July marked the 78th anniversary of the Evian conference, known as one of “the most fateful events in the history of the Jewish people.” It was convened upon the direction of then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.
Yielding to pressure from the world community to decide the fate of fleeing and displaced European Jews, FDR assembled the Evian Conference, summoning delegates and representatives from 32 countries and several relief organizations to Evian-les-Bains, a small spa town in coastal France later known for its popular pure spring water.
Known as Hitler’s “green light to genocide,” the conference failed to penetrate the world’s indifference and general unwillingness to accept Jewish refugees and, in many eyes, “sanctioned” Hitler’s actions.
Surprisingly, the only world country in attendance at the 1938 conference that opened its doors to the Jewish refugees was the tiny Dominican Republic then led by dictator Rafael Trujillo, who committed to establishing a small agricultural settlement for the Jewish refugees on the north coast of the island in Sosua. Currently, there are the remnants of a vanishing Jewish community as well as an operating synagogue in Sosua that conducts services on the High Holidays and Passover.
During the summer, two former Michigan State University alumni, Dr. Dennis Laffer and I, presented a lecture on the 1938 Evian Conference at Belfer Hall on the Yeshiva University campus in New York City at the request of Dr. Karen Shawn, associate professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.
I have been conducting lectures on the topic, with a focus on Sosua, in the Boston/New England area since 2015.
At Y.U., we spoke to nine aspiring educators in a graduate-level summer Jewish studies class focusing on the Holocaust taught by Shawn.
When I prepared for the lecture, I found Laffer’s 2011 comprehensive graduate thesis and dissertation on the topic, “Jewish Trail of Tears, Evian Conference of July 1938,” on the web. I forwarded Laffer a recent video taken in Evian last December at the Hotel Royale, where I was wearing an MSU Spartan ball cap. Then the connection was sealed.
We both agree there is a surprisingly limited amount of information on the web and conveyed in educational circles about the Evian Conference and its impact, along with the Sosua Jewish settlement where a fortunate few Jews were saved.
What is more popularly known is the direct influence and horrendous consequences tied to the conference outcome — Kristallnacht occurred three months later, followed by Hitler’s implementation of his “Final Solution,” during which 6 million Jews were exterminated in concentration camps.
“I have come to agree with the viewpoint proposed by Professor David Wyman and others that FDR did little to aid Jewish refugees during the critical pre-war and intra-war periods,” Laffer said, “and that this international gathering was primarily a publicity ploy designed to deflect any changes in American immigration policies.”
Last December, while on a business trip to Geneva, Switzerland, I traveled across Lake Geneva to Evian, France, and visited the 1938 conference site. I was surprised no one at the hotel had any knowledge that this conference ever took place there. There was not a trace, no documentation or photos of any kind.
The manager, having only known of the G8 World Summit that the resort hosted back in 2003, was amazed to find photos and the Evian Conference story on the web. He called the hotel’s upper management to inquire further and, soon after, led me to the large exterior room where this historic conference took place.
The manager allowed me to personally view the 1938 guest manifest book of the conference attendees, retrieved from a dusty shelf in an administrative office. I feel the book should be placed in a museum as an important Evian conference Jewish history artifact for safe keeping and for all to view.
At the conclusion of my visit, I was presented with a gift from the Hotel Royal management, an acrylic encased brass door knob from the original hotel structure, collected prior to recent renovations. The knob bears the Edelwiess flower found only in the Swiss and French Alps.
By Elihu Baver | Special to the Jewish News
Elihu Baver, a former Detroiter now of New Hampshire, is board chairman of Sosua75.org, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit commemorating the Sosua Jewish settlement established after the Evian Conference on the north coast of the Dominican Republic.
Dr. Dennis Laffer, a former Detroiter now of Tampa, currently is researching the Wagner-Rogers Bill of 1939 and the Hennings Bill of 1940, regarding admission of German Jewish children and British children into the U.S.