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An Unsentimental Education
Miriam Davenport Ebel
1999, Miriam Davenport Ebel.
Posted at www.varianfry.org with the permission of Dr. Charles Ebel.
About two weeks after the Germans had begun their invasion of the Low Countries [in 1940], I boarded a train in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, bound for Paris via Italy. I intended to sit for examinations at the University of Paris. My fiancé was to follow later to continue his studies towards a doctorate. Such sensible and important plans were not to be altered because of recent international complications.
The train filled up quickly as it rolled across Italy, collecting newly mobilized soldiers in coarse, ill-fitting uniforms. Two of them shared my compartment, along with five middle-aged civilians who were engrossed in the newspapers they had bought before getting on the train. The couple seated opposite me progressed rapidly to the inner pages, spreading the front page before my startled gaze. There, conspicuously displayed, was a large map with Paris at its center and, almost encircling the city, two thick, black arrows coming down from the Belgian border. My city surrounded? Trying as best I could to hide my tears, I fled into the corridor.
Within seconds the two soldiers from my compartment were at my side. One, putting his arm gently around my shoulders asked, in Italian, "What is the trouble, Signora?” My meager Italian had also fled; I answered in French, "I cannot speak Italian." ''Ah, poor Signora, my poor Signora! Your husband is at the front, isn't he?” I could only sob. Then the second soldier joined in, "But don’t cry, Signora, please don’t cry! It will be all right. You will see; it will be all right.” The first agreed, “Yes, you will see; it will be all right, Signora, all right,'' and he took out a clean handkerchief to wipe the tears from my face. I did stop crying then. Their instant sympathy and warm humanity when faced with my grief—never mind that they might soon be looking down the wrong end of "my husband's" gun barrel—was more comforting than they could know. I did not disillusion them when I thanked them for their help.
As it turned out, the pincers had not yet closed around Paris; the train arrived on time, the weather was superb, and Paris had never been more beautiful. All was far from well, however. During that last week of May, things went from bad to worse and my own situation made similar progress.
The Netherlands and Belgium had been crushed by the German armies and, although we did not yet know it, Dunkerque was in flames. Refugees from the North were streaming through Paris on anything with wheels, war hysteria had gripped the city, and parachutists and fifth columnists were rumored to be just about everywhere. Predictably, the police were swarming all over Paris making mass round-ups and interning any and all whose papers were not in impeccable order. Unfortunately, my own American passport and French identity card had chosen this inauspicious moment to expire. These contretemps notwithstanding, I was still hoping against hope to finish my French Master's degree in June.
The rapidly fading University had cancelled its June examinations but there was still enough personnel on board to grant me permission to sit for the equivalent at the University of Toulouse. My problem was staying out of jail long enough to get there. A less than helpful American Embassy declared my plans frivolous and refused to renew my passport for other than immediate repatriation via Bordeaux. At the Prefecture of Police, the renewal of my identity card was rejected out-of-hand by a bearded lady who, with visible relish, was extending the same courtesies to everyone.
Strangely, in the middle of all this it never crossed my mind to question the wisdom of a decision that had brought me to such an impasse in the first place. A succession of events beyond my control, beginning three years earlier, had made facing dead-ends and impossible choices almost routine. Perhaps I should explain.
Shortly before I graduated from college, my father, then my mother, had died quite suddenly. Besides the wrenching shock and grief, my ten-year-old brother and I were left with a small mountain of debts and almost no money. There was no social security for us to fall back on in those days. A Smith College B.A., however magno cum honore in art history, was little more than a one-way ticket to indigence.
After a little thought, I settled on one goal—earning a professional degree. I gambled that, somehow or other, I could manage this before running out of money. There was some reason to believe that, armed with an M.A., I might get a decent job or a good graduate fellowship and make a suitable home for my brother. Fortune seemed to side with me; in 1937 I was granted a full tuition scholarship at NYU’s Graduate Institute of Fine Arts and in 1938 I received a Carnegie Summer Art Scholarship for study at the University of Paris and travel in Europe. My little brother went to stay for three months on an uncle's farm in North Carolina so that I could accept the grant.
The Institut d'art et d'archéologie had designed courses for American students who would pay tuition from their stipends. Shortly after my arrival, I was dumbfounded to discover that, normally, university tuition in France was absolutely free—even for foreigners—right through the doctorate. European students taking our courses paid no fees. They were scandalized to hear that we did. It was from them that I learned that earning at least room and board in Europe would be easy for me; I could give English conversation lessons. American English was newly respectable.
In a matter of days this proved to be true; I was offered a job. At home, I knew it would be nearly impossible to keep myself lodged and fed for one more academic year, let alone care properly for my brother, a still very upset youngster. All things considered, it seemed best to stay on in France. With some reluctance, my uncle agreed to keep my brother on the farm until my return.
By the time war broke out in 1939, I had already completed half of a licence libre and my doctoral thesis topic had been accepted. The war seemed a poor excuse to drop everything; European students were still studying. Even by the end of May 1940, like many another who had been brought up on ''the miracle of the Marne,” I refused to believe that the French might capitulate to the Nazis. It was in this frame of mind that I set about trying to find someone influential to intervene for me with the authorities. When it became apparent that the obvious American pipelines had dried up, I turned to a French friend.
Marguerite had been a sought-after salonnière before her divorce from the Cubist painter, André Lhote. She still preserved from the good old days a few faithful and influential friends in the world of arts and letters. Marguerite decided to ask Professor Charles Lalo, the aesthetician, for help. He was “enchanted to be of service,’’ asked that I be directed to his study, and there, by the light of a very dim bulb (his blackout curtains were drawn), he quickly penned a note to Monsieur le Préfet, passed it to me to read, then sealed it in an official university envelope and gave it to me to deliver. Seeing me to the door with touching politeness, he wished me every good fortune. He was about to leave town himself and I never saw him again.
His kindness won me entrée to a gilded palace where a receptionist, caparisoned in a massive gold chain, ushered me past several leather-padded doors into a high functionary’s office. There, with elaborate courtesy, my identity card was renewed for the purpose of transferring to the University of Toulouse. However, running the bureaucratic maze had cost some five precious days.
Taking the next very normal step was to have unforeseen consequences; within a little over two months I would find myself, against all probabilities, joyfully working on the shady side of French law in a resistance run by an equally unlikely American. But I am getting ahead of my story.
Grateful and euphoric, I went that very evening to thank Marguerite Lhote and to celebrate with her our triumph. I had been there for only a few minutes when one of her neighbors dropped by to give her some not-yet-official news. I can still see him standing just inside the door, a thin young man (he was tubercular) with troubled, dark eyes, a great beak of a nose, and a bald patch that shone when he removed his beret.
"Marguerite,” he said, "there is no need to panic, but the time has come for you to pack up and leave for the south; you have about a week to ten days before the Germans enter Paris. The army in the north is surrounded and defeated." I remembered, then, the slightly premature map that had shocked me crossing Italy. Numbed, we talked quietly for some time before saying our goodbyes. We were all three planning to leave Paris, but we still hoped for a miracle. The good neighbor, Charles Wolff, would soon cross my path again and point my nose in an altogether new direction.
It was now about the 28th of May. On 2 June, I signed out at the local police station, crammed all of my belongings into four suitcases and, helped by the Hôtel de l'Univers' one and only maid, found a seat on the night train to Toulouse. By the time it pulled out of the station, there was standing-room only. Dog-tired, I must have dozed off almost immediately.
Just before dawn I was awakened by a strange young man who was planning to get off at Cahors. I had been sleeping for hours on his uncomplaining shoulder, his arm around me to steady me. Terribly embarrassed, I thanked him for his kindness. "It was nothing, Mademoiselle. My pleasure.” We wished each other “bonne route”” and he left. My fellow-passengers burst out laughing, "We thought he was your husband!” Ours was the last train on that line to run on time; the tracks were bombed the next day.
Toulouse, I quickly found out, had already been swamped by the Exodus. It was the designated center for Belgian refugees and for the Polish Army in France. The population had jumped from a quarter of a million to more than a million in a fortnight. People were sleeping on hotel billiard tables, in lobby armchairs, on the grass in parks, in automobiles, and on farm carts heaped with the family’s belongings. One whole wall of the Capitole, the beautiful old city hall, was white with pitiful notes scratched by people seeking news of children or relatives somehow lost during the headlong flight south.
It was only after fourteen hours of walking, mostly under a blistering sun, that I learned, from a kind young woman, of a room in a cheap, unadvertised rooming-house. A friend of hers had vacated it that afternoon. I wasted no time fumbling my way in the blackout to the rue des Temponnières. The landlady eyed me askance. She "never rented to women; they did their laundry, washed their hair, plugged the sinks, and filled up the septic tank too fast.” After falsely assuring her that I relied on hairdressers and had not done my own laundry in years, she let me have the room. How many days were spent after that getting myself properly registered at the University and with the police I can no longer recall; in the general confusion one had to endure much misdirection and endless, often fruitless, waiting-in-line. What I do remember with painful clarity is that, by the time my papers were in order, my examinations were scheduled to begin the next day, a good two weeks earlier than those cancelled in Paris. I sat for them dutifully and failed them brilliantly.
One day, not too long afterwards, Marguerite Lhote’s good neighbor spotted me on the crowded Place du Capitole, greeted me like a long-lost friend, and invited me to join him and his companions for drinks. He was, I soon discovered, a well-known musicologist, journalist, militant Socialist, and impassioned anti-Communist. He had regularly sheltered Spanish Republican refugees in the basement of his little house in the rue Boulard, and had often intervened with the police on behalf of German intellectual and political refugees. Somehow or other, a friend of his in the Paris Prefecture had helped in this.
In Toulouse, Wolff and his friends were running a kind of informal club in a small café on the Place du Capitole. Their table became for me a kind of political seminar where I quickly lost my American innocence. Socialists, I gathered, came in many shapes and sizes: Christian, Fabian, Vegetarian, Anarchist and Marxist. God alone knew them all! Nor were Marxists all of a piece; some were Leninists, some Trotskyites, some Stalinists. Members of the Communist Party were all Stalinists with an appetite for eliminating dissident left-wingers before fighting Nazis and Fascists. We all spent a good part of our days and most of our evenings in the café, reading newspapers, discussing global politics, and listening to the loudspeakers that had been installed on the square and which, from time to time, gave the latest news. It was unrelentingly bad. On June 10, Italy declared war on France. This was scarcely a military threat but it eliminated any chance of my applying for an Italian transit visa in France. I was effectively cut off from my fiancé in Yugoslavia. On June 17, Pétain sought an armistice with Germany. From London, on June 18, De Gaulle called on his compatriots to carry on the struggle. It was at about this time that I got my last postcard from Yugoslavia telling me that my fiancé had fallen gravely ill.
The Armistice was signed on June 22. On that day Marshal Pétain agreed to surrender on demand the thousands of anti-Nazis who had found political asylum in France. With one stroke of the pen he had betrayed the ideals of the République. We knew then that a whole world had come to an end and the future had abruptly disappeared. Pétain's new government was festooned with names that were anathema to anyone who loved democracy. Among its first decrees were the suppression of the national anthem, La Marseillaise, and the French motto, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; the new watchword was to be Work, Family, Fatherland. What, if anything, one was supposed to sing I cannot recall: We were tempted to try “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” The only good news was that we were in the unoccupied zone. For the rest, we felt only consternation and helpless rage. Perversely, Nature went on favoring the enemy with intensely blue skies, dazzling sunlight, and luminous shade.
Our small circle tried to make the best of what was left, substituting irony, laughter, and song for tears. Pol Ferjac, a Canard enchaîné [French satirical weekly] cartoonist, rose to sublime heights of wit. Our lively airplane mechanic poked fun at la-di-da French, adorning his sentences with outrageous imperfect subjunctives. My own limited repertory of American folk-songs and Afro-American spirituals was welcomed as hopeful, even mildly subversive (the Yanks are coming?). In exchange, our resident musicologist taught me ribald French folk-songs. My education did not stop there.
Wolff took me with him to the Socialists' headquarters in Toulouse. There, off a courtyard, was the Cinéma Pax, their moving-picture house. A large banner, suspended above the entrance, proclaimed its annual closure. It was, however, open for other business; it had been strewn with straw and converted into a dormitory for refugees. Whether by accident or design, these were largely political or intellectual refugees although, among their number, were French trade-unionists and (I think they slept there) some Alsatian policemen who had no intention of going home.
It was here that I met Katia Landau. Her late husband, a leader of the P.O.U.M., had been murdered by the Stalinists in Barcelona. She had been arrested at the same time and long after his death she was still imprisoned. In protest, she inspired her fellow-inmates to join her in a hunger strike and quickly became a venerated heroine. When, for a few days, the P.O.U.M. regained power, her comrades put her on a plane bound for Paris. There, deeply depressed, she tried unsuccessfully to take her own life. I have a vivid memory of her in Toulouse, a diminutive, very beautiful young woman with enormous hazel eyes, a gentle manner, and a keen intelligence.
One day we were chatting in the Cinéma courtyard when Katia touched my arm, saying, "Don't look now but standing near the entrance is a fat little man with a notebook. He was my jailer in Barcelona and he is writing down the names of people staying here. I must get away from this place. We are all in danger. He will see to it that the Gestapo knows where to find us. That is how they work." Katia shared my room for a bit.
In the Cinéma Pax I also met Konrad Heiden, Hitler's unflattering biographer. Another guest in its straw was a fifteen-year-old boy, the son of Danzig Jews, who had biked down from his collège in Paris with a pal. Both kids had only the clothes on their backs and a change of underwear, but they were madly cheerful and prone to clowning. They did much in their short stay in the Pax to cheer the sadder and wiser guests. The Danzig boy, Justus Rosenberg, later turned up in Marseilles where I renamed him “Gussie'' and introduced him to my friends.
One day, when Wolff and I were walking in the Place du Capitole, I recognized a sharp-faced little man coming towards Wolff with a broad smile and outstretched hand. I had known him on a "Bonjour, Monsieur" basis in my hotel in Paris where he usually carried a bottle of wine in a paper bag under one arm. Wolff greeted him warmly and introduced him to me as Monsieur Mehring. The latter said, "Oh, but we have already met in Paris." When Monsieur Mehring had gone on his way, Wolff asked me if I really knew who he was. "No, not really.” I learned, then, that Walter Mehring was one of Germany’s most famous young poets, that he had written popular anti-Nazi songs, and that he was very high on the Nazi's list of wanted men.
Towards the end of my stay in Toulouse—I had been waiting for the trains to start running again and for safe-conducts to be issued—Wolff informed me that he was giving up his hotel room for a couple of days to the mother of his friend, Daniel Bénédite, the "très chic type" in the Paris Prefecture who had been so helpful to political refugees. Madame Bénédite was coming to Toulouse to take back her grandson from an American friend to whom she had entrusted the child for safety's sake during the flight south. The understanding had been that the American friend would take the boy with her to the United States; he had an aunt in Hanover, New Hampshire. The infant's father was a liaison officer with the British Expeditionary Forces and God alone knew his present whereabouts. Would I like to meet the American woman? She was an interesting person, flew her own airplane and that sort of thing. By then I was only too happy to meet a compatriot. It was agreed that Wolff and I would meet her and the baby, Peterkin, at the train and guide them to Wolff's hotel.
After the train from Bordeaux had pulled in, Wolff, exclaiming “There they are!”, pointed out what seemed to me to be a very young girl, obviously American, wearing a pink linen suit, ankle socks, and sandals. Big, beautiful, and blonde, she had a splendidly relaxed, no-nonsense air about her. Better, she soon revealed a warm sense of humor. Mary Jayne Gold and I became friends at first sight; our friendship has lasted a lifetime. Before she left, over a morning coffee at Tortoni's, she told me that she was a rich woman and that, should I run short of cash, she would love to help out. She was planning to go fetch her little dog from where she had left him on the flight south, then go on to Marseilles where she would cable home for money and return to the States. She then gave me the address of her homme d’affaires in Chicago and we said goodbye.
Davenport Ebel in Marseille in1997,
during production of And Crown Thy Good
|Miriam Davenport Ebel
(right), with Mary Jayne Gold,
during production of And Crown Thy Good,
two months before her old buddy's death in 1997
My own plan was to go to Marseilles, have my passport renewed, and see about returning to Yugoslavia to rescue my fiancé somehow or other. A year earlier he had seen me through a long and dangerous illness and I owed him much. It was already clear to me that, sooner or later, Yugoslavia would fall to the Nazis.
Before I left for Marseilles, Wolff, Konrad Heiden, and Katia Landau impressed upon me the urgency of finding some way to "wrap anti‑Nazis in the American flag, their only possible salvation.” All agreed that Marseilles was the only place to search. Thinking this would be easy, I left all fired up. Little did I know!
After a long night on a crowded train, I finally arrived in Marseilles to face the usual problems. The city was jammed with refugees from the north waiting to return, demobilized soldiers awaiting transport home, and crowds of foreigners who could not go home then or, perhaps, ever. There were few taxis and the trams were packed full. After a frantic, day-long search, I found a modest hotel room that I could ill afford; I was down to my last $125.00. After registering, I went back down into the street where I found Walter Mehring standing on the sidewalk looking like a little tramp. He greeted me with obvious pleasure and asked if I had found a room. When I said that I just now had, he asked if he might share it with me for the night; he had not slept in a bed for days. To this day I feel guilty for having refused him.
The next day I dutifully registered with the police, then went to the American Consulate where the receptionist, a hard-looking, peroxide blonde, directed me to take a tram to the annex in a château well out of town. There, a subordinate informed me, from an almost prone position with his feet up on the desk, that passports were being renewed only for repatriation, transport to be provided at the individual's expense. Although I still carried a paid-in-full return passage on the French Line, repatriation was not for me. In fact, the French Line was no longer sailing to the States.
Was anyone, I asked, doing anything for anti-Nazi refugees trapped in France? No. Were there any American organizations in Marseilles looking after their needs? No, none. Oddly, the Consulate's walls were decorated with portraits of Washington, Lincoln, and Herbert Hoover. Franklin Roosevelt's picture was nowhere to be seen.
On the way out I noticed a long queue of refugees waiting to be seen, most of them speaking German. I also observed the Consulate's doorman being offensively rude to them. A strong odor of xenophobia and anti-Semitism permeated the premises.
I was learning fast. The business of my government was business; American interests overseas were economic interests. Americans with jobs or investments overseas had no passport problems; those with moral obligations or family ties were a nuisance, their pleas worthless irrelevancies. Now I understood. I returned to the main Consulate and asked, firmly, to see the Consul General. In due course I was shown into his office. I told him that I had a job teaching English in Yugoslavia (this was true), that I needed to get back to my work, and that my passport needed renewing. It seemed unwise to return to the States where I should be unemployed. He saw to it that my passport was renewed and advised me to write the Consul General in Geneva for advice on how to go about getting an Italian transit visa. After thanking him profusely, I left. Because soap was in very short supply, I lifted a cake in the ladies' room on the way out. It was obvious that getting to Yugoslavia was going to take months. At the Consulate I had also discovered that there was a list of Americans seeking repatriation. Mary Jayne Gold's name was on the list and I had taken down her Marseilles address.
The following morning I had a chilling experience. When I was having breakfast in a small bar, Katia Landau’s Barcelona jailer walked in the door. Worse, he spotted me. (Had he been watching me?) Making his way to my table, he asked if he might join me. I asked him to be seated. "You are a friend of Katia Landau, aren't you?” “Yes, I am." “You must know," he went on, that she is now in great danger. I know that she doesn't trust me because we were once on different sides politically. However, I would like to help her now and I can. What she needs is French citizenship. She can get this through marriage. I can arrange a mariage blanc for her. Would you tell her this for me?” ''Of course, I'd be glad to."
While I had his attention, I decided to ask him a political question. The German-Soviet non-aggression pact was still in force and the Soviet Union was enjoying its share of Poland. “Where do you people stand, now, vis-à-vis De Gaulle?” "We are, he replied, ''observing a benevolent neutrality.” “I see." After that, I never saw him again, but I quickly wrote a note to Katia on the subject. More than ever I was persuaded of the urgency of finding help for my new friends.
By now my own urgent problems were closing in; my funds were being drained away. Shortly, I found a new room in a squalid barrack named Hôtel Paradis Bel-Air in the rue de Madagascar. It had formerly catered to Moroccan laborers but was now filled with refugees. The room was in the attic that I shared with cooing pigeons. Water was cold, in a big pitcher that could be filled in the corridor. Such comfort cost about fifty cents a month.
Next, I found a Catholic refuge originally conceived to serve derelicts but now catering to refugees who greatly outnumbered the old regulars; flophouses and soup-kitchens were enjoying an upscale clientele. My new "restaurant” was in what had once been a handsome stone church, its sanctuary now a kitchen separated from the nave by a wooden partition. For a few cents one was served a simple, wholesome meal with wine, all prepared and served by smiling nuns who passed the meals through windows in the wall. I remember excellent sliced tomatoes and good chic peas. There must have been some kind of fish or meat but I cannot recall what it was.
On the day that I persuaded my hotel to move me to a better room down one flight, one with running cold water and a real window, I ran into Gussie, the kid from Toulouse. He had found no place to stay and needed a roof over his head. He moved into my vacated pigeon roost.
That night I was nearly eaten alive by bedbugs. In a few days, however, the management found me another room, down one more flight and on the other side of the house. That one was clean and there I stayed until late October. It boasted of one narrow iron bed, a small table, a hard wooden chair, a small wardrobe, an enameled tin bidet, and a chamber pot.
So much settled, and my letter to the Geneva Consulate sent off by registered mail, I telephoned to Mary Jayne Gold. We met that day for lunch, brought each other up to date on our wanderings, and I filled her in on the plight of Konrad Heiden, Katia, and the others. She was horrified. Together we determined to find some way of helping them if possible. Mary Jayne was an ardent Gaullist, herself, and passionately anti-Nazi. Even her poodle, Dagobert, would bark furiously whenever one muttered "Hitler! Hitler!"
Since she was also alone in town, she suggested that we eat together. When she learned of my commitment to the Catholic refuge, she was not enthusiastic about either its ambiance or its cuisine; she suggested that I be her guest elsewhere, something that she would much prefer. I accepted with grateful alacrity.
Before long we learned—I forget how, but perhaps from Walter Mehring—that a Dr. Frank Bohn, from the American Federation of Labor, had arrived in town and was working with refugees. That seemed so promising that we wrote to him in care of the Consulate—expressing our interest in being helpful to refugees. In return we got a curt reply; he had all the help he needed, thank you.
We had already tried the American Red Cross; they were helping only the French with free milk to be distributed through French gas companies. Later, when we saw a short notice in the paper that a certain “Valerian Fry" had arrived from the States with a boatload of canned milk, we dismissed the news with "Another milkman!''
The center of American and refugee social life in Marseilles was a café just outside of the American Consulate—the Pelikan. This became our rendezvous and favorite watering place. There were always refugees at other tables, all awaiting some miracle. Mehring, who was often among them, sometimes joined us at our table and occasionally had lunch with us. At lunch, one day, he bemoaned Europe's loss of liberties after the First World War. He cited passports and visas as an example; before 1914 only Russia and Turkey had required such nonsense. When he was a child, to travel back and forth between Paris and Berlin, one simply got on a train. Those were the good old days for dissidents.
We were again at the Café Pelikan one afternoon when Mehring, very excited and furtive-looking, came to our table to speak to me privately. I excused myself and followed him a few paces. He then told me that the man we had all been dreaming about was real and had arrived in Marseilles. This American savior was in the Hôtel Splendide, had money, access to visas, and a list of people he was supposed to rescue. His name was Varian Fry and Mehring had seen him that very day. However, on leaving Fry's room he had been picked up by the police and held for three hours for questioning. He had only now been released. Tomorrow he was supposed to return for another appointment but he was afraid to go back. Would I go, now, and ask for a new appointment in some out-of-the-way café? I should explain his fear of a second arrest.
Of course I was overjoyed to run that errand and asked him to wait for my return in the café. He looked terrified; that would be too dangerous. "All right,'' I replied, ''I'll ask the receptionist in the Consulate to let you wait for me in their waiting-room while I run an errand for 'an ailing friend.’” This was satisfactory and that is what happened. In leaving, I remembered to advise him to help himself to the soap in the men's room.
At the Splendide I took the elevator to an upper floor. In the corridor outside of Fry's door, I took my place at the end of a line of waiting refugees, most of whom I had already seen at the Pelikan. When my turn came, the door opened into a small room facing west. It was hot from the afternoon sun. Inside the now closed door, a young man with a quiet, gentle manner listened politely to my story. At the far side of the room, working at a small table in his shirt-sleeves, was a young man with curly, dark hair, a high domed forehead, and horn-rimmed eyeglasses. I was taken over to him and introduced to Mr. Varian Fry. He rose to his feet with a questioning smile, shook hands, and offered me a chair.
I explained about Mehring's arrest and fears. Fry immediately gave him a new appointment in a café for the next morning. I then asked if he were interested in learning the whereabouts of Konrad Heiden, Katia Landau, and others. He was indeed. I gave him Charles Wolff’s address in Toulouse and he took notes. This done, he asked me what I was doing in Marseilles. I told him that I was waiting for visas to return to Yugoslavia, a slow and intricate process.
|Varian Fry in New York in
1944 by Philippe
(Halsman had been turned down in Marseille by Fry's committee.)
Fry's inscription reads: "For Miriam, who no longer shrieks and coughs!"
''Would you like a job?” Fry asked. I could hardly believe my ears. "Oh, yes! You are doing exactly what I have been dreaming of doing for a long time now." “Very well. Would you be willing to be named Secretary General of a committee that we are planning to set up? We could use a good American name like Davenport." The title, he explained, would require no work other than signing the annual report, but he could use an interviewer in the office that he was hoping to open the next week (i.e., ca. 27-28 August 1940). He could only pay me 3,00O francs a month, 75O a week in other words. He seemed to think that very little; to me it was riches. It was the salary of a lycée professor, more than twice that of a saleslady. The cost to the Committee was about twenty-seven dollars a month.
In seventh heaven I flew back to the Consulate to give Mehring the good news and then, outside, to Mary Jayne to tell her. I described Varian Fry as attractive. When she met him, eventually, she did not find him at all attractive: "Looks to me like a YMCA director." She had a marked preference for macho types with a taste for derring-do whereas I had a weakness for scholars and saints. In a way her assessment was right. We learned much later that Varian was, ostensibly, a representative of the World Committee of the YMCA and carried a letter to prove it, although he was really the emissary of the secular Emergency Rescue Committee. Nevertheless, official Christians were in Varian's funny business up to their eyeballs and almost no cloak-and-dagger types were involved.
Emerescue—our name for it was its New York cable address—had been hastily put together in part by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian. Its first chairman was a prominent Methodist minister. Our Lisbon contact and branch office was the Unitarian Service Committee, its director another man of the cloth. Furthermore, there was another YMCA man in Marseilles, a Mr. Donald Lowrie, who was doubling as representative of the American Friends of Czechoslovakia, a group with its own salvage agenda. Lowrie was an invaluable connection for Fry; he was a friend of Vladimir Vochoc, the Czech consul in Marseilles, a man only too happy to provide bona fide Czech passports to good anti-Nazis needing a travel document in some name other than their own.
Varian's only other acknowledged collaborator in Marseilles was the same Dr. Bohn who had given me and Mary Jayne the brush-off. Bohn's organization, the American Federation of Labor, was innocent of any ties to a church. His plan for his people—German Social Democrats and Italian Socialists—was to acquire a boat to ship the whole lot out at one time. There were two more influential, albeit not publicized, backers of Varian's work: in the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, the President's wife, and, in Marseilles, the American Vice-Consul, Hiram Bingham.
The promised office was opened on schedule. It was one flight up in an old building in the rue Grignan, a side street near the Old Port. One entered by a long, dark corridor leading towards the rear of the building, then up a dark flight of stairs to another dark hallway leading to two rooms at the front. In the first there was some miscellaneous shelving and three or four old tables, each with two stiff, wooden chairs. In the second, Varian's office, there was his desk, some sort of table, and a place for his secretary-typist.
This space had been the place of business of a Jewish hand-bag and leather-goods merchant who had seen the handwriting on the wall. He had sold his business and donated the space rent-free to the Committee. He was still moving out when we moved in. On his last day there he left behind a few leather handbags telling me that we could help ourselves, if we liked. Before long the Russian novelist, Victor Serge, one of my earliest “clients,” was happy choose one for his girl friend. (It was not long thereafter that Serge brought the surrealist, André Breton, to my desk.)
We were a very mixed bag on the staff. Two of the interviewers were German ex-social workers, cold and very professional. Another was a handsome, good-natured, young Austrian Catholic aristocrat, Franzi von Hildebrand, who had once been a member of the Heimwehr. In our office he was known as Monsieur Richard. His politics were no longer what they once had been. The office treasurer and manager was an internationally esteemed management consultant and efficiency expert, Heinz Ernst Oppenheimer. He designed our interview cards and set up our books so that everything could be accounted for under scrutiny. The books were, of course, fiddled.
Varian's secretary was a young Polish woman, Lena Fischmann, who had worked for a Jewish relief organization in Paris. She was very bright, lively, tireless, and polyglot. The German poet, Hans Sahl, praising her accomplishments, once said that she was the only person he had ever known who could speak Yiddish in six different languages. To Oppenheimer, who loved to tease, she was known as Fischport; he called me Davenfisch.
By far the most important member of the staff was the quiet young man who had opened the door to me at the Splendide. He knew how to do, and did, all of the things that Varian knew little about and was better off not doing. Albert O. Hirschman, known then as Albert Hermant, had been born in Berlin and educated in the French Gymnasium. He left Germany in 1933. By University training he was an economist. Despite his youth, he had already seen combat in the armies of the Spanish Republic and of France. Between these engagements he had found time to teach in an Italian university and do anti-Fascist underground work there.
Now he was equipped with pockets full of papers in the name of Albert Hermant, all wonderfully en règle and all false. His French army commanding officer, when defeat was inevitable, had called in those among his men who were refugees and told them to choose their names and birthplaces. He was going to give them demobilization papers as French citizens. Hirschman chose Albert Hermant, born in Philadelphia, USA. With this he was later able to get a French “certificat de vie," and memberships in the Auberges de Jeunesse, le Club des sans club, etc. Mary Jayne and I called him Hermant-the-Varmint behind his back; Varian called him Beamish.
Another polyglot, Hermant was rather tall with large, innocent-looking gray eyes and a rare, but sweet, boyish smile, all perfect for his job. He worked mostly outside of the office, arranging black market deals to get our money, finding genuine (but false) passports and French identity cards or demobilization papers for clients in need.
Varian Fry, our boss, was the one who visited the American Consulate, paid official calls on the police, met with friendly priests or the heads of other relief agencies, and visited the clients who were too endangered to came to the office. Some of the latter were hidden in bordellos, or maisons de rendez-vous, where discretion kept the police at a distance.
Varian had got his job by default. Although the Emergency Rescue Committee had been very successful in enlisting powerful support and in raising funds, it had been far less fortunate in finding someone qualified to send to France on its mission. In the end, rather apologetically, Varian had stepped forward to say that, if they should fail to find someone better, he would volunteer to go. He had had no previous experience in relief work or clandestine activity and he was only thirty-two years old. However, he could manage quite well in French and German and he had been abroad in the past. Above all, he was exceptionally well-read and familiar with the works of the writers and artists on the list of those to be rescued. His offer was accepted. Consequently, after getting a leave of absence from his editorial job with Foreign Policy Association Books, he boarded the Pan-American Clipper in early August, carrying with him enough clothing for a summer vacation abroad, an air mattress, a down-filled sleeping bag (he had heard that accommodations were in short supply), a list of two hundred people to be rescued if he could find them, the addresses of several individuals who might be helpful, three thousand dollars in cash taped to his leg, and a letter of recommendation signed by Sumner Welles.
As it turned out, a better man could not have been chosen for the job. Committed, self-righteous, and publicly imperturbable, he was, in addition, always correctly got-up in a well-tailored (newly purchased at Brooks Brothers) pin-striped suit, Finchley shirts with detachable collars, good cuff-links, good shoes, a Patek-Philippe watch, and a Homburg hat. A Hotchkiss old-boy and a Harvard graduate in Classics, he had the bearing to match, that of a full-blown American "preppie." His direct, unblinking regard and cordial, impersonal smile spoke louder than words. “I am a pleasant enough fellow, my business is above reproach, and I shall not be deterred."
With us and with our clients he was warm, sensitive, witty, and relaxed. By the end of the day he was usually well lubricated with one—or several—of the grands crus of Claret or Burgundy, topped off by some old Armagnac with his coffee. At our conferences in his hotel room (he had moved to a large room) he sat about in his underwear—Black Watch or Royal Stuart plaid boxer shorts—although we all remained fully clad. Here he became sometimes playful, sometimes ribald, sometimes raucous. (We all did.) Although we were acutely aware of the gravity of our deliberations and the inevitably tragic consequences of our decisions for many of the supplicants, the atmosphere was far from conspiratorial or dreary. Occasionally the occupants of neighboring rooms would complain about our loud “parties.”
These conferences marked the end of long, hard-working days. Ostensibly we were a general relief agency; no sign at the door said more than Centre Américain de Secours, a bland American aid center. When asked what we were doing, we replied that we were there to advise people on how to emigrate to America and to give financial assistance where needed—all perfectly legal. Our financial assistance was either enough to live on and/or travel on, or none; general relief cases were sent to other agencies. When we opened at eight every morning, a long, snaking queue of desperate people was already jamming the two corridors and the flight of stairs leading to our office.
From eight until noon we interviewed as many as we decently could. I know that I saw some forty every day and the others saw as many. After the sacred two hours of lunch, we began our conferences in the office, stopped at seven for dinner, ate between seven and nine, and then went to Varian's room to continue conferring. Before the next day we had to decide among us who could be helped and who not. Our day usually ended between midnight and one a.m. This went on seven days a week. The only leisure time was mealtime and, at times, that was business, too.
In the beginning I was timid in these conferences because of my utter inexperience and a mistaken idea that the others were more knowledgeable. I remember with gratitude how Hermant stiffened my backbone by insisting, in private, that I was every bit as good a judge of merit as the others and that I should defend my clients forcefully. I thereupon became as pushy as the pushiest and many of my people enjoyed instant success.
Early on our staff was augmented by two more Americans. One, Charles, a southern boy from South Carolina, was a young artist, athlete, and jazz trumpeter. The other, Dick [Leon] Ball, was a big, tough expatriate who had a lard factory someplace in France. Both had served in the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps and both were mixed up in trying to help stranded British Expeditionary Force men get back to England. Charlie became our doorman and receptionist, dressed in his only suit of clothes, his uniform. His friendly smile reassured our clients and his uniform made us look respectable. Dick Ball did not work in the office; he became our sheep-dog for herding the more helpless of our clientele over the Franco-Spanish border. Before long Walter Mehring joined the crew as a consultant on the background of lesser-known German and Austrian applicants; he was extremely knowledgeable and scrupulously fair. The poet, Hans Sahl, played a similar role.
Of course, our real purpose—and the police understood this—was the exportation, as expeditiously as possible, of people the Gestapo would like to catch. For the most part, at that moment, the French officials still in place were decent enough to try not to notice our activities until forced to. The uniformed members of the German and Italian Armistice Commissions were in town and much in evidence on the Canebière, however, and this did make everyone a bit nervous. Nevertheless, during the first six weeks we did a land-office business.
Technically, the only way out for our people was through Spain to Portugal. For this one needed, in principle, a valid passport, an overseas visa, Portuguese and Spanish transit visas, a French exit visa, and a safe-conduct to the frontier. Our problems stemmed from the fact that many of our people were stateless and had no passports at all, that they could not get French exit visas, and that, for many, waiting to have an American visa approved might take a fatally long time. For some, temporary visitor's visas designated "in lieu of passport" were already awaiting them at the American Consulate. If the person were not too well known, Portuguese and Spanish visas could be put on these documents by the appropriate consulates in Marseilles. Thereafter, the only remaining hurdles were traveling in France without a safe-conduct and crossing into Spain without an exit visa. The real trouble was that the American visa could be issued only in the person's real name, something far too risky for famous anti-Nazis or anti-Fascists. (By the time Klaus Barbie—the “Butcher of Lyons”—came along, this rule had conveniently been changed.).
In the first few weeks Varian was able, through Donald Lowrie's friendship with the Czech consul, to get genuine Czech passports bearing our clients' own pictures and names of their choosing. On these they got Siamese, Chinese, or Belgian Congo overseas visas, and the necessary Portuguese and Spanish transit visas. If they already had their American visitor's visa, that was pocketed. Konrad Heiden was one of the early beneficiaries, but the unfortunate Katia Landau had to wait for months for her chance to escape to Mexico.
At the Spanish border, if the French guards were pleasant, our people might get to cross over on the train. If not, they had to dismount and climb over the hill on foot. To help in this Varian kept, behind his mirror, a map of the path furnished by earlier, enterprising refugees. Departing clients were allowed to make a copy. What they absolutely had to do was seek out the Spanish border post to get an entry stamp placed on their Spanish visas. Those who overlooked this detail ended up in the Figueras concentration camp.
To avoid creating suspicion caused by a flood of Czechs crossing into Spain bound for improbable places, Hermant also managed to arrange for Lithuanian and Polish passports, and for a way to send some men to North Africa, those who could, under no circumstances, cross Spain. This last was accomplished with false French demobilization papers. All else failing, we went in for false French identity cards. These at least kept people out of jail. One of our clients, Bill Freier, an Austrian artist, made flawless identity cards. Unfortunately he was one of those whom we were unable to help once he was found out and arrested but, God only knows how, he managed to survive both Buchenwald and Auschwitz. As I am writing this, he still works as a cartoonist in Paris.
As the days wore on, I became more and more depressed by the number of endangered people who deserved help but were unknown to the old-boy network; recommendations made in New York fixed our conditions for giving assistance. We had our “first list" of some two hundred names which was augmented from time to time by others approved in New York.
When I told Mary Jayne about this problem, she understood immediately and wanted to help right the wrong. But how? She had already decided to postpone going home but she was, herself, running out of funds. Most of her money was blocked in the States. More could be had only by dealing in a black market where she had no connections. She offered to give the Committee $3,000 to help those not recommended by New York provided we could also help her to get sufficient money for her personal needs.
Varian bristled and refused outright to have anything to do with this proposal when I put it to him. “I know nothing about that woman! How do I know she's trustworthy? She’s just another rich playgirl, probably one with a passion for dukes and duchesses and whose friends are ultra-reactionary."
Hermant, who had witnessed this scene, later took me aside and said, "Take me to your friend. I'll help her." He was as good as his word and, in a very short time, the Centre Américain de Secours was some 330,000 francs richer. The money was specifically earmarked for those not on the New York lists. I called the new arrangement the "Gold List" and supervised its disbursements until I left Marseilles. One of those who was so helped, Karol Sternberg, has just retired from directing the International Relief Committee in New York, a descendant of our old outfit. Mary Jayne more than repaid Hermant's kindness by later running a successful errand for him to get some men released from a high security concentration camp.
It was a lot easier to persuade Varian to keep on hand a huge roll of Salvation Army meal-tickets for those who came to our door in real need, but who were only general relief cases. At least we did not send them away empty-handed after hours of waiting. Another of our problems was already solved by Varian’s hire as interviewer of a young Rumanian, Dr. Marcel Verzeano (“Monsieur Maurice”) who doubled as our in-house physician. For dental care I drove a hard bargain with my own dentist.
There was one more possible source of distress that I nipped in the bud. Our social-workers, trained to regard supplicants as welfare cases, objected to some of our clients turning up at the best bar in town, the Cintra, for apéritifs in the evening and "wasting our money." (How did they know?) In an angry tirade, I countered that once we had given them the money it was theirs, not ours, and that the recipients, men and women of some distinction, knew best how to keep up their morale and nourish their self-respect. We heard no more about cutting the allowances of wastrels.
Because of a frightening misadventure, before long I was called on for a ludicrous assignment—that of selecting proper men's attire. What happened is this: early in September Walter Mehring set off for Lisbon armed with a beautiful Czech passport fully visaed and his American visa in his pocket. At Perpignan, near the Spanish border, he had to change trains. Because all had gone so smoothly, and with freedom now in sight, he decided to celebrate with a drink in a local café. Within minutes a plain clothed policeman picked him up, discovered that he was a foreigner traveling without a safe-conduct, and took him to the police station. From there Mehring was shipped by train to Saint-Cyprien, the pest-hole camp of France. Fortunately, he had not been searched so he was able to shred his lovely Czech passport in the train's toilet and flush it onto the tracks.
Somehow he was able to inform the Committee of his whereabouts and our Corsican lawyer was able to get him, once back in Marseilles, a residence permit valid for two months. This was accomplished at the Prefecture where Mehring was excused from being present on grounds that he was too sick to come himself. The doctor's certificate, submitted in proof, was from a doctor whom the Prefect himself had recommended.
Under these circumstances, Varian deemed it wise to put Mehring up in the Splendide and keep him out of circulation. In looking back over the events, Varian concluded that Mehring’s worn, rumpled clothing, his tousled hair, sharp little face, and furtive manner had signaled to the detective that he had found the pickpocket for whom they had long been searching. It had been our fault for not seeing to it that Mehring was properly dressed for his journey to freedom. I was instructed to go shopping with him to make sure that he was dressed like a gent.
In the best shop in town my battle began in earnest. Mehring refused adamantly even to consider a suit or, for the matter of that, a proper shirt and tie. The only shirt that he would countenance was a knit, brown cotton polo shirt. Somehow we managed to agree on a tweed sport jacket, grey flannel trousers, a belt, and decent shoes. Mehring also put a brown wool necktie in a pocket for emergencies. All this did little to improve his over-all image. Within five minutes he managed to look as if nothing draped well or buttoned straight, and as if everything had been slept in for days.
This excursion prompted another: shortly Hermant-the-Varmint emerged from his refugee cocoon in a lightweight tweed suit that would pass muster in New York, once he got there, and would permit him to wear other trousers with the jacket.
Some of our most worrisome clients, other than Mehring, were the writers Franz Werfel and Heinrich Mann. I never got to meet them for Varian always went to see them himself. Nevertheless, I heard a good deal on the subject. Werfel was overweight, aging, and recovering from a heart attack. Heinrich Mann was old, his wife no athlete. Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel was plump, rich, and loaded down with, other than her extensive wardrobe, the manuscripts of former husbands and lovers. The four could not risk going through Spain under their own names. Only Thomas Mann's son, Golo, was sufficiently unknown to risk traveling on his American visa.
Varian, who needed to go to Lisbon early in September for direct, uncensored communication with the New York office, decided to escort these people to Lisbon himself. Accordingly, after a slight delay caused by Mrs. Werfel's inability to find a suitable hatbox, the party set off with Dick Ball along in case of need. At the frontier there was trouble; exit visas were demanded and Varian alone had one. In the end, it was decided that Varian would go through on the train with all of the luggage and the others would go over the hill on foot. Thus, half guided, half carried by Dick Ball, the party made it to the Spanish frontier post. The only sour note was struck by Werfel who, at the frontier, outraged the benevolent Ball by trying to tip him. Varian, meanwhile, successfully passed through customs with seventeen pieces of luggage, more than half of them filled with women's clothing. All met successfully at Port Bou and, after a little more confusion, arrived safely in Lisbon.
Back in Marseilles, because Franzi von Hildebrand had departed two days earlier, there remained in the office only Oppenheimer, Hermant, Lena, and myself. Lena moved into Varian's room at the Splendide to hold that fort and to keep an eye on Mehring. It was during Fry's absence that Vichy moved to round up Walter Mehring, Rudolph Hilferding, former German Finance Minister, Rudolph Breitscheid, former leader of the Social Democrats in the Reichstag, and Arthur Wolff, a Berlin criminal lawyer who had defended many of the victims of Berlin street fights.
I cannot remember how I got the news. I only recall being conducted into Varian’s room at the Splendide by Lena who was very upset. There I saw Mehring lying half unconscious on the bed and shaking from head to foot. Lena had told the detectives that Mehring was too sick to be moved but they were still insisting that he be produced. “You talk to them,” she said. I agreed but I told her that she should get in touch with our friendly American Vice-consul, Hiram Bingham, explain to him the emergency, and ask him to hurry to the hotel. I would, in the meantime, talk to the police to keep them occupied and see what I could do. Bingham had earlier rescued the writer, Lion Feuchtwanger, from a camp and hidden him in his villa. I was certain he would come over if he possibly could.
In the lobby I found the usual clutch of about half a dozen men who looked like pimps. Suddenly I recalled my empty title of General Secretary of the Centre, became conscious of the power and prestige of my country, and marched over to do battle. After introducing my titled self to these Messieurs, I proceeded to explain in vigorous French the international renown of our desperately ill poet”—and by then he really was ill—the great concern for his welfare of a good many influential men and women in the United States, not the least of whom was Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wife of the President. She was, I underscored, taking a personal interest in Mr. Mehring’s health and well-being. Should anything happen to this sick man while they were moving him, it would be the worst possible publicity for France. If they valued America's feelings of good will towards their suffering country, they would be well advised to leave Mr. Mehring in peace.
After some minutes of ringing changes on these themes—interrupted at intervals by apologetic police protestations that they were only following orders, that they had no authority to change their orders, that their superior had given them firm instructions, etc.—I caught sight of Hiram Bingham's imposing figure pacing the lobby not far off, bless him! His towering height and prematurely white hair made everyone else in the lobby look insignificant. In triumph, I was able to conclude, ''And, Messieurs, if you have any doubts about the truth of my statements, you have only to look over there where the American Consul is carefully observing this scene, so great is his interest in the outcome!
That did it. There was a short police huddle. Then one broke away to tell me that they would telephone to their chief. On his return, he told me that the chief had agreed to give us ten minutes to get a new doctor’s certificate for Mr. Mehring and, if we succeeded, they would leave him free.
I went to Lena to give her the news saying, “Call the doctor." Then I returned to the police to ask them how, in God’s name, we could get all this done in ten minutes when we had no car, when taxis were non-existent, and when the doctor lived quite some distance away. "No problem, Mademoiselle; we shall drive you over in our car." Lena came over to us to say that the doctor was writing out a new certificate. At the invitation of the police, we were escorted to their car and driven to the doctor's office. Lena ran in to collect the certificate, we were driven back to the Splendide, and the police left satisfied. We thanked Hiram Bingham profusely and went upstairs to give Mehring the good news. Unfortunately, the other three men had already been sent off to forced residence in Arles and, of them in the end, only Wolff was saved. Months later, Walter Mehring was lucky enough to get the dormitory bunk, on a ship bound for Martinique, that had been destined for the luckless Hilferding.
Lena still had to wire our good and bad news to Varian in Lisbon. We spent some time trying to dream up an innocent-sounding message to convey the news. Eventually I thought of one based on antique medical terminology and our private nickname for Mehring, “the Baby." We had so named him because of his diminutive size and never-ending problems. We wrote: ''Baby has passed crisis but other children quarantined." This brought Varian back to Marseilles at breakneck speed for he had understood the wire to mean that Mehring was safe but that all of the other refugees had been arrested.
Varian returned from Lisbon about September 9. A number of bad things then happened in rapid succession. Frank Bohn's scheme to rescue all of his people and some of ours by boat blew up in his face costing him nearly all of his money. Now in very bad odor, he left for the States, abandoning his Socialists and trade-unionists to Varian's care.
Varian was called over to the Consulate and shown a communication from the State Department received via the Embassy in Vichy. It said, "This government cannot countenance the activities as reported of Dr. Bohn and Mr. Fry and other persons in their efforts in evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintains friendly relations." (Countries in the plural is puzzling.)
The Prefecture had not only complained to the Marseilles Consulate about Bohn and Fry but also about Lowrie’s efforts on behalf of Czech soldiers. The Prefecture had warned the Czech Consul not to issue any more false passports. Lowrie and his friendly consul thereupon gave up helping us. Our clients who still had Czech passports with valid visas on them were advised to leave pronto.
The American Consul General advised Fry himself to leave at once before he was arrested or expelled. Fry merely wired New York to send a replacement and stayed on.
Portugal then stopped giving transit visas based on Chinese, Siamese, or Belgian Congo visas. The Honorary Panamanian Consul in Marseilles consented to issue a few, but the Spanish then closed their frontier, then reopened it, then closed it again. What would Spain do next?
The first of October brought the cruelest news. Henceforth, Portuguese consulates would have to telegraph visa requests to Lisbon for approval but, before that, they were required to see a genuine overseas visa and documentary proof of a fully paid passage on a ship sailing on a fixed date. The Spanish consulates were likewise told to cable Madrid for visas but, for men of military age from nations at war, they could not even cable.
On his way back from Lisbon, Varian had stopped off to see Sir Samuel Hoare, British Ambassador to Spain. There were well over a hundred BEF men then living in and around Marseilles, many rather ill-guarded in the Fort Saint-Jean in the Old Port. Charlie Fawcett and Leon Ball had, long since, been trying to get them back to England. Sir Samuel Hoare agreed to provide Varian with $10,000, via our New York office, so that Varian could get British officers and men out of France and, with them, if possible, some of our own people. Varian thus became a British agent.
October was such a grim month that Varian turned once more to the idea of marine transport. This boat project failed a couple of nights before I left for Yugoslavia but, luckily, without compromising any of our people this time. The night that I left, just before I got on the train, Hermant gave me a list of names to send to the New York Committee from Geneva with instructions to sweeten their bank accounts, by the sums listed, with Sir Samuel Hoare's funds. This black market deal would protect the British as well as us. My little errand made me technically guilty of a capital offense, espionage, and it was the only time that I consciously risked my life.
In early October there were vacancies on our staff following the departures of Franzi von Hildebrand and the social workers. By this time Charles Wolff's "chic type" friend from the Paris Prefecture had been demobilized, had no intention of returning to Paris, and needed a job, as did one of his army pals. I learned about this from Mary Jayne on the day that Danny Bénédite’s pal, a young research chemist named Jean Gemähling turned up at her hotel. It was easy to persuade Varian to hire Jean, a blonde Alsatian who spoke British public school English, fluent German, was well-read in modern German and French literature, and was an honorably discharged French veteran who had fought at Dunkerque. Jean was an ardent Gaullist and, reassuring for the authorities, a good Catholic.
Danny was another matter. “Préfecture de Police in Paris did you say? God almighty, whatever made you think we could use one of those around here? I've had quite enough trouble with the cops without putting one of them in my office! No! Not on your life! Ridiculous!”
However, Jean was such a success that, in a week or two, Jean and I were able to bring the matter up once more. Varian recognized that someone who knew how to write French governmentese, and who understood how prefectures worked and thought, could be extremely useful. After an interview, he hired both Danny and his English wife, Theodora. As it turned out, without these two, once Varian had been arrested and expelled from France by Vichy (at the suggestion of the American Embassy) in August, 1941, the Committee's work would have come to an end. In fact, the Bénédites managed to carry on our work from a mountain camp in Provence until the Liberation. Jean eventually left the Committee to set up the Service de Renseignements de Combat which became, later, part of the Mouvement de la Libération Nationale’s information services. Our Committee had given these three good hands-on training.
It was towards the end of October that Gussie became our office boy. My friend, Charles Wolff, joined our office staff only after I had left. Both would later join the French resistance, but Wolff would be tortured to death by the French Militia, the "Gestapette."
Before my departure I made one more minor contribution that was to have interesting consequences. On one of the only two days that I took off from work, I asked Mary Jayne and Theo Bénédite if I might go along with them on a tram trip to the country. They were planning, that Sunday, to look for a little house for themselves in the country, one with a small garden for Peterkin and lots of fresh air. Jean asked to come along, too. The four of us took the tram for Aubagne which, once past the Cimetière Saint-Pierre, rolled along up in the hills. At La Pomme, the next station, we got off to start walking back to a café that had been spotted. There they might know of something to rent in the neighborhood. The road that we walked bordered the main Marseilles-Toulon rail line. Very shortly, on our right, we saw an underpass and, flanking it we could see two tall, stone gate posts. These were carved with the name "Air Bel.” That struck me as an omen, a sign. "I'll be damned!" I blurted, ''Look at that! That is the name of my flea-bag hotel, the Paradis-des-punaises Bel Air, in reverse. It must be good! Let's go look!" The ever-practical Mary Jayne sounded bored, "Oh, no. That can't be anything. Much too big." But I had spotted a little man raking leaves in the middle distance beside the long, curving driveway. "We could always ask that little man if there is anything to rent nearby."
That made sense to the others and Jean, who was French, was sent to inquire. As it happened, the little man was the owner of Air Bel, an unoccupied but completely furnished—linens and all—huge old house three stories tall. Out of sight from the highway, it was set on a broad, high terrace shaded by ancient plane trees and overlooking a pool with fountain, an overgrown formal garden, an immense park and, beyond, a view past mountains to the sea. At first the little man said "Nothing to rent around here." Then, when Jean explained that those American ladies were looking for a house in the country, the little man brightened, "Americans did you say? Uh—just a minute. That could be different, but it would be very expensive. Let me get my keys."
He returned with his keys, introduced himself as Dr. Thumin, explained that he lived next door with his sister, and led us up to Air Bel. He guided us through every room (as well as the greenhouse) on all three floors of that wonderful old mas, its furnishings pure Empire, Deuxième Empire, and “Proust.” “Too big,'' said Mary Jayne. "Yes, much too big," said Theo, and I could see why. But I remembered Tenney House, the cooperative house where I had lived at Smith College. There, by sharing housekeeping chores and out-of-pocket expenses for food, we had lived better than most for very little money.
In my mind's eye I saw Air Bel as a splendid, private hotel for the right people. “Look,'' I ventured, “What if we all shared the costs of rent, food, a cook, and a maid, and if we invited my clients, the Bretons and the Serges to live here, too? The Committee would pay their shares since we are supporting them anyhow. We could live like kings, have excellent company, and all that for next to nothing. I know that André Breton would love every inch of this place and so would Serge." (Victor Serge was, as it happened, an old friend of Danny Bénédite.)
Dr. Thumin's "very expensive" rent was 1,300 francs a month—about thirteen dollars. Some quick figuring proved that such luxury could be an undreamed-of bargain. It was decided that Danny and Theo would sign the lease, Mary Jayne would advance the money, and we would reimburse her later. Theo would also find a cook and a maid.
No time was lost. By the following weekend we had all moved in and shared our first communal meal. It was a brilliant dinner party in the great pseudo-Spanish refectory. The original members of the cooperative were Mary Jayne Gold; Theodora, Daniel, and Peterkin Bénédite, Victor Serge, his friend Laurette Séjourné, and Vladimir, his son; André Breton, Jacqueline, his wife, and Aube, their daughter, Jean Gemähling, and myself. Varian Fry was present, but only as a barely tolerated weekend guest who slept under my rabbit-fur coat. At that time, Mary Jayne did not want him as a permanent member. Later she changed her mind and he was invited shortly after I had left.
As I had predicted, Breton was enchanted with the “château," its furnishings, and the site, finding them all perfectly surreal. Serge, likewise delighted, soon wittily renamed the place “Château Espère-Visa.” This is the establishment that later became famous as the last great gathering-place for the Surrealists under Breton's leadership.
It is hard for me to put into words how I felt at this time without surrendering to hyperbole: I can still see myself standing on Air Bel's terrace in the late afternoon sunshine, the great, golden leaves of the plane trees drifting down around me. I knew then that this was a moment of rare privilege. Somehow, through a strange confluence of chance encounters and unlikely coincidences, I had been swept into a place where grief, consternation, disillusionment, and anger had become the gentle servants of justice. That space had now been expanded to accommodate delight.
Our little tribe of amateurs, relying solely on brute intellect and the leadership of a reincarnated “Scarlet Pimpernel," had been successfully outwitting Hitler's Gestapo to save the very people Nazism most feared. This was intoxicating enough. Now, Air Bel, a country refuge and a place preserved intact from another world, promised us rest, refreshment, and the delights of good conversation at the end of the day. I was fully aware that life would probably never again offer me another such moment.
Looking out over the pool to the mountains and sea beyond, I lingered over the opening line to André Breton's Poisson soluble:
"Evening at this hour spread her white hands above the magic fountain."
By now all of my own visas were in order. On the following Monday, hoping to return, but fearing that I might fail, I said goodbye to the "château” and, unable to choke back my tears, set out for Switzerland, Italy, and Yugoslavia.
Miriam Davenport Ebel in Marseille in 1997
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© Copyright 1999. Miriam Davenport Ebel. All rights reserved. Revised: June 03, 2009