Varian Fry, 1941
Despite the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, Fry and his small group of volunteers hid refugees in a safe home until they could be smuggled out. 2,200 people were taken across the border to the safety of neutral Portugal from which they made their way to the USA. Others he helped escape on ships leaving Marseilles for the French colony of Martinique, from which they could go to the USA.
The rescue network was essential to his success. Miriam Davenport, a former art student at the Sorbonne, and Mary Jayne Gold, a wealthy cultured woman who had moved to Paris in the early 1930s were two American women. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Gold went to Marseilles to work with Fry and to fund his operation.
Most important was obtaining the visas Fry needed for the artists, writers and academics. He could not have succeeded without Hiram Bingham IV, an American Vice Consul in Marseilles who fought against US State Department anti-Semitism. Like the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, Bingham was personally responsible for issuing thousands of legal and illegal visas.
An amazing photo survives from those scary and heroic days. The Emergency Rescue Committee office in Marseilles in 1941 shows fine artists who escaped France: (from left to right) Max Ernst, Jacqueline Breton, Andre Masson, Andre Breton and Varian Fry.
Photograph Musee Cantini, Marseilles.
The list of people who escaped Nazi Europe, with the help of Fry and others, is like a roll call of European culture. A handful of famous names will suffice: Max Ernst, Hannah Arendt, André Masson, Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler Werfel, Jacques Lipchitz, Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Heinrich Mann, Marc Chagall and André Breton.
Needless to say, Fry’s efforts did not endear him to the authorities in the USA. He was recalled several times by the American government and ignored every recall. He was finally ousted by the Vichy French government as an undesirable alien, for protecting Jews and anti-Nazis, in September 1941. His activities in France caused the Federal Bureau of Investigation to keep him under surveillance, thus preventing this hero from ever working for the USA government. He wrote and spoke critically against USA immigration policies, particularly relating to the issue of the fate of Jews in Europe. In The New Republic Dec 1942, he wrote an article with dire warnings called "The Massacre of Jews in Europe".
Many artistic émigrés found their way to New York City where Peggy Guggenheim exhibited their work at the Art of this Century gallery, which she opened in 1942. Another amazing photograph was taken during a gathering of these artists at her New York apartment. Guggenheim did not rescue them (apart from Max Ernst) but she helped their survival and integration, once they had safely landed on American soil.
"Artists in Exile", Peggy Guggenheim's apartment, New York, 1942. Front row: Stanley William Hayter, Leonara Carrington, Frederick Kiesler, Kurt Seligmann. Second Row: Max Ernst, Amedee Ozenfant, Andre Breton, Fernand Leger, Berenice Abbott. Third Row: Jimmy Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, John Ferren, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian. Photograph: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Photograph: Parrish Art Museum, NY.
At least the government of France recognised Fry's heroic efforts with the Legion of Honour in 1967, the only recognition he was alive for. In 1991 and 24 years after his death, Fry received his first official medal from a US agency, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. And in 1995 Varian Fry became the first American citizen to be listed in the Righteous Among the Nations in the national Holocaust Memorial, Jerusalem. What a shame that he died in 1967.
If you think only the USA and French government were right wing, anti-Semitic and anti-refugees, and that their anti refugee policies was only enacted during the chaos of World War Two, consider the plight of refugees today. The few, miserable refugees who escape the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan head for Australia in leaky tug boats. The right wing response in Australia, from 2000 to 2010, has been to imprison the refugees in Pacific island camps behind barbed wire fences and to demonise the rescuers as criminal thugs. We have learned nothing from Varian Fry, Sir Nicholas Winton, Raoul Wallenberg, Chiune Sugihara or Oskar Schindler.
Other blogs have recommended books about Fry:
Isenberg, Sheila A Hero of Our Own, Random House, 2001
Marino, Andy A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry, Macmillan, 2000.
McClafferty, Carla Killough In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
A 2013 international symposium, Varian Fry in Marseilles: The Culture of Europe in Exile 1940-42 revealed the role Marseilles played as the cultural capital of exile during WW2. This conference offered fresh perspectives on the notion of exile of European intellectuals and artists It explored the work of exiles in Provence, their treatment in internment camps, and their efforts to escape to North America. It also raised the question of memory and how today’s generations remember and interact with this chapter in Provençal history. The programme is still available in French.