Most countries sent a high level member of Parliament, usually the foreign minister. President Roosevelt announced before the conference that no country would be expected to alter its laws, so the USA was not represented by any minister. However Roosevelt DID ask a friend of his to pop in to the conference, if he was available. It wouldn’t have helped in any case. The Wagner-Rogers bill, presented to save the lives of 20,000 Jewish refugee children, was not supported by the American Senate in 1939 and 1940.
Speeches were made at Evian. Photo credit US Holocaust Museum
The Australian delegate to the Evian Conference was the Minister for Customs, Colonel Tom White, whose speech which has become notorious as representing the negative attitudes taken by most delegates at the conference. He said: “Under the circumstances Australia cannot do more. Undue privileges cannot be given to one particular class of non-British subjects without injustice to others. It will no doubt be appreciated also that, as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”
New Zealand's delegate described Evian as "a modern wailing wall." The French, Belgian and Dutch representatives said that their countries had already reached "the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees". Canada's delegate, the foreign minister, insisted that Canada's high unemployment precluded the admission of great numbers of refugees. About the refugees, he said, "none is too many."
The nations of the world, especially the New World, could have saved lives at Évian, but they offered little more than token gestures. Australia set a quota of 8,000. Our practice was marginally more generous than our rhetoric, and eventually we took in a dismal 10,000. Compare this with other dismal quotas: Canada 8,000, Britain 65,000 and the USA 190,000.
Australia was a large and very thinly populated country which obviously could have accepted many more refugees, had the political will been there. By contrast, the only nations at Evian who set larger quotas were the poorer nations: Argentina took 50,000, Paraguay 20,000, Chile 14,000, Bolivia 12,000 and Cuba 4,500. Even then, not all these quotas were actually filled because emigration became impossible after September 1939 when war broke out. But the hero of the conference was a tiny country that was willing to open its doors and let Jewish settlers in - the Dominican Republic.
Australians DID criticise the Evian outcome. Sydney Morning Herald editorialised: “There cannot but be disappointment with the negative nature of the speech made by the Australian minister. It is a truism that the Commonwealth has no racial problem and no desire to import one. On the other hand it prides itself on being a democracy with a strong tradition of tolerance, and any undue suggestion of racial intolerance constitutes a betrayal of our cherished traditions.”
So what were the results of the Conference? Firstly the conference decided to establish an Inter-governmental Committee on Refugees, which was to continue to research the refugee problem. What research, one asks, was there yet to be done in late 1938?
Secondly there were half a million Jews in central European who could have been saved, if the international community had been prepared to act firmly, even as late as the beginning of 1939. The conference ensured that these families were locked into Nazi Germany and Austria, and would never escape alive.
Even after the ministers and their staff left Evian, there were still a couple of opportunities to save young families. Woolly Days blog tells of how The SS St Louis set sail from Hamburg in May 1939, with its cargo of 900 refugees for Havana. Cuba had already issued visas in advance, but by the time the boat landed in Havana, the government had changed its mind and refused to allow the refugees to land. The boat then drifted off Florida waters before it became obvious US authorities were not going to allow it to land either. The captain was forced to set sail back for Hamburg.
Memorial stone to the Evian Conference, Brooklyn NY
Even after nearly 70 years, Michael Danby MP (Federal Member for Melbourne Ports) reminded us to ask ourselves how was it that so few Jewish adults and children were able to escape while so many were left to die. Through a combination of good luck, desperation and the unpredictable generosity of others, only a small fragment of the doomed Jewish population of Europe was able to escape in time and find refuge in other countries, including Australia. Australians need to be honest about our past and we also need to be honest about the tragedy of refugees in the current era.