Between 1933 and 1941, 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 1938, 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.
Many German and Austrian Jews tried to go to the United
States but could not obtain the visas needed to enter. 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
Congress had set up immigration quotas in 1924 that limited
the number of immigrants and discriminated against groups considered racially
and ethnically undesirable. These quotas remained in place even after President
Franklin D. Roosevelt, responding to mounting political pressure, called for an
international conference to address the refugee problem.
In the summer of 1938, delegates from thirty-two countries
met at the French resort of Evian. 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.
United States delegate Myron Taylor delivers a
speech at the Evian Conference on Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.
Evian-les-Bains, France, August 21, 1938 (USHMM photo).
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 the Jews, but none of them wanted to
open the doors to them when "the opportunity offer[ed]."
Even efforts by some Americans to rescue children failed: the
Wagner-Rogers bill, an effort to admit 20,000 endangered Jewish refugee
children, was not supported by the Senate in 1939 and 1940. Widespread racial
prejudices among Americans -- including anti-Semitic attitudes held by the U.S. State Department officials -- played a part in the
failure to admit more refugees.