80th anniversary of Evian conference asked: Why did the nations fail the Jewish refugees in 1938?

Royal Hotel EvianÉvian-les-Bains, France, July 12th, 2018 – Founding Director Tomas Sandell of the European Coalition for Israel was one of the keynote speakers when the 80th anniversary of the failed Evian conference was commemorated at a symposium at the Royal Hotel in Evian on Wednesday evening. The Evian Conference was convened 6-15th July 1938 to discuss the Jewish refugee problem and the plight of the increasing number of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution by Nazi Germany. But none of the 32 nations gathered at Evian in 1938, with the exception of the Dominican Republic, was willing to receive any of them, nor refute the Nurnberg laws or other aggressive policies of the Nazi regime in fear of upsetting Hitler and jeopardising their trade relations with Germany.

In Berlin Hitler drew the obvious conclusion that the nations did not care about the fate of the Jews. The Jewish delegates who were present at the conference did not have the right to take part in the official discussions. Golda Meir, the Jewish observer from Palestine at the conference, later noted that she looked forward to the day when the fate of her people would not be dependent on the sympathy of the nations, but would be in their own hands. She would have to wait another ten years before her dream became reality and the State of Israel was declared but by then six million Jews had already died in the Nazi concentration camps.

“Where were all the friends of the Jewish people in 1938?” Tomas Sandell asked in his speech. He explained how the European Coalition for Israel was founded as an answer to this very question in 2003, when the late Elie Wiesel, asked why only Jewish organisations were reacting to the rise of antisemitism at the time. “Where are all the others? Wiesel asked.

“Could history have taken another direction if there had been enough people in Evian 1938 who would have genuinely cared about the fate of the Jewish people?” Sandell asked the conference.

The Deputy Mayor of the village of Le Chambon in France, Denise Vallat and author Peter Grose explained why the citizens of this small village, who saved 3,000 Jews and became a safe haven for Jews fleeing the Nazis, were different from those gathered in Evian.
“In the French luxury resort of Evian there was simply a lack of decency among the top diplomats who gathered there whereas in the small Protestant village of Le Chambon people stood up for what they believed to be right, regardless of the cost”, they said. Le Chambon has been recognised by Yad Vashem as a righteous village of the nations.

The objective of the symposium was to learn from the past and plan for the future. A special attention was given to the current refugee crisis. Dr Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, said that “whereas Evian may have been a failure in many ways there were nevertheless many lessons learnt as a result. Today we have a number of international conventions and institutions which are protecting the rights of the refugees. None of that existed in 1938.”

The conference host and initiator Hugh Baver from the US-based foundation Sosua 75 learnt about the Evian conference when he came in contact with the Sosúa community in the Dominican Republic many years ago. This unique community came about as a result of the Evian conference when the Dominican Republic received some 900 Jewish refugees. Three of the descendants of the original refugees who found a safe haven in Sosúa were present at the symposium and shared their experience.

Dr Shimon Samuels from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre suggested in his speech that Sosúa should be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its unique and powerful history.

In his concluding remarks Sandell noted, however, that the solution to the Jewish refugee crisis in 1938 was not simply more nations receiving Jews but the establishment of the State of Israel that would become the ultimate safe haven for Jews from all over the world. “The world is a better place today because of the creation of the Jewish state,” he said.

The symposium culminated in a ceremony where a plaque commemorating the Evian conference of 1938 was presented to the hotel. The plaque will be placed close to the very conference room where the international meeting took place 80 years ago. The General Manager of the hotel welcomed any future initiative which can help promote peace and dialogue and prevent human tragedies, such as the Evian conference of 1938, from happening in the future.

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