Tragedy at Évian
By Tony Matthews
In July 1938 the United States, Great Britain and thirty other countries participated in a vital conference at Évian-les-Bains, France. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the persecution and possible emigration of the European Jews, specifically those caught under the anvil of Nazi atrocities in Germany and Austria.
'There is no doubt that the Évian conference was a critical turning point in world history', Dr Matthews said. 'The outcome of the conference set the stage for the attempted complete annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. No other international conference in modern history has played such a profoundly significant role in world events and affected the fates of so many individuals.'
In retrospect it is a simple matter to lay the blame for the Holocaust with Hitler; after all, it was he who sanctioned the 'Final Solution', but the question remains: could the Holocaust have been prevented, could six million lives have been saved if the delegates to that vital conference at Évian had shown more human compassion, some dignity and mercy? However, few did. America, the country which had organised the conference, and the thirty-one other participating countries, almost unanimously agreed that in light of their own immigration laws, which they would not alter to facilitate the need of the desperate refugees, the Jewish problem was just too difficult to solve.
Yet the facts remain that at the time of the annexation of Austria in March 1938 the German and Austrian Jewish population amounted to only about 570,000 people - not the six or seven million who were later embroiled in the Holocaust. These numbers could easily have been assimilated into the thirty-two countries whose representatives, at Évian, called themselves the 'Nations of Asylum'. If each of the thirty-two nations represented at Évian had allowed just eighteen thousand Jewish refugees into their countries, Hitler would have been forced to reconsider his plans for the 'Final Solution'.
'I wrote this book because details of the conference are not generally well known, Dr Matthews said. The conference has been the focus of many excellent academic studies, but rarely is it discussed in general and relatively few people are aware of the impact it made on world history.'
Thirty-nine refugee organisations including twenty Jewish groups were to give factual, firsthand evidence of the treatment then being meted out to the Jews under German control. Theirs was a simple cry in the darkness: 'Help us to get out,' they told the delegations, 'or we shall not survive.'
Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, European Jews were not welcome anywhere in the world. Two thousand years of anti-Semitism could not simply disappear. Many countries were taking limited numbers of refugees but the only country where Jews could find a true welcome was in Palestine, and there, only by the Jewish community.
Thirteen weeks prior to the conference at Évian, Hitler's troops had marched into Austria and within days of occupying Vienna the capital was in the grip of Nazi terror. After the German annexation of Austria, a further half million Jews were added to the already tragic lists of those under Nazi persecution. Finding relief for these people was of mounting concern world-wide.
Another problem facing the democratic nations was the very strong possibility that many countries would be unwilling to open their doors to the Jews, fearing that if they did so the anti-Semitic governments such as Poland and Romania would quickly unload their Jewish populations entirely onto the recipient countries.
U.S. ambassador, Myron C. Taylor, rose for his first address. The auditorium was hushed, there was an expectant silence as the delegates, the press and the world waited to learn what the U.S. would offer. Speculation was rife that the U.S. would set a high quota of Jewish immigrants from Germany. Many, in fact, believed that the U.S. would announce they were prepared to take up to 600,000 refugees. Taylor's speech began with details of the need for fast action on behalf of the Jewish refugees but later continued that America's immigration quota system could not be changed to any great degree in order to accommodate the Jewish problem. He acknowledged that a full quota of German and Austrian immigrants - amounting to slightly more than 27,000 people - would be accepted for the following year. However, he failed to point out that a large percentage of these immigrants would be comprised of Christians.
The Jewish representatives at Évian were stunned into silence at the U.S. ambassador's words. The country that had promised so much was now offering virtually nothing beyond those measures already in place ... and Taylor's proposals were to set the example for the tragic series of events that followed.
As the conference ground to its predictable close it became patently obvious to the representative countries - and particularly obvious to Adolf Hitler - that the world generally had little time for the Jews. The official resolution of the conference - which was passed unanimously - stated that the delegates of the 'Nations of Asylum' were not willing to undertake any obligations towards financing involuntary immigration.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, Hitler viewed the resolution of the Évian conference with considerable contempt. He had been hoping that the 'Nations of Asylum' would take the Jewish problem off his agenda. Now, however, he believed that he was left with little alternative. Jews were not welcome anywhere in the world, and so there was only one solution.
Golda Meir, future Prime Minister of Israel was later to state, 'After the conference at Évian-les-Bains, it became chillingly clear that the Jewish people were entirely on their own.'
A new book, Tragedy at Évian, detailing the chilling background to the Holocaust, has been released by Welsh/Australian author and historian Tony Matthews.
The book may be downloaded at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/372781
from the December 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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