In one group photograph in the exhibit, young people on a ship that is taking them away from their families but also away from Hitler smile with delight. An equally telling photograph shows some settlers on the day after their arrival in SosÃºa: Young men and women stand looking around with dumbfounded expressions on their faces; the women are wearing high heels and carrying handbags — hardly farm-appropriate gear. Their new predicament is aptly summed up in a quotation from refugee Walter Allison that appears between the pictures: “I could repair shoes, but I didn’t know how tomatoes grow.” Another refugee, Edith Gersten, humorously recounts a priceless Alice-in-Wonderland moment: “We stared at the cow. What happened next? Does one get hold of the tail and pump until somehow the milk comes out?”
But over time, the refugees adjusted to their new lives, building barracks and then homes. They celebrated Jewish and Dominican holidays with their neighbors, planted crops, made cheeses and (non-kosher) sausages, and learned Spanish. The Jews were delighted to find the Dominican community welcoming and completely free of anti-Semitism. The exhibit provides a glimpse, through video interviews, pictures and artifacts, into the refugees’ daily lives, from their attempts to re-create European cafÃ© society to their struggles with tropical diseases. When the war ended, the majority of SosÃºan settlers left for the U.S. or Israel, but others — many of the men having married Dominican women — stayed. The show concludes with a photograph of the current SosÃºan Jewish community celebrating Hanukkah in 2007, using the same candelabra pictured in the barracks synagogue of the 1940s.
The exhibit holds important lessons in its comparatively small space. New York State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, along with the American Jewish Congress, originally approached the museum in 2004 with the idea to do an exhibit on SosÃºa. Mr. Schneiderman represents a large Dominican population in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, and he thought that this presentation would exemplify a positive experience shared by the Dominican and Jewish communities. Reflecting the inclusive nature of SosÃºa itself, the exhibit is completely bilingual — for the first time in the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s history. Standing in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the museum raises implicit questions about the history of our own immigration policy simply by telling the story of one small nation that, for whatever reasons, stood up at a time when no one else did and opened its doors, saving lives that otherwise surely would have been lost.
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