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by Mary Jayne Gold
© 1980 by Mary Jayne Gold. All rights reserved.
In 1939 I was a young American Wasp living in Paris on the fashionable Avenue Foch. I divided my time among Paris, London, and the chic resorts, feeling at home in Cannes, Biarritz, Majorca, and St. Moritz. I crisscrossed France, England, and northern Italy many times a year, visiting friends as well as innumerable museums and churches. I skied all winter, flew my own plane, attended too many cocktail parties and grands galas, appropriately dressed by the Paris haute couture.
It was a pleasant carefree time when life went by at a more leisurely pace and there was always a room for the privileged few at the right hotel when you rolled up without reservations.
Most of this came to an end when war was declared. The first year, which was called the "phony war," was rather a bore. Nothing much happened on the military fronts and there was nothing much to do in the rear. Except that you knew it couldn't last, and a vague anxiety kept inching ever closer. Then it happenedthe earthquake, I meanand I found myself on the congested roads of France, fleeing before the German Army.
The upheaval that accompanied the fall of France tossed me into the streets of Marseilles along with thousands of other refugees, both French and foreign. It was my intention to get my papers in order and leave for the United States. But in a matter of days I became involved with a young adventurer who had deserted from the Foreign Legion. A few weeks later I joined Varian Fry's Emergency Rescue Committee, which was to perform that amazing Scarlet Pimpernel operation, spiriting hundreds of anti-Nazi refugees out of France by legal and illegal means. Finding myself at this unprecedented juncture, without the slightest hesitation I decided to remain in Marseilles. And 1940-41 proved to be quite a year for a nice girl from Evanston, Illinois.
The whole democratic world had watched apprehensively as the Germans broke through Holland and swept over Belgium and northern France. They occupied Paris a little over one month after the initial attack. Within a few days American Clippers, giant transatlantic hydroplanes, brought over the films of Hitler's victorious troops goose-stepping down the Champs-Elysées. Everybody in the U.S.A. could see that damn flag with the twisted cross hanging from the Arc de Triomphe. People could hardly believe their eyes; it had all happened so quickly. The ugly sight sent a shiver of horror down the spines of café society and intelligentsia alike. Both groups considered Paris, la Ville Lumière, their Spiritual Home or at least the Secondary Residence of the Soul.
In New York all those, both American and foreign, who could read between the headlines or who habitually wrote between them, all those who had contributed to the arts and letters or had protected their development, knew that the universal values that had been so bravely upheld and laboriously nurtured over the centuries were now in danger of being trampled and swept away. More immediately, the German victory meant that the opponents of fascism from every country in occupied Europe who had taken political asylum in France would now be trapped in Nazi-controlled France.
These fears were realized when they read the terms of Pétain's Armistice. By Article 19 the French were obliged to surrender on demand all Germans named by the German Government. The new French Government further bound itself to prevent the removal of Germans to French overseas possessions or to foreign countries. This was soon extended to include anybody from countries of occupied Europe whom the Germans wanted. In other words, all enemies of Hitler's regime would be kept on the shelf, some of them in internment camps, others still on the loose, until the Gestapo could take their pick.
The realization of these facts set the telephone wires humming between informed and disquieted liberals. Certain groups began to take action. Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, the eminent theologian and chairman of the American Friends of German Freedom, declared an emergency. He had been founder of this organization, formed in 1936 to provide support for the socialist anti-Nazi underground of Germany. Dr. John Lovejoy Elliott, leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and other leaders in church and labor movement academic circles joined up, as did Norman Thomas, perennial candidate for president on the Socialist ticket, who in his later years was called the "Conscience of America." Karl Frank (alias Paul Hagen) was Research Director of the AFGF. He was the former leader of the Neubeginnen, a splinter group of socialist leanings that had been active in the German resistance. Karl's organization had maintained a network of contacts along the borders of Germany with members of the fragmented underground inside the country. Those lines were now cut off. But those who had heroically kept them open for so long had to be saved.
A few days after the French Armistice was signed in mid-June 1940, the American Friends of German Freedom held a fund-raising luncheon in New York's Commodore Hotel for about two hundred people. Dr. Frank Kingdon, a prominent Methodist churchman, presided. Raymond Gram Swing, one of the nation's most eloquent and beloved radio commentators, and Karl Frank exposed the refugees' plight. Reinhold Niebuhr, for the only recorded time in his life, made the appeal for money. Blank checks had been set beside every place. As the young women began to circulate around the tables to collect the checks a sort of groundswell occurred. Hands were raised to pledge money and services. People rose from the floor to speak. Among them was Louis Fischer, dean of foreign correspondents and one of the first Americans to be accredited to the Soviet Union back in the 1920s. Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann, Germany's legendary man of letters, reported that her father heard daily from persons distinguished in the arts and letters, now fugitives in France. Mann was in fact in California single-handedly running a relief organization. She pledged his collaboration and hers. Others stood up to say that some sort of organization should be created with the purpose of rescuing victims of all nationalities who had served the anti-Nazi cause.
Those who had arranged the luncheon in behalf of the American Friends of German Freedom gratefully endorsed the proposals from the floor. That afternoon the Emergency Rescue Committee was founded.
The Committee was functioning in three weeks' time. Dr. Kingdon accepted the presidency. Under the direction of Karl Frank, the staff of the American Friends of German Freedom was made available and opened an office in the Chanin Building, across from Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Mildred Adams, well known in philanthropic circles and experienced in social work, became secretary. The high-spirited young Ingrid Warburg, niece of Felix Warburg, the Rothschild of Scandinavia, became executive assistant to the president. Joseph Buttinger, émigré leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialists, played a key role as adviser and in gaining financial support. Perhaps the most enthusiastic and able of them all, both great and small, was Anna Caples, wife of Karl Frank. She has recently given me her valuable recollections and material on these first hectic days.
Harold Oram, who had arranged the successful luncheon at the Commodore, was retained as fund raiser. Oram was a young law school graduate who had been deeply moved by the overthrow of the Spanish Republic. He had worked on the American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy but split off from it when the Communists infiltrated. He came to the newly formed Emergency Rescue Committee with an already considerable expertise in fund raising in his head and in his briefcase a purloined list of rich and concerned Americans compiled by the American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. Oram's was an appointment of utmost importance.
The ideal solution to any refugee's problem was an American visa. This required political bona fides and an affidavit by an American citizen of substance that the immigrant would never become a public charge. These two guarantees the Committee could provide. The trouble was that the quotathat is, the number of persons allowed in from each countrywas limited and usually already exhausted several years in advance.
Karl Frank and Joseph Buttinger had already appealed to Eleanor Roosevelt for help, and she had promised to do what she could. As soon as the Emergency Rescue Committee was formed, they asked to see her again. She invited them to come to her apartment on Gramercy Park in New York.
Mrs. Roosevelt had already been flooded with desperate appeals for visas. She had also been warned by Albert Einstein that "the State Department had erected a wall of bureaucratic measures between the victims of Fascist cruelty and safety in the United States." Now the two men arrived with their list of outstanding anti fascist names compiled by the Committee. They explained how the new situation in France pleaded for the granting of many American visas.
Writes Joseph Buttinger: "...After a short discussion Mrs. Roosevelt decided to call her husband in the White House, which she did in our presence. [Karl] Frank and I were greatly astonished and impressed when Mrs. Roosevelt, after trying for twenty minutes to persuade her husband with reasonable arguments, ended her conversation with the following threat: 'If Washington refuses to authorize these visas immediately, German and American émigré leaders, with the help of their American friends, will rent a ship and in this ship will bring as many of the endangered refugees as possible across the Atlantic. If necessary, the ship will cruise up and down the East Coast until the American people, out of shame and anger, force the President and the Congress to permit these victims of political persecution to land!'"
She kept the Emergency Rescue Committee's list of names and sent them to the State Department herself. She continued to prod Sumner Welles, who lent a sympathetic ear. Later on, when she heard of delays, she would write: "Is there no way of getting our consul in Marseilles to help a few of these people out?" or "I would like a report as to why...?"
It was largely due to Eleanor Roosevelt's perseverance that the State Department bypassed the quota system and issued visitors' visas to the anti-fascists. Karl Frank wrote gratefully some time later: "I notice it is due to your interest that many hundreds of people have been saved."
The Committee members were aware of some of the difficulties the fugitives from Hitler's justice must be facing. They were aware of the French internment camps, of the French refusal to grant exit visas; they knew of necessity of traveling through Spain and Portugal to reach the broad Atlantic. And they guessed at or worried about the refugees' dwindling funds and the tangle of red tape that besets and traps a foreigner in time of war and trouble. Besides, the "clients" were by now scattered to the four winds; the Committee hesitated to get in touch with the few addresses that remained for fear of compromising the addressees. It became apparent that somebody would have to be sent over to find out what was really going on and to offer tangible help. These people needed legal and illegal aid. It would be a dangerous and delicate undercover assignment.
In mid-July a meeting of the staff of the American Friends of German Freedom and Emergency Rescue met in Ingrid Warburg's apartment on West Fifty-fourth Street. They discussed at great length a number of possible candidates, among them foreign correspondents, union leaders, and professors known to the group. All were rejected for some reason or other. The meeting closed on the half-hopeful, half-doubtful note that somebody would turn up.
At the meeting was a young man about thirty-two years old named Varian Fry. He was, as always, impeccably dressed, with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses on his broad triangular nose. He listened to the discussion with great, if controlled, emotion because he believed passionately in liberty and human rights. Fry came from what was known as a "good family"; had attended Hotchkiss, one of the better prep schools; and was a graduate of Harvard, Department of Classics. After college he became interested in politics and, as his opinions were liberal and he was an intelligent, witty fellow (to those who knew him), he was soon on first-name terms with people like Roger Baldwin, head of the American Civil Liberties League, Norman Thomas, and Karl Frank. Fry in his short career found himself editor of Common Sense and The Living Age, both liberal publications. He was also on the editorial staff of The New Republic and the prestigious Foreign Policy Association, for whom he occasionally wrote articles. He was a member of the Liberal Party of New York and of the Harvard Club. Varian Mackey Fry was considered to be a promising young man, a little reserved perhaps, but straightforward and gifted.
He was deeply impressed by what he heard that night and after talking it over with his wife, Eileen, he called up the secretary of Emergency Rescue and let them know that he was available in case nobody else turned up.
A few days later Varian got a telephone call from his old friend Karl Frank, asking him to come over that evening. There was urgency in Karl's voice. When Varian got there, after a preliminary review of the imminent danger in which so many of his old comrades found themselves, Karl simply told Varian that he was the man for the job. He should go to Marseilles, which would be the center of things. And time was of the essence.
Before leaving Karl and Anna's apartment that night, Varian promised he would seriously consider the possibility provided that "nobody better could be found."
A few days passed, and nobody showed up. Some years later Varian wrote: "In the end I volunteered myself. I still don't know why I did it....I had never had any experience in underground work....I was not entirely unknown to the Gestapo. I had written an article on the Nazi treatment of Jews....I think I made the offer out of impatience at delay in finding an agent...certainly my manner and appearance did not suggest the daredevil."
That year in Marseilles, Varian told me the story of how in the summer of 1935 he had witnessed one of the early organized attacks on the Jews. At the end of the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Nazi storm troopers forced cars to run the gauntlet while the bullies dragged out those whom they supposed to be Jews. They then spat on and beat up their victims. Men shouted, women became hysterical. Varian saw many bloodand tearstained faces.
At a café, Varian watched a pair of storm troopers approach the table of a Jewish-looking individual. When the poor man reached nervously for his beet, with a quick thrust of his knife one of the storm troopers pinned the man's hand to the wooden table. The victim let out a cry and bent over in pain, unable to move. The ruffian shouted something about Jewish blood on German blades, withdrew the knife, and swaggered away. Varian heard him say to his companion, "This day is a holiday for us."
Varian told me the story in a low, mumbling voice, as he often spoke when he was deeply moved. I think the mental image of that hand nailed to the table beside the beer mug had something to do with his decision to go.
As Varian Fry was making his own preparations for departure, lists of endangered persons were being supplied by representatives of the émigré groups, German, Austrian, Czech, Italian, and even French. The Museum of Modern Art and the New School for Social Research added their names. The A.F. of L. sent its own man, Dr. Frank Bohn, ahead. He left a few weeks before Varian.
Again through Mrs. Roosevelt's influence, Sumner Welles gave Varian a letter of recommendation asking that all courtesies should be extended to him.
Being granted, as it turned out, very temporary near-diplomatic status, Varian wondered if he might not get caught up in a round of official functions. "I actually went over to Brooks Brothers and bought a dress suit and a boiled shirt. I might better have taken vitamins." On the other hand, he speculated, if he could not find the refugees, who might be hiding in obscure villages, he imagined making a bicycle trip through Provence to ferret them out. He had heard there was no gasoline at all for the general public. That would be all right. He loved the outdoors and was a bird watcher in his free time. Perhaps he would have occasion to familiarize himself with some of the Mediterranean species as well as saving the cultural elite of Central Europe.
It was decided that he would leave under the auspices of the World Committee of the YMCA, ostensibly to survey the relief needs of France. "I go on an errand of mercy," he assured Mrs. Roosevelt by letter.
He set off in the middle of August 1940 on one of the American Clippers, bound for Lisbon, stopping off at the Azores to refuel. He arrived in Marseilles a few days later, carrying with him his list of names, the letter from Sumner Welles, and a few thousand dollars, with a promise of more to come. And what carried him through it all was a stubborn nature and a profound belief in liberty and the dignity of man.
At about this time a young refugee of sorts arrived in town who was certainly none of Varian's concern. He had taken shelter in the Foreign Legion because both the gang and the police were on his tracks.
I had nothing to do with any of thisyet. But in the confusion and distress that followed the collapse of France's Third Republic our paths were all to cross in the great port of Marseilles, largest city in Maréchal Pétain's État Français.
And thereby hangs this tale.
Back to Crossroads Marseilles 1940
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© Copyright 2006. Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved. Revised: February 12, 2008