From Germany to Sosua to Passaic
As a small child she shook Hitler’s hand; at the age of 6, on her first day of school she was called a sow Jude (pig Jew); when Jews could not buy food she traded family silver and crystal for pork; at the age of 14 she gratefully accepted the sanctuary offered by a murderous tyrant; at the age of ‘4 she came to America.
Ruth Kohn displays the silver candlesticks that her family managed to smuggle out of Germany.
Such is the life story of Roth Kohn, born in 19’7, a survivor of the Holocaust, a member of the Sosua colony in the Dominican Republic, and now a resident of Passaic Park.
Most of the colony left Sosua after World War II, though there are a few people who remained. The seaside settlement is now a luxury resort but there is still a synagogue there.
Sitting in her living room filled with mementos, comforted by her second husband, Dr. Alfred M. Rubinstein, the diminutive grandmother spoke of the events of her life as if they had happened yesterday, yet apologizing for not remembering things more clearly.
As Jews in pre-World War II Germany, her family members were not allowed to go to the movies or any type of public entertainment. There were forbidden even to walk in some parts of the city, Berlin, where she lived.
But on one afternoon, before it was disallowed, she and her family were strolling near the government buildings. Suddenly there was a commotion, and she was pushed along with her family toward a motorcade. There was Hitler and seeing her, a pretty child, he reached out to shake her hand. "He was looked on as a god and everybody was so impressed," she recalled. "My family just went along until we got home."
At home it was a waiting game: Would her father come home from work or would he be taken? Would the SS come and take them to work or death camps? Would the rules change before they could take advantage of their one chance at freedom courtesy of visas to the Dominican Republic, obtained from the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and sent by an uncle who escaped from a concentration camp to Portugal?
As it turned out, in October of 1941, just one day before the rules concerning the age allowed for Jewish immigration changed (no one between the ages of 18 and 60 could leave), she and all her family but one brother, killed in a death camp on Nov. ‘7, 1940, left on what she called the last train out of Berlin.
Traveling through Spain right after its civil war, her family stayed "in a very fancy hotel but they had nothing to eat." Then they went to Lisbon, Portugal, and waited for three weeks for a freighter, the Serpa Pinto (named for an explorer), to take them on the three-week journey to the Dominican Republic.
The trip, spent in the luggage compartment with 50 other Jews where there was no privacy, was made longer, she said, because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would not allow the ship to enter U.S. waters.
Her family, the 4’7th, arrived in the Dominican Republic on Dec. 7, 1941 (the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor). She had nothing but one dress and a pair of wooden shoes. Her family had the equivalent of $10 between them, all they were allowed to take from Germany except for a set of silver candlesticks.
The government inspector, not a Nazi but an old man, sent to check their luggage and seal it to make sure they took nothing valuable, declared that the candlesticks were tin and that they could take them.
Leaving a country where Jews were equated with vermin and entering a country where, their "whiteness" was valued, Ruth and her family did not stop to think about Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina’s reason for declaring to 3′ heads of state in Evian-les-Bains, France, in 1936, "I’ll take 100,000 Jews." What they did think about was that Hitler, wanting the Jews dead, released only 1,000.
Trujillo wanted Jews alive to intermarry with his people and produce a whiter population. "We didn’t care what he wanted because we were saved," said Ruth.
Salvation was a 1′-hour bus ride with no bathroom stops to a small agricultural settlement called Sosua on the east coast. It had no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, but a lot of heat, humidity, and attendant sickness.
There was a small grocery store, no kosher food, a barber, a coffee house, a hospital, a barracks for young women, and a barracks for young men who outnumbered the women three to one.
The American Jewish Congress arranged for them to have small houses, little more than huts, a few acres of poorly drained farm land, nine cows, and about $9 a month with which to build a life.
Kohn recalled that while there was life and freedom, for many there was no happiness..
No one was allowed to speak German, in order to force the people to learn Spanish. Many had done anything they could to escape. Some married people they hardly knew as a way out and regretted it, participating in extramarital affairs. Two people committed suicide.
But for Kohn, it was the first time she experienced freedom. She rode on horseback to a local friend’s, where they were driven to school. She was welcomed at the hospital, where she studied to become a nurse in the afternoon after classes. She met the man who was to become her first husband and she did everything that teenage girls got to do, as well as swim in the Caribbean, go to movies and dances, and pursue the life she would have been denied had the family stayed in Germany.
But this sanctuary came with a price. Though her uncle saved her family’s lives, he never let them forget it, Kohn said, and soon her parents had to search for another place to live. This was occurring at the same time her cousin’s family was being hidden by non-Jews in Germany.
While the government wanted to use the refugees for their race, the population had no use for the Jewish religion. When Ruth and two of her fellow nursing students were allowed to go to the Catholic hospital to become registered nurses, they were told by the mother superior that they’d be awakened to attend mandatory mass.
While her Orthodox father had given up keeping kosher for the sake of staying alive, Kohn could not turn her back on her religion for the sake of becoming a nurse.
Ruth never was able to become an RN but achieved the equivalent of an LN and helped with the birth of some 100 babies in Sosua. Later, in the United States she worked as a child care worker and then later volunteered at the Mental Health Clinic of Passaic, helping Spanish-speaking clients
Thinking back on her time there, Kohn said there was no doubt that Trujillo was a ruthless tyrant who killed his own people.
"We have plenty of dictators still," she noted. But in Sosua, "we could walk down the street without having to wear a yellow star or being spit on. I didn’t have to worry that my father would be killed and his clothes delivered back to us by the SS."
As her father always said, "We were out of Germany and we were free."
That statement greets visitors to the new exhibition, "A Refuge for Jews in the Dominican Republic," at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City (36 Battery Place) on display until July ‘5. For information, call (646) 437-4’00 or go to www.mjhnyc.org
The exhibit contains photographs and memorabilia donated from the Sosua families, including Kohn’s failing report card (she could not yet speak Spanish), as well as her son’s handmade circumcision gown.