1990s, that problem followed them here and for many years Washington Heights had a reputation as a very dangerous neighborhood.
At about the same time, there was a large influx of Jews from the Soviet Union arriving in New York. Many of them were placed in apartments in Washington Heights west of Broadway, turning Frankfurt on the Hudson into Moscow on the Hudson.
When AJ moved to Washington Heights ten years ago, this was the community he found. Minus the Russians, Washington Heights was, for him, “Sosúa North.”
As he became more integrated into the community, he befriended many Dominican people. They have become his closest friends. Because of what their nation did for the uncle he loved, AJ started out with a big place in my heart for the Dominican people. They suffer the same kinds of knee-jerk discrimination so many Hispanics experience in this country, and one of the reasons AJ wrote this book was to share the kindness of their culture and community with his readers.
In many ways, Washington Heights is the microcosm of this book. Every one of the characters could easily be encountered on its streets or in its delis.
Beyond the deprivation faced by most people in the USSR, Soviet Jews were deprived of their identities. They were not allowed to practice their religion, speak Hebrew, or teach their children the history of their people.
By the 1970s, the situation had grown severe. The Soviet Union backed the Arab states in the growing Middle East conflict after the Six-Day War in 1967 as a counter to American support of Israel. Though many Russian Jews were committed communists and many early communists had been Jews, anti-Semitism became institutionalized under Stalin and life became more and more difficult for Jews in the Soviet Union.
An underground movement of “Refuseniks” began to fight the greatest tyrannical power on Earth for the right to either practice their religion, or at least be allowed to leave the country.
For American Jews of my generation, this became an opportunity to react differently than their parents and grandparents did during the Holocaust. As a teenager AJ Sidransky was heavily involved in the Movement to Save Soviet Jewry, a campaign to open the gates of the Soviet Union so that the approximately 3 million Jews who lived there could either leave the country or pursue a Jewish life within it.
With shouts of “Never Again!” they determined to free their Soviet brothers and sisters. They demonstrated in front of the Soviet embassy and consulate 24/7. They made trips to the Soviet Union. They brought in prayer books and they brought out letters. Eventually the gates cracked a little and these Jews who refused to be silenced, these Refuseniks, came out.
Unfortunately, both the plight of Soviet Jews and the success of the movement are receding in our collective memory. AJ hopes his novel, in some small way, helps to remedy that.