The Evian Conference on Refugees
“Envoys Open Flood Gates of Idealism but Borders Remain Closed.”
– Quoted in The Times-Picayune, July 8, 1938
Our survivor Anne Levy, in Lodz, Poland, celebrated her 3rd birthday on July 2, 1938. This was five days before the delegates met in the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains, on the shores of Lake Geneva, in the ostensible effort to ease the refugee crisis. In contrast to the merciless persecution of Jews in Germany, Anne’s childhood in Lodz, a short distance away, was idyllic. Her sister Lila was 8 months old.
How did the Evian conference come about?
In light of the “orgy of sadism” visited upon the Jews in Austria and the rush of desperate people to get out, President Roosevelt agreed to make available the entire German-Austrian quota: 27, 350. This was a bold step by the president. The Jewish issue didn’t win him any votes but instead allowed his critics to say the New Deal was “a Jew Deal,” etc. The State Department recommended an international refugee conference. Altruism was not at work. The purpose of the conference was to “forestall” more liberal immigration legislation, and to shift the responsibility of helping Jewish refugees to other nations. The U. S. invitation to foreign governments was cautiously worded: “No country would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of immigrants than is permitted by its existing legislation.” Furthermore, there would be no criticism of Nazi Germany. In a conference about refugees, the word “Jews” was forbidden. So intense was anti-refugee sentiment in the United States that proponents of Jewish rescue lived in fear that the doors to immigration would be closed entirely.
On July 6, 1938, delegates from the United States and thirty-two nations met at the Hotel Royal in Evian, France. To say the least, the luxurious setting was at odds with the subject at hand. Two hundred newspaper reporters attended the conference. So did observers from Poland and Romania, whose openly anti-Semitic governments were eager to kick out their own Jewish citizens.
The Times Picayune, over the course of nine days, published six AP articles on the Evian Conference, plus an editorial. During the same nine days, the newspaper published three articles recounting the on-going strife between Jews and Arabs in British controlled Palestine.
Rare indeed, on July 5th and 6th an article and an editorial in the Picayune addressed the race question closer to home:
Two articles on the Evian Conference were published on July 6, 1938. The first article informed readers that Myron Taylor, former head of the U. S Steel Corporation, was leading the U. S. delegation. Left out of the article were telling facts: Myron Taylor had no experience in diplomacy and no particular knowledge of the refugee crisis. His chief qualification was his friendship with President Roosevelt. At the conference, Taylor held the rank of ambassador “without pay.” The conference was expected to last “nearly two weeks.” That was unduly optimistic. The conference lasted seven days, including Sunday, which was an off-day. CHECK
This article attempted to put the Evian conference into historical context. It “constituted the world’s first attempt at a round-table conversation of nations to settle a problem as old as the Caesars.” The article referred to the “Greater Germany’s Jews.” This was a rare instance when the word “Jews” appeared in print. They are described elsewhere not as Jews but as “those who have no place in the Third Reich.”
While the conference was underway, fighting between Jews and Arabs in the British Mandate (Palestine) intensified.
The sub-title of this July 8th article reflected pessimissim: “Envoys Open Flood Gates of Idealism but Borders Remain Closed.” Delegates of seven countries offered “warm words of idealism” but “few encouraging practical suggestions…” The problem was laid bare: “The public addresses left little doubt most nations were indisposed to offer havens.” The reporter referred to “the acute problem of thousands of racial and political refugees.” Once again the word “Jews” was avoided.
The fighting between Jews and Arabs necessitated the British sending more troops to the Mandate.
The July 10th article noted the conference had “adjourned for the week-end with its thorniest problems yet to be solved.” Despite the gloomy headline (“Faint Hope”), the article quoted Neil Malcolm, League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who hoped that the proposed Inter-Governmental Committee would be “taking care of the refugee problem itself.” The U. S. delegation “firmly” rejected demands by “Private Jewish agencies” to increase the quota.
The headline of the July 11th article was misleading. Agreement to aid refugees wasn’t “near.” Agreement “about steps” to establish a “permanent” organization “to assist migration of refugees” was “near.” The establishment of the Inter-Governmental Committee was a clever if devious way for the nations at Evian to avoid meaningful action.
The July 13th article reported that the official report of the conference didn’t mention “specifically refugees from Greater Germany…” Falling over themselves not to criticize Hitler, the delegates requested that “the country of origin” allow Jews to emigrate with some of their money. Nobody was willing to accept impoverished refugees, it was noted.
The Times-Picayune published an editorial devoted to the Evian conference on July 15th: “Mr. Taylor and a majority of the delegates recognize frankly that no country wants the refugees at this time.” “Some relief for the unfortunates is imperative,” the editorial allowed. But the United States wasn’t recommended as a haven for the “unfortunates.” Better they go elsewhere: “Not every part of the world is overpopulated and doubtless some areas could profit by the influx of hard-working people whose only offense consists in their racial origin or religious beliefs.”
The one result of the Evian Conference was the establishment of the Inter-Government Committee on Refugees. It proved totally ineffective. Its corpse was exhumed at the Bermuda Conference in April 1943 and, when nobody was looking, discarded a second time.