Failure of Evian Conference remembered, 81 years later

Meant to help Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, the conference remains a bitter indictment of the world community

July 8, 2019 19:43
2 minute read.
Failure of Evian Conference remembered, 81 years later

evian conference 248 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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It was a conference that all but condemned the Jews of Europe into the hands of the Nazis.

Eighty-one years ago, on the cusp of World War II, then-US president Franklin D. Roosevelt convened the Evian Conference in France in a bid to deal with mass Jewish immigration from Europe in the face of antisemitism and hatred.

The conference took place between July 6 and July 14, 1938, several months after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, and in both countries the Nuremberg Laws were in full swing, leaving Jews, especially in Germany and Austria, with two choices: to flee or stay and face continued persecution.

The question at the time was, where could they escape to?

Roosevelt invited representatives from 32 countries, including the US, the UK, France, Canada, six small European democratic nations, several Latin American countries, as well as Australia, and New Zealand.

“When he proposed the conference, the president made it clear that no country would be forced to change its immigration quotas, but would instead be asked to volunteer changes,” an information pamphlet on Yad Vashem’s website explained.

As the conference wore on, the reality set in: no country was willing to open its doors to protect the Jews, each coming up with different excuses as to why they are unable to change their policy.

“The British delegate claimed that Britain was already fully populated and suffering from unemployment, so it could take in no refugees,” Yad Vashem explained. “The French delegate declared that France had reached ‘the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees.’”

Countries like the Netherlands said they would accept refugees as long as they were just using the country to transit to another destination, while the US said it “would make the previously unfilled quota for Germans and Austrians available to these new refugees,” allowing in 30,000. By the time the war had begun, it had let in some 40,000 Jewish refugees.

Meanwhile, South Africa said that it would only let in those Jewish immigrants with close relatives, and Australia’s representative said that it had never had a race problem, “and we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration,” Australian representative Thomas White said at the time.

However, only after the horrors of Kristallnacht, did Australia agree to take in 15,000 Jewish immigrants over three years.
“Only the Dominican Republic, a tiny country in the West Indies, volunteered to take in refugees – in exchange for huge amounts of money,” according to Yad Vashem.

This caused a major stir in Germany, with the Nazis using this conference to emphasize the seriousness of the “Jewish problem.” At the time, they said that it was “astounding” that the countries participating were so critical of Germany for the way Jews were treated, but refused to let them in when the opportunity arose.

The Evian Conference had failed to achieve Roosevelt’s goal.

Up to and including October 1941, Germany encouraged Jews to leave, but there was nowhere for them to go, leading them to their ultimate fate – to become victims of the Final Solution and the Holocaust.

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