The Evian Conference on Refugees

Evian, France

Our survivor Anne Levy, in Lodz, Poland, celebrated her third birthday on July 2, 1938. This was five days before the diplomats met at Evian, France, in the ostensible effort to do something about the refugee crisis. Anne’s childhood was far removed from the terror that had engulfed the Jewish people in Germany, and that would soon be visited on the Jews in Poland.

How did the Evian conference come about? The “orgy of sadism” directed against Austrian Jews in the wake of the Anschluss and the subsequent pressures for immigration led the Roosevelt administration to call for an international conference (ostensibly) to deal with the refugee crisis. This was a bold political step by President Roosevelt. The unpopular Jewish issue did not win him any votes and gave his critics plenty of ammunition: the New Deal was “a Jew Deal,’ etc. The State Department had recommended a refugee conference not to help refugees but to “forestall” more liberal immigration legislation. There was growing pressure for the United States to enlarge the quota. That pressure, according to a State Department memorandum, emanated from columnist Dorothy Thompson and “certain Congressmen with metropolitan constituencies.” After Hitler’s seizure of Austria, the U.S. government agreed to make available the full German-Austrian quota, up from forty percent. The country would accept 27,370 immigrants from Germany and Austria (this policy would last one year). The U. S. invitation to foreign governments was cautiously worded: “No country would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of immigrants than is permitted by its existing legislation.” Furthermore, there would be no criticism of Nazi Germany for its repression of Jews and no emphasis on Jews. In fact, there was pressure not to mention Jews at all. As historian Henry Feingold remarked, “No one spoke of Jews except Berlin.” So intense was anti-Semitism in the United States that proponents of Jewish rescue were afraid that the doors of immigration to the U. S. would be closed entirely.

On July 6, 1938, delegates from the United States and thirty-two nations met at Hotel Royal in the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains on the shores of Lake Geneva. The luxurious surroundings were starkly at odds with the subject at hand. Two hundred newspaper reporters were present, in addition to representatives of various organizations (Jewish and non-Jewish). The conference lasted nine days (until July 14th). There was, as one historian wrote, “a circus atmosphere for public speeches directed to home consumption.”

Poland and Rumania, interested solely in the prospect of getting rid of their Jews, sent observers to Evian. Hitler and Mussolini did not send anyone, but Hitler certainly kept an eye on the conference and was quick to exploit its failure.

It was apparent that no country was willing to accept more refugees; each attempted to shift responsibility to others. When asked how many refugees Canada would be willing to accept, its representative answered: “None was too many.” The Australian representative was similarly inclined: “We don’t have a racial problem and we don’t want to import one.” The Dominican Republic was the only country to offer refuge to Jews, but the offer came with financial strings and did not amount to much.

The Times Picayune gave significant coverage to the Evian Conference. Over the course of nine days, six articles by The Associated Press appeared in the newspaper. There was also an editorial on the day after the conference ended. During the same period of time there were three articles in the newspaper about the on-going strife between Jews and Arabs in British controlled Palestine.

On the day preceding the Evian conference an article in The Times-Picayune touched on the highly sensitive race question in New Orleans:

On the following day The Times-Picayune published an editorial about the race question in the South.

Two articles about the Evian conference were published on its opening day, July 6, 1938, the first one on page 5.

This first article informed readers that Myron Taylor, former head of the U. S Steel Corporation, led the U. S. delegation. It did not mention that he had no experience in diplomacy, no particular knowledge of the refugee crisis, and that his chief qualification was his friendship with President Roosevelt. Taylor was accorded the rank of ambassador “without pay.”

The reporter tells us that the conference was being held “in an effort to find new homes for some hundreds of thousands of German and Austrian refugees.” As we know, that assertion was grossly inaccurate. Such was the intense anti-Semitism of the time that there was an effort to avoid mentioning that the majority of refugees were Jewish.

The article referred to a disagreement between the American and British delegations. The Americans insisted that the conference discuss the immigration of Jews in Austria and Germany while the British wanted to include Jews in Eastern European countries. This debate consumed a lot of time and detracted from the essential issues.

There was mention of extending assistance to “other nationalities as well,” including political refugees from fascist Italy. This reflected an effort to portray the conference as an effort to help refugees in general and not Jews in particular. Once again, this indicated the strong anti-Semitism prevailing at the time.

The conference was expected to last “nearly two weeks.” It would last seven days (Sunday was an off-day).

This article referred to a “Problem Old as Caesars,” meaning the history of Jews in exile. They were expelled from Palestine by the Romans in 72 AD, and since then have wandered throughout a hostile world in search of a safe place to live. “This constituted the world’s first attempt at a round-table conversation of nations to settle a problem as old as the Caesars.”

The article mentioned the “Greater Germany’s Jews.” This was a rare example of the word “Jews” appearing in print. Elsewhere in the article they are described as “those who have no place in the Third Reich.” Their plight was linked with the plight of “political refugees” and other “would be exiles.” Here again we see an effort to give the impression that the conference was about persecuted people in general.

The article made clear that the American delegation wanted South American countries and the British Dominions to shoulder the responsibility of admitting more refugees (“anti-Nazis”).

Other than Germany, “One country declined” to attend the conference, but the name of that country. We know that country was fascist Italy, which had recently signed a “Pact of Steel” with Nazi Germany.

We learn that the number of immigrants admitted to the U. S. in 1937 was 50,244. This was an effort to demonstrate the generosity of the United States towards immigrants, but that figure included immigrants from many countries and not exclusively from Nazi Germany. Left out was the information that the full quota of German and Austrian immigration was not applied during 1937. In the case of German Jews, only forty percent of the quota was filled that year.

The French delegation was opposed to admitting more Jews into their country and suggested that the United States devote its entire quota to refugees in the future.

The article suggested that Zionists would demand that Britain allow more Jews to immigrate to Palestine. Bloody clashes at the time between Jews and Arabs in Palestine suggested that Britain “probably will not welcome the suggestion.” There was no “probably” about it. Britain did not want to take the chance of disrupting its relationship with Arab countries and lose its access to oil. Eleven months later, in May 1939, Britain would issue the “White Paper,” which would severely restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine.

The British delegation asserted that its government had increased the quota to Palestine by “approximately” twenty-five percent. It had been 8,000 immigrants annually.

While the conference was underway, the strife between Arabs and Jews in Palestine intensified.

The sub-title of the following article reflected the growing pessimism that was enveloping the conference: “Envoys Open Flood Gates of Idealism but Borders Remain Closed.” This pessimism was emphasized: delegates of seven countries addressed the conference and issued “warm words of idealism” but offered “few encouraging practical suggestions…”

The problem facing Jews was laid bare: “The apparent stumblingblock (sic) still was the necessity of getting some country to receive refugees. The public addresses left little doubt most nations were indisposed to offer havens.”

The reporter described “the acute problem of thousands of racial and political refugees.” Once again, the dreaded word “Jew” was omitted.

The desire to avoid responsibility for accepting Jewish refugees was shared by all. The French delegate state that the European governments wanted the United States and the Latin American countries (the “new countries”) to accept more refugees.

Delegates discussed a major stumbling obstacle. The German government wanted to expel the Jews but didn’t want to Jewish property to leave with its owners. The delegates suggested that the best policy would be for the German government to relax these “restrictions on removal of possessions and cash assets.” At that time Jewish refugees were permitted to leave the country with only twenty percent of their financial holdings; that figure would soon be reduced even further. At that very hour Jewish businesses were being Aryanized, or purchased at low prices by those who were only too eager to take advantage of the misfortune of others. There was a mad scramble for Jewish possessions. Greed and theft were at work, and preceded murder.

In Palestine the fighting between Jews and Arabs intensified and the British rushed more troops to contend with it.

This article tells us that the conference “adjourned for the week-end with its thorniest problems yet to be solved.” Despite the gloomy headline (“Faint Hope”), the article quoted Neil Malcolm, League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who hoped that the proposed Inter-governmental Committee would be “taking care of the refugee problem itself” and “would use its good offices to induce chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany to adopt ‘a more liberal policy’ towards the Jews.”

The U. S. delegation “firmly” rejected demands by “Private Jewish agencies” to increase the quota.

The delegations from Mexico and the Dominican Republic offered refuge to “an unspecified number” of people. This brought “a ray of hope” to the proceedings. We know that after the conference General Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic expressed a willingness to accept between fifty and one hundred thousand refugees to work as farmers. His motivation was financial and racist. He wanted both to fill his coffers and to increase the population of white people. Given the fact that Jews in Austria and Germany had little experience with agriculture, the Dominican Republic was not an ideal destination. Nonetheless, some five hundred Jewish people would eventually immigrate there and settle at the community of Sosua, an estate of 26,000 acres on the north shore of the island.

The headline of this article was misleading. Agreement to aid refugee was not “near.” Agreement to establish a “permanent” organization “to assist migration of refugees” was “near.” This organization was the Inter-governmental Committee, and its creation was a means for the nations represented at Evian to avoid meaningful action.

We learn that “Many delegates” took time off on Sunday to enjoy the pleasure of Evian (“spent Sunday away”), although “Several kept in touch with headquarters.”

The reporter tells us that the final document of the proceedings did not mention “specifically refugees from Greater Germany…” This was the result of a “compromise” between the United States and Britain. We know that Jews were not mentioned in the conference’s final report. They were obliquely described as “involuntary emigrants.”

In this time of “appeasement” towards Hitler, the delegates were loath to criticize Nazi Germany. The delegates merely requested that “the country of origin” do its part by allowing Jews to leave the country with a modicum of property. No country was willing to accept the impoverished.

Beneath this AP article was a summary of an article from Berlin that emphasized the hypocrisy of the gathered nations. The article, titled “DEMANDS ACTION TO PROVE SYMPATHY,” came from the “semiofficial” organ of the German foreign ministry. With gleeful understatement, the German official observed that the conference at Evian “is not entirely fulfilling expectations.”

“Many countries which have shown themselves unsympathetic to Germany’s dislike of Jews now display no particular hurry to exploit ‘the value of these elements’…to be consistent countries which heretofore have condemned Germany’s anti-Jewish campaigns should show their sincerity now by actually absorbing some of Germany’s Jews.”

The Times-Picayune published an editorial about the Evian conference on the last day of the conference. It called for a “business” like approach to the refugee crisis but did not skirt the obvious: “Mr. Taylor and a majority of the delegates recognize frankly that no country wants the refugees at this time.” The writer recognized that greed and anti-Semitism went hand in hand. Germany prohibited “the refugees from taking out more than 5 percent of their property. If the Berlin regime is more sincerely interested in getting rid of these people than in confiscating their property that rule should be relaxed, and on the conference might well assist.”

The writer mentioned “Jews” only once, referring to them instead as “unwanted elements.”

“As the program stands, the Evian conference will deal only with the German-Austrian situation, but unwanted elements are found in Poland, Hungary, Rumania and Turkey. Not all such elements are Jews.”  

“Not all such elements are Jews.” This sentence equated the persecution of the Jews with the persecution of the Nazis’ political opponents. The writer failed to recognize the “uniqueness” of the Jewish tragedy: Jews as an entire people were being persecuted, not only Jews as individuals. “Some are non-Fascist, non-Nazi, anti-dictator or merely Christian.” Here again we see an effort to “universalize” what was happening to the Jews.

The editorial mentioned that Mussolini’s Italy had recently adopted Nazi racial laws: “Italy is the latest to adopt the ‘Aryan’ fetish – think of that – and proscribe a large section of the population as nonassimilable (sic).”

The writer obviously did not appreciate the similarities between the circumstance of the Jews across the ocean and the circumstance of black people in the South.

“Some relief for the unfortunates is imperative,” the editorialist makes clear. But he does not say anything about the United States being a potential home for the refugees and instead points his finger elsewhere: “Not every part of the world is overpopulated and doubtless some areas could profit by the influx of hard-working people whose only offense consists in their racial origin or religious beliefs.”

The editorialist hints at the possibility of taking unspecified action against Nazi Germany because of its “outside the fold” conduct “witch hunting,” although he does not refer to Germany by name: “At the same time countries which place themselves outside the fold of civilization should have their wrongdoing impressed upon them.”

We know that the final report of the Evian conference, adopted by the committee on July 14th, did not mention Jews or Germany, which is referred to as “the country of origin.” It referred to “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.” The message was clear: many people were suffering under the Nazis, not only Jews.

The delegates were mostly concerned with the disruption of life in the countries where “these persons are obliged to seek refuge.” This was a time of “serious unemployment” and there were problems of “economic and social nature,” not to mention the question of “public order.” The “involuntary emigration” of such a large number of people “has become so great that it renders racial and religious problems more acute, increases international unrest, and may hinder seriously the processes of appeasement in international relations.” The delegates again urged “the country of origin” [Nazi Germany] make its contribution “by enabling involuntary emigrants” to depart with their property.

The single result of the Evian Conference was the establishment of the Inter-government Committee on Refugees. It would rarely meet and prove totally ineffective.