Story posted April 17, 2006
Fresh on the heels of learning he had won a prestigious 2006 Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Allen Wells recently received more good news - he has been awarded a 2006 Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for an upcoming book tentatively titled, "Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Jews of Sosua."
"This is so unexpected," says Wells, Bowdoin's Roger J. Wells Jr. Professor of History. "It's gratifying that your peers think your work is worthwhile."
Wells' research centers on a group of 1,000 Jewish refugees who fled Hitler's Europe and settled in the Dominican Republic - then ruled by the repressive dictator General Rafael Trujillo - where they founded an unconventional agricultural colony called Sosua. While few of them had even set foot on a farm before, they created a highly productive dairy cooperative there that still produces the best cheese, butter and sausage on the island.
Among the colonists was Wells' own father, a native of Vienna, who was one of only a few members of his family to survive Hitler's scourge.
Originally, says Wells, he intended to write a short essay about the colony, incorporating oral histories from surviving members, including his father. As he began to research the international politics surrounding Sosua during his 2000-2001 sabbatical, however, he realized "there were lots of layers to this onion. This was a pretty complex story."
Wells uncovered a tale of geopolitical intrigue on three continents as the exiles became pawns in political agendas spanning several decades.
"These stateless exiles were tethered, without their knowledge or consent, to larger geopolitical concerns at a moment of world crisis," noted Wells in his Guggenheim grant proposal, "to Washington's anemic immigration policy, to Machiavellian diplomatic currents swirling around the refugee question, to the Dominican Republic's determination to assert itself as a powerbroker in the Caribbean, to the United States' wartime "Fortress America" strategy to cordon off the hemisphere from Axis aggression ... and to longstanding fissures within the American Jewish community."
Wells is one of 187 artists, scholars, and scientists selected from almost 3,000 applicants to receive a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship, which total $7,500,000 in awards. The Fellows are appointed based on recommendations from hundreds of expert advisors on the basis of distinguished achievement in the past and exceptional promise for future accomplishment.
Other recent Guggenheim Fellowship winners among Bowdoin's faculty members include Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Thomas Baumgarte (2004) and Professor of Biology Patsy Dickinson (2000).
With the support of his Guggenheim and ACLS Fellowships, Wells says he plans to spend the coming year writing a book about Sosua. "This is a project I have worked on for the better part of five years," notes Wells "Its international dimensions have caused me to stretch myself as a historian in ways I wasn't accustomed. That has been both challenging and rewarding."
"It is also very much a labor of love, because of my father. He is 88 and I know he's very happy that someone else finds that his life history and the stories of his friends and fellow colonists are worth retelling."