A short distance up a hill southeast from the Super Pola food market in the town of Sosúa located on Hispañola’s storied and postcard-picturesque northern coast you’ll find George’s Oasis Bar – a place where his sign so aptly declares: “local people meet.”
Catty-cornered adjacent to our newfound home in the Trade Winds apartments and on the ground floor of the Casa Mañana apartments George’s Oasis Bar is a small, unassuming open-air, sunlit, casual easy-going venue. A locale which feels much less like an impersonal bar and more like your best friend’s patio or covered porch – if that patio or porch was in the Heart of the Caribbean on an island where the air still rings with a vague, distant threat of hurricanes and is alive with ghosts of infamous pirates and shipwrecks.
As any experienced drinker worth their weight in top-shelf sauce knows; it is in just such a bar one meets the most interesting if not entertaining people. George’s Oasis Bar features a solidly sordid and enticing cross-section and collection of, as a sign behind the bar proclaims; “schemers, dreamers, losers, boozers, misfits, and all assorted fleeing felons.” All of whom not only compose its clientele but are also entirely welcome here – so long as they can handle their alcohol and pay their tabs.
From former truck-driving hooligans of the far-off frozen north to guitar-strummin’ tropical golf cart suicide jockeys in the Heart of the Caribbean.
There is Ed the Canadian truck-driver, who with his sweet, fun-loving, occasionally dog-stomping (utterly unintentional by the way!) wife Dawn, are the textbook definitions of endearing, welcoming, warm, and gracious. I don’t know how many times Ed has driven the lot of us around town in his island cart, to the beach or an ever-revolving lineup of various restaurants in search of food, fun or adventure. And I’ll tell you with the sort of ultra-creative, thrill-seeking, adrenaline-junkie-like tactics the Dominicans employ when they drive one could do no better than to have a former truck-driver who has driven from Saskatoon to El Paso. Those 4 million road miles over 37 years come in more than handy in a land where traffic signs, turn signals, and driving etiquette of any kind are routinely ignored, and glowing red stop lights are a mere suggestion at intersections! Ed’s wife Dawn truly knows how to appreciate every sunset in its full tranquil sky-painting glory. One gets the sense that bathed in the aureate glow of the beach sunset she’s in the realm of spirits in silent, rapt communication with a particular angel.
Fittingly, owner George Knaskov is one of the most storied and fascinating denizens in his establishment. Born in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, his parents walked to Austria in 1944. From there they were relocated to Brazil in 1949 where George spent his formative years, fell in love with his adopted home, and pursued an education in engineering.
For the next 43 years, George worked as a consulting engineer for numerous breweries traveling the world installing breweries as part of the job.
Within a few hours, one gets the impression that nearly every expat in the area, and other bar owners, stop into George’s for ice-cold beers, wines, mixed drinks of various intoxicants blended with conversations about our fair village, local events, other towns, and regions around the island. They talk about the faraway places they called home and the people who still matter to them no matter how distant they may be. There is much discussion of the travels, adventures, mishaps, and misfortunes that defined and made them into the hapless wondrous creatures they now are at this point. Not that they won’t evolve into even more refined and improved versions of themselves – it’s just that I am very content with the versions I have met here in the now at George’s.
We are all brimming with faults and imperfections mirroring the alcoholically-enhanced libations we hoist to our life-baked hearts and parched souls. It’s our faults that most characterize us. Our faults announce most clearly and loudly proclaim who we genuinely are. It is our faults that we can never seem to leave behind no matter how hard we may try, and it is our faults that give us eternal purpose in trying to overcome them and develop our characters beyond them.
And that’s the thing; there is a continually rotating cavalcade of bars, restaurants, cafes, grills, colmados (Dominican markets that double as bars), and other similar establishments all throughout the fascinatingly warped and debauched adult wonderland of Sosúa. But there are precious few with the heart, soul, and character of George’s — the bar being an extension of the fascinating man himself.
If you’re just looking for a drink, go anywhere. But if you’re looking for a very local experience with people who will likely become your friends,
George’s Oasis Bar is most definitely the place where local people meet.
Did you know that the Cigua Palmera or palmchat (Dulus Dominicus) is the national bird of the Dominican Republic? Their nests can often be seen as quite noticeable one to two-meter bundles of twigs in the centers of the fronds high up in palm trees or on telephone poles.
That’s no bundle of twigs, that’s a palmchat nest! Photo: Melinda Mose
The ubiquitous 8-inch (20 cm) cheery palmchat is a very sociable, lively bird of many songs and enthusiastic sounds. With their gregarious spirited antics, they have provided many hours of fascinating entertainment for us as we watched them dance, scuffle, and bounce from frond to frond, navigating the swirling winds and then landing as if they were their own private shimmering green, rustling landing pads in the distant palms.
Palmchats gather in small groups and share large communal nests which house anywhere from two to eight chambers – one for each pair and their offspring.
The species is unique to the island of Hispaniola, including the adjacent Saona and Gonâve Islands, where it is common and widespread. It inhabits areas from sea-level to 1500 m (5000 ft) where palm savannas can be found, or other open areas with scattered trees. Where its food trees are present, it has adapted well to city parks and gardens.
Cigua Palmera or palmchat is the National bird of the Dominican Republic
The other day as we sat working on our balcony enjoying the cooling, refreshing trade winds in the perfect weather splendor that is the DR in early spring, we saw a gardener climbing the palm trees. He was trimming the lower fronds and coconuts presumably so they wouldn’t fall on any of the complex’s less aware or observant residents’ heads. That was fine enough, I guess. The trees look a little sparse and weird until they grow out again and a coconut tree without coconuts is just a palm tree—not that that is at all bad either.
But then he started tearing through the nests of the palmchats, scattering fledglings, babies, and any eggs there may have been to the winds and a forty-plus foot drop. We yelled out for him to stop, but our shouts fell on deaf ears. So we ran to the office and asked the manager to have it stopped. The manager was a bit surprised that anyone would care so much about bird nests and explained that someone had complained about the danger of falling coconuts and palm fronds. I don’t know, but complaining about palm trees and coconuts on a tropical island is akin to traveling to the Antarctic and complaining about ice and snow.
Due to its positioning above the coconuts and lower fronds it is totally unnecessary to move the nests to trim the tree. It just looks tidier and cleaner to clear the nests out. To the casual observer the nests just look like an odd part of the tree one just hadn’t noticed before.
Spared! Photo: Melinda Mose
We did manage to save a few nests, but the fledglings that fell out of the nests that were destroyed were doomed. We noticed with all due appropriate horror and disgust that the flightless fledglings had large fly larvae embedded in their wings and legs. I did some study and found that these larvae were from the Philornis downsi fly originally found in Trinidad and Brazil. Although the adult fly feeds on fruit – its offspring feed on baby birds.
These flies somehow made their way to the Galapagos Islands where they are now threatening to wipe out twenty species of local birds as there are no natural predators of the larvae. In the wonderful irony of nature’s ways, it turns out that the parasite has a parasite. Scientists are looking into the possibility of using a special wasp named Conura annulifera that preys on Philornis downsi fly larvae but there are many impact studies still needed before that can happen.
A bird’s best friend Conura annulifera
I don’t know what sort of threat the palmchat faces besides humans tearing down their nests, cats, dogs, and any other natural predators, but when we took the fledgling to the veterinarian they filmed the removal of the larvae and the insect itself. This could have been the first observation of Philornis downsi infestation in the DR. It’s certainly the first observation of the phenomenon on the north coast.
With any luck, the Philornis downsi larvae will have a predator here in the DR, otherwise several species of Dominican birds may also be in danger of extinction.
As with all animals, the palmchat serves an important function in its environment. And here in the ecological chain of Hispaniola the palmchat is important for the broadcasting and spreading of fruits and the control of insects and plant pests.
So far the palmchat is not endangered. But if you see someone tearing down or about to tear down a palmchat nest, you may wish to ask them please not to: the island will thank you.
History needn’t be a dull, dry static dead thing locked in the past. Many times history ripples vibrantly forward right into the present, echoing out of the past with a roar that commands attention. Such is the case of René Arena (née René Kirchheimer).
René’s parents, Arthur and Ilona Kirchheimer, were among the first wave of Jewish refugees to arrive at the new immigrant colony that was set aside by Rafael Trujillo in the 26,000 acres of abandoned United Fruit banana plantations that would become Sosúa.
Arthur would soon come to be known as “Arturo el Simpático” (Arthur the friendly) by the Dominican locals. Illona or “Loni” as she was known by everyone, was Lutheran, not Jewish. Due to the Nazi regime, and anticipating the worst, Arthur went to Luxembourg (where the Nazis had not yet arrived) with a friend who had a Volkswagen. There he received training in livestock and agriculture because he had worked for two years on a farm. These skills were exactly what would be needed in Sosúa and would play an important role in the development of the colony.
Arthur and Ilona got married secretly in the city of Luxembourg, by a civil judge (in Luxembourg without knowledge of the Germans, who were already working in administration).
After the intense persecution by the Nazis, Arthur and Ilona were left with no choice but to make the perilous, incredibly difficult and unimaginably uncomfortable multi-national transatlantic journey to the Dominican Republic.
They settled into their new lives as farmers in the tropics, clearing land and planting crops with much success. Their son René was born in Sosúa in 1942. From 1942-1943 Arthur would drive a horse cart 30 kilometers from La Atravesada to Puerto Plata. Two to three hours later he would reach the warehouse he’d built in Puerto Plata, the house of Pedro Leroux, in front of where the Palace of Justice stood at the end of the ‘80s. At this warehouse, he would sell preserved and fresh vegetables, cheeses, and sausages. He called this store, “Productos Sosúa.” It is still a major dairy and meats concern today.
René and Loni
Arthur acquired a slightly damaged (as the story goes; it took three times as much to repair it as it did to buy it) Buick from the American manager of a chocolate factory in Puerto Plata and became the first person in Sosúa to have a car. He learned to drive and soon began running passengers between Sosúa and Puerto Plata as well as neighboring towns and even to the capital in addition to driving his agricultural cargo to his Productos Sosúa. One afternoon during a routine traffic control stop the police officer asked Arturo his name, to which he replied “Arturo Kirchheimer.” The policeman had a hard time pronouncing or spelling Kirchheimer so Arturo just said OK; “Arturo Sosúa” and the name stuck.
Kirchheimer had noticed that the local Domincan pigs suffered from a genetic weakness caused by years of inbreeding and began buying a few pigs from Jamaica, Bahamas, Martinique, and other islands to improve his stock. When the war ended in 1945, he imported two pairs of Poland China and Berkshire pigs from the USA and started breeding pure pigs. He had great results and went on to produce the best pigs on the island. He also had great success with purebred cattle. Due to these successes, he was asked to do the same in Santo Domingo. At that time the city was called Ciudad Trujillo.
In 1954: Kirchheimer organized a big national fair for the entire country, and many farmers brought their best animals, cows, pigs, horses and other animals. Kirchheimer entered 72 heads of imported breeds – a thing not seen before by anyone in the Dominican Republic up to that point.
Arturo had swept nearly all the awards; even Trujillo visited and asked him how he had this fantastic result with breeding and if they were imported. Arturo explained there were two pairs imported, and all the others were born in Sosúa. Trujillo embraced Kirchheimer and confided that the immigration of Jews from 1940 to 1941 was a very positive thing and that if there were more Jews like Arturo, the country would progress ahead. Kirchheimer thanked him and sent a breeding pair of prized pigs to his farm.
As a result of the outcome of the fair, an international fair was formed in 1955. Arturo attended with 80 pigs. In 21 fairs in other cities, he received as many as 150 trophies.
In an interview from Germany Kirchheimer was asked, how a Jew who was not allowed pork was motivated to start with such a trade. He explained that he was not a very religious man, although he maintained his tradition as a Jew, he did not pay attention to those details due to the life he had to lead and told them that in his maternal home, they were observing Jewish laws, but with the advent of the First World War, when he was a child, kosher products were scarce, so out of necessity and in order to survive, they had to give up that custom. In addition, when he was in Hamburg, and could still carry out his activities in a normal way, on Saturdays he had to work and on Sundays he played soccer; therefore, the Sabbath custom could not be kept. As son René notes: “He was a realistic man who chose to live the reality of the moment and a practical man who adjusted to the circumstances.”
In addition to all of his accomplishments in agriculture, Kirchheimer also connected with the German embassy and the ambassador and became the assistant and representative of the Botschaft (German embassy). As such, he ensured that all of the German Jewish colonists of Sosúa received compensation, reparations or repayment for the loss of former assets and valuables according to the laws of Germany. They were also entitled to receive income payments as employees, which were incurred prior to the Hitler regime.
Under Arturo’s dutiful administration, all settlers from Germany received repayments or income due. He also served thirteen ambassadors for 42 years, and for his efforts, he received an honor in 1989 when German President Weizsäcker awarded Kirchheimer Order of Merit in First Class and Golden Cross. Arthur Kirchheimer was the only Jew at that time who had received this award.
Arturo even had a hand in the creation of the Sosúa tourist industry in that a 1980 documentary was made in which he appears, it was transmitted in Germany titled “A German destiny” (Ein Deutsches Schicksal), it had been viewed by the masses, received a great rating and, as a result, many Germans arrived in Sosúa giving rise to tourism from Germany to Sosúa.
René spent his earliest days on the farm in the countryside a few miles outside Sosúa town on the way toward Cabarete. When he was around ten-years-old the family moved to the Batey to be nearer school and so Loni could be more socially connected and active as many of the settlers were living there.
Hanna and René
Due to concerns that his young rebellious son might stray into trouble with the Trujillo resistance, Arturo sent the 14-year-old to go live with his half-sister Hanna, who was married and living in New York. René was very excited about going to high school in New York. It was in the vibrant musical club scene of the Village that his artistic interests were awakened. But René was a steadfast student and kept at his studies.
René working the guitar 1962
In 1964 he joined the U.S. Navy. Ever the academic, he continued to study in the university while learning aircraft maintenance in the Navy. Upon completing his military service in 1968 René returned to the Dominican Republic to work in the national flag airline, Dominicana de Aviación. He was licensed by the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency). The Dominicana de Aviación fleet received maintenance from Eastern Airlines, so he had to travel to Miami, Atlanta, and New York to receive the planes, after maintenance.
With a specialty in the administrative area, René then worked as a maintenance manager for two years for the company Air Panama with a seat in Miami. That was while the CDA closed temporarily. When it reopened, he went back to work at CDA (Dominicana de Aviación).
In 1980 René returned to Sosúa to work with the Tourism Secretariat in Puerto Plata as Public Relations Officer for that department. When the new Puerto Plata airport opened, he worked as a station manager for Air Florida. Returning to the tourism sector, René bought Restaurant la Roca, with two German partners from a Mr. José Muñiz. Restaurant la Roca featured the first proper discotheque in Sosúa.
Loni, René, and Arturo
He headed back to New York in 1989 working for Wendy’s as a co-manager. After a year René felt the pull of the island calling him home. Returning to Sosúa in 1990 he accordingly launched the Bachata-fusion Arena music group which achieved much success and for which René is still recognized today. He also worked as manager of Melissa Tours, organizing tours for Samaná, Jarabacoa and Río San Juan for the many Canadians and German tourists who came at that time.
René Arena music group
Twenty-nine years later and you will often find René looking fit, spry, and a good twenty years younger than the 77 years that mark his time on Earth, sitting at a favored cafe in the middle of town. Strategically retreating to the best shaded areas under the awnings, sheltering from the afternoon sun talking about how things were, how they are, and how they could or perhaps should be – offering some workable solutions to the challenges. René Arena Kirchheimer is still very much a man on a mission: a mission to preserve a legacy, a heritage, and a legendary history of a town whose history he and his family are vividly a part of.
René found a kindred spirit recently when ex-pro baseball player, history and cultural preservationist, and founder of Sosúa75, Hugh Baver came to town and asked René to speak at the Royal Hotel in Evían, France at the first official commemoration of the Evían Conference of 1938, the conference which resulted in his parents’ immigration to Sosúa. With Renéwed passion and energy, René is doing his best to revive the recognition of the Jewish history and contributions to Sosúa and to continue to express thanks to the country that gave his people a home when no others would or could. He has recently begun to think about playing music again and is working to find ways to create and encourage more unity within the community – perhaps through his next musical adventure.
Sitting at the cafe watching a soft parade of various members of the community stop, chat, and shake the very personable and smiling René’s hand, one gets the feeling that the history and town of Sosúa have a very bright future.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Mark Twain
Most people who visit Sosúa will never know its incredibly unique history. But there are 700-800 people and their descendants who will likely never forget.
There are many who might suggest that Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo may not have been acting from the noblest or most altruistic of motivations when he alone from a gathering of thirty-two nations agreed to accept 100,000 Jewish refugees from Germany at the Évian Conference which was convened 6–15 July 1938, at Évian-les-Bains, France. After all, only months before, Trujillo had ordered the brutal execution of tens of thousands Haitians in the Parsley Massacre.
US President Franklin D Roosevelt called for this international conference to encourage all countries to find a long-term solution to the problem. Specifically, the conference sought: “The Organization of the Emigration and Resettlement” of “Political Refugees and Those Persecuted by Reason of Race or Religion.” Despite the encouragement, the United States and other countries were unwilling to ease their immigration restrictions. As they were in the midst of the Great Depression, most countries feared that an increase in refugees would only lead to further economic hardships. The conference ended a week later. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic, none of the other thirty-one remaining countries were willing to accept more refugees.
Responding to Évian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how “astounding” it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when “the opportunity was offered.”
Only 700-800 Jewish immigrants were actually able to make it to Sosúa to take part in the resettlement program. 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 Sosúa, which had previously been developed as a banana plantation but then abandoned by the United Fruit Company. Upon arrival, every new Jewish settler was given 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule, and a horse.
The Dominicans welcomed the Jewish settlers and over the years the community became a harmonious mix of Dominicans and Jewish families who intermarried and created whole new generations of Dominicans who shared blended cultures and new traditions.
At one point, Productos Sosúa dairy company supplied dairy products for the whole island.
Between the dairy company, the various inns and the bed and breakfasts they established, the Jewish settlers laid the groundwork for Sosúa to become a major international tourist destination in the 1980s – a trend that has carried on into the present.
In the post-war years, most of the Jewish immigrants moved on to pursue business opportunities or to reunite with families in the US and Israel – returning to their pre-war non-agrarian lives. A few remained. Some former settlers and descendants returned after finding they missed the Dominican way of life.
But for a fleeting time, the very desperate and inhumane absurdities of war led to a microcosm on the north coast of a Caribbean island where a highly improbable mix of Latin, African, European, and Middle Eastern cultures came together to forge a town that would remain an example of how even the most dubious and cynical of motivations and conditions can render extremely positive and lasting outcomes that echo and ripple through the decades.
Those resonating echoes brought Hugh Baver to that town.
In 2010, Baver played in a Red Sox Fantasy Camp and his fellow players named him Cy Young winner for his performance. He had rubbed elbows with the likes of former Red Sox pitchers Luis Tiant and Bill Lee, and soon after the camp ended, he took a trip to the Dominican Republic, where he visited the Red Sox baseball academy led by former MLB player Jesus Alou.
Baver fell in love with the Dominican Republic, stayed in touch with Alou and cheered on the Dominican Team when it won the World Baseball Classic in 2013. After the Boston Marathon Bombing, he wanted to do something to make people feel better. He bought the first base bag that was on the field for the final out of the Classic and called the Red Sox. He sprinkled dirt on the base from Red Sox minor league infields in Lowell, Portland, Pawtucket, and from Fenway Park. After Big Papi signed the base, Baver flew to the Dominican Republic and presented it to Alou and the Red Sox, and it’s now encased in glass at the entrance of the academy.
During the trip, he first heard the name of the Dominican city of Sosúa. “Someone said, we know you’re Jewish. Did you know there’s a community here that has Jewish origins? Baver replied no and was captivated and it became an all-consuming thing.”
So Baver has returned to the DR to build a $25 million permanent settlement in Sosúa which would offer a summer camp, a cooperative farm, a farm-to-table restaurant, botanical gardens, a butterfly sanctuary, an outdoor theater, and… of course, a baseball diamond with stadium seating. Baseball will play a big role there. Baver elaborates: “They need to have a ballpark there where kids can play baseball, continue the great legacy of the sport and the special shared relationship between the Dominican and Jewish cultures with regard to that game, and the opportunities it provides.”
This is a history—a story which needs to be remembered. And it seems especially relevant and timely in the growing racial, cultural, and political tensions, turmoil, and divide of the day.
As hate threatens to undermine the decades of efforts to douse it: it is crucial to remember such incalculably monumental events as the one that took place in Sosúa where hope found a place to happen and human spirit was allowed to shine at its best.
Today the Sosúa dairy business supplies most of the butter and cheese consumed in the Dominican Republic. Next to the town’s synagogue is a very modest museum. The final caption on its exhibit reads: “Sosúa, a community born of pain and nurtured in love must, in the final analysis, represent the ultimate triumph of life.”
If Baver has his way, the golden opportunity for a continued convergence of cultures that once was at the heart of Sosúa will be rekindled for generations to come.
Welcome to Saturday’s News, a new feature in Dominican Today.
March 9, 2019
Along with continued reportage from all regions of the Dominican Republic, I will seek to shine a spotlight on some of the lesser-known, less visited aspects of daily life in this vibrant, dynamic, and often enigmatic island nation.
Along with the more challenging, often tragic, harsher aspects of the regularly reported news, there is also the everyday living of local family life, the daily toil and contributions of the laborers, business owners, entrepreneurs, service providers, developers, educators, visionaries and artists who create the histories, foundations, achievements, and unique characters, flavors, and vibes of each community.
Each Saturday I will feature articles which speak to some perhaps lesser-reported perspectives on the island—histories, legends, tales, cultural traditions, treasures, and treats that normally wouldn’t receive a lot of attention. There will also be the accounts of people in the communities here who are making a difference – or trying to make a difference, people with particularly interesting stories or backgrounds, people helping people, people who have found whole new leases on life here in the Dominican: nationals as well as expats.
It is my hope to bring you the sometimes extraordinary backgrounds of the lives of seemingly very ordinary people.
This column will visit and shed light on this side of life in the Dominican Republic.