When thousands of Jewish refugees were desperately seeking a way to escape Hitler's Europe at the onset of the war, the only government that would harbor them was General Rafael Trujillo's ruthless dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo, known in the past for gross human rights violations, opened his country's doors to 1,000 German and Austrian refugees, in hopes of whitening the race and gaining favor with the United States. He took in the refugees when no one else would and provided them the land and resources to create the island's most productive dairy cooperative, Sosua.
This engaging story is the subject of Professor of History Allen Wells's most recent research for which he has been awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in order to complete a book on the subject. While this topic might spark the interest of any specialist of Latin American history, Wells finds the subject striking for a different reason?among those 1,000 Jewish refugees was Wells's father.
"I had always had in the back of my mind to do a little article on this because it was part of my father's past and there was an interesting story to be told about this dictator who was so ruthless and he spared these people's lives," Wells said. "There was an irony in that."
Wells's past research focused on the social, political, and economic history of a region of Mexico called Yucatán and on the history of commodities in Latin America. However, he kept coming back to the idea of writing about the unusual colony that saved his father's life but stayed away from the subject, assuming the records would be printed mostly in German. Although Wells' father was fluent in both German and Spanish, he required that his children learn only Spanish while growing up in the Bronx, because while German was "the language of the old country," Spanish was "the language of the future."
"I always felt that I couldn't do a big project on this because all of the papers would be in German," Wells said.
From 1997 to 2000, Wells worked as associate dean for academic affairs at the College, and toward the end of his three-year term, was anxious to continue his work outside the office setting.
"Doing deanly things is exhausting after awhile," he said, "so I told the people in the office I was going to go down for a couple of days to New York to look at the records of the refugee organization that had brought these refugees to the Dominican Republic so many years ago, fully expecting that all of the records were going to be in German and that I wasn't going to be able to do anything about it."
To his surprise, the records on the colony were, for the most part, in Spanish and English.
"I found out there was an enormous correspondence in Spanish and in English with very little in German and that it linked the dictator Trujillo to Washington, to U.S. foreign policy, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to the state department, to the refugee organization...so all of a sudden, this whole project just came open to me," he said.
Wells has completed most of the research for his book and will be taking leave from teaching for the next three semesters to complete his project.
"I have to do a little clean-up research next year?I'll be going to the Dominican Republic and also to New York to do some interviews with refugees who are now in their 80s and 90s. I'm pretty close to having a first draft, so the bulk of the year will be revising it and getting it ready for publication," he said.
Wells has traveled to Latin America more times than he can count over the course of his life, for research, teaching, and occasionally, to support a cause.
"I was opposed to U.S. policy in Nicaragua during the 1980s, and so I got involved in what was called solidarity work?speaking out against U.S. policy," he said.
Researching Latin America during the past 30 years, Wells has witnessed many conflicts and changes right before his eyes.
"It's never a dull moment when you're in a continent as vast as Latin America with so many countries, so many things happening. In the last 30 years, so much has happened?all of the revolutions, all of the military regimes, U.S. foreign policy?it's never the same, and that's what makes it wonderful?that you can track these changes over time and see how the country is evolving," he said.
Wells is currently teaching Latin American Revolutions and The Mexican Revolution at Bowdoin; however, he began teaching about revolutionary movements three decades ago, during the height of the Contra War. At the time, Wells was teaching at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where he spoke as an expert on the guerilla movements before a number of organizations.
"Usually there, I was regarded as some sort of leftist radical. They used to call me a communist when they introduced me," he said.
"Then I taught for part of a year at the University of California, San Diego, and the student body there was so far to the left that it was tipping into the Pacific Ocean," he joked. "There, I was considered a conservative. I've gone from one extreme to the other. I don't think I've changed that much, but the clientele was very different."
Meghan Maguire '08, a current student in Wells's Latin Americans Revolutions class, said that it is Wells's passion that makes him such an invigorating professor.
"There is something so real about Professor Wells, in the way that it makes you want to really engage yourself with the material in and out of class," Maguire said.
"His enthusiasm for Latin America is literally infectious. I love the way he really gets into lecture. He'll sit cross-legged on the desk at the front of the table and lean forward when he talks, like a storyteller really getting into his story," she said.
Wells will return to Bowdoin in the spring of 2008. His son, David, will start at Bowdoin this fall as a member of the Class of 2010.