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Who did what to whom in occupied France? Now more than ever, with the current trial of Vichy police officials in France and the investigations into Swiss wartime banking practices, individuals and governments beyond the German borders are being called to account for their actions during the Holocaust.
One undisputed hero of the period was Varian Fry, an American whose rescue of European intellectuals and political refugees — Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst and Wanda Landowska, among them — is the subject of an exhibition that opens next Sunday at the Jewish Museum. The show, "Assignment: Rescue, the Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee," presents photographs and artifacts as well as a series of installations evoking the cafes, hotels, offices, apartments, trains, boats and internment camps that figured in Fry's rescue activities, which centered in Marseilles. There are also paintings by 17 of the artists who lived in the south of France at the time.
Fry was an unlikely hero. Born in 1908, the son of a New York stockbroker, he attended prep schools in New England and majored in classics at Harvard; for entertainment he read Greek and Latin poetry and watched birds. He sported a red carnation in his buttonhole, had impeccable manners and knew his French wines. One contemporary found him "bookish and intellectually condescending, hardly the sort of person one would choose to play the Scarlet Pimpernel"; another described him as "an exuberant and likable young man, cultured, handsome, friendly," with a Noël Coward wit.
By current standards, he resembled a highly cultivated yuppie. "Certainly my manner and appearance did not suggest the daredevil," Fry said of himself.
Fry was 32 when he arrived in Marseilles in August 1940, two months after France fell. He had been an editor for the Foreign Policy Association when the Emergency Rescue Committee commandeered him. The writers Thomas Mann and Jules Romains and the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr., made a list of 200 individuals Fry was to help liberate on his three-week mission. Along with this list — and a dress suit and a boiled shirt he had bought at Brooks Brothers in his last hours in New York — he carried $3,000 taped to his leg. By the time he was expelled from France 13 months later, having repeatedly risked his life evading the Gestapo and the Vichy police, he had spirited away more than 1,200 people.
Fry had no experience in refugee work, but he quickly learned how to secure visas, obtain false passports (from the Czech Consul), forge paperwork and organize transport convoys to Lisbon. Once Marshall Pétain met with Hitler and announced the Vichy policy of collaboration, the risks increased. But Fry felt that his obligation was always to the refugee, not to himself. "I was followed by a group of eight dicks, working in shifts," he jauntily observed in his memoirs. But he eluded his shadows sufficiently to hide those at risk and get them onto ships and trains.
When Peggy Guggenheim, the bohemian art-collecting American expatriate, wanted to arrange for the exodus of André Breton, Max Ernst, Victor Brauner and some of their relatives, she turned to Fry. Seeking further information about the rescue committee, the heiress was warned by the American Consul to stay clear.
"He did not tell me why, and at the time I had no idea what a dangerous job Fry was doing," Guggenheim wrote. "The American Government was perpetually trying to get him to go back to America to avoid Ôdifficulties with the Vichy Government. However, he stuck it out to the bitter end." This, she said, despite his having been "arrested and held incommunicado on a boat for days during Pétain's visit to Marseilles."
The obstacles were formidable. When Fry first encountered Chagall in the Provençal hill town of Gordes, the artist, a naturalized French citizen for years, intended to remain there through the occupation. "As it is a serious responsibility to uproot and transplant a great artist, I didn't press him," Fry wrote. Then the anti-Jewish laws were adopted in France.
Chagall asked Fry if there were cows in America and was visibly relieved when Fry said yes. The artist went to Marseilles with his family to begin their journey, but almost immediately he was taken from his hotel in a Black Maria after the police began rounding up Jews. Fry called a police official and warned that if news of the arrest leaked out, "Vichy would be gravely embarrassed, and you would probably be severely reprimanded. If he isn't out in half an hour, we'll call up The New York Times." The police met the deadline. In 1945, Fry was able to write, "Marc Chagall is well satisfied with American trees and American cows and finds Connecticut just as good to paint in as Southern France."
Fry also secured the safety of the pianist Heinz Jolles, the artists Marcel Duchamp and Wilfredo Lam, the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger and the poet Franz Werfel and his wife, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel as well as many lesser-known people. (The operation he put in place is credited with saving 4,000 lives.) But Fry could not prevent the Austrian cartoonist Bill Freier from being sent to his death in a Polish concentration camp, or the journalist Charles Wolff from being "tortured to death by the French fascist militia."
Even after returning to America, Fry continued his activities. In December 1942, he wrote, for The New Republic, a heart-wrenching article, "The Massacre of the Jews," that shatters some of the subsequent excuses for ignorance of Nazi atrocities.
In 1945, once it was safe to reveal his methods, he wrote a memoir, "Surrender on Demand," which is being reprinted this month by Johnson Books with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the organizer of the exhibition, which runs through March 29.
For Fry, who died in 1967, glory has been mostly posthumous. In 1995, he was the first United States citizen to join Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg among the gentiles designated "righteous among the nations" at Israel's national Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. Recent testimonials have been plentiful. But when Varian Fry set out to save the lives of some of Europe's artistic giants, few could have guessed his impact on postwar culture.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
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Revised: February 23, 2008