Visit Evian-les-Bains today and you’ll find an idyllic vacation village on the French side of Lake Geneva; Switzerland lies on the opposite shore. Besides its renowned mineral waters, this town is also infamously known as the venue of the international conference that passed a death sentence on hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees. This happened sixty-nine years ago.
NOWHERE TO GO
Although about 150,000 Jews had managed to flee Germany by 5698/1938, this was less than a third of Germany’s half a million Jews, and after Germany’s annexation of Austria that year, another 185,000 Jews came under threat of expulsion. Although about 85,000 Jews managed to flee to the United States between March 5698/1938 and the outbreak of World War II, tens of thousands more had nowhere to go.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that something must be done to avert disaster. What were his motivations? Was he driven by pity for the Jews, did he have a callous plan to shift responsibility from the United States onto someone else, or both? After seven decades, the jury is still out on that. One thing was certain: the United States did not want to handle the problem alone.
As the saying goes, “If you want to do something, do it. If you want someone else to do it, arrange a conference.” Thus was born the infamous Evian Conference at the eleventh hour before World War II.
Thirty-two nations attended the conference, including superpowers like the United States, England, and France, and less influential countries like Ecuador, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. Millions of square miles were represented at that meeting, from the huge tracts of Canada to the vast, uninhabited wastes of Australia. Would room be found for the Jews?
Uninvited private organizations attending included Agudath Israel, the American Joint Distribution Committee, and the World Jewish Congress. In addition, two hundred journalists buzzed round the talkfest like carrion flies; no matter what way things went they were bound to go home with a good story.
Adolf Hitler, yemach shemo, had predicted back in 5682/1922 that “once the hatred and the battle against the Jews are really stirred up, their resistance will inevitably break down in short order. They cannot protect themselves and no one will stand forth as their defenders.” Was he about to be proved wrong? After all, what was the big deal about taking in a few Jews? The US absorption of about 30,000 refugees a year was only one- fiftieth of 1 percent of the population of England!
The conference was launched on July 6 in the conference hall of Evian’s luxurious Royal Hotel. In his opening speech, the US representative explained the scope of the problem; he never dared mention the words “Jew” or “Germany,” as German Foreign Minister Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim Von Ribbentrop had threatened retaliation against German Jews if the conference dared affront his nation.
“Some millions of people, as this meeting convenes, are actually or potentially without a country,” the representative warned. “The number is increasing daily … at a time when there is serious unemployment in many countries, when there is shrinkage of subsistence bases, and when the population of the world is at a peak. … A major forced migration is taking place, and the time has come when governments . must act, and act promptly and effectively in a long-range program of comprehensive scale. . The problem is no longer one of purely private concern. It is a problem for intergovernmental action.”
The conference got under way as delegates divided their time between golf, excursions, gambling, and deciding the fate of the world’s homeless and persecuted.
One after the other, the participating countries trotted out their excuses and prevarications.
Australia, long clamoring for increased immigration, now argued that “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” Her quota of 300 Jews a month would remain as it was. England was paying “constant attention” to finding room for Jews in her huge colonies. France was at the “the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees.”
Ironically, the most generous offer of all was from Gen. Rafael Trujillo,
ruthless dictator of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. His offer to accept up to 100,000 Jews on his territory was never properly utilized. Although the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee plowed $200,000 toward the project and Trujillo, he issued 5,000 visas, and only 700 Jews ended up in his haven.
At the end of eight days, the conference came to its ignominious end. The “Decisions Taken at the Evian Conference on Jewish Refugees” of July 14, 1938, were more than disappointing – they were disastrous.
The conference grudgingly agreed that something should be done “considering that the question of involuntary emigration has assumed major proportions and that the fate of the unfortunate people affected has become a problem for intergovernmental deliberation, aware that the involuntary emigration of large numbers of people of different creeds, economic conditions, professions and trades, from the country or countries where they have been established, is disturbing to the general economy .”
Because of these considerations, Paragraph 5 of the “Proceedings of the Intergovernmental Committee” dared to suggest that perhaps Germany should refrain from fleecing its victims of their possessions before throwing them out.
“Considering that if countries of refuge or settlement are to cooperate in finding an orderly solution to the problem before the committee,” stated the resolution of Paragraph 5, “they should have the collaboration of the country of origin and are therefore persuaded that it will make its contribution by enabling involuntary emigrants to take with them their property and possessions and emigrate in an orderly manner.”
Of course, Germany’s plans were the exact opposite, as is evident in the 1938 German Foreign Ministry “Memorandum on Policy Regarding Jews.” By making the Jews a burden on the international community, Germany hoped to stoke the fires of anti-Semitism.
Starting off by gloating at a situation that has “the Jewish emigre as the best propaganda for Germany’s Jewish policy,” this memorandum concludes that “the poorer the Jewish immigrant is and the greater the burden he constitutes for the country into which he has immigrated, the stronger the reaction will be in the host country, and the more desirable the effect in support of German propaganda. The aim of this German policy is a future international solution of the Jewish question, dictated not by false pity for a ‘Jewish religious minority that has been driven out,’ but by the mature realization by all nations of the nature of the danger that Jewry spells for the national character of the nations.”
After meandering on a few more paragraphs, the conference’s “Proceedings” drew several conclusions, including an insistence in Clause D of Paragraph 8 that governments’ efforts need not extend to their wallets – “The governments of the countries of refuge and settlement should not assume any obligations for the financing of involuntary emigration.”
Clause E, however, did eventually save Jewish lives by suggesting the elimination of unnecessary red tape:
“In those individual immigration cases in which the usually required
documents emanating from foreign official sources are found not to be available,” this clause suggested, “there should be accepted such other documents serving the purpose of the requirements of law as may be available to the immigrant, etc.”
Acting on this suggestion, the United States allowed more German Jews to enter its borders while there was still time.
The most “concrete” conclusion reached in the Evian accords was to establish an International Committee on Refugees, which would “continue and develop the work of the Intergovernmental Meeting at Evian” and hold its first meeting on August 3, 1938.
Myron Taylor, the American representative, was convinced that this was enough.
“As I look over the situation,” he wrote, “I am satisfied that we accomplished the purpose for which the intergovernmental meeting at Evian – which we consistently regarded as an initial session – was called. We have obtained approval of machinery, which should prove effective, if skillfully used, to alleviate the condition of political refugees.”
As they say, “If you want to do something, do it. If you want to do nothing, establish a committee.”
DROWNING IN SYMPATHY
At Evian, the world contributed its share to the Final Solution, winking to Germany that the Jews were an unwanted nuisance. Hitler’s speech at a Nuremberg Party Congress in September that year made it clear that this did not pass unnoticed.
“They complain … of the boundless cruelty with which Germany – and now Italy also – seek to rid themselves of their Jewish elements,” he bellowed. “All these great democratic empires taken together have only a handful of people to the square kilometer. Both in Italy and Germany there are over 140 [people per square kilometer]. Yet, formerly Germany, without blinking an eyelid, for whole decades admitted these Jews by the hundred thousand. But now . when the nation is no longer willing to be sucked dry by these parasites, on every side one hears nothing but laments. But lamentations have not led these democratic countries to substitute helpful activity at last for their hypocritical questions; on the contrary, these countries with icy coldness assured us that obviously there was no place for the Jews in their territory. … So no help is given, but morality is saved.”
The outbreak of World War II only made things worse. As a US report complained in 5704/1944:
“I contend that, by the very nature of its composition, the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees cannot function successfully as the instrumentality to rescue the Jewish people of Europe. The benefits to be derived from the Bermuda Conference, like those of the previous Evian Conference, can fit into a tiny capsule.
“We have talked; we have sympathized; we have expressed our horror; the time to act is long past due.”
(Source of Hitler quote: The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939. Edited by N.H. Haynes. Vol. I, pp. 719720. Oxford University Press, 1942)