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Grounds at Iberostar Punta Cana hotel in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Sugar Cane fields
photo by Rhonda Spivak

photo by Rhonda Spivak

Michael from Haiti


by Rhonda Spivak, January 13, 2012

During my recent visit to the Dominican Republic, I uncovered a bit of Jewish history that I had never known about this popular winter destination. In fact, Punta Cana has become so popular among Canadians that beach vendors say "Welcome to Punta Canada".
In the early 20th century, the Dominican Republic was run by a very racist, corrupt, and brutal dictator named Trujillo.

It was not uncommon for his countrymen to disappear or suffer torture during his term. President Rafael Leonidas Trujillo was ashamed of his mixed race heritage as a mulatto (an indio), and used skin creams and cosmetics to whiten his face. The class hierarchy in Trujillo’s era, (which still exists), places the white elite at the top, blacks at the bottom, and the olive or cinnamon skinned in between. Trujillo pursued a policy of blanquismo to "whiten" the mixed-race population of the DR by encouraging European settlement on the island.

The term Negro (black) is reserved by Dominicans to refer to Haitians, who are exceedingly poor. As my guide Shaul explained, Haitians are employed in the sugar cane fields because they can be paid less than Dominicans. I saw many of them living in squalid tin huts, working in the fields on sugar cane plantations. Given Haiti’s situation, they are thankful to be working in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

In October 1937, Trujillo ordered the massacre of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, and between 15,000 and 20,000 Haitians were murdered by machete in the 2 months that followed. Pursuing his blanquismo agenda, Trajillo attended the Evian Conference on Refugees in France, and stated his willingness to accept 100,000 European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

According to the National Geographic Traveller guidebook: "In 1939, the Dominican Republic Settlement Association was formed and suitable Europeans (priority went to able-bodied men) were settled on 26,000 acres that Trujillo purchased from the United States Fruit Company. Some 600 Jewish settlers arrived; each received 80 acres cattle, and a mule. They settled in Sosua. Their Productions Sosua (now Mexican owned) remains one of the country’s leading producers of meat and dairy products."

Other refugees settled in the capital Santo Domingo, and by 1943 the number of Jews in the Dominican Republic peaked at 1000. The Jewish population has been in constant decline since, due to emigration and assimilation, and is currently about 300 Jews, the majority of whom live in the capital. I haven't discovered why, if Trajillo was willing to accept 100,000 Jews in 1938, only 1000 came.

Sosua's original synagogue and small Jewish museum still exists and visitors to Puerto Plata will be able to find it easily.


Notwithstanding the few Jews that live in the DR, I did encounter a minyan's worth on my week stay, including an Israeli family speaking Hebrew on Bavaro Beach in Punta Cana. The miracle of Chanukah in the Dominican Republic is the doubling or tripling of the Jewish population on the island!

My daughter and I met the Ginsberg family from New Jersey who also signed up for the "Sunset Horse Back Riding Trip". We shared a bumpy ride in a Dominican style truck/buggy to go to the horse ranch, described as a short 20 minute ride from our hotel. Clearly, this was 20 minutes in Island time, as the ride to the horse ranch was at least an hour and a half, and our sunset horseback ride was only an hour instead of the promised two hours. The excursion ought to have been marketed as a "truck/buggy ride with a sideline horsey ride." The long buggy ride did give me an opportunity to see a fair bit of countryside, including Haitian workers and their families living in abject poverty near the sugar cane plantations.

My tip for any tourist is to remember that when you go on a sunset horseback ride, it necessarily means that you will be driving back in the dark on a Dominican Republic road which is completely unlit, hoping that your buggy driver knows how to drive responsibly (something I had neglected to think of beforehand). My other tip is that in the event you do take this trip, make sure you don't make early dinner reservations that you can't keep!

I didn't even go horseback riding; I came along to accompany my daughter who did. While she and the Ginsbergs were riding, I wandered the nearby serene beach filled with coconut trees. I visited with a man named Josh, who worked in the souvenir shop by the ranch. Josh and his family escaped Haiti after the devastation there. Although he was a construction worker in Haiti, in the Dominican he provides for his family by selling oil paintings of the beach and making beaded necklaces. I bought four to take home to friends.
Josh has never been outside of Haiti or the Dominican Republic. I would love for Josh to see this article, but he, like most Dominicans, doesn't have access to a computer.
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.