The shame of Evian in 1938

It was 82 years ago this week, July of 1938, that delegates from 32 countries met at the French resort town of Evian to consider the most pressing problem of the day: what to do about the growing number of visa applications from Jews seeking to leave Germany. The Nazis wanted to be rid of its half-million Jews (less than one percent of its population); the problem was finding a country that would welcome them.

The United States, which had called for the conference, hoped that other countries would find a long-term solution, but was unwilling to ease the draconian immigration restrictions enacted by Congress in 1924. After the first five years of Nazi rule, 150,000 Jews (my parents among them) had managed to flee the country. Now, half a million more were looking for an escape route; what they needed were not exit visas from Germany but a country willing to take them in.

No other countries stepped forward. Most feared that an increase of refugees would cause economic hardships. Only the tiny Dominican Republic expressed a willingness to accept more refugees.

The conference lasted a week and ended in failure. The German government was able to crow how “astounding” it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when the opportunity arose.

Even worse: a year later, a Senate bill to rescue 20,000 Jewish children failed to pass. Historians blame widespread racial prejudices among Americans–including antisemitic attitudes held by officials of the State Department.

My trip to Lake Geneva two years ago was sponsored by Evian’s PR company in connection with the opening of a new bottling plant.

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