[Varian Fry Institute Home] [Chambon Foundation Home]
"A Quiet American
The Secret War of Varian Fry"
by Andy Marino
Mission Possible by Gordon A. Craig, New
York Review of Books, Dec. 2, 1999 (not online)
Review of A Quiet American and Varian Fry's Surrender on Demand
From Booklist , August 19, 1999
This interesting story has an interesting origin. Thirty-five years ago an editor learned that Fry helped save Marc Chagall from the Nazis and began, but abandoned, a biography. Marino here completes it. When France fell, Fry was a 33-year-old aesthete, associated with international affairs journals in New York. A German refugee politician beseeched him to rally U.S. intellectuals to save those of Europe who had collected in unoccupied France; Fry's efforts gave rise to the Emergency Rescue Committee. Marino recounts how Fry, not exactly the man-of-action type, talked himself into being the committee's man in Marseilles. He spirited about 1,500 people to freedom in 1940-41, among them such irreplaceable cultural figures as poet Andre Breton, novelist Thomas Mann, and painter Max Ernst. Future historiography benefited with the escapes of Golo Mann and Konrad Heiden, the latter the first revealing biographer of Hitler. Marino might have been more editorially ruthless with the copious detail about Fry's clandestine work, yet Fry merits illumination for comparison with Oskar Schindler. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright© 1999, American Library Association. All rights reserved
From Kirkus Reviews
The stirring story of an American journalist who, working in Vichy France, helped thousands of artists and intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt, Heinrich Mann, and Marc Chagall, escape Nazi persecution. Little in Varian Fry's early background suggested that he would become a heroic rescuer of refugees. An only child from a privileged background, Fry grew up a spoiled, somewhat arrogant hypochondriac aesthete, and intellectual. But in one of the jobs he drifted through after graduating from Harvard, Fry witnessed the beatings of Jews in Berlin and, as a result, tried to awaken readers to the growing Nazi menace. After France fell to Hitler in June 1940, Fry, his wife, and others helped organize an Emergency Rescue Committee dedicated to saving intellectuals and others trapped in France. Its at this point that Marino's (Herschel: The Boy Who Started World War II, 1997) narrative, previously largely a biography of an interesting but obscure intellectual, turns into an account that reads like spy fiction. Fry arrived in Marseilles and founded the Centre Amricain de Secours, ostensibly dedicated to legal charitable activities but really devoted to the rescue, by illegal means, of intellectuals in danger of persecution by the Nazis. Aided by an unlikely combination of expatriate liberals, Communists, intellectuals, and members of French criminal organizations, Fry helped approximately 2,000 writers, artists, and scientists (and others, including escaped British prisoners of war) escape across the Pyrenees into Spain, using false documents procured by Fry. Despite increasingly sinister harassment by Vichy's Fascist regime and the Gestapo, sniping by isolationist State Department officials, unwanted publicity by some of the refugees, and diminishing support by pusillanimous or jealous colleagues in New York, Fry continued his secret work until August 1941, when he was expelled from France. He died in 1967. A dramatic story, well told, of an authentic hero who has been rightly dubbed ``America's Oskar Schindler.'' (16 pages b&w photos) — Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
What bookish, young Harvard man Varian Fry described as his "own little war" involved no small ambition: working under the nose of the Nazis through the early years of World War II, Fry set out almost single-handedly to rescue a hefty portion of Europe's cultural and intellectual capital. Literally boatloads of Europe's best and brightest minds—poets, scientists, philosophers, musicians, painters—found safe haven with Fry and safe passage from Europe, eluding the ubiquitous Gestapo plainclothesmen ("the green fedoras") and the street-by-street raids by their Vichy cronies. Writer Andrew Marino (Herschel: The Boy Who Started World War II), thanks in no small part to the earlier research of editor Donald Carroll, details the war years of this man, dubbed "America's Oskar Schindler" and the New York-based Emergency Rescue Committee that he helped found to fund his work.
Reading like a cross between Casablanca and A Year in Provence, A Quiet American follows Varian Fry from his tumultuous beginnings convincing (among others) Eleanor Roosevelt of the necessity of his mission to his work with gangsters and gun-runners in the streets of Marseilles in order to secure the safety of Europe's intelligentsia, including such luminaries as Marc Chagall, Heinrich Mann, Enrico Fermi, and Hannah Arendt. The comparison to Oskar Schindler is apt and well deserved, but Fry's tale is all the better for his unique transformation: while Schindler was something of an opportunist-made-good, Fry was an effete, preppy intellectual, sincerely inspired by idealistic notions, whose secret work shaped him into a scrappy, resourceful hero. —Paul Hughes
The history of Varian Fry is perhaps one of the least known yet most extraordinary sagas of World War II. In the summer of 1940, following the defeat of France by Hitler's armies, Fry, an idealistic American journalist and classical scholar, arrived in the port city of Marseilles armed with only three thousand dollars and a list of two hundred names. Sent by the newly formed American Emergency Rescue Committee, Fry was charged with the task of finding many of this century's most famous artists and intellectuals and helping them escape from Nazi-occupied France.
With the help of a dedicated staff, Fry immediately established a legal French relief organization, the American Relief Center, as a front for his covert rescue operation. Using a variety of clandestine and sometimes illegal means, from raising funds on the black market and forging documents to smuggling refugees via secret mountain and sea routes, Fry was able to channel some two thousand endangered people out of France and to the relative safety of Portugal, North Africa, and the United States.
In a rescue operation unprecedented in modern times, Fry managed to save a virtual roll call of twentieth-century genius. Among the lucky were the artists Marcel Duchamp, Andre Masson, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Wilfredo Lam, and Jacques Lipchitz; writers Franz Werfel, Hans Habe, Victor Serge, Walter Mahring, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Heinrich Mann; scientists Peter Pringsheim, Emil Gumbel, and Nobel Prize winner Otto Meyerhof; and musicians Erich Itor-Kahn and Wanda Landowska. Alma Mahler also escaped, bringing with her original scores composed by her first husband, Gustav Mahler, and manuscript symphonies by Georg Bruckner.
After more than thirteen months of tirelessly spiriting people away under the constant threat of arrest by the Gestapo, Fry was finally deported by the Vichy French government in September 1942 as an "undesirable alien" for protecting Jews and anti-Nazis. Forced to return to the United States, Fry died in 1967, tragically without ever receiving recognition for his work from his own government. Only posthumously has he been honored by the United States Holocaust Museum and Israel's Yad Vashem.
A Quiet American is a penetrating examination of the life of a genuine American hero whose courage, humanity, and ingenuity significantly changed the character of American culture.
[Varian Fry Institute Home] [Chambon Foundation Home]
[email us] [contact information] [table of contents] [search] [feedback] [guest book] [link to us?]
© Copyright 2006. Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved. Revised: June 25, 2006