Emily Codik is both Jewish and Dominican — a fact surprising enough that she reiterates it in her Twitter bio. The 29-year-old grew up in the capital, Santo Domingo, and is one of a small Jewish community in the country dating back to settlement of refugees from pre-Holocaust Europe.
Codik explored her own family history in a recent Washington Post piece, a departure from her normal job at the paper as an editor for the Weekend section. WJW and Codik took refuge from the biting cold last Thursday near Post headquarters to talk about her questioning family lore and post-Holocaust life in “paradise.”
What was it like to grow up Jewish in the Dominican Republic?
It’s a very small community. There was a synagogue in the capital city of Santo Domingo, where I grew up, and then a smaller one in Sosua, which is the small town I wrote about. So, we’d usually go to the one in Santo Domingo or, for some High Holidays, we’d go to the one in Sosua. But in my school, for example, there were two or three families, if that, who were Jewish. Most people were Catholic.
Did that foster a sense of Jewish identity for you, or the opposite?
As a kid, you don’t really think about it too much, but for my family it was super important to always celebrate the High Holidays, maintain the traditions.
This community of refugees had a lot of normal problems that you write about. Was that a weird dichotomy for you?
I think that was a point I really tried to get across in the story. Even though it was difficult to adjust to life in this tiny town in the middle of the Caribbean [Sosua], at the end of the day, these people survived and these people were safe and free. And that’s where this idea of “paradise” came from.
That’s sort of what launched the story — I was always told it was a paradise. It’s just a nuanced version of that, of paradise. They were in this beautiful beach town, but the reality is, of course it was going to be difficult to adjust to the culture change, the climate. A lot of these people were going from being like nurses and tailors to having to farm and figure out how to milk a cow. And this was a very remote town. The nearest town was two hours by horseback and about one hour by car. So, not only were you in this new place, but you couldn’t really get anywhere else. So, it was complicated.
A lot of families have stories that are told and retold, becoming family lore. What was it like to dive into that and apply journalistic rigor to it?
You’re interviewing your family members, so you’re always trying to clarify, you know, “We’re talking for my story now,” because you want to make sure everyone knows when they’re being quoted. It was always something I’d wanted to do, to go back and get a deeper understanding of what had happened. Especially because I had heard the overall story a lot, but I hadn’t really heard the specifics because I think it was really hard to talk about for my family. So, everybody in my family knew little pieces here and there, but this was really an opportunity to patch it all together.
What was most surprising to you?
It’s very different when you hear stories in passing than when you actually are reporting and have records and it’s just a lot more real. And also finding the discrepancies in the story I was told. I had always been told my family left [Europe] the night before Kristallnacht. [They actually left the month before.] Even my aunt is still like, “Are you sure?”
Why do you think it was important to tell this story? And why now?
Whenever I tell people I’m Jewish and Dominican, people are surprised. So, I started to get this feeling that this story was going to be forgotten, because the first generation that settled there has already passed.
Now, I’m talking to the children, who may have lived there when they were young, but the memories aren’t as strong at this point. I think that’s the answer to “why now?” I started realizing, you know, my aunt Hella, who I quote in the story, is turning 90 in May. I really wanted to make sure I had the chance to talk to her about this, to talk to other family members — and other people in the community. And when I was talking to other people, that was something that was expressed to me, that they wished they had taken the time to talk to their family members about the story and get a fuller picture.
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