The Évian conference, the last resort for Europe's Jews

Although the conference initially raised hopes for the redemption of European Jewry, the invitations informed countries they would not be forced to change their immigration laws

ÉVIAN-LES-BAINS AT Lake Leman (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The scenic town of Évian-les-Bains – nestled on the shore of Lake Geneva in southeast France and renowned for its spring-water, luxury hotels and grand villas – has been a popular tourist destination for the rich and famous since the 19th century. However, 82 years ago, in July 1938, it was the setting of an event that had tragic consequences for Europe’s Jews.
Five years earlier, in January 1933, Adolf Hitler, leader of the virulently antisemitic Nazi Party was elected chancellor of Germany. Following his appointment, Germany’s parliament passed the “Enabling Act,” a law that by conferring dictatorial powers on Hitler established an existential threat to German Jewry.
Relentlessly persecuted and being stripped of their citizenship by the Nuremberg race laws eventually convinced most of the Jewish community that life in Germany was not viable. Emigration became imperative.
By 1938, approximately a quarter of Germany’s Jews had fled the country, but even after the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria in March that year – there remained more than half-million Jews under Nazi rule. Jewish émigrés were subjected to a confiscatory “Flight Tax” of 90% of their resources, and by the end of 1938 faced impoverishment, being permitted to leave the country with only ten Reichsmarks ($4) per person.
Freedom for those that did manage to flee to neighboring countries was short-lived due to Germany’s inexorable conquest of Europe, bringing most of these host countries eventually subject to Nazi rule. Sanctuary resided further afield, but with the gates of the world closing to Europe’s Jews, their options were dwindling.
Not even America, an immigrant nation which could provide certainty of safe haven. Still in the grip of the Great Depression, the country was essentially in a state of inertia. With strong isolationist sentiment in Congress, the US government maintained restrictive immigration laws despite being aware of the predicament of European Jewry. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reluctance to assist Jews was characterized by the failure of the government to fill its immigration quotas, treating them as limits, not goals.
James Roosevelt, writing about his mother, former first lady and civil rights activist Eleanor Roosevelt, said, “her deepest regret at the end of her life” was that she had not forced Franklin to accept more refugees from Nazism.
With no abatement of Nazi policy by the second half of the decade and hampered by the State Department’s indifferent attitude to Jewish concerns, FDR was coming under mounting pressure from Jewish leaders, particularly Rabbi Stephen Wise, to help Europe’s Jews in their hour of need. Although Wise’s efforts made little impact, criticism of the President’s inaction came from other quarters, most notably from influential broadcaster Dorothy Thompson, leading to the undersecretary of state recommending that FDR convene an international conference, ostensibly to resolve the German and Austrian refugee problem.
AFTER THE SWISS refused to hold the conference in Geneva as the Americans had hoped, French prime minister Léon Blum stepped into the breach, offering to host the conference at the Hotel Royale in the spa town of Évian-les-Bains.
Hitler, on hearing about the intended conference said, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals, will at last be generous enough to convert that sympathy into practical aid.”
Leading Britain’s delegation to the conference was Lord Winterton, a member of the government who was described by Arthur Ruppin of The Jewish Agency as “a notorious opponent of Zionism.” Indeed, following an earlier agreement Britain reached with the Americans to exclude Palestine as a possible refuge, Winterton informed Jewish representatives that they would not be permitted to participate in the conference.
Golda Meir, an executive of the Histadrut trade union was outraged at only being offered observer status while the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, on hearing that Palestine was “off the agenda,” canceled his plans to attend the conference.
“Évian and Geneva point to Palestine as one of the greatest contributions our country can make to justice for the Jews,” said the author of the Scrutator column in The Sunday Times.
Of course, had Britain established a Jewish national home in Palestine as envisioned under the League of Nations mandate, Évian might have been unnecessary. But preoccupied with quelling the three-year Arab Revolt, Britain, in a reversal of the mandate, began severely restricting (and eventually would terminate) Jewish immigration, ensuring Jews would remain a minority group in Palestine.
Chaim Weizmann later noted, “Our protests... were regarded as provocations; our very refusal to subscribe to our own death sentence became a public nuisance... threats and appeals were addressed to us to acquiesce in the surrender of Palestine.”
Although the conference initially raised hopes for the redemption of European Jewry, the invitations informed countries they would not be forced to change their immigration laws or provide financial assistance to immigrants, thus limiting the scope of the conference. Another undermining factor was the threat of forced migration of Jews from some Eastern European countries and the fear that these countries would seek to use the conference as a platform to expel, rather than admit them.
Meanwhile FDR, acting against advice to appoint a diplomat to lead the American delegation at Évian and regarded by some as a sign of a lack of commitment, chose former industrialist Myron C. Taylor. Subsequently elected president of the conference, Taylor inauspiciously announced at the opening session that the US would not increase its immigration quotas, which stood at the modest annual figure of 27,370 for Germany and Austria combined.
Thus, began the 10-day conference in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Royale, July 6, 1938.
AS WISE had earlier predicted, the conference proved to be a dismal failure, exemplifying what might be described as “gesture politics” – lofty speeches expressing sympathy for the plight of the Jews but offering little in the way of tangible solutions. Of the 32 countries taking part, pledges were made by several Latin American countries that agreed to accept some Jews (but mainly restricted to agricultural workers).
Other countries, including Britain and Australia, agreed to accept a limited number of Jewish refugees, and America indicated that it was fulfilling its quotas. But the overall failure of the conference was the unwillingness of countries agreeing to accept adequate numbers of Jews to resolve the refugee crisis.
Weizmann commented after the conference, “The world seemed to be divided into two parts: those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”
Ominously, Nazi observers returning to Germany told Hitler, “You can do what you like with the Jews, nobody is interested in them.”
Évian’s failure embodied by the conference’s abandonment of the Jews precipitated the next phase of Hitler’s war against the Jewish people – the “Kristallnacht” pogrom, taking place within four months of the conference. And by January 1942, with most of Europe’s Jews under Nazi rule, the German high command held the Wannsee Conference in Berlin that set-in motion the “Final Solution,” culminating in the annihilation of a third of World Jewry.
I.F. Stone, American investigative journalist and author, lambasted Britain and the US for their refusal to open the gates to Europe’s trapped Jews, saying action, not pity, was called for.
The Évian conference was a turning point in modern Jewish history. Rather than alleviating the plight of Europe’s Jews, it had an adverse effect. While during the first six years of the Nazi regime, Jews had been disenfranchised, brutally persecuted, and deprived of any semblance of civilized existence. Until Évian there were no mass deportations or mass murders. These all took place after Évian.
A fitting epitaph was Norman Bentwich’s wry observation that Évian spelled backwards is “naive.”
The writer, an authenticator and dealer of 18th century antiques, wrote and produced a historical documentary film A letter from London, in 2017, and is currently working on a film about the Holocaust.