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Varian Fry

Americans Who Cared

by Pierre Sauvage

                        Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day)
Temple Israel of Hollywood, April 19, 1996

I am honored to have the privilege of standing in front of you once again to participate in this Yom Hashoah commemoration—and to recall, as I do every year, somewhere, at this time, that I am a Jew born in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944. And that that means that much of my family was humiliated, tortured and murdered—while the world watched.

When I last spoke from this bimah, I attempted to convey that the Holocaust happened wherever it was allowed to happen, and that there was an American experience of the Holocaust too—although we either don’t know it or pretend otherwise. I will attempt to convey this once again this evening, although I will attempt to do it differently. I will talk to you about some Americans who cared. I will share with you some of their testimony.

Like good people everywhere and at any time, they are the ultimate challenge to us.

If they knew what was going on, why didn’t we? If they understood what was going on, why didn’t we? If they tried to do something about what was going on, why didn’t we?

As it happens, the story I want to tell you is, in a sense, yet another chapter in my own life, although my life before I was born, the life of my parents after they left Paris ahead of the Nazis and fled, like so many others, to France’s second city, the bustling port of Marseille in the still unoccupied Southern zone of France.

Marseille in 1940-1941the summer of 1940 to the summer of 1941was then, to make a movie reference that many of us resonate to, the real Casablanca. As Europe had fallen, many Jews and anti-Nazis had made their way to France. And when France had fallen, many Jews and anti-Nazis had made their way to Marseille, the port, feeling, as one of them put it, like rats on a sinking ship.

Leo and Barbara Sauvage in Marseille in 1940
Refugees Barbara and Leo Sauvage in Marseille in 1940

If my parents also felt that way when they were in Marseille they never admitted it to me. And forgive me for sharing with you now the fact that all that my parents can tell me is what they have already told me, or what they can only tell me now with my help, from wherever they are.

My father died 7 years ago. My mother, who was probably older than him, held on till just two months ago. Forgive me for digressing by mentioning this, although I don’t actually digress all that much, because my mother was, after all, in significant respects, a survivor of the Holocaust. In significant respects, too, I’m afraid, she did not survive the Holocaust.

She was an unusual woman, and produced a very complicated family.  Since my parents did not tell me that they were Jewish—that I was Jewish—until I reached the age of 18, everything that concerns my parents’ life has always had and probably always will have an air of mystery to it.

Thus when I was doing research for my documentary Weapons of the Spirit in the early ‘80s and stumbled on an obscure book, a memoir, called Crossroads Marseilles 1940, I was absolutely fascinated by it. It told an incredible story which I’d never heard before, was told by an obviously remarkable woman, and touched on aspects of my parents’ life about which I knew next to nothing.

The author of the memoir is a woman named Mary Jayne Gold, who is still very much with us today, and I wish that she could have been here this evening. [Mary Jayne Gold died in 1997.]  She is not Jewish, despite her last name. In fact, she is an American blueblood. She recently told me with amusement that she had been asked to join the Colonial Dames or some such organization for women whose ancestors have to have set foot in the colonies practically the second after Columbus did. And she qualifies.

Not long after France fell to the Nazis in June of 1940, after years of living it up in Europe in the '30s—which was not a difficult feat considering the fact that she was beautiful, an heiress, and flew her own plane from capital to capitalMary Jayne found her way to the American Consulate in Marseille in order to proceed with the formalities of going home.

Waving what was then in France an incredibly powerful documentan American passportMary Jayne self-consciously made her way through people who had been standing forlornly for hours and hours and hours outside of what was, as it happens, a pretty little castle in a park.

The world had become small for these refugees, but America still seemed big.

Mary Jayne Gold soon learned that there was something to do in Marseille, and she stayed on for a year, her path having crossed that of two men, one of them being a fellow American who had himself just arrived from New York on a singular mission. Mary Jayne would come to view that year in Marseille as the only important one in her life.

"I was not there to witness the worst," she writes in Crossroads Marseilles 1940, "only the beginning, and even then I was sometimes embarrassed into a sort of racialism—like being ashamed of belonging to the human race.

"Fortunately, at the time of which I speak, not one of us could know what was coming. In our ignorance of the limits of human depravity there was time for fun and laughter. That is why when I try to recapture and write about what happened and what I saw, it turns out to be a series of double exposures, and I have to take them apart and fit them together again to make sense.

"One series is snapped through my 1940-41 lens, pictures that often stand out in photographic clarity of incident and detail. In the other series, the negatives are superimposed on original ones, colored by the stark statistics, the newsreels of atrocities then yet to come, and all the history of those dark years just ahead."

An acquaintance of my father’s, the late writer Hans Sahl, was among those refugees who stood outside the consulate until he too finally gave up. Let me pick up the story from his point-of-view, as Mary Jayne Gold quotes him:

"We lived in the cafés, slept in the cafés, wrote farewell letters in the cafés. Well, then, a friend came up to my table and said to me in a low voice, that a man was stopping at the [hotel] Splendide, a certain Mr. Fry, an American, who had heaps of dollars and a list of people who were supposed to be rescued. ‘Your name is on the list. Call him up at once.’ I said I wasn't in the mood for jokes, then telephoned the mysterious American. He answered at once. ‘What did you say your name was? Oh, yes, Sahl. Come right over. I'll be waiting for you.’

"When I appeared in the hotel ten minutes later, two German officers were standing in the lobby. I walked past them to the elevator, rode up, and who should open the door but a friendly young man in shirtsleeves, who welcomed me, put his arms around my shoulders, tucked money into my pocket, drew me over to the window, and whispered out of the corner of his mouth, like a rather poor actor playing the part of the plotter, ‘If you need more, come back again. Meanwhile, I'll cable your name to Washington. We'll get you out of here. There are ways. You'll see. There are ways.’"

The "Mr. Fry" Hans Sahl spoke about was a man named Varian Fry, whom I first mentioned here three years ago, and whose partner-in-crime Mary Jayne Gold became. I’d now like to tell you a little more about Varian Fry, and about what he and his friends did at that time.

What sort of a man was Varian Fry? Well, in 1943, long after he’d returned to the United States, Fry for some reason attended a church service (he was not a religious man) and tore out and kept a quotation from the program. The quotation happens to be from one of my favorite writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson

"There are men who rise refreshed on hearing a threat; men to whom a crisis which intimidates and paralyzes the majority,demanding not the faculties of prudence and thrift, but comprehension, immovableness, the readiness of sacrifices,comes graceful and beloved as a bride."

In 1940, our bridegroom was a dapper, prep-school and Harvard educated young intellectual of 32, then working as an editor. Not Jewish. He and some people in New York had realizedas had the pastors of my birthplace of Le Chambon incidentallythat when France had signed the armistice with Germany it had agreed to turn over refugees to the Nazis.

Most of these stranded refugees were anonymous, but some were not, and Fry and his friends, lovers of the arts, also realized that there were many prominent artists and intellectuals and anti-Nazi political figures who might indeed be especially vulnerable because of their relative prominence. They created an outfit which they called the Emergency Rescue Committee, but which was a totally private, shoestring, volunteer effort.

Now these New Yorkers had some good contacts, including Eleanor Roosevelt, and it seemed like some special emergency visas could be obtained despite the State Department's determined and remarkably successful efforts to block refugee immigration to the U.S. Still, somebody had to go over to Marseille and track down these people who could be helped, and do whatever was necessarylegal or illegal, as it turned outin order to get these people out of Vichy's clutches before it was too late, and to help them in the meantime. Varian Fry, with no experience in cloak-and-dagger work whatever, volunteered to take a month's leave of absence from his job, and go to France to be the Scarlet Pimpernel that the situation required.

When Mary Jayne Gold offered to work with him, Fry was initially skeptical about this rich dilettante, but soon he found himself relying on her for some delicate missions. She also helped to subsidize the operation, allowing his A-list to expand to a B-list—or as some called it, the "Gold list."

As it happens, she also had an affair with a young French gangster—which created some problems. But that’s a story for another time and another place. And—not to be coy about it—what I hope will be the big screen.

Now there were other Americans involved as well in what was locally called the Centre Américain de Secoursthe American Relief Centerand please indulge me as I mention just a few names, first of people I am proud to have as friends: Mary Jayne’s buddy, the witty and intellectual Miriam Davenport Ebel; and the ladies’ man and moral adventurer Charlie Fawcett, from Virginia. I think of the mysterious Leon Ball, who hasn’t been heard from since 1941, and of the Frenchmen Daniel Bénédite and Jean Gemähling, and of others from all over Europe, some of whom, such as the great economist Albert Hirschman, Varian’s first accomplice, the brilliant, committed Lisa Fittko, and Dr. Marcel Verzeano, long ago became prize possessions of America.

There isn’t time to tell you much about the extraordinary adventure that they all participated in, but after a tumultuous year, Varian’s disciples lined up at the railway station to say goodbye, when Fry, having finally been arrested by the Vichy authorities, was kicked out of France in August of 1941 with the complicity of the U.S. Government, that had never looked upon him as anything other than a trouble-maker.

In fact, in the Marseille archives there is a still classified document which is the smoking gun in regard to what happened. I was allowed to look at the document but not to copy it or even to make any notes. In it, the top Marseille police official reports that the American consul had asked him to "get rid" of Fry.

What gives this whole story an additional resonance is that it was during this same period of 1940-1941 that the Nazis decided on a major change in policy. I wonder how many of you know what I’m about to say. For some reason, this change of policy doesn’t get much attention. Could it be that it’s because we had something to do with it?

Up until that time, for all of Hitler’s rantings and threats, the Nazis had never quite been able to imagine something on the grand scale of a Final Solution. Until that time, the policy with regard to the Jews had been one of persecution, expulsion, theft. But not murder.

In October of 1940, Eichmann loaded several thousand German Jews on trains and deported them to the west, dumping them in Vichy France, to the consternation of the French authorities, who first protested to the Germans, then begged the United States to help out by taking in a fair share of these refugees.

Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles prepared a response to the French Ambassador and submitted it to Roosevelt for the President’s approval. The response basically told the collaborationist French regime, with which we had good relations, to get lost, that the U.S. couldn’t do anything more than it was doing.

And Welles explained to the President, who approved the response, that if the U.S. gave in to the French on this we would never hear the end of it. That the Germans would, in effect, be in a position to keep shoving these poor refugees down our throats. Which was true.

The Nazis started planning the Final Solution of the Jewish Question when they concluded that there weren’t any viable middle-ground, temporary solutions, that the U.S. and the Western World didn’t want these Jews either, that in fact, the Western world probably wouldn’t care all that much.

It is with this shift in policy occurring in the background, unbeknownst to Varian Fry, Mary Jayne Gold and their friends, that they succeeded in helping to save some 2,000 people.

Among them, many of the artistic and intellectual luminaries of our age: artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, poet André Breton, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, writers Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel, the legendary muse Alma Mahler Werfel, philosopher Hannah Arendt... The list—Fry’s list—goes on and on... Many of the names on it are obscure to us today, but this was the intelligentsia of Europe at the time.

The list was not quite big enough to include my parents. I don’t know and I’ll never know precisely what happened, but although my father never told me, I have learned that he applied for help from the Committee and that he didn’t receive it. Before finding their way to Le Chambon after my mother became pregnant with me, my father instead founded a traveling theatrical troupe which staged French medieval farces not always devoid of contemporary relevance.

Back in the States, Fry spent the war years trying to sensitize American public opinion to what was happening in Europe. In December 1942, The New Republic magazine published an extraordinary cover story: The Massacre of the Jews by Varian Fry.

In closing, I’d like to read you something Fry wrote earlier in 1942 and never published. [In 1997, the text was published as an afterword in the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's re-edition of Varian Fry's 1945 memoir, "Surrender on Demand"]   It will take a minute or two, but I think it’s worth it.

"I have tried—God knows I have tried—to get back again into the mood of American life since I left France for the last time. But it doesn't work.

"There is only one way left to try, and that is the way I am going to try now. If I can get it all out, put it all down just as it happened, if I can make others see it and feel it as I did, then maybe I can sleep again at night, the way I used to before. Maybe I can even become a normal human being again, exorcise the ghosts which haunt me, stop living in another world, come back to the world of America.

"But I know that I can't do that until I have told the story—all of it. Those ghosts won't stop haunting me until I have done their bidding. They are the ghosts of the living who do not want to die. Go, they said, go back and make America understand, make Americans understand and help before it is too late.

"I have tried to do their bidding in other and easier ways. By lecturing, writing articles, talking to friends. But it doesn't work. (...) People don't understand. Because they don't see the whole thing, or because what they see they see distantly, impersonally. It doesn't touch them, any more than a table of statistics. (...) They haven't seen it, heard it, smelt it, so it doesn't move them. (...)

"It is a story of horror. Not the horror of sudden death on the battlefields, but a slow horror. The horror of men, women and children in concentration camps. Of a man-hunt by the Gestapo. Of arrests, extraditions, kidnappings. Of suicide, murder, death in a Gestapo prison.

"It is a story of gangsters, smugglers and spies. Of baseness, and heroism, treachery and devotion. Of escapes which succeeded and some which didn't. Of bureaucracy and indifference which cost men their lives. Of human solidarity and the warmth of human sympathy. Of the anguish of human suffering. Of hope and despair. (...)

"When I think of all this, it seems incredible, macabre, even, that I should have spent some of my last few hours in New York worrying about not having a new dress shirt, and actually going over to Brooks Brothers and buying one."

The words of a caring American in 1942. Last year, that man became the first American to be singled out as a Righteous Gentile, one of the chasidei umot ha’olam, by Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Secretary of State Warren Christopher paid tribute at the ceremony, acknowledging that there was some irony in this. Press accounts of the event hailed Varian Fry, perhaps inevitably, as the American Oskar Schindler. But if one has to make such analogies, I think it would be more correct to say that he was the closest thing we had to having our own Raoul Wallenberg.

Varian died alone and forgotten in 1967, a failed businessman, a failed husband, a Latin teacher in a preppy Connecticut high school.

A few months before his death, his old comrade Mary Jayne Gold had sent Varian some cheerful greetings on a postcard. Her last words: "Well, we shared our finest hours, my friend."

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