Remembering the Evian Conference [1938]

July 4, 2013 by Josie Lacey
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In 1938, as the Nazi Holocaust began, the Jews of Germany and Austria were desperate to leave. The problem was to find a place of refuge…writes Josie Lacey.

Josie Lacey

Josie Lacey

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an invitation to 33 countries to attend a conference at the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains to consider arrangements to accommodate the flood of Jewish refugees. The conference convened on 6 July 1938, and Australia agreed the take a quota of 9000 Jewish refugees over a five year period. War broke out a year later.

The remarks of Australia’s chief delegate to the Conference, Colonel T. E. White, were :

“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.”

Colonel White’s statement reflected the approach of  John “Blackjack”  McEwen, the Minister for the Interior, who pronounced in a Cabinet discussion on 8 April 1938 that the Jewish refugees were

‘…..highly intelligent as a class and usually made a success at whatever occupation or business they follow, but in view of their religious beliefs and strict rules as regards marriage, they remain a separate race and this failure to become properly assimilated in the country of adoption appears to create difficulties in any country where they form a considerable proportion of the population.”

The history of Jews in Australia  dates back to 1788, when there were eight Jews among the 1500 convicts brought to the country aboard the First Fleet.  Over a thousand more people of Jewish descent were sent to Australia as convicts during the next 60 years. Many Jews came to play a significant role in Australian public life, and so the statement made by Australia at the Conference at Evian was deeply troubling.

Indeed, some time before the Evian Conference, in 1931, Sir Isaac Isaacs had been appointed as the first Australian born Governor-General, having previously served as Chief Justice of Australia. And before that, during the First World War, the distinguished Australian Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, had led Australian troops both in Gallipoli and on the Western Front, and made an important contribution to the Allied victory.

In the event, at the Evian Conference Australia agreed to accept 9000 refugees over the next five years, which was one of the larger allocations. And here I am, one of the lucky ones . I was born in Ploesti, Romania, and my parents came here with me and my brother as refugees in 1939. Some of my German family, whose visa applications were rejected, were killed in the Holocaust. 29 in all.

The story of the refugees reminds me of the Biblical virtue of hospitality.

When we Jews think of hospitality, we immediately think of our ancestor Abraham, whom we see as the father of our Jewish family, some 3900 years ago.

As an old man Abraham is commanded by God to perform his circumcision. Following this ritual, God pays Abraham a sickbed visit.

God had no business to conduct with Abraham, no commandments to deliver; He simply comes to pay him a visit.

How does Abraham react to being singled out for such an honour? In spite of the fact that he is in the Divine presence at the time, he knows that the duty to one’s fellow human-being is the priority that God wants.

He asks God to please wait while he offers hospitality to three strangers he observes in the distance, which we learn are Angels sent to test him.

This teaches us the enormous importance of the obligation of offering hospitality to strangers. From God’s behaviour we learn the obligation to visit the sick, whereas Abraham’s behaviour teaches us the importance of offering hospitality to emulate the hospitality of God.

It is a duty which reflects the basic principle in Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”, extended in Leviticus 19.34:“The stranger that dwells with you shall be as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

This is an idea of hospitality in which mortals also emulate the divine attribute of  Hesed, a description of God which appears every day in our prayers, generally translated as “loving-kindness”.

It involves reaching out to the other with true giving and receiving, including an ability to respect and to listen and to learn.

It is also interesting to compare the Biblical tradition with Hindu ideals. Jews have lived for two thousand years in India as welcome participants in Indian life, and without experiencing any persecution whatsoever. As Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1897, and this year celebrating 150years since his birth, said

“I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant.”

Josie Lacey is a Life Member of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

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