Evian Conference: Attempt to find refuge for Jews was met with slammed doors

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Cheif Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Israelis are sensitive about references to the Holocaust as a basis for the international recognition of a Jewish State at the United Nations in 1947. But one cannot doubt the relationship between the period before and during the Holocaust when Jews were trapped in Germany or Austria and in the nations occupied by Adolf Hitler’s murderous troops.

Could more have been done to save at least some of the 6 million Jews from death?  Could the 1.5 million Jewish children have been rescued? 

Suppose there was a Jewish State in existence in 1937, a year before Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass), during which the windows of Jewish-owned stores were smashed and looted, hundreds of synagogues were burned to the ground and Jewish males age 15 and older were arrested. The latter were sent to places like Dachau, which were already up and running in Hitler’s Germany in 1933, the year he had been named chancellor.

Two international conferences could have greatly reduced the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust: the Peel Commission in London in 1937—and the Evian Conference on Refugees held at Evian, France in July 1938.

The Peel  Commission, named by a prominent British diplomat, Robert Peel, was convened in London to anticipate the end of the British Mandate over Palestine 11 years later.  Members of the Jewish Agency and Zionist Executive, including leaders like David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir (then Meyerson) attended the conference on behalf of the Jews of Palestine who had been promised a “Jewish Homeland” in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

The delegates to the conference came up with a plan that would have divided 1937 Palestine into separate and independent states—one Jewish and the other Arab.

Ben-Gurion and Weizmann, although disappointed in the small size of the proposed Jewish State, accepted the plan. But the Arab Higher Committee, then headed by the anti-Jewish fanatic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, rejected it out of hand.  The two-state solution, which is still being sought,  could have been achieved a year before Kristallnacht, but it was not to be.

The Evian Conference on Refugees, convened by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, took place at a luxury hotel in Evian, France, a placid city best known for the purity of its spring water. The 1938 conference lasted from July 6 to 15. 

FDR,  who was wildly popular among American Jews, has been judged harshly for not doing more to save the Jews, including those on the M.S. St. Louis who were turned away at Miami. His defenders, like the late activist and author Dore Schary, point to the vicious anti-Semitism at the time not only in Europe but in the United States, which limited FDR’s options to intervene.

After Nazi Germany took over Austria in a plebiscite in March 1938,  Roosevelt invited delegates from 32 nations in Europe and Latin America to gather in Evian. He wanted to see if attending nations would be willing to commit to take in certain numbers of Jews to prevent their all but certain murder by the Nazis.

The invited nations included the United States, Great Britain, Canada,  six small  European nations, the Latin American nations,  Australia and New Zealand. FDR assured the delegates that none of the attending nations would be “forced” to take in refugees, but would be “encouraged” to volunteer to take in a proportionate number. 

According to the “Encyclopedia of the Holocaust,”edited by Robert Rozett and Shmuel Spector, “During the conference, it became painfully obvious that no country was willing to volunteer anything.” The British offered to take in a small number of refugees in its East African territories. The French expressed concern for the plight of the Jews but said that France had already reached “the point of extreme saturation.” Even the United States delegate, Myron C. Taylor, only offered to fulfill previous commitments to Austrian and German Jews, but not for the refugees.

“Only the Dominican Republic, a tiny country in the West Indies, volunteered to take in 100,000 refugees—in exchange for huge amounts of money,” Rozett and Spector wrote. Of that offer, only about 700 Jews managed to get to the Dominican Republic as war clouds gathered over Europe.

This summer, Elihu “Hugh” Baver, 57, who lived in Olivette briefly as a child and now lives in Dover, N.H., is working to assure the success of an 80th anniversary commemoration conference at Evian in the very hotel where its delegates gathered in 1938. “Remembering the Past and Plotting a Course for the Future,” will take place July 11. The conference has been endorsed by the Lantos Foundation, named in honor of the late Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress.

“This will be a gathering of international Jewish leaders, historians, authors, human rights experts, academia and government officials,” Baver said in a phone interview. “Speakers will address the critical initiation of new dialogue on this pressing issue and a call-to-action so that history is not allowed to repeat itself.”

During a visit to the Dominican Republic, Baver, a former minor league baseball player, heard about the city of Sosua, where the 700 Eastern European Jews accepted by the Dominican Republic built a small community. Sosua’s relationship to the Evian Conference “became an all-consuming thing,” for Baver, who has worked to organize this year’s commemoration. 

“Think of what might have been and how many Jews could have been saved if every nation attending had been as generous as the Dominican Republic?” Baver asked.

For more information about the 2018 commemoration of the Evian Conference, email Baver at [email protected].