Next week marks the 75th anniversary of the Evian Conference, held from July 6-15, 1938. The purpose of the meeting was to find a solution to the problem of Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the conference was an utter failure.
First, a bit of background: Adolph Hitler came to power in 1933, in the midst of a world wide depression. At the same time, tight immigration quotas limited the number of people permitted to come to the United States, and given the dire economic situation, there was little political will or public interest in lifting restrictions to assist refugees. Meanwhile, the noose was tightening around German Jewry. As early as 1933, laws were enacted to restrict Jewish rights. In 1935, the Nazi government passed the Nuremburg Laws, which deprived Jews of their German citizenship. German Jews began to flee the country in increasing numbers.
By 1938, about half of Germany’s 900,000 Jews had left the country, mostly to British Palestine (this, despite strict limits on the number of Jews who were legally permitted to immigrate to Palestine). Meanwhile, in March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, bringing an additional 200,000 Jews under Nazi jurisdiction.
A few months later, in July 1938, Great Britain, the United States, and 30 other countries met in France at Evian-les-Baines. The purpose of the Evian Conference was to address the refugee crisis created by Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution. Despite high hopes, in the end, the conference accomplished little. The U.S. agreed that its existing quota of 30,000 immigrants per year from Germany and Austria would be reserved for Jewish refugees. Great Britain committed to accept a similar number of refugees, and Australia agreed to accept 15,000. With the exception of the Dominican Republic, no other country agreed to take significant numbers of refugees.
In an interesting historical footnote, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, who was responsible for killing tens of thousands of his own people, agreed to accept 100,000 Jewish refugees. He even donated land in his country for them to settle. Ultimately, only about 800 refugees were able to reach the Dominican Republic, and after the war, most resettled in the United States.
The American politician Walter Mondale eloquently summed up the conference’s failure 40 years after the fact:
At stake at Evian were both human lives – and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world. If each nation at Evian had agreed on that day to take in 17,000 Jews at once, every Jew in the Reich could have been saved. As one American observer wrote, “It is heartbreaking to think of the …desperate human beings … waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian … it is a test of civilization.”
According to the United Nations, there are currently about 15 million refugees and 27 million displaced persons in the world. As we debate the current immigration bill, and decide how we will respond to this ongoing crisis, I wonder how our actions will be judged by history. I hope we have learned something in the last 75 years, and that we will remember our moral duty to help those in need.