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From Peace, In Deed: Essays in Honor of Harry James Cargas, Scholars Press, 1998 (Scholars Press, Atlanta, GA, 1998)
Americans Who Cared
by Pierre Sauvage
Do the righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust have spiritual descendants?
I am sometimes asked about the children of the rescuers: What is left? What, if anything, has been passed on?
It is a wonderful question, to which I do not know the answer. I have an impression, and that is that yes, something was passed on. To begin with, this makes sense. A characteristic of many of the rescuers Ive known is the respect they had for parental figures, who had set some sort of a moral example. How could their children not feel the same and not similarly be shaped by the values their parents put into action?
And what does any of this have to do with my friend Harry James Cargas? Simply this: if the righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust have spiritual descendants they are Christians like Harry James.
I have to admit that Im not entirely comfortable making this affirmation. Im not sure Harry James has ever really been put to the test. I know that I certainly dont have to go into hiding again for the foreseeable future, at least not for any reason connected to my being Jewish.
But should that day happen in America, I might well find my way to St. Louis and get in line outside Harry James house. Moreover, should he have by then moved on to the greener pastures of immortality, I trust that he will feel compelled to resurrect once again and do what needs to be done.
My confidence about him has little to do with his revolutionary theological stancesalthough this is fertile ground for the future, and I do not minimize its importance.
My feelings have even less to do with his scholarship about the Holocaust. I have absolutely no confidence whatever that Holocaust scholars would act any better in that sort of a pinch than anybody else. Indeed, to the extent that they are academics, the odds are that they would act worse. "It takes a great deal of elevation of thought to produce a tiny elevation of life," said my other friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said much about these things that needs to be said.
Harry James, the reasons Im going to be knocking on your door should the need arise is: a) the somewhat public pressure that I am putting on you now increases the chances that youll open up; b) as a further inducement, I promise to introduce you to Elie Wiesel; and c) my judgment of such things is based above all on my sense of peoples character. And on that limb, Im willing to venture, at least rhetorically.
But you are too self-effacing a presence for me to go on much longer about you. Instead it seems highly relevant to share some further thoughts about somebody I know you find interesting, the only American recognized as a righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem: Varian Fry.
An anecdote. Because my decadial documentaryIve just coined the word, there is no familiar English word covering the span between annual and centennialwill be And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee, I have a vested interest in the statement that Fry is the only American to have been honored thus far by Yad Vashem. In fact, I have even repeated it, knowing full well when I did so that the wife of the assistant pastor of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, Mildred Theis, who was honored by Yad Vashem along with the remarkable Edouard Theis, hailed from Ohio...
Last summer, during a visit to Le Chambon for the services in honor of the late Magda Trocmé, I ran into one of the Theis eight daughters, and admitted my verbal slovenliness. "You know what," she saidquite literally, as she is American"my mother had given up her American citizenship when she was honored by Yad Vashem." So there is a sense in which it can continue to be stated that Varian Fry is the only American to have been formally recognized as a righteous Gentile...
Every time I speak on Yom Hashoah, I begin with the same words: I am a Jew born in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944. And that that means that much of my family was humiliated, tortured and murderedwhile the world watched.
Nobodys ever challenged me on those words. Nobody wants to nitpick in such a context. But when I say "the world," I dont exclude America. Indeed, there was an American experience of the Holocaust too, although we either dont know it or pretend otherwise.
And yes, of course, there were some Americans who cared. Like good people everywhere and at any time, they are the ultimate challenge to us. If they knew what was going on, why didnt we? If they understood what was going on, why didnt we? If they tried to do something about what was going on, why didnt we?
As it happens, the story I am now addressing is, in a sense, yet another chapter in my own life, although my life before I was born, the life of my parents after they left Paris ahead of the Nazis and fled, like so many others, to Frances second city, the bustling port of Marseille in the still unoccupied Southern zone of France.
Marseille in 1940-1941 was, to make a movie reference that many of us resonate to, the real Casablanca. As you and your fellow scholars know, Harry, as Europe had fallen, many Jews and anti-Nazis had made their way to France, and when France fell, many Jews and anti-Nazis had made their way to Marseille, the port, feeling, as one of them put it, like rats on a sinking ship.
If my parents also felt that way when they were in Marseille they never admitted it to me. Since my parents went so far as to not even tell me that they were Jewish, that I was Jewish, until I reached the age of 18, everything that concerns my parents life has always had and probably always will have an air of mystery to it.
Thus when I was doing research for my documentary Weapons of the Spirit years ago and stumbled on a book, a memoir, called "Crossroads Marseilles 1940," I was absolutely fascinated by it, because it told an incredible story which Id never heard before, was told by an obviously remarkable woman, and touched on aspects of my parents life about which I knew next to nothing.
The author of the memoir is a woman named Mary Jayne Gold, who became a close friend and who died in October 1997. A sloppy AP obituary stated that Varian Fry had helped her start the rescue effort in Marseille, which would have given her no end of amusement...
Mary Jayne was not Jewish, despite her last name. In fact, she was an American blueblood. Not long before she died, she had told me with delight that she had been asked to join the Colonial Dames or some such organization whose ancestors have to have set foot in the colonies practically the second after Columbus did. And she qualified.
In the summer of 1940, after years of living it up in Europe in the 30swhich not a difficult feat considering the fact that she was beautiful, an heiress, and flew her own plane from capital to capitalMary Jayne found her way to the American Consulate in Marseille not long after France fell to the Nazis, in order to proceed with the formalities of going home.
Waving what then seemed an incredible documentan American passportMary Jayne self-consciously made her way through people who had been standing forlornly for hours and hours and hours outside of what was, as it happens, a pretty little castle in a park. The world had become small for these refugees, but America still seemed big.
Mary Jayne Gold soon learned that there was something to do in Marseille, and she stayed on for a year, her path having crossed that of two men, one of them the aforementioned fellow American, who had himself just arrived from New York on his singular mission. Mary Jayne would come to view that year in Marseille as the only important one in her life. She wrote the following in "Crossroads Marseilles 1940":
"I was not there to witness the worst, only the beginning, and even then I was sometimes embarrassed into a sort of racialismlike being ashamed of belonging to the human race. Fortunately, at the time of which I speak, not one of us could know what was coming. In our ignorance of the limits of human depravity there was time for fun and laughter. That is why when I try to recapture and write about what happened and what I saw, it turns out to be a series of double exposures, and I have to take them apart and fit them together again to make sense. One series is snapped through my 1940-41 lens, pictures that often stand out in photographic clarity of incident and detail. In the other series, the negatives are superimposed on original ones, colored by the stark statistics, the newsreels of atrocities then yet to come, and all the history of those dark years just ahead."
What sort of a man was Varian Fry? Well, in 1943, long after hed returned to the United States, Fry for some reason attended a church service (he was not a religious man) and tore out and kept a quotation from the program. The quotation happened to be from the inescapable Ralph Waldo.
"There are men who rise refreshed on hearing a threat; men to whom a crisis which intimidates and paralyzes the majority,¾ demanding not the faculties of prudence and thrift, but comprehension, immovableness, the readiness of sacrifices,¾ comes graceful and beloved as a bride." I have abridged this quote to give it wider circulation: "There are men to whom a crisis comes graceful and beloved as a bride."
In 1940, our bridegroom was a dapper, prep-school and Harvard educated young intellectual of 32, then working as an editor. Not Jewish.
He and some people in New York had realizedas had the pastors of my birthplace of Le Chambon incidentally¾ that when France had signed the armistice with Germany it had agreed to turn over refugees to the Nazis.
Most of these stranded refugees were anonymous, but some were not, and Fry and his friends, lovers of the arts, also realized that there were many prominent artists and intellectuals and anti-Nazi political figures who might indeed be especially vulnerable because of their relative prominence. They created an outfit which they called the Emergency Rescue Committee, but which was a totally private, shoestring, volunteer effort.
Now these New Yorkers had some good contacts, including Eleanor Roosevelt, and it seemed like some special visas could be obtained despite the State Department's determined and remarkably successful efforts to block refugee immigration to the U.S.
Still, somebody had to go over to Marseille and track down these people who could be helped, and do whatever was necessary¾ legal or illegal¾ in order to get these people out of Vichy's clutches before it was too late, and to help them in the meantime.
Varian Fry, with no experience in cloak-and-dagger work whatever, volunteered to take a month's leave of absence from his job, and go to France to be the Scarlet Pimpernel that the situation required.
When Mary Jayne Gold offered to work with him, Fry was initially skeptical about this rich dilettante, but soon he found himself relying on her for some delicate missions. She also helped to subsidize the operation, allowing his A-list to expand to a B-list, or as it was dubbed, the Gold list.
As it happens, she also had an affair with a young French gangster, which created some problems. But thats a story for another timefor the movies, if I am ever able to make the necessary compromises.
Now there were other Americans involved as well in what was locally called the Centre Américain de Secoursthe American Relief Center: Mary Jaynes buddy, the witty and intellectual Miriam Davenport Ebel; the ladies man and adventurer Charlie Fawcett, from Virginia; the mysterious Leon Ball who disappeared in 1941. There were also French people importantly involved, and a few others from all over Europe, some of whom, such as the great economist Albert Hirschman, long ago became Americans.
The documentary will recount the extraordinary adventure that they all participated in until, after a tumultuous year, Varians disciples lined up at the railway station to say goodbye. Fry, having finally been arrested by the Vichy authorities, was kicked out of France in August of 1941 with the complicity of the U.S. Government, that had never looked upon him as anything other than a trouble-maker.
In fact, in the Marseille archives there is a still classified document which I was allowed to look at but not copy or even make any notes about, and that document may be the smoking gun in regard to what happened. A Marseille police official reports that the American consul had asked him to "get rid" of Fry.
What gives this whole story an additional resonance is that it was during this same period of 1940-1941 that the Nazis decided on that major change in policy. When I bring this up with audiences I sometimes ask how many of them know what Im about to say, as I suspect that few of them do. For some reason, this change of policy doesnt get much attention. Could it be that its because we have something to do with it?
After all, up until that time, for all of Hitlers rantings and threats, the Nazis had never quite been able to imagine something on the grand scale of a Final Solution. As scholars know but much of the public doesnt, until that time, the policy with regard to the Jews had been one of persecution, expulsion, theft. But not murder.
Im surprised how little significance is attributed to the fact that in October of 1940, Eichmann loaded several thousand German Jews on trains and deported them to the west, dumping them in Vichy France, to the consternation of the French authorities, who first protested to the Germans, then begged the United States to help out by taking in a fair share of these refugees.
Comparatively obscure as well is the fact that Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles prepared a response to the French Ambassador, which he submitted it to Roosevelt for the Presidents approval. The response basically told the collaborationist French regime, with which we had good relations, to get lost, that the U.S. couldnt do anything more than it was doing. And Welles explained to the President, who approved the response, that if the U.S. gave in to the French we would never hear the end of it, that the Germans would, in effect, be in a position to keep shoving these poor refugees down our throats. Which was true
Perhaps my historian friends will squirm that I oversimplify, but just how wrong am I that the Nazis ultimately set in motion the Final Solution of the Jewish Question when they concluded that there werent any viable middle-ground, temporary solutions, that the U.S. and the Western World didnt want these Jews either, that in fact, the Western world probably wouldnt care all that much?
It is with this shift in policy occurring in the background, unbeknownst to Varian Fry, Mary Jayne Gold and their friends, that this tiny group succeeded in helping to save some 2,000 people.
Among them, many of the artistic and intellectual luminaries of our age: artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, poet André Breton, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, writers Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel, the legendary muse Alma Mahler Werfel, philosopher Hannah Arendt... The list, Frys list, goes on and on... Many of the names on it are obscure to most of us today, but this was the intelligentsia of Europe at the time.
The list was not quite big enough to include my parents. I dont know and Ill never know precisely what happened, but although my father never told me, I have learned that he applied for help from the Committee and it would appear that my parents didnt receive it. In any event, they didnt leave. Before finding their way to Le Chambon after the German occupied southern France and my mother became pregnant with me, my father instead founded a traveling theatrical troupe which staged French medieval farces not always devoid of contemporary relevance.
Back in the States, Fry spent the war years trying to sensitize American public opinion to what was happening in Europe. In Dec. 1942, The New Republic magazine published an extraordinary cover story: The Massacre of the Jews by Varian Fry.
Earlier in 1942, Fry wrote some words he intended for his memoir of the year in Marseille. It is among his papers in a binder marked "Suppressed Material."
"I have triedGod knows I have triedto get back again into the mood of American life since I left France for the last time. But it doesn't work. There is only one way left to try, and that is the way I am going to try now. If I can get it all out, put it all down just as it happened, if I can make others see it and feel it as I did, then maybe I can sleep again at night, the way I used to before I took the Clipper to Lisbon. Maybe I can even become a normal human being againexorcize the ghosts which haunt me, stop living in another world, come back to the world of America. But I know that I can't do that until I have told the storyall of it.
Those ghosts won't stop haunting me until I have done their bidding. They are the ghosts of the living who do not want to die. Go, they said, go back and make America understand, make Americans understand and help before it is too late.
I have tried to do their bidding in other and easier ways. By lecturing, writing articles, talking to friends. But it doesn't work. People don't understand. Because they don't see the whole thing, or because what they see they see distantly, impersonally. It doesn't touch them, any more than a table of statistics (...). When I think of all this, it seems incredible, macabre, even, that I should have spent some of my last few hours in New York worrying about not having a new dress shirt, and actually going over to Brooks Brothers and buying one.
The words of a caring American in 1942.
Varian died alone and forgotten in 1967, a failed businessman, a failed husband, a rather lonely teacher of Latin and Greek in a preppy Connecticut high school.
A few months before his death, his old comrade Mary Jayne Gold had sent Varian some cheerful greetings on a postcard. Her last words: "Well, we shared our finest hours, my friend."
Peace in deed.
© Chambon Foundation, 1998
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