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1938: Nations Discuss Jewish Refugees, Get Nowhere, but Then They Hadn't Planned To

It was 1938, Germany had occupied Austria and the world realized the Jews had a problem. But there was so little intent to take action that the U.S. didn't even send official reps to the Evian talks.

David Green
David B. Green
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Evian, venue of the Conference: 'All the delegates had a nice time. They took pleasure cruises on the lake'
Evian, venue of the Conference: 'All the delegates had a nice time. They took pleasure cruises on the lake'Credit: Wikimedia
David Green
David B. Green

On July 6, 1938, representatives of 32 nations and some 60 organizations convened in Evian-les-bains, on the French shore of Lake Geneva, to discuss the growing problem of Jewish refugees from the German Reich.

On March 12, 1938, Nazi Germany had entered and occupied Austria, bringing under German control some 185,000 Jews overnight, in addition to the more than 500,000 Jews in Germany proper (of whom some 150,000 had fled by 1938). Less than two weeks later, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his intention to invite the nations of the Western Europe and the Americas to a conference that would seek solutions to the problem of the stateless Jews.

For his part, a cynical Adolf Hitler claimed to welcome the initiative of such a conference. In a speech at Koenigsberg, he commented how he could “only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.” (Quoted by Ronnie Landau, in the 1994 “The Nazi Holocaust.”)

Agree on silence

If Hitler suspected that nothing substantial would emerge from the conclave, he was correct. Within the U.S. State Department, it was understood that Evian was intended for public relations purposes, and that the United States would not be liberalizing its quotas for German Jews.

FDR did not even send a government official. Instead, he sent his friend Myron C. Taylor, a well-regarded former chairman of U.S. Steel, to attend on America’s behalf. Taylor was accompanied by James G. McDonald, who - until his resignation from the position in 1935 - had headed the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany. (Later, McDonald would be the first American ambassador to Israel.)

Before the conference even opened, however, the U.S. and the United Kingdom had quietly agreed that Britain would not publicly mention the fact that the U.S. was not even filling its existing quotas for immigrants from Central Europe, while America would not propose Mandatory Palestine as a potential future destination for Jews fleeing Germany. In fact, a half year later, Britain would officially close Palestine to any more Jewish immigrants.

Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo: U.S. Library of Congress, Wikimedia

'Mineral baths and massages'

Representing the Jewish population of Palestine at Evian was Golda Meir, later Israel’s foreign minister and prime minister. Her status, however, was limited to that of an observer, and she was not even permitted to address the conference.

The Evian Conference began on July 6, as said, and went on until July 15, at the spa town’s Hotel Royal. Attendance at the early sessions was sparse. The explanation offered by the hotel’s concierge to the press was that, “it is difficult to sit indoors hearing speeches when all the pleasures that Evian offers are outside.” He reported that, indeed, “All the delegates had a nice time. They took pleasure cruises on the lake. They gambled at night at the casino. They took mineral baths and massages at the Etablissement Thermal,” among other things.

Commenting on the proceedings, the British paper Manchester Guardian noted that Evian seemed to portray the world as being “divided into two parts – those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter."

Indeed, most of the nations used the occasion to explain why they were not in a position to take in more Jews. The comment by the delegate from Australia was fairly typical, if unusually blunt: "As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one." Australia did, actually, agree to admit 15,000 Jews over the coming three years. For their part, both the U.S. and Britain expressed a readiness to up their quotas to approximately 30,000 a year over the same period.

The only country that did offer to take in substantial numbers pursuant to the conference was the Dominican Republic. Its dictator, Rafael Trujillo, designated 26,000 acres of undeveloped land to establish a colony for 100,000 Jews, which was to be called Sosua. In the end, however, no more than 800 people ended up there.

Additionally, the conference set up an Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, which was given the task of seeking additional homes for Jewish refugees, but very limited resources for the task.

The Hotel Royal, where the conference took place. Photo: Bosay, Wikimedia Commons

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