A Refugee Conference That Abandoned Refugees

by Rafael Medoff

With international refugee crises so frequently dominating the news these days, the recent 80th anniversary of a refugee conference on the eve of the Holocaust offers some important lessons from history.

The infamous “Anschluss,” the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, was the trigger. Hitler’s army marched into Vienna, greeted by cheering crowds. A wave of violence against Austria’s Jews followed immediately. Photos of Jews being forced to scrub the streets of Vienna with toothbrushes appeared in newspapers throughout the world.

Some Members of Congress, journalists, and refugee advocates began urging American intervention. State Department officials decided it would be prudent to “get out in front and attempt to guide” the pressure before it got out of hand. On March 24,1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the United States was inviting thirty-three countries to send representatives to a conference on the refugee problem, to be held in the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains.  All of those invited, except Italy, agreed to send delegates.

President Roosevelt emphasized in his announcement that “no nation would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by its existing legislation.” The U.S. also assured Great Britain that Mandatory Palestine would not be discussed as a possible refuge; the British feared admitting more Jews to the Holy Land would anger the Arab world. 

To illustrate this international shutting of doors, the distinguished Holocaust scholar Paul R. Bartop, in his new book The Evian Conference of 1938 and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, relates a bitter joke making the rounds in those days. A Jew seeking to flee from the Nazis goes into a travel agency and requests a ticket to Switzerland. The agent replies, “Sorry, they’re restricting Jewish entry there.”

The dialogue continues: “Brazil?” “No, likewise.” “How about the United States?” “Sorry, quotas.” “New Zealand, then?” “No spaces available.” Finally the agent pulls out a globe and tells the would-be traveler, “Choose.” The Jewish man replies: “Do you have anything else?”

The Evian conference opened at the luxurious Hotel Royal on July 6, but the first session was not well attended. The hotel’s chief concierge later recalled why: “All the delegates had a nice time. They took pleasure cruises on the lake. They gambled at night at the casino… It is difficult to sit indoors hearing speeches when all the pleasures that Evian offers are outside.”

Prof. Bartrop describes how, when the delegates finally got around to addressing the issue, it became clear that everyone was expecting somebody else to solve the problem. The Australian representative asserted, “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” Newsweek noted: “Most governments represented acted promptly by slamming their doors against Jewish refugees.” 

The only exception was the tiny Dominican Republic. After the conference, its leader declared they would accept as many as 100,000 Jewish refugees. But less than 2,000 Jews actually settled there, because the Roosevelt administration feared the arrival of large numbers of refugees in the nearby Caribbean would enable them to sneak into the United States.

Bartrop’s chronicle is not always the most pleasant read, because the events he describes are so troubling. But that is precisely why The Evian Conference of 1938 and the Jewish Refugee Crisis is so important.

Golda Meir (then known as Goldie Myerson) attended the Evian conference as an observer. She concluded that “nothing was accomplished at Evian except phraseology.” She remarked at a press conference afterwards: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy any more.”

Another critic pointed out that “Evian” was “Naive” spelled backwards. The problem, however, as Prof. Bartrop ably explains, was not naiveté so much as it was calculated indifference—the indifference of a world that turned away from the Jewish people in their hour of need.  

The real answer to Jewish homelessness was a Jewish national home. The establishment of Israel radically transformed the course of modern Jewish history. Hundreds of thousands of Jews who were brutally expelled from Arab countries in 1948-1950 had a Jewish state to which they could go. So did tens of thousands of Jews escaping from Ethiopia in the 1980s, and more than one million Jews fleeing Russia in the 1990s.

At Evian, as Prof. Bartrop shows, the fate of the Jews was in the hands of others. No longer.

(July 2018)