In March 1938, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt convened a 32-nation conference at Evian-les-Bains, France, to discuss the resettlement of German and Austrian Jewish refugees to other lands. At that time, the Nazi regime was still agreeing to let Jews emigrate if they transferred their assets to the German government. The assembled nations endorsed the idea of resettlement but agreed that no nation would "be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by existing legislation." Given the immigration restrictionist and anti-Semitic moods of the Depression era, this meant that, in effect, no nation – even the United States – was expected to take more than a few thousand refugees.
Only the Dominican Republic, led by dictator Rafael Trujillo, expressed a willingness to accept a significant number - between 50,000 and 100,000 Jews - an offer to which the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee jumped. Trujillo's generosity probably stemmed mainly from his eagerness to have the Western nations overlook his brutal massacre of 25,000 Haitians in 1937 and his desire to "whiten" the people of his country, believing that the young European men would marry Dominican women and produce light-skinned offspring
The Dominican government welcomed the Jews on the condition that they become agricultural workers rather than "commission agents." The Joint Distribution Committee created a special organization, the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA) and funded it to purchase 26,000 acres in the Dominican town of Sosua, which had previously been developed as a banana plantation but then abandoned by the United Fruit Company.
On January 30, 1940. DORSA officials signed a contract with the Trujillo regime. Historian Nicholas Ross, writing in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society, quotes the contract:
The Republic ... hereby guarantees to the settlers and their descendants full opportunity to continue their lives and occupations free from molestation, discrimination or persecution, with full freedom of religion ... civil, legal and economic rights, as well as other rights inherent to human beings.
The refugees were settled in the tiny seacoast town of Sosua, then just jungle land, that Trujillo had established with funding provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Upon arrival, every new Jewish settler was given 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule and a horse.
Despite the promise of escaping Europe, only 50 Jews were able to make their way to the Dominican Republic in the first year of the program. Submarine warfare in the Atlantic and the need to use Allied ships for troops and supplies made it incredibly hard to relocate refugees.
James N. Rosenberg, head of DORSA, refused to let the experiment die:
"Half the world lives now under the shadow of war, persecution, horror and death. ... Now an open door of hope beckons. ... We must carry this endeavor to accomplishment. … We dare not falter."
DORSA imported experts from kibbutzim in Palestine to teach the settlers communal agriculture. They helped design and build a communal meat processing plant and butter and cheese factory and recommended raising lemongrass for its oil, which is commercially used in perfume. A trickle of refugee settlers continued to the town despite the fact that the American entry into the war made it even harder to cross the Atlantic.
In October 1941, the Nazis cut off Jewish emigration from the territories they occupied in Europe. Sosuas Jewish population peaked at about 500. By this point, DORSA had invested about $1 million in the project.
By 1944, Sosuas fortunes turned, DORSA abandoned communal agriculture and gave the settlers private plots. The colonists focused on raising cattle and butter and cheese production. Eventually, they learned to prosper. While some left for the U.S. or Israel, others stayed
Today, about 25 Jewish families remain in Sosua. Their dairy business supplies most of the butter and cheese consumed in the Dominican Republic. Next to the towns synagogue is a museum. The final caption on its exhibit reads: "Sosua, a community born of pain and nurtured in love must, in the final analysis, represent the ultimate triumph of life."