In 1938 a conference was held at Evian, (on the French side of Lake Geneva), regarding Jewish Refugees or the “Jewish Problem” as some called it. The 32 countries attending expressed much sympathy for Jews under Nazism but no nation except the Dominican Republic was willing to welcome them in large numbers.
The Dominican Republic, a country about twice the size of New Hampshire, offered to accept up to 100,000 Jewish refugees. How many they actually received is not known but they offered, which is more than most.
The USA, despite the conference being called for by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, did not even send an official representative even though Joseph Kennedy, father of the future US President, was the deputy chairman of the conference. The US would limit Jewish immigration to 30,000 a year (in practise 40,000 - the US admitted about 250,000 Jews between 1939 and 1945).
The UK did the same (30,000) with Australia agreeing to 15,000 Jews over a period of three years. That is 5,000 a year.
France, the country with the most Jews outside the Middle East, said it was saturated and wanted none.
History reports that 75,000 Jews, including many children, were deported from France to the camps. Almost none survived.
It should be kept in mind that there were in 1938-39 roughly 16.6 million Jews worldwide. Of them, 57%, or 9.5 million were to be found in Europe and thus in mortal danger of being murdered. The refugee figures agreed to by the countries mentioned were nothing, a drop in the ocean.
The British Empire countries followed London’s lead, they had no choice, that is how an Empire works. Several thousand Jews went by boat to the Caribbean islands, then under British control as part of the Commonwealth. They probably wanted to go to the US or Canada but would not be allowed in without visas. The same old story. It happened a few months later again. The Motorschiff St. Louis, an ocean liner, left Germany with 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. They all had valid visas to go to Cuba, paid for, arranged and were in good spirits. But Cuba denied them permission to disembark. The liner then sailed to the US and Canada. Both countries refused the Jews entry. No one wanted them. And so, the ship returned to Europe where the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, accepted some of the Jews. Those not accepted had to return to Germany. All of them died in the camps. Of those that ended in European mainland countries, a quarter would die in the camps when those countries were overrun in 1940. The St. Louis journey became known as “The Voyage of the Damned.”
After the Second World War ended, the Royal Navy prevented the Jewish survivors to reach Palestine by intercepting their ships. In effect, blockading the British Palestine Territory in order to keep the numbers down. Those captured by the Royal Navy were held in camps at Cyprus. The Jewish men and women who had survived the concentration camps and that somehow made it to the promised land were given a rifle on arrival in order to be able to fight the Arabs who were the ones trying to kill them now.
As with the St Louis, some ships went from port to port trying to get the Jews welcomed or at least tolerated. Trinidad had no visa requirements but charged a landing deposit for arrivals. And so Trinidad got about 600 European Jews. Many were from professional occupations but could not work as what they once were. The Trinidad Guardian reported, “One of the physicians, a lady doctor, is now a midwife, another turned chemist, and a third one is a foreman in a local factory. A famous master-builder of Vienna is now looking for any kind of work. His wife makes a living by tailoring. A lawyer has become a canvasser, another a floor-walker, while a third is going to open a jeweller’s store.”
This is not indicative of lazy people.
The response of local people was mixed, “There was grumbling about overcrowding and competition, and disquiet about Jewish businesses and peddlers undercutting the locals. But newspapers carried reports of atrocities and persecution in Europe, so people were aware of their plight. Some saw an echo of their own history of slavery in the persecution of Jews.” It was, as the newspapers said, a last-chance destination. Some locals were plain nasty, “Trinidad is a dumping ground for Jews. The place is so congested already. Yet the Foreigners are pouring in every day.” Since black Trinidadians had very little say in their own country, at the time, the comments must have come from the white colonialists. They, in turn, came from England, mostly. It is ironical.
South America, not too far away, was always a hotbed of Nazi sympathies and espionage efforts. I doubt if the refugees felt safe. When the war broke out the Jews were interned as “enemy aliens” as would be the Japanese American citizens two years later. As such, they once again lost their businesses which were closed causing those interned to feel understandable “bitterness and resentment at being deprived of their newly found freedom and, having just sent out new roots, being so abruptly and rudely uprooted once more.” Yes, it is hard not to feel sympathy for them.
The Japanese Americans served with great valour when given a chance. Their units became the most decorated units in US military history. One, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion liberated the Dachau concentration camp in 1945. After the war, most of Trinidad’s Jews left for the US or for the newly created Jewish State, starting afresh, once again. The few that remained became staunch pillars of the society.
In Evian, in 1938, with no real tolerance of the Jewish plight, the coming Holocaust was now virtually assured. It was a human tragedy.
Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic Party Presidential hopeful, and former Vice President under Jimmy Carter, said in 1979, “At stake at Evian were both human lives – and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world. If each nation at Evian had agreed on that day to take in 17,000 Jews at once, every Jew in the Reich could have been saved. As one American observer wrote, ‘It is heart-breaking to think of the ... desperate human beings ... waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian.’ But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian ... it is a test of civilization.”
Dr Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, “The world seemed to be divided into two parts – those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”
Golda Meir, later Prime Minister of the Jewish State, was at Evian as an observer and nothing else. British Palestine, where she was from was still under British control. She remarked about her odd position, “.... my ludicrous capacity of the Jewish observer from Palestine, not even seated with the delegates, although the refugees under discussion were my own people.” After the conference ended without a positive result, “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.”
Adolf Hitler, the German Chancellor that started the troubles, responded too, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals (Jews), will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”
But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, no one wanted the Jews at any large scale and those that stayed would die in the camps. Dr Chaim Weizmann, First Israeli President, December 1946, gave the final summary: “Now in the light of past and present events the bitter truth must be spoken. We feared too little and we hoped too much. We underestimated the bestiality of the enemy; we overestimated the humanity, the wisdom, the sense of justice of our friends.”