As Holocaust loomed, U.S. called a conference to save Jews from Hitler

To a certain class of traveler, Evian les Baynes, a five-star French resort overlooking Lake Geneva, is synonymous with the highest realm of luxury living.

But 85 years ago, to hundreds of thousands of Austrian and German Jews desperate for foreign sanctuary, Evian meant something else: hope.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had convened at the site an international conference, beginning July 6, 1938, to facilitate and finance the emigration of “political refugees.” Adolf Hitler said at the time that he was willing to put Jews who wished to depart “at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

The United States and other Western powers beckoned as potential safe havens.

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Instead, the fateful Evian conference, now largely forgotten, failed disastrously. It remains, today, “an indelible stain on American and world history,” said David Harris, the former longtime leader of the American Jewish Committee and son of an Austrian Jewish refugee.

“At a time before Auschwitz, when Adolf Hitler teased other nations, saying, in effect, if you care so much about Jews, why not open your doors to them, the response from the countries in attendance, with the notable exception of the Dominican Republic, was a resounding ‘no,’” Harris wrote in an email.

Germany had annexed Austria, including its large Jewish population, in March of 1938, accelerating a Jewish refugee crisis. Of Germany’s original population of 600,000 Jews, about a quarter already had fled since Hitler took power five years before.

After Hitler devoured Austria, another 185,000 Jews fled, seeking entry into neighboring countries or visas elsewhere. But doors were shutting for Jews, including those in the United States, which retained the narrow quotas the nativist Congress had enacted in the 1920s.

Those quotas were still in force in 1938, as were the nativistic and antisemitic sentiments that drove them. A poll that year found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the persecution of German Jews was partly or entirely their fault.

Some Americans worried that any Jewish refugees would compete with them for jobs and social benefits. Meanwhile, a notoriously antisemitic State Department made sure that even the small quotas for Germans were not satisfied: Between 1933 and 1938, only 52,000 German Jews were allowed entry to the United States, barely a third of those allowed and less than 15 percent of those who applied.

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However, there was little inclination to fix the situation, as Roosevelt discovered at a Cabinet meeting six days after the annexation. When the president raised the subject of possibly raising the immigration quota to accommodate the new wave of “political refugees” from Austria, his vice president, John Garner, responded that if it were up to Congress there would be no immigration at all. Whereupon Roosevelt dropped the matter.

Still, Roosevelt, alarmed by the reports of the terrors the Nazis were inflicting on their latest victims, felt compelled to do something. “1938 was a pivotal year for Jews in the Third Reich,” Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote in an email. “The Nazi regime was clear in its intentions to rid the Reich of Jews by making life so unbearable that they would flee.”

So Roosevelt convened an international conference to discuss the problem. France, as he proudly announced at a news conference March 26, agreed to host it. (Switzerland, fearing Germany’s reaction, refused.)

The Intergovernmental Conference on Political Refugees, as it was called, convened July 6 at the French resort’s gilded Hotel Royal. Representatives from 32 nations gathered, as did delegates from 39 private organizations and more than 200 reporters.

The eyes of the world were on Evian. At stake “were both human lives — and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world,” Vice President Walter Mondale later recounted.

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A New York Times cartoon before the conference depicted a Jewish refugee, surrounded by stop signs, seated at the center of a giant swastika that spread out over the world. “WILL THE EVIAN CONFERENCE GUIDE HIM TO FREEDOM?” the headline read.

The reporters covering the conference had their doubts, among them the Times reporter Clarence Streit, who likened it to international meetings on wars and weapons. “To one who has attended other such conferences on Lake Geneva the most striking thing on the eve of this one is that the atmosphere is so much like the others — so much ‘like a poker game,’ to cite one delegate,” Streit wrote. “The object is changed from money and arms to human beings.”

An article on the opposite page underlined the urgency of the stakes of the “game.” “VIENNA OUSTING JEWS IN CITY-OWNED HOMES,” it read.

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Roosevelt’s appointment of Myron Taylor, the former head of U.S. Steel, rather than a diplomat, to head the American delegation was considered a bad omen. So was the decision only to invite representatives of Jewish organizations, as well as Palestinian territories, as observers rather than formal delegates.

Taylor’s opening speech July 6 was earnest enough. “Some millions of people as this meeting convenes are actually and potentially without a country,” he declared. But what did the attendees intend to do about it?

Not much, the voluminous media coverage suggested, except for wringing their hands and enjoying the luxurious setting. Nevertheless, the conference stretched out for nine days.

“It has been a disappointment but not altogether a surprise that delegates take the floor to say [they] feel sorry for the refugees,” The Post wrote.

Nor were some delegates shy about their own reactionary sentiments. “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one,” the Australian delegate said.

The British said that further Jewish immigration to Palestinian territories, which they controlled, was not advisable because of the ongoing strife there between Arabs and Jews. The French hosts protested that they already had taken in enough refugees.

The Dominican Republic was the only country willing to accept a large number of Jews, agreeing to take in up to 100,000.

The most that Taylor would offer was that the United States would combine the former German and Austrian quotas into one combined, slightly larger quota of 27,370 for the next five years and would make a greater effort to fulfill it. It did so in 1939, and again in 1940.

But, as the FDR Library’s archival exhibit on the issue acknowledges, that was still “a number far lower than the 300,000 applicants on waiting lists for U.S. visas,” many of whom would ultimately die after the war began in September 1939 and the gates surrounding the enlarged Third Reich shut.

More than 230,000 German and Austrian Jews, for whom Evian represented their last credible chance for salvation, were later murdered by the Nazis.

The Evian attendees did create the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, which was tasked with approaching “the governments of the countries of refuge with a view to developing opportunities for permanent settlement” and seeking Germany to cooperate in establishing “conditions of orderly emigration.”

Taylor agreed to head the new ICR. But it received little support from the member nations, and less from Berlin.

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Hitler, for his part, was thrilled by the conference’s outcome.

“That the Evian Conference failed to generate any meaningful response to the Jewish refugee crisis was an enormous propaganda victory for Nazi Germany,” Bloomfield said. Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored wave of violence in which the Nazis murdered dozens of Jews and destroyed hundreds of synagogues and other Jewish buildings, “was orchestrated only a few months after the U.S. and other governments already demonstrated that rescuing Jews was not a priority.”

Roosevelt continued to express concern about the refugee problem. In July 1939, the Times reported, the White House messaged Taylor that Roosevelt would be “delighted” to receive him and other ICR members if the president was in Washington in September and underlined “his intense interest in the plight of the German refugees.”

On the first day of September, Hitler invaded Poland.

Anna Sicova contributed to this report.

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