On Sunday afternoon, April 15, the Humanistic Jewish Havurah of Southwest Florida will commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) with a program featuring Paul R. Bartrop, PhD, Professor of History, at Florida Gulf Coast University. His topic is “Not Accepting Refugees: The Evian Conference of 1938 and its Relevance Today.”
At 1:30 p.m. we gather for coffee ’n chat before the lecture begins promptly at 2:00 p.m. in the David G. Willens Community Room of the Jewish Federation of Greater Naples, 2500 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Suite 2201, Naples. Due to the limited capacity of this venue, we request that you contact Dena Sklaroff at 239.591.0101 or firstname.lastname@example.org to make your reservation.
This event will be most extraordinary. The content of Dr. Bartrop’s address is based on his recent book on the subject, which is the first major study of this conference. It will be the first time this talk will be presented in Southwest Florida. Dr. Bartrop could not have chosen a better audience than a community of Humanistic Jews seeking better understanding of our Jewish history as related to the Holocaust. The public is invited to share in this experience.
The Evian conference on refugees from Nazism has long been identified as a “lost opportunity” – a failed initiative to save the Jews of Europe from the Nazi menace. However, as Paul Bartrop explains, this critique is based on the erroneous premise that the conference was intended to rescue the Jews in the first place. Rather, he argues, the conference was completely successful in what it set out to achieve: to discuss the refugee problem without committing any nation to concrete action or a departure from its existing position. In this presentation, he will show that the refugee conference was always intended to be window dressing onto which humanitarian agencies and Jewish communities placed too many hopes – hopes that, by design, were never going to be realized.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum describes the conference on its website: “The Nazis aimed to make Germany judenrein (cleansed of Jews) by making life so difficult for them that they would be forced to leave the country. By 1939 about 150,000 German Jews, one in four, had already fled the country. After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, however, an additional 185,000 Jews were brought under Nazi rule. Many Jews were unable to find countries willing to take them in.”
Even though news of the violent pogroms of November 1938 was widely reported, Americans remained reluctant to welcome Jewish refugees. In the midst of the Great Depression, many Americans believed that refugees would compete with them for jobs and overburden social programs set up to assist the needy.
In the summer of 1938, delegates from 32 countries met at the French resort of Evian. President Roosevelt chose not to send a high-level official, such as the secretary of state to Evian. Instead, Myron C. Taylor, a businessman and close friend of Roosevelt’s, represented the U.S. at the conference. During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees.
Responding to Evian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how “astounding” it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when “the opportunity offered.”
The current migrant crisis is Europe’s worst since World War II – and the struggle to find places for migrants and refugees bears great similarity with that earlier crisis.