This month marks the 75th anniversary of a conference on Jewish refugees held at the French resort town of Évian-les-Bains. Delegates from 32 nations gathered on July 6, 1938, at the posh Hôtel Royal at the behest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their purpose was to discuss the swelling numbers of refugees fleeing the Nazis. Germany had already passed more than 100 anti-Jewish laws and had begun persecuting the Jews of Austria, which it had occupied a few months before the conference. At this point, Hitler was trying to force Jews out of the lands he conquered; the systematic murders of the six million had not yet begun.
Although Roosevelt convoked the conference with the hope of finding a solution for the homeless refugees, his invitation assured participants that they would not be expected to change existing laws to increase their refugee admission quotas. Nor did he attend himself or choose a high-level government official to head the American delegation. He sent Myron C. Taylor, a close friend and steel executive with little background in refugee issues. In fact, the atmosphere all around, The New York Times observed, was “like a poker game” with players who didn’t quite trust each other, except that instead of dealing with money or arms, they were dealing with human lives.
The reality of those lives was lost as the forum progressed. One after another, the nations of the world explained why they could not accept the refugees, as “sympathetic” as they felt. Not wanting to provoke the Arabs, Britain never mentioned Palestine, but simply said it had no suitable territory. France claimed it had already been generous in taking in refugees and could do no more. Australia feared creating a “racial problem” with additional Jews. The United States, still in the midst of the Depression, agreed to fill its annual quota of refugees from Germany and Austria, but that was all. On and on they went. After nine days of excuses the conference ended, having achieved essentially nothing.
Without a government of their own, the Jews had not been invited, but a young Golda Meir attended as an observer for the Jews of Palestine. She listened to the discussions with a mixture of “sorrow, rage, frustration and horror.” Years later she told a reporter that Évian had been a turning point in her life. Most of the conference delegates were not anti-Semitic, she said. They had denounced Hitler and expressed compassion for the victims. Yet the fact that they could still stand by and do nothing to help those victims proved that Jews could depend on nobody but themselves. It also proved that they needed their own state.
The unspeakable experience of the Jewish people and Nazi Germany remains unique, of course, but in thinking about Évian, we cannot help but think about the plight of refugees all over the world. Last week, the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies issued a statement signed by 300 scholars, religious leaders and cultural figures calling on the international community to help Israel resolve its African refugee crisis. The statement was named the Évian doctrine. Tens of thousands of refugees, most from Eritrea and Sudan, have slipped into Israel to escape political persecution or economic hardships in their lands. As a small country, Israel cannot absorb or properly care for those massive numbers, but a cooperative effort by the world’s nations to share that burden with it could relieve the crisis. It would also show what might have been accomplished at Évian had the conference members really tried to help.
Here in the United States the Senate recently passed a sweeping immigration reform bill, which puts thousands of immigrants who entered the country illegally on the pathway to citizenship. Key Jewish organizations have backed this bill, in large part because our history and our memory lead many Jews to identify with immigrants and refugees trying to better their lives — or simply survive.
The Évian conference is a part of our history that we need to remember just as we remember every aspect of the Holocaust, from its beginnings to its horrific ending. This conference marked a turning point, not only in Golda Meir’s thinking, but also in the unfolding tragedy that decimated Europe’s Jews. At that point, of course, nobody could have imagined the death camps, the killings, or the “final solution” as it was enacted. But the world’s disregard for the Jewish refugees led directly to them. Although Nazi Germany had not been invited to the conference, some of its citizens arrived as observers and were allowed to stay. They followed every word of the proceedings, and when the conference ended, they sent a message home to their Fuehrer. You can do whatever you please with the Jews, they wrote. No nation will stop you.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.