Before Evian became a popular brand of natural spring water, the French resort of Evian was host to an international conference to address the mounting crisis of Jews seeking to escape the genocidal fangs of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Five years after Hitler rose to power in 1933, with a goal of making Germany judenrein (cleaned from Jews), 150,000 German Jews, ¼ of Germany’s Jewish population, fled the country. In March, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria, another 185,000 Jews came under German hegemony. Increasingly, Jews could not find host countries that would accept them.

Back in 1924, due to fear that immigrants would claim jobs from Americans, the United States established immigration quotas. In 1929, the advent of the Great Depression made matters worse. While pressure mounted on President Franklin D. Roosevelt to absorb Jews living under Hitler, the U.S. government was reluctant to open its borders. F.D.R. called for an international conference in Evians-les-Bains, France, beginning on July 6, 1938, corresponding to the 7th of Tammuz, attracting 32 countries and 24 non-governmentafl organizations (NGOs).

Although the nine-day conclave featured soaring sympathetic rhetoric for the plight of those seeking to escape Nazi Germany, the U.S. and Great Britain continued to offer excuses why they were unwilling to open the gates of their respective nations. Only the Dominican Republic accepted an additional 100,000 Jewish refugees. Costa Rica later followed. Instead of dispatching his Secretary of State, F.D.R. chose to send his friend, businessman Myron C. Taylor to Evian. Golda Meir attended as an observer, representing British Mandatory Palestine, but was not allowed to speak or participate. 

Four months after the relative failure of Evian, Kristallnacht occurred, making the need to emigrate from Germany even more critical. Weeks later, drafting began on an immigration bill allowing refugee children in to the United States, which was supported by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who took her first public position on a policy issue, citing the Kindertransports, that Western European nations undertook. In February, 1939, Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Congresswoman Edith Rogers (R-MA) sponsored identical bills to admit 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14 over a two-year period, assuring that the children would be supported by private donations. President Roosevelt never commented on the Wagner-Rogers Bill and powerful members of Congress opposed the bill fearing it would increase unemployment in the U.S. The American public seemed reluctant to open the border, despite two strikes against the Jews desperately trying to leave Nazi German’s clutches: the arrival of the ill-fated S.S. St. Louis* and the infamous British third White Paper, which barred Jews from entering Palestine or buying land. World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.

Tragically, the failure of the Evian Conference and the inability to pass Wagner-Rogers in some form, led to many more Jews being murdered by the Third Reich.

*In May, 1939, the St. Louis, arrived in Cuba from Hamburg, Germany, but was not permitted to allow its 937 refugees to disembark in Cuba, or in the United States. The ship returned to Western Europe and 254 passengers were later murdered by the Nazi machine.

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