A Look Back at the Evian Conference of 1938
By Elihu Baver
Last July marked the 78th anniversary of the Évian Conference, convened July 6-15, 1938, upon the direction of then U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt. The conference was known as one of the most fateful events in the history of the Jewish people. Yielding to pressure from the world community to decide the fate of fleeing and displaced European Jews, FDR assembled the conference at the Hotel Royale in Évian-les-Bains, a small spa town in coastal France, summoning delegates and representatives from 32 countries and several relief organizations. Although most famous for being the source of the commercially popular Évian pure spring water, Évian in 1938 hosted the Évian Conference, which only years later is getting the attention it deserves for the far-reaching consequences associated with its outcomes.
Referred to as Adolf Hitler’s “Green Light to Genocide,” the world’s indifference and general unwillingness to ease their immigration quotas and accept Jewish refugees post-conference in many eyes “sanctioned” Hitler’s actions. Hitler stated: “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”
Surprisingly, the only country in attendance at the 1938 Évian Conference that opened its doors to the Jewish refugees was the tiny Dominican Republic, which under dictator Rafael Trujillo committed to allow up to 100,000 refugees into his country. Soon after, a small agricultural settlement was established on an abandoned banana plantation in the small town of Sosua on the north coast of the island. Currently in Sosua there are the remnants of a vanishing Jewish community, including a small museum and an operating synagogue that conducts a limited schedule of services on the High Holidays and on Passover.
“The Évian Conference was an incredible turning point in the history of the Jewish people and holds tremendous historical significance, yet in my continuing travels, I am amazed that knowledge of it in the general public and among the most learned of Jewish historians and in theological circles is surprisingly limited,” said Hugh Baver, a NH resident who has studied and written on the history of Sosua’s Jewish community.
What is clearly known is the direct influence and horrendous far-reaching consequences tied to the Conference outcome, which followed closely thereafter: Kristallnacht, three short months later, and Hitler’s implementation of his “final solution,” where six million Jews were exterminated in concentration camps.
Last December, while on a business trip to Geneva, Switzerland, Baver traveled across Lake Leman via ferry to Évian France to visit the 1938 conference site, only to find to his immense surprise that no one at the hotel had any knowledge that this conference ever took place there. There was not a trace, no documentation or photos of any kind, short of the 1938 guest manifest, which the hotel manager searched out and dusted off from a lower shelf in one of the hotel’s administrative offices. Baver observed, “Not holding a reservation at the Hotel Royale, a 5 star resort, I barely made it past the security gate to gain entrance into the hotel, and only then by my finally convincing the hotel lobby staff that I was a journalist from Boston sent to report on the story.”
After finally gaining entrance to the hotel lobby, Baver asked to speak with the hotel manager and convinced him to Google both him and the Évian Conference on the web at the front desk computer. The hotel manager, having only known of the G8 World Summit that the resort hosted back in 2003, was amazed to find photos and the Évian Conference story on the web. He then placed a couple of calls to the hotel’s upper management to inquire deeper and soon after led Baver to the large exterior room where this historic conference took place. As a friendly gesture by the hotel manager, Baver was afforded the incredible opportunity to personally view the 1938 Hotel Royal guest book manifest. Baver holds strong convictions that this 1938 guest manifest should be better protected and placed in a museum as an important historical artifact from the Évian Conference for safe keeping and for all to view.
At the conclusion of his visit, Baver was presented with a souvenir from the Hotel Royal management, an acrylic-encased brass door knob from the original hotel structure, collected prior to hotel renovations a few years ago. The doorknob bears the edelweiss flower found only in the Swiss and French Alps.
In follow-up correspondence with Baver, @Hotel Royal manager Marc Figueiredo wrote: “Dear Hugh, I was honored to meet you a few days ago. Your passion for this page of history sincerely affected me as it was when you asked me if you could share a few private moments alone in this room that I understood how important it was for you. From that moment, I could not let you leave without truly making this visit an unforgettable one for you. Your reaction when you opened the doorknob gift was my best reward, not professionally but personally. I came home that day with a large satisfied smile on my face and feeling I had been a part of something very special”
Following his visit in December, Baver has maintained communication with the Royal Hotel management team and is currently working with them on a proposal to affix a small brass plaque in the former conference room recognizing the event, where currently there is no visible evidence or available information about the conference.
Baver’s fascination with the Sosua Jewish settlement story and its origins came about when he was visiting Jewish friends in Santiago, DR, following his participation in the 2010 Boston Red Sox Fantasy Camp in Ft. Myers, FL. After being given the mobile phone number of Dominican baseball great Jesús Alou at the camp by a former longtime Red Sox scout, he arranged to meet Alou personally to tour the Dominican Red Sox Academy, or Academia Medias Rojas.
It was while on this trip that his friends alerted him to “a small Jewish community on the island’s North Coast with a small synagogue and beautiful stained glass windows near the beach.”
Hugh Baver is employed in the technology sector as well as being the board chairman of Sosua75.org, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit formed to recognize Sosua’s 75th anniversary. Baver and the Sosua75 board of directors are currently spearheading a large-scale municipal project commemorating the original Sosua establishment on the north coast of the Dominican Republic following the Évian Conference.