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Stitching together baseball and the Holocaust

Journal Staff

David Ortiz with Hugh Baver at Fenway.

FEBRUARY 8, 2018 – Elihu “Hugh” Baver’s life sounds like a script that a lot of Jewish men would like to write: Former minor league baseball player; an MBA from Michigan State; father of four; acquaintance of Big Papi.

And in recent years, this synthesis of sport, business, and family led him on an improbable journey to the Dominican Republic and France where he rediscovered just how important Judaism is to his soul.

For many, baseball can become an obsession and for Baver the game has literally dictated much of his path. After pitching for Michigan State, he played in the predecessor of the World Baseball Classic (the World Baseball Open) in 1985, and was signed as a pitcher by the Oakland A’s after the classic. After a brief tryout with the A’s, he left baseball but never stopped watching or playing. In 1986, he promised an uncle that he would move from Los Angeles to New Hampshire if the Red Sox came back to win a playoff game against the Angels. The Red Sox, led by the late Dave Henderson won that game, and Baver uprooted to NH, and started selling land. Later he would become an IT professional.

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.
He fell in love with the Dominican, and 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 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 Sosua where 700 Eastern European Jews sought refuge from the Holocaust and built a small community during World War II. “Someone said, we know you’re Jewish. Did you know there’s a community here that has Jewish origins? I said no and I was captivated and it became an all consuming thing,” he said.

Rene Kirchheimer, whose father helped create the Sosua Jewish settlement, with Baver.

 

In early 2014, he flew to Sosua and wanted to learn everything about the Jews who farmed the land and would later start the island’s largest dairy cooperative. Upon his arrival, he attended a service at Sosua’s synagogue – built by the Jewish immigrants in the 1940s – where the Israeli ambassador to the Dominican spoke about the importance of the founding Jewish community.
After meeting some of the grown children of the immigrants, Baver learned about the Evian Conference held in France in 1938, four months before Kristallnacht. The conference was called to address the issue of Jewish refugees and where they could find safe haven. Major world powers, including the US and Great Britain declined to allow the Jewish refugees into their countries. Just one country offered to help: the Dominican Republic extended an offer to allow 100,000 Jews residency.

Because of tight borders and the war, just 700 made their way to Sosua. They were offered 26,000 acres of land on the island’s North Coast – including ocean front property that was later sold by the immigrants to resort developers. “Nearly all were single men. They raised cows, then made mattresses and started the most successful dairy cooperative on the island. When the war ended most left and now there are just four still there,” said Baver, who became equally fascinated with the Evian Conference. He then traveled to Evian, France where he found the Hotel Royal – where the conference was held and stood in the same room where diplomats from 31 out of 32 countries declined to open their doors to Jewish refugees.

“There was no evidence that it had happened there,” Baver explained. “I had to convince the hotel staff that I was there to see the room where this famous conference took place. I thought it was an outrage.”

Baver pledged that he would not allow an important part of Jewish history to slip away. He created Sosua75, a nonprofit, in order to increase awareness. In recent months, he’s raised funds – including a gift from the daughter of former US Representative and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos – to create a plaque that will be mounted in the conference room at the hotel in Evian to commemorate the 1938 meeting.

He’s also trying to create a $25 million permanent settlement in Sosua 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.

It’s a big vision but Baver, a Conservative Jew, insists that it will become a reality. And, he says, baseball will play a big role there. “They need to have a ballpark there where kids can play baseball and go to a Jewish camp. Kids could immerse themselves in the culture, like a kibbutz or a farm and learn about the Jewish history of Sosua,” he said.

For more information about the project, visit sosua75.org.

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