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 needy.
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 Roosevelt, responding to mounting political pressure, called for an international conference to address the refugee problem.
Delegates from thirty-two countries met at the French resort of Evian July 6-15, 1938. 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].
Golda Meir said, “Sitting in that wonderful hall listening to the representatives of 32 countries standing up one after another and explaining how terribly glad they would be to receive a larger number of refugees and how terribly sorry they were that they unfortunately could not — it was a shattering experience.”
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.
Sources: “The Evian Conference,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum accessed on December 22, 2020.
Samantha Power, “A memoir of a family’s Holocaust complicity, with lessons for today,” Washington Post, (October 16, 2020).