History Lesson By Teen Troupe

— by Hannah Lee

From the mouths of babes and the brainstorming of teens: “Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together” is the result of an outreach effort to bring together the Jewish and Dominican populations of the Upper Manhattan neighborhood. Teens performed in song, dance, and rapping monologues this past Sunday at the National Museum of American Jewish History.  Their performance highlighted the little known fact of synergy that occurred in 1938 when the Dominican Republic was the only country of the 38 nations invited to the Évian Conference, organized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to offer a haven to Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled countries.

More after the jump.

One of Latin America’s most repressive dictators, General Rafael Trujillo, had ulterior motives for rescuing Jews.  His nation bordered Haiti, his army had massacred 15,000 unarmed Haitians, and he wanted to deflect the international outcry.  Also, as documented by Allen Wells in his 2009 book, Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa, Trujillo “sought to “whiten” the Dominican populace, welcoming Jewish refugees who were themselves subject to racist scorn in Europe.”  

Trujillo offered to accept up to 100,000 refugees, although only 750 Jews succeeded in crossing the Atlantic Ocean between 1940 and 1945.  Mostly from Germany and Austria, the Jews settled in the small seaside town of Sosúa and they created a dairy and cheese cooperative, named Productos Sosú, on the grounds of an abandoned banana plantation,  which is still in existence today.  Most of the descendants of the original settlers moved away to New York or Miami, including the abovementioned author Wells, but some still live in Sosúa, where they maintain a synagogue and a museum.

The inter-racial and inter-cultural project was conceived by Victoria Neznansky, the chief program officer of the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood, where the German and Russian Jews do not mingle with the larger Hispanic population, comprised mostly of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  In 2008, the Museum of Jewish Heritage held an exhibit on Jews who had found shelter in the Dominican Republic just before the outbreak of World War II.  That historical link gave Neznansky the spark to reach out to noted composer Elizabeth Swados about creating a dance theater piece for her teen constituency.  Art would be the lure to bring in the two groups of participants.

Neznansky started with a group of 10 Jews and 10 Dominicans in 2009, but now the project reaches out beyond its neighborhood.  The current performers hail from 17 schools in the greater New York area.  Ranging in age from 12 to 18, the participants met weekly to study the historical episode, bond over their shared history of discrimination, and rehearse the production. Each year’s teens add their own stories, interpretations and raps.  One of the participants, Kaitlin Abreu composed a Spanish song to add to Swados’ original score.  

Part I tells the story of how the Jews arrived in Sosúa.  A memorable prop of clear plastic Magen David (six-pointed star of David) was held aloft by teens and torn apart to depict Kristallnacht, also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass, in which coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria occurred on 9-10 November 1938.  Part II recounts how the Dominicans welcomed the Jews into their midst, often resulting in marriage between the mostly male Jews and the local Latina girls.  At the finale, two large red hands are linked together and flipped to represent a stylized heart.

In one monologue, a teen offered the ice cream sundae as a metaphor for racial harmony: Hitler only wanted vanilla, Trujillo wanted to get rid of his country’s fudge sauce, but “everyone knows that the best ice cream sundae has all of its parts.”  And in another segment, another teen noted that “one’s man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and what happened in Sosúa went “way beyond recycling.”

At the talkback after Sunday’s performance, an audience member referred to a piece of monologue about middle school being the pivotal period when children no longer play together innocently, regardless of racial or ethnic background.  As the performers are all in their teens, what would they suggest for parents who wish to raise their own children with tolerance?  One performer recommended communal projects such as theirs.  A Dominican girl told about living on the Jewish side of her mixed community and being asked to turn on lights for her religious Jewish neighbors.  She had no context for what it meant.  Another Hispanic teen enthusiastically spoke about joining in a Chanukah celebration with his Jewish peer from the group.  A third girl endorsed the study of world history, to learn about the cultural contributions of people other than our own.  Another boy endorsed “celebrating other races,” other cultures.  Finally, several teens raved about their theatrically focused high school programs for facilitating tolerance, as the performing arts tout excellence, regardless of background.

“Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together” has since been performed,  amongst other venues, at the United Nations and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.  According to The Jewish Week, the filmmaker Peter Miller, whose documentaries, such as “Jews and Baseball” and “Sacco and Vanzetti,” have aired on PBS, has begun co-directing a documentary about the project with Renee Silverman,  a member of the Washington Heights Y.  Neznansky reports that the filmmakers have recently received a grant from the Kroll Foundation to edit and complete a rough draft of the documentary.   However, the Y needs funding to continue the project beyond the original three-year grant from the UJA Federation of New York.  Indeed, at Sunday’s performance, an appreciative audience member voiced the hope that every school could see the performance.

Photo credits: Historical black and white photographs courtesy of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives. Color teen photos courtesy of Roj Rodrigues.



  1. leebarzel says

    A reader asked about the aborted boatload of Jewish refugees to Cuba.

    Hannah Lee responds: The S.S. St. Louis sailed from Germany on May 15, 1939 with 907 Jewish passengers, each paying $150 in landing permits to be allowed into Cuba as tourists.  They were refused admittance in Havana.  According to The Jewish Virtual Library, the Joint Distribution Committee was able to find several countries that would take portions of the refugees: 181 could go to Holland, 224 to France, 228 to Great Britain, and 214 to Belgium.  They returned to Europe in June 1939, shortly before World War II began.  Some of the passengers later escaped to Switzerland, while others perished in the concentration camps.

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