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Fry Colleagues and Family

Annette Riley Fry, second wife of Varian Fry
A quick list of some of my objections:

* To be expected, of course, actual events in which Fry was involved are distorted and many unlikely "events" are made up. But not to be expected is that the actual historical situation in Marseille is misrepresented, or that the founding of the ERC (Emergency Rescue Committee) is so fudged; and that IRC (today's wonderful worldwide International Rescue Committee) is given no mention in the end listings), and that a woman with utterly no resemblance in appearance or voice to our beloved Eleanor Roosevelt is made to play her part in a phony episode.

* The dimensions of the threat of the Holocaust (identified as "The Massacre of the Jews" in a landmark 1942 article by Fry before the word Holocaust came into use) is watered down. If you didn't know World War II history (as many TV viewers and most young people don't), you wouldn't be at all sure why the "refugees" in the film were in danger.

* The name-dropping of "famous" refugees I found boring and repetitious. If I hadn't known who they were--and I fear most people don't these days--I would be bewildered by these characters. Even knowing who they were supposed to be, I couldn't keep the actors straight.

* The un-famous people Fry and his fellow workers became more and more concerned about are quickly dismissed. One gets the impression that Fry was only interested in the elite.

* The refugees all look pretty prosperous and well fed to me. Since we haven't been given a sense of their peril, we might wonder: what's the big deal?

Fry is depicted by the aging William Hurt (with an absurd toupee) as a ludicrous Woody Allen type--a nerd, and a silly fop who lets someone named "Miriam Davenport" show him what to do. Hurt can be a fine actor. I have to suspect that [Lionel] Chetwynd is a mediocre director as well as writer. And naturally I resent that Fry is made to seem swishy and weak; and that no mention is made in the listings at the end of the film that after the war he re-married and had three children.

* Dreariest of all, this film is overly long--2 hours--and a bore. Yes, just plain boring! 

Fry Colleague Charles Fernley Fawcett
My recollection of Varian Fry was that he was an idealistic, intelligent and sophisticated person, who was completely dedicated to and involved with the task.  He used incredibly deep understanding of his problem and devoted every waking moment to this project.  Knowing him so well, I saw absolutely nothing in the film that reminds me of him.

Fry Colleague Marcel Verzeano
I worked very closely with Varian Fry, in Marseille, for over a year. My main job was to organize and operate various routes of escape for the refugees who had to leave France. During much of that time, Fry and I worked in the same office. We lived in the same house, with several families of refugees and co-workers. We often traveled together to various places in southern France to visit refugees who were in great danger and yet were hesitating to go.

After my arrival in the United States, as an immigrant in 1942, Fry and I kept in touch. While I lived on the east coast, we often met and talked about the old times in Marseille. When I lived on the west coast, we often communicated by letter or telephone. I have known Varian Fry really well.

He was a highly intelligent man of great courage and determination. There was nothing in him of the awkward, timid, and bumbling individual presented in
Varian's War. This film portrays a very distorted picture of Varian Fry and what he accomplished in France in 1940 and 1941.

One of the scenes in the film shows Fry entering a gay bar, sitting at a table for a while looking around aimlessly, then getting up and leaving. It is difficult to understand the meaning of the scene. If the implication is that Fry may have had any homosexual tendencies, I can say that during all the years I have known him, I have not seen the slightest indication of any such inclination.

Another scene shows Miriam Davenport, one of Fry's associates, trying to raise his interest in her. Miriam did not have the slightest interest in Fry except as a friend and coworker. She had a boyfriend in Slovenia whom she loved very much. Eventually, she traveled to Slovenia, got him out and married him.

At no time did Fry accompany any refugees over the mountains to the Spanish border. Not because he would not have wanted to, but because the danger of being stopped and arrested by the French border guards was too great, and Fry knew, and so did all of us, that without him our organization would fall apart and few refugees would be able to leave.

During the process of finding out which were the safest routes of escape, another associate of Varian's,
Daniel Bénédite, and myself, were testing one of the possible passages over the mountains during one night, in the winter of 1940. We were met by the French border guards who fired at us but, luckily, missed us. After we stopped running and talked to them, we escaped being arrested after they checked our backpacks and found nothing suspicious in them.

It would have been foolish of Varian to take the kind of chances they show him taking in the film.  Most of the refugees were taken over the mountain by  the American Charles Fawcett at the beginning of the operation and by Hans Fittko later on. Fittko, with his wife Lisa, had established himself at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains in Banyuls, and, for a period of over one year, guided a very large number of refugees across.

Among those that Fry's organization saved, there were Catholics, Protestants, Jews and people of other religions. There were rightists, leftists, centrists and people of other political affiliations. There were writers, artists, politicians, and people of all kinds of trades and professions. But they all had one thing in common: they had fought for democracy and freedom with every grain of energy they possessed. This is the essence of Fry's accomplishment. Very little of it comes through in Varian's War.

With the talent and the effort used in making this film, it should have been easy to tell the true story. The fantasy was not necessary.

Others Who Know

Dr. Charles Ebel, husband of the late Miriam Davenport Ebel, "portrayed" by Julia Ormond
Miriam would have alternately roared with laughter and screamed with righteous indignation at the stupidity of almost every scene.

William Bingham, son of the late Hiram Bingham IV, one of the heroes of Varian's War
The film is dreadfully inaccurate and demeaning to Fry, Feuchtwanger, Miriam Davenport and others, despite the apparent desire to honor them.

Pierre-Rene Noth, son of the late anti-Nazi refugee writer Ernst Erich Noth in Rome (Georgia) News-Tribune, Sunday, April 29, 2001
One good deed deserves another. Certainly, the good deed that saved my life is deserving of an attempt to save the reputation of the man who did so.

Showtime recently aired a new movie, titled Varian’s War, purported to be the true life story of a genuine American hero named Varian Fry. Before the United States entered World War II he went to France on behalf of the American Emergency Rescue Committee, formed an underground network and arranged the escapes of some of Europe’s top intellectual elite — writers, painters, musicians, even some political leaders — whom the Nazis wanted to apprehend and put into concentration camps. Some, but hardly all, were Jewish.

Fry’s experiences and efforts in 1940-41 are well documented but not well known. Both he and many of his co-conspirators later wrote about what happened. He can probably be placed in the company of the better-known Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg as one of the war’s great driven-by-conscience heroes.

In 1996, Varian Mackey Fry was named as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Heros and Martyrs Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem — the first American recipient of Israel's highest honor for rescuers during The Holocaust. 

“In all we saved some two thousand human beings,” Fry wrote. “We ought to have saved many times that number. But we did what we could.” My family constituted five of those 2,000.

I hardly recall the events, having been only 4 at the time. Perhaps, while on my mother’s knee, I might have actually been in Fry’s presence. I don’t know. I have, while doing genealogical research, come up with some letters between my mother, Elena Fels, an opera singer and Jewish, and the Emergency Rescue Committee that indicate Fry’s group was giving her economic support and planning to get the family out of the country. Whether my father, known by his penname of Ernst Erich Noth, who was a German anti-Nazi novelist in exile and a Lutheran, was aided by Fry I do not know. My father was high on Hitler’s “wanted” list; his books had been burned in Germany as soon as the Nazis took power. I have uncovered papers indicating that he was hidden primarily by members of the Dominican Order, which were also then active in saving all kinds of hunted people from what would later become known as The Holocaust. However it was worked out, my mother, myself, my brother Jean-Sebastien, then age 2, and my grandmother, Betsy Schott Fels, were smuggled across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain in the summer of 1941 where we met up with my father, who someone — Fry or the Dominicans — had extricated by a separate route.

From there it was on to Portugal by train, passage on the American liner Excambion, and on to New York City where we all entered the country as political refugees granted asylum under emergency conditions. Given what occurred in Nazi-controlled Europe after this time, it is logical to surmise that had Fry not arranged our secret departure I would not be here, nor my brother, nor my two later-arriving siblings, nor our families. I owe Fry the greatest of debts.

This movie does Fry no justice and only injustices. The story took place in Marseilles, France, but Hollywood chose to film it in Montreal, Canada. The truth goes downhill from there. The errors of fact, of character, of history are too numerous to list here. They are listed in some detail at http://www.varianfry.org/varians_war_en.htm where the light of hope for righting this slur upon history also dwells. The Chambon Foundation is working on an actual documentary of Fry’s activities, titled And Crown Thy Good, which is to air on PBS. Real people who worked with Fry, who were saved by Fry, will then tell the story. It is being made by Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, himself like myself the son of parents who were saved from the Holocaust, although by other means as told in his 1989 feature documentary Weapons of the Spirit.

Meanwhile, Fry — played in the movie by William Hurt as a fop of suspicious sexual orientation (Fry was married ... twice ... and had three children) — has been sent to the extermination camps run by the Hollywood Holocaust. So were many of his friends and associates who have been similarly burned in the ovens that currently pass for “entertainment.”

This warping and destruction of history has gotten so bad that Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in commenting on historical novels that ignore history, wrote: “We may retell their stories badly or well. We may embellish them or get them wrong. But we should not do so blithely, just as we should not scrawl slogans on other people’s houses, or stride into their living rooms to replace the furniture. Thinking that we can is not novel history. It’s novel morality, unworthy of artists and storytellers.” Writing specifically about Varian’s War, also in The Chronicle, about “Debasing History with Bad Fiction,” Dr. Peter I. Rose said: “In the Showtime film, the producers make an earnest attempt to tell the story of a homegrown hero still unknown to most Americans. Unfortunately, what they have wrought does not do justice to the man, his colleagues, or his cause. ... Although [director Lionel] Chetwynd’s interpretation of Fry’s story contains kernels of truth, his film is filled with errors of fact about how the Emergency Rescue Committee and the mission got started, about Fry and his aides, about the selection process, about the role of the French and German authorities. ...Varian’s War is not cinéma vérité, despite the claim of its producers and publicists that theirs is the true story. Those familiar with what actually happened will find the historical distortions inexcusable and are bound to wince at the caricaturing of the rescuers and asylum-seekers.” 

The only real value of this film is in beginning to call America’s attention to one of its forgotten heroes — a man who acted out of conscience and not under orders from his country (which actually often tried to stop him and even reprimanded him for his efforts). It is a story of a rather ordinary American — a journalist, how ordinary can you get? — whose beliefs in the ideals upon which this nation was founded led him into what others now would call heroism.

The source of the title of Sauvage’s upcoming homage to the man and his deeds, And Crown They Good, tells more about what was really happening than the Hollywood version does.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Brotherhood. Varian Fry saw me — if he ever indeed laid eyes on me — as his brother. He recognized the arts, the ability of expression, as the soul of the human race and risked his life in order to save a key portion of that soul.

Nobody told him to do it. He simply knew it was something that had to be done and stepped forward, just because it was right. 

Just because it was the right thing to do. That is, or perhaps has become, one of the rarest forms of heroism in our world. To oppose evil, in any and all forms, in any and all places, for no reason at all is the greatest thing a human being can do.

Varian Fry did this. Out of the billions who have walked the face of the Earth few have. To tell such a story with less that total honesty and accuracy borders on an insult to the man and his memory.

If you want to know more about what he did, read his own book, “Surrender on Demand.” Wait for the documentary to air on PBS. Seek out the several web sites on the Internet that tell this story.

But when this Showtime movie comes up for an award — and it will, because the core of the story is correct and an amazing piece of history — hold your nose.

© 2001, Rome (Georgia) News-Tribune

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