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80 years ago: An international conference to discuss Jewish refugees ends in failure

Eighty years ago, at the behest of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, representatives from 32 countries convened for a refugee conference in Evian-les-Bains, France to address a gathering storm in Nazi Germany – and discuss what to do about the intensifying persecution of Jews throughout Europe.

The event from July 6-15, 1938 would end in failure.

Rather than ameliorate a developing humanitarian nightmare, the Evian Conference was a display of self-interest. Nearly every country – including the United States – refused to raise their refugee quotas as the onset of the Holocaust drew closer.

Only one country at the conference – the Dominican Republic – offered to relax its restrictions, agreeing to take up to 100,000 Jewish refugees.

Before the conference, Hitler made it known that he would help Jewish refugees migrate to different participating countries.

“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,” he said.

The inaction of the countries at Evian seemed to embolden Hitler. Shortly after the conference at the Hotel Royal, he escalated his campaign of Jew hatred. He occupied the Sudentland of Czechoslovakia two months later, and then the rest of Czechoslovakia the following year, rendering hundreds of thousands of Jews stateless. In November of 1938, Kristallnacht occurred.

The Visual History Archive contains dozens of testimonies from survivors who talk about the Dominican Republic. Many of them were among the Jews who found safe harbor on the Caribbean island.

“It was a very, very nice boat,” said Marcel Salomon, whose family immigrated to the Dominican Republic in 1941. (See his clip below.) “We felt free – we felt, we are going to freedom. “We were (also) very sad and upset and apprehensive because we didn’t know where we were going, into a new world. … It was a mix of joy and sadness.”

Salomon's family made a stop at Ellis Island in New York City, where they stayed for a few days, confined to a facility surrounded by a barbed wire fence.

"The longer we stayed, the longer my father became anti-American, in a sense," Salomon said. "Because, he said, ‘Here we are, they are killing Jews all over the world, and they wouldn’t let us into America.’"

That same year, Gisele Baer sneaked out of Marseille, France with her family when she was 11 by hitching a ride in a milk truck. The Germans stopped the truck, but for some reason let them go. The family found its way to Portugal, where they, too, boarded a ship to New York City. From Ellis Island, they took another ship to the Dominican Republic.

“It was difficult in the beginning because you know, we had to learn a new language,” she said in her testimony. “But children … adapt, and within a year we were speaking Spanish and met friends.”

Marcel Salomon recalls his journey to the United States across the Atlantic

Language: English

In this clip, Marcel Salomon recalls his impressions of coming into New York harbor including seeing the Statue of Liberty and landing on Ellis Island.

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