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Varian Fry

Varian Fry in Marseille
by Pierre Sauvage

Viewed within the context of its times, Fry's mission seems not "merely" an attempt to save some threatened writers, artists, and political figures. It appears in hindsight like a doomed final quest to reverse the very direction in which the worldand not merely the Naziswas heading.

In the summer of 2000, filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, President of the Chambon Foundation and its Varian Fry Institute, was among scholars from thirty countries invited to participate in London and at Oxford University in the second "Remembering for the Future" conference, which sought to grapple with the legacy of the Holocaust and the meaning of genocide in the modern world.  The result including a three-volume collection of original essays.  What follows is adapted from one of these essays.  The material is at the heart of Pierre Sauvage's upcoming feature documentary, And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille.

1.    The Mission

In February 1941, in Marseille1, France, an American wrote to his wife back in New York:

Among the people who have come into my office, or with whom I am in constant correspondence, are not only some of the greatest living authors, painters, sculptors of Europe . . . but also former cabinet ministers and even prime ministers of half a dozen countries.  What a strange place Europe is when men like this are reduced to waiting patiently in the anteroom of a young American of no importance whatever.2

Varian Fry, the young American, was 32 when he arrived in Marseille early in the morning of Aug. 14, 1940—only two months after France's traumatizing defeat by the Nazis, and a full year and a half before Americans finally allowed themselves to get dragged into the war.

In that summer of 1940, high-level Nazis were talking among themselves about the need for a final solution to the Jewish question, but there is no evidence that anybody was seriously thinking of mass murder.  Throughout the coming year, the German policy would remain one of emigration and resettlement.

What was possible when Fry arrived in Europe would, however, no longer be possible by the time Fry left Europe at the end of October 1941.  By then, it wouldn’t only be the doors of the U. S. and other Western countries that were largely closed to refugees; the doors of departure from Europe would be shut too, and the Final Solution would be underway.

These are the circumstances in which a New York intellectual led what we know to have been the most determined and successful private American rescue operation during World War II.  At a time of tragic American apathy about the refugee crisis in Europe, Varian Fry was assisted locally in his struggle by other singular and similarly non-Jewish Americans: the late Miriam Davenport Ebel, the late Mary Jayne Gold, Charles Fawcett, the late Leon Ball, the late righteous consul Hiram Bingham IV.

Banding together with Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from the Third Reich, as well as early French opponents to Vichy, this tiny group, with erratic assistance from colleagues in New York, may have helped to save as many as 2,0003 people: Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, Alma Mahler Werfel, André Breton, Victor Serge, André Masson, Lion Feuchtwanger, Konrad Heiden, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt, Max Ophuls, Walter Mehring, Jean Malaquais, Valeriu Marcu, Remedios Varo, Otto Meyerhof…  The list—Fry’s list—goes on and on.

“There is a fire sale on brains going on here, and we aren’t taking full advantage of it,” an American official in Lisbon told Fry in August 1940, long before the Holocaust became established as a metaphor.4  Even if many of the names on Fry’s list have faded into relative obscurity, the list as a whole represents much of the intelligentsia of Europe at that time; the population shifts Fry helped produce would have major ramifications for American culture.

Though Fry was not specifically concerned with saving Jews—and indeed the German and Austrian anti-Nazi émigrés in France then seemed the most vulnerable of all, whether Jewish or not—Fry became in 1996 the first American singled out to be honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial to the Holocaust..5

Many basic facts about the man and his mission are still unfamiliar even to scholars, while some of what is “known” is in fact erroneous or misleading.  Furthermore, there have been no attempts as yet to place the rescue effort in its full historical context.

Filling some of these gaps and drawing on extensive research and over one hundred and fifty interviews conducted for the author’s upcoming feature documentary, And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille,6 this account of the mission will lead naturally enough to some fundamental questions about what we are to make of it, what still remains unknown, and whether the story is more than a mere footnote, however culturally significant, in the history of the Holocaust.

2.    The Calling

As a student at Harvard, Fry had early on expressed his love for the arts by founding with classmate Lincoln Kirstein a lively avant-garde intellectual magazine, The Hound & Horn.  In the ’30s, he went on to work for small politically-minded publications, hanging out in liberal anti-isolationist circles and making friends within the anti-Nazi exile community.

A trip to Germany at that time made a strong impression on him, according to Mary Jayne Gold, who participated in her own distinctive way in the Fry mission.  The American heiress would never forget the tense, quiet voice with which her friend had told her in Marseille about the anti-Jewish rioting he had observed in Berlin in 1935.

Fry singled out one episode.  In a café on the Kurfürstendamm, in the heart of the city, two Nazi youth had approached a man who was quietly having a beer and who looked as if he might be Jewish.  As the man had put out his hand to lift the mug, he had suddenly found that hand nailed to the table by a dagger joyfully and triumphantly wielded by one of the thugs.  Though Fry, curiously, never wrote up this particular incident, Mary Jayne Gold thought that the image of the hand pinned to the table had been a factor in Fry’s volunteering to go to France.7

When he first gazed down into Marseille from the top of the railroad station’s majestic staircase, Fry had taken a month's leave of absence from his work, which then consisted of writing and editing substantial political brochures for the Foreign Policy Association, a job he had thoroughly enjoyed.  He was an intellectual through-and-through, yet mere analysis no longer satisfied him.  Few intellectuals were to wander further from the ivory towers.

He and a few other Americans had noticed the especially ominous Article 19 in the French armistice agreement with Germany.  In that clause, adamantly demanded by the Germans,8 France had ostensibly agreed to “surrender on demand” any citizens of Greater Germany asked for by the German authorities.

Except for its potential victims, few in France, in those stressful times, had attached much significance to Article 19.  Leading French historians of that period recall that the clause had, in fact, been aimed at les fauteurs de trouble”—those few “troublemakers” or agitators whom the Germans could accuse of having been warmongers against Germany.9  Indeed, it appears that very few refugees were, in fact, turned over to the Germans by Vichy as a result of Article 19.10  (Subsequent French complicity in the deportation of Jews from France was not related to the terms of the armistice.)

In New York, however, the apparent threat galvanized those concerned with the plight of the anti-Nazi refugees in France, leading to the creation of an “Emergency Rescue Committee,” an entirely private, shoestring effort launched at a fund-raising luncheon at New York’s Hotel Commodore on June 25, 1940.

In Ingrid Warburg’s apartment overlooking the Museum of Modern Art, lists were frantically put together of people who were deemed to be obviously in danger or who might be in danger soon enough.11  There were many artists and writers on these lists, but also many names belonging to a small, left-socialist splinter group, Neu Beginnen (New Beginning).

As is often forgotten, the operation at the outset had been to a large extent political.  The Jewish Labor Committee had quickly and remarkably succeeded in obtaining from the Department of State several hundred emergency visitors’ visas for prominent political refugees trapped in France.  Neu Beginnen’s Karl Frank (who went under the name Paul Hagen) had been concerned that the help then being worked out for these German and Austrian refugees in France was being refused to his somewhat left-wing (albeit anti-Communist) friends.12

Early on, the assistance of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was sought, and at that time she gave it.  Because of this early help and encouragement to Fry and the E. R. C—perhaps also because of the general admiration for Mrs. Roosevelt—she has sometimes been misleadingly portrayed as virtually spearheading the rescue effort, and Fry sometimes and erroneously characterized virtually as her emissary.  But despite her involvement in the summer and fall of 1940, Mrs. Roosevelt soon returned to the “thunderous” silence, as Blanche Wiesen Cook has characterized it, that she had displayed about Nazi persecution in the ’30s.13

On June 27, Fry brought Mrs. Roosevelt up to date:

What is urgently needed now is a new Scarlet Pimpernel who will go to France and risk his life, perhaps many times over, in an attempt to find the intended victims of Hitler’s chopping block, and either provide them with means to keep alive in hiding or, if [this] is possible, to get them out of France before the French authorities reach them.  I have volunteered to go myself and shall do so if no more suitable person can be found.14

Did Varian Fry actually risk his life in Marseille, as Hollywood is bound to insist in the dreadful movies we will not be spared?15  Probably not.  Neither Vichy nor the Germans were inclined at that time to interfere to that extent with the rights of even the most meddlesome American citizen; an American passport gave most Americans abroad a reasonably justified sense of invulnerability.

Did Varian Fry know that his life was probably not at risk?  No, he probably didn’t.  Indeed, he had been warned by a French friend in New York that he could easily be made to disappear from some dark street,16 and such disappearances were not rare in any event in Marseille’s crime-infested neighborhoods bordering on murky waters.

3.    The Man

France’s bustling port and second city was then the real Casablanca.  Many of the Jewish and anti-Nazi refugees who found their way there soon felt, as refugee Hertha Pauli put it, “like rats on a sinking ship.”17  She recalled: “The seas kept rising all around us; whenever a lifeboat showed on the horizon, everyone wanted to be the first to get in—and then the lifeboat would fade away in the mist.”18

“These refugees,” Fry wrote to his wife, “are being crushed in one of the most gigantic vises in history.  Unable to leave France, unable to work, and so earn money, they have been condemned to death—or, at best, to confinement in detention camps, a fate little better than death.”19

His month’s leave over, Fry gave little genuine thought to going home, despite his wife’s increasingly pointed pleas and the growing antagonism from almost all sides.  He was not afraid to do whatever the situation required; to break the law under these circumstances appeared to him an obvious moral imperative.  The pressures suited him, he lied with aplomb, and he knew that the task on which he had embarked was an important one—a matter of life and death.  He sensed that fate would never deal him such a role again.  Moreover, when Fry put his heart into a task, as somebody close to him later recalled, he was “amazingly efficient as well as just plain brilliant.”20

Yet Varian Fry had neither the manner, nor the temperament that we associate—perhaps under the influence of entertaining but misleading fiction—with secret agents.  He certainly didn’t appear to have any directly relevant experience.  A natty dresser, he had a passion for Latin and Greek and bird watching.  He could be stuffy and pedantic, but he loved naughty limericks and had an antic, screwball sense of humor.  The image we may retain is one of tweeds and bow-ties, but Fry would sometimes receive his staff in his boxer shorts.21

The late literary critic Alfred Kazin was a colleague of Fry’s at The New Republic magazine in 1943 and 1944.  What struck him most about Fry in retrospect was the contrast between Fry’s appearance and Fry’s reality, a contrast that may have served him well in Marseille:

He was not only elegant, he was foppish.  He had an extraordinary upper class distinction.  You couldn’t miss it.  Nobody was ever more surprised [than I] to learn what Varian had done in Marseille.  It was not the first time, and certainly not the last time in my life—but it was the most decisive time in my life—that I discovered how little one person’s external appearance is a clue to what he really is as such.  No one, but no one, who knew Varian Fry as I did—even the very name itself, Varian Fry—would ever have suspected him of being able to do what he did.22

As with many rescuers, if one scratches a little under the surface, one finds formative influences that were early, deep, and stretch back in time.  There always seem to be role models.

When his father died in 1958, Fry recalled in a memorial tribute that his grandfather had worked finding foster homes in the Midwest for homeless New York City children.23  Though Fry himself, he once wrote, didn’t believe in God,24 his father had grown up “in an atmosphere of practicing Christianity and Christian charity.”  His father’s greatest pleasure, Fry said, “had always been in helping others.”25

In a frequently astute and moving biography published in the U. S. in 1999 under the inept title “A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry”—Fry was neither quiet nor secretive—Andy Marino speculated that aspects of Fry’s sexual life and history may have been a major factor in creating in him the sense of being an outsider, leading perhaps to a special sympathy for the plight of other outsiders.  Deviancy came naturally to Fry, Marino suggests, and certainly Fry’s activities in Marseille, given the political climate, can be characterized as “deviant.”26

Whatever Fry’s sexual nature may have been—and it is hard to decide to what extent speculation about such matters is relevant—the stress that Marino puts on Fry not being an “organization man” seems appropriate.  Fry himself thought that his “non-conformist character structure,” which had created problems for him as a youth at Hotchkiss and Harvard, “produced, later, the . . . more useful activity [in Marseille].”27  “I’ve always been a non-conformist, I guess,” he wrote to an acquaintance, “though not, exactly, a revolutionary either.”28

He was certainly not the sort of man an established organization, given a range of candidates, would have picked for such a mission.  As it happens, Fry’s American cohorts in Marseille were also non-conformists.  Mary Jayne Gold had escaped the world in which she had been destined to live.  Charles Fawcett viewed himself as the “black sheep” of his distinguished family.  Miriam Davenport Ebel felt that they could all be characterized, to some extent, as “misfits.”

Organizations—including universities—have a vested interest in downplaying this fact: rescue during the Holocaust was not, for the most part, the work of organizations—and successful rescue even less so.  As Magda Trocmé, widow of pastor André Trocmé of the Huguenot haven of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, put it in the author’s 1989 feature documentary Weapons of the Spirit: “If we’d had an organization, we would have failed.”29

4.    The Organization

In Marseille, Fry quickly understood that he needed an organization—which grew into two: the official, cover organization, dispensing humanitarian relief work, and the one working illegally behind the scenes, providing rescue.

His operation, begun in his hotel room and his bathroom at the swank Hôtel Splendide, soon moved to tight quarters at 60, rue Grignan, then finally in January to larger facilities at 18, Boulevard Garibaldi.  “Everybody felt a lot better, including the refugees,” staffer Marcel Verzeano recalled about the new office.  “On rue Grignan, they were interviewed in small dark places.  But when they came to Boulevard Garibaldi, where there was a lot more light, a lot more space, they felt a lot better.  We felt a lot better working there.”30

A big American flag dominated the scene at the official Centre américain de secourswhich could legitimately be translated as American Relief Center, although Fry preferred to refer to it bluntly as the American Rescue Center.31  Locally, Fry’s group was often referred to simply as the Comité Fry—the Fry Committee.

The word rapidly spread.  Some of the long lines outside the American Consulate became long lines outside the American Rescue Center.  It was later estimated that some 20,000 refugees in all made contact with the A. R. C.32

The situation was briefly promising.  Some U. S. “emergency visas” came.  Transit visas through Spain and Portugal didn’t pose a problem.  Even the ostensible need for French exit visas could be safely ignored.  In those early days, Fry and Leon Ball accompanied Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler Werfel, Heinrich and Nelly Mann, and Thomas Mann’s son Golo Mann, to the Spanish frontier; the group was successfully smuggled across, with Fry himself escorting the luggage across the border.

“They were letting us operate without interfering too much,” staffer Verzeano recalled about those early months.33  (Verzeano, a Rumanian Jewish doctor known then simply as “Maurice,” played an active role in organizing illegal emigration.)  Fry assumed that the lax situation with regard to exit visas was due to simple French confusion at that time.34  But was it not then unofficial French policy to try to get rid of refugees?

Tension soon mounted.  The Spanish border was closed, the “danger” visas stopped coming in, and even if you were able to get a visa for a final destination, whether genuine (i.e., the U. S. or Mexico) or more or less bogus (Siam, the Belgian Congo, Panama, China...), there remained a long wait to get the Portuguese transit visa, and an additional wait to get the Spanish transit visa.  The greatest frustration arose when the validity of one document ended while you were waiting for one of the other necessary documents—requiring you to start all over again.  Of course, under the best of circumstances refugees were faced with the expense of the trip, and the difficulty of booking passage.

With the onset of an unusually harsh winter and increasingly severe food shortages, Fry’s operation mushroomed and changed.  Relief work became more and more necessary: one refugee said that what was terrible about the small sums they were given was that you could neither live nor die on them.  Emigration became more difficult and more illegal, while legal and illegal activities were increasingly compartmentalized.

There was a flourishing black market in all manner of goods and services—or rather, there was a good black market and a bad one.  As refugee Barbara Sauvage later recalled, you could buy a pack of cigarettes, for instance, for which you were charged a fortune—that was the good black market; on the bad black market there would be straw in those cigarettes.35

Marseille, to put it mildly, had a very active underworld, and among the gangsters were those who would get paid for their services and deliver (notably Charles Vincileoni, who will later be decorated for his work with the Resistance36), and those who merely absconded.  (Of Marseille’s colorful milieu, Mary Jayne Gold quipped to Miriam Davenport that “It’s a bit like high society—everybody knows everybody.”)

Thought not always reliable, underworld contacts were useful to the A. R. C. when hiding places had to be found, money changed at black-market rates, documents forged, officials bribed, people smuggled.  Maisons de passe (where rooms were rented by the hour), were particularly useful places to lay low, as were Marseille’s many brothels, which were also hospitable for secretive meetings.

5.    The Staff

The A. R. C. staff, which had expanded from 3 to 6 in September, was overworked at 15 in December.  “Interviewers” saw fifty potential “clients” a day.37

Among the main Frenchmen on the staff were the left socialist Protestant Daniel Bénédite, the key aide at the end, and the liberal Catholic Jean Gemähling, who would go on to become an early and important figure in the French Resistance.  Jews from Paris included Lucie Heymann, Paul and Vala Schmierer, Jacques Weisslitz, and Charles Wolff (the latter two, after devoting themselves to the A. R. C. till the very end, did not survive those years).

Foreign refugees also contributed in important ways to the survival of others, before mostly escaping themselves when it became possible or necessary: Albert Hirschman, the key aide at the beginning—forever nicknamed “Beamish” by Fry, who described him privately as “the best of them all”38—Franz von Hildebrand, Lena Fiszmann, Anna Gruss, Heinz-Ernst Oppenheimer, Bedrich Heine, Karel Sternberg, Marcel Verzeano, Justus Rosenberg, Norbert Friedlander, and many others.

Finally, there were those who without formally being part of the Marseille staff were no less essential to the operation.  Hans and Lisa Fittko created and ran an astonishingly effective escape route through the Pyrenees.39  Political cartoonist Bil Spira, then known as Bill Freier, became the main forger for the operation.  (“You’re Fry, but I’m Freier,” he used to tell his friend, punning on the German word for “free.”)  Caught with his paraphernalia and deported to Auschwitz, Spira survived.40

Other Americans recently arrived in Marseille were among the first to join in Fry’s mission.  While each was very different from the other, what is most striking now is what they had in common.  Fry’s account, in this regard, is not entirely reliable for a reason that can be easily stated, although it eluded biographer Andy Marino: by modern standards, Fry would be deemed to have been a sexist.  In a deplorable lapse, Marino’s biography echoes Fry’s account in its condescending treatment of Miriam Davenport and especially of Mary Jayne Gold.

The late Miriam Davenport Ebel was a scholarly, witty art lover, with strong political beliefs, deeply held humanitarian inclinations, and remarkable savvy.  In a brief memoir entitled “An Unsentimental Education,” Davenport later recalled her initial visit to the American Consulate in Marseille and her encounter in the early summer with a Consulate official:

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, 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.41

After meeting with Fry shortly after his arrival, Davenport received a note from him urgently asking whether she could type.42  She couldn’t, but she was delighted to join his staff, even briefly being anointed Secretary General of the organization (Fry liked the waspy, ultra-American ring of her last name).

“The book of Ruth was read to me as a fairy tale, when I was a child—when I was a real little girl, four or five years old,” Davenport, a convert to Catholicism, later explained.  “And one of the lines in that is more or less, ‘Your people are my people.’  And I felt very strongly that these people were indeed my people.  And that I had to do something about it.”43

In Marseille, Davenport had met and become friends with the late Mary Jayne Gold, an heiress from the Midwest whose charitable instincts and political inclinations Miriam found entirely compatible with her own.  Gold had been enjoying a high-living expatriate’s life in Paris when France collapsed.  “You felt it was the end of the world,” she recalled, “that everything you believed in and everything that had been built up by humanity or decency for centuries was finished.  And yet, there was another part of me that said, ‘We’re going to beat ‘em.’”44

Gold had been planning to go home from Marseille, and her reasons for staying on at that time had as much to do with her budding affair with a young French gangster—she rescued him too, and he ultimately became a war hero45—as it did with the rescue effort.46  Fry was initially skeptical of the rich dilettante, but soon drew on her willingness to help financially and to participate in other ways.  Most notably, she was asked to go to the repressive French internment camp of Le Vernet and seek permission from the commandant for four highly vulnerable political inmates to come to Marseille, ostensibly just to claim visas awaiting them; to everybody’s amazement, she was successful.

It was Miriam Davenport who enlisted Gold to subsidize expanding the relief and rescue effort to encompass more than just the luminaries and politicos on Fry’s initial lists, creating what Davenport called at the time “the Gold list,” which Davenport administered and Gold funded.  (Years later, Gold asked longtime International Rescue Committee official Karel Sternberg, once himself a refugee in Marseille, who were some of the so-called “unimportant people” her money had gone to help.  He smiled, said nothing, and pointed to himself.)47

Gold was not the air-headed blonde evoked in “A Quiet American.”  After all, she understood what few Americans seemed to understand at that time—and perhaps fewer still in her waspy, prosperous social class: civilization as they knew it was at stake with the rise of Nazism.  “She has already given us thousands,” Fry wrote of Gold to his wife in September 1941, “and she is more interested in our work than any one else I know.”

Moreover, Mary Jayne Gold’s flavorful memoir, “Crossroads Marseilles 1940,” edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for publication by Doubleday in 1980 and published in France in 2001,48 remains an especially clear-eyed if colorful and idiosyncratic account of Gold’s experiences in 1940-41—a year that she later considered to have been the only one in her life that really mattered.  "I was not there to witness the worst," she wrote, "only the beginning, and even then I was sometimes embarrassed into a sort of racialism—like being ashamed of belonging to the human race.”49

Throughout his life, Charles Fernley Fawcett—wrestler, Foreign Legionnaire, movie star, socialite, trumpet player, songwriter, composer, artist, expatriate—remained a moral adventurer of sorts, traveling the globe and helping resistance movements in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Independently of his work for Fry, Fawcett also accepted in Marseille to engage in a series of six bigamous and bogus marriages, helping some women to get out of internment camps and allowing all the “wives” to get out of Europe.  (At one point, two Mrs. Fawcetts turned up at the same time in Lisbon.)50

Fawcett did all sorts of odd jobs for Fry, but will best be remembered as the doorman receptionist at the A. R. C., decked out in an official-looking if indefinable Ambulance Corps uniform, attempting to keep order while steering people to interviewers.  His gracious manner was appreciated even though his Southern drawl made his English especially hard to understand for the refugees—and he was even more indecipherable in poor Southern-accented French:  “They-ah now, you-all.  Step back.  Take it easy.  Evra-body gets his turn.  They-ah now.  You'll be next.”51

“I guess we were from the Promised Land,” is how Fawcett later remembered his status as an American in Marseille.  “We were taught at school, you know, the strong protect the weak.  And this is the way it’s supposed to be—we are our brother’s keeper, let’s face it.  And America was the strong nation in those days.”52

Fawcett’s friend Leon Ball, an expatriate lard salesman in France, was an important member of the underground team, adept at border crossings.  Little is known about him, because he disappeared after an incident that was embarrassing to him; to this day, none of his Marseille friends have the slightest idea what became of him.53

Mary Jayne Gold liked being “where the action was,”54 and the same can certainly be said of the other Americans.  More surprisingly, Davenport, Gold and Fawcett all happened to have family trees stretching back seemingly all the way to the Pilgrims.  If American rescue in Marseille had a sense of noblesse oblige, the pedigree was authentic.  (It should also be noted, however, that many members of the U. S. foreign service at that time, a body not particularly sympathetic to refugees or to Jews, also had competitively long lineages.)

The stress being placed here on Fry’s American friends is not meant to suggest that their roles in Marseille were more important than those of Fry’s European colleagues.  This was not the case, as Charles Fawcett is quick to tell you.  It is just that the greatest significance of the story of the Fry mission may lie in what there is to learn about the American response to the crisis—what it was, and what it could have been.

In that respect, it is significant that Fry had one ally at the U. S. Consulate in Marseille—and only one: Vice Consul Hiram Bingham IV; inscribing his book for Bingham in 1945, Fry would call him his “comrade-in-arms.”  It is unlikely that there were many other members of the American foreign service at that time who saw the situation as “Harry” Bingham put it in a letter to his wife, shortly after the start of World War II: “We can only pray that the natural goodness of men will fight off the plague before it spreads too far.”55

6.    The Do-gooders

Tracy Strong, Jr. of the Y. M. C. A. and the European Student Relief Fund did important work in the French internment camps (and also provided support to relief work in the Christian oasis of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.)56  He later remembered the atmosphere in Marseille:

There was complete confusion.  Nothing seemed to work.  Trains were packed and didn’t run on time.  Very crowded streets—the whole town was just crowded and noisy and dirty.  A lot of beggars or semi-beggars, people trying to make a living one way or another.  Every office had refugees—whether it was the Quakers or the Y. M. C. A. office or the Consulate office—the waiting rooms were just packed with people waiting to see somebody and get some help of one kind or another, maybe get a visa, maybe find out how to get through Spain to Portugal, or get a boat to North Africa.  The French would have been glad to ship all of [the refugees] anywhere.  The Consulate was pretty neutral—you didn’t feel they were really pushing themselves.57

The growing familiarity of the Fry story has obscured the fact that there were, of course, other American relief organizations and committees active in Vichy France, though their priorities were often different.  The American Red Cross was best known in Marseille for its distribution of milk and other needed supplies.  (When Miriam Davenport read in a local newspaper about the arrival in Marseille of Varian Fry, she surmised to Mary Jayne Gold that he was “just another milkman.”58)

Of course, Jewish organizations such as the local Comité d’Assistance aux Réfugiés (supported by the Joint Distribution Committee) and HICEM, were also on the scene.  Among the major American organizations represented in Vichy France were the American Friends Service Committee (Dr. Howard and Gertrude Kershner, Rev. A. Burns Chalmers), the Unitarian Service Committee (Dr. Charles R. Joy, Rev. Waitstill Sharp, later Noel Field), and the Y. M. C. A. (Donald A. Lowrie, Tracy Strong, Jr.).

While some of these “do-gooders” worked closely with Fry, they mostly restricted their activities to relief work rather than rescue, and drew the line at doing anything illegal.59  One whose agenda was similar to Fry’s was Dr. Frank Bohn, who claimed to represent the American Federation of Labor but who had actually been sent over primarily by the Jewish Labor Committee, in order to help rescue people on their lists.60  He blusteringly welcomed Varian Fry to Marseille, but was ineffectual and soon left after a Department of State telegram laid down the law:

While Department is sympathetic with the plight of refugees and has authorized consular officers to give immediate and sympathetic consideration to their applications for visas this government cannot repeat not 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 maintain friendly relations.61

In a memo to the American Embassy in Vichy in May 1941, Marseille Consul General Hugh S. Fullerton reported on the “under-cover activities of members of certain relief organizations operating in France,” indicating that the State Department would not be likely to approve of such activities by such people.  “Other considerations aside,” he added, “they are not fitted for such work.”  Referring specifically to Fry’s involvement in getting British airmen out of France, Fullerton expressed the belief that if Fry stayed on much longer, “he would find himself in jail.”62

But it was Fry’s desire to publicize the squalid conditions in French internment camps that finally led to a falling out with most of the other American relief organizations active in Marseille—who did not want to jeopardize their good relations with Vichy, despite the regime’s quick and forceful antisemitic measures during that first year.  It was those good relations, after all, that made much of their work possible, including the slight ameliorating of conditions in the French camps.

The A. R. C. found itself expelled from the Nîmes Committee (chaired by the well-connected Donald Lowrie), which regrouped the major humanitarian organizations then working in Vichy France.  Rev. Howard L. Brooks of the Unitarians wrote in 1942 that Fry was “ostracized by other relief workers who secretly admired his work.”63

7.    The Refugees

Two months after his arrival, Fry provided the following report to his wife:

My work reached a crescendo of activity right after I got back from Lisbon, but it has now slackened off a little, so that I am at least able to breathe.  I still begin at 8 in the morning and work until 11 at night, and sometimes until one.  I still see dozens of people every day, and am witness to displays of every possible quality of character, from heroic to despicable.  I still have poor, driven refugees lurking for me in my hotel in the morning when I go out and in the evening when I come in.  I still have from six to 12 phone calls an hour, and get 25 letters a day.  Sometimes the refugees walk right into my bedroom without knocking or announcing themselves.

But the pressure is slackening—not because the situation is improving but because more and more of our charges are being reinterned—and I am at long last getting an occasional chance to breathe.  It is horrible to be glad that anybody has been arrested; but I had reached a point in nervous exhaustion a few weeks ago where I actually was glad to have a few of the most insistent and most pestiferous “clients” carried shrieking off.64

Despite his moments of weariness, Fry felt some real affinity to the complicated refugees of the European intelligentsia.  But it would probably be naïve to think that the intellectual émigrés in France—a remarkable crowd of people that would have been remarkable even without the vicissitudes of history—whole-heartedly embraced Varian Fry as one of their own.  “We were slightly contemptuous of American innocents,” Albert Hirschman admitted, “people who did not really understand Europeans.  But I think that on the whole it was a good thing that [Varian] played this ‘innocent abroad’ so thoroughly.”65

Lisa Fittko described with amazement Fry’s extraordinary faux-pas when he assumed that perhaps her husband and she, committed political types, were hesitating about the mission that he was asking them to undertake out of a desire to pry some money out of him.  “How much?” she remembers him saying.

The Fittkos didn’t speak much English, but they understood that question.  It brought Hans Fittko to a boil.  “He said, ‘Do you think we’re crazy to risk our lives at the border for money?’  He said something like, ‘Do you know what anti-fascists are?  Do you know what we’re about?’”66

Fry himself would later make lists of the numerous mistakes he felt he had made in Marseille.

Compounding the challenge to Fry was his realization that his job was “like a doctor’s during an earthquake”67: one must never forget to reassure.  “See you in New York,” Fry would say to refugees about to attempt an escape over the Fittko route.68

Nor was escape experienced by the refugees in heroic terms, à la Paul Henreid in Casablanca, leaving only to continue the fight.  (In real life, Henreid’s Victor Laszlo would probably have found his way to a park bench on Broadway and 72nd Street).  What was on Albert Hirschman’s mind when he fled in late 1940, as he later recalled, was that his goal since 1933 had been to win out over the forces he had been fighting for seven years.  “And the only success I had was the fact of escaping—not one time but three or four times.  I had the feeling that I had expended a great deal of energy but in the end without success.  I did not feel like a hero at all.  A hero has to win.”69

Deciding not to go off to New York from Lisbon, writer Joseph Kessel put it this way to Fry: "I have seen too much of refugees already to want to become one of them."70

Their fears, their need to adjust to an almost incomprehensibly different and challenging situation, did not bring out the best in many of the refugees.  In her brilliant memoir, “Escape Through the Pyrenees,” Lisa Fittko underscored how difficult some of the refugees found it to be inconspicuous.  The greater the intellect, it sometimes seemed, the greater the difficulty adjusting.71  While some refugees found it difficult to admit to themselves their vulnerable status, others besieged Fry.  Daniel Bénédite warned against giving in to a system whereby refugees were given what they asked for, whether money or attention, because they resorted to hysteria or blackmail or repeatedly came back.72

Conductor Diego Masson candidly recalled that his father, artist André Masson, a well-known anti-fascist married to a Jew, would get very drunk in the evening when he couldn’t work, and would speak out loudly and provocatively at French cafés.  “He never could keep his mouth shut even when he wasn’t drunk.  I’m quite sure that without Varian Fry, my father would have been arrested, and my mother and my brother and me would have been put in concentration camps, as Jews.  With a father like mine, we would not have survived.”73

The most famous tragedy of that time involved the prominent German Social Democratic leaders Rudolf Breitscheid and Rudolf Hilferding, who by all accounts haughtily refused to do anything illegal—they weren’t going to stoop to Hitler’s level.  Convinced that the French government would protect them, they were turned over to German authorities and did not survive.

Charles Fawcett, a man disinclined to say anything derogatory about anybody, least of all a refugee, conceded that “There were maybe a few that we didn’t fall in love with—a few.  They wouldn’t listen to you.  They thought, ‘We were so famous, nobody will do anything to us.’  Some of them said that!  ‘The French wouldn’t dare to do anything to us—there’s world opinion.’  World opinion—can you imagine that?  Let me tell you, world opinion wasn’t standing behind them much in those days.”74

Writing later in diary form, in a subsequently scrapped draft of his memoirs of that time, Fry recalled the new wave of panic that set in among the refugees with the news of the arrest of Breitscheid and Hilferding.  “The office has been the scene of indescribable hysteria all day; one man actually got down on his knees and with tears streaming down his face begged me to save his life.”75  The supplicant, prominent anti-Nazi lawyer Alfred Apfel, later died of a heart attack in the A. R. C office, with Fry holding him.76

“Almost everybody wants to be put into hiding,” Fry recounted.  “Even artists and writers who have never had any political activity in their lives are terrified.  The difficulty is to know who is in imminent danger and who is not.  We can't hide everybody."77

8.    The Landscape

Fry worked hard but took breaks.  He found the time to write a considerable number of extraordinary letters about his life in Marseille, and his own evolution during that time.  Some of these letters are surprising.    In one of his more depressed moods—Fry’s second wife, Annette Riley Fry, concluded that he was manic-depressive78—Fry went so far as to suggest that maybe “the best thing is an early German victory”; he claimed he meant the statement “quite seriously.”79

But he passionately loved virtually all things French—certainly the wine—and even the increasingly difficult times that year didn’t make a dent in his enthusiasm.  He loved going on bicycle trips through Provence with his friend Stéphane Hessel, who remembered how methodically he would explore churches and Roman ruins.80

In October, Mary Jayne Gold, Miriam Davenport, Theo Bénédite (Daniel Bénédite’s English wife) and Jean Gemähling stumbled on a large villa on the outskirts of Marseille.  It soon came to house Fry, Gold and other A. R. C. staffers, as well as such luminaries as writers André Breton and Victor Serge and their families.  Baptized “Château Espère-Visa” (Chateau Hoping-for-Visa) by Serge, villa Air-Bel became a famous haunt for the refugee Surrealist artists who congregated around Breton.  Fry, who enjoyed horticulture, took a particular delight in the garden.  Not the least of the house’s amenities was that it didn’t have a phone.

Fry’s life had become a study in contrasts.  He wrote:

I am waiting for Harry Bingham to come with his car.  We are going to drive out to Gordes to spend the weekend with the Chagalls.  Now that spring is here, Provence is beautiful beyond belief.  The almond trees are in bloom, a delicate pink against the soft gray-green and sage-green and dark cypress-green of the Provençal landscape.  In this, of all places, it is hard to believe that men, given the beautiful world to live in, can sully and destroy it by war.  And yet they do.  The same spring which is bringing almond blossoms to Provence is bringing fear and terror to millions of human beings who live not so far away, and to some who live right here.  For who knows what spring will bring, but who does not know that it will bring new horrors, perhaps even worse than those of last spring?  I hear the sound of tires on the gravel.  Harry has come.81

9.    The New Yorkers

As good as Fry’s relations mostly were with the staff and the refugees, it is difficult to overstate how bad his relations were from the beginning with American officials in Marseille—and how quickly and precipitously they declined with the Emergency Rescue Committee that had sent him to France in the first place.

His frustration with his New York colleagues was boundless.  To his wife, he railed against “those boobs in New York.”82  “Viewed from here,” he wrote later, “they seem like a bunch of blithering, slobbering idiots.”83  For all their sporadic goodwill, as far as Fry was concerned they just didn’t get it.

Eileen Fry tried to calm Fry down:  “You really are making a great mistake in being so full of complaints in your letter to E. R. .C.  They are as good as they can be, which everyone knows is pretty poor.”84  She had praise, however, for Ingrid Warburg and fund-raiser Harold Oram.  “They are absolutely on your side, absolutely honest, hard-working, and devoted to the same ends as you are. . . . And do remember that in the long run their particular outfit is all you can really count on, at this end at any rate.”85

But Fry soon found himself proclaiming that the American Rescue Center was an organization that answered to no one except its “clients”: “This office is not your office: it is an independent committee consisting of various American citizens residing in France,” he wrote to the E. R. C.  “Please never, even by implication, suggest that I am your representative.”86  Fry preferred to play up his connections with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the New School for Social Research, the New World Resettlement Fund and other organizations.87

Compounding the breach, the Emergency Rescue Committee put pressure on Fry to deliver the big names.  “Casals is probably worth one hundred thousand,” Oram wrote.  “Picasso—fifty thousand.  Your trio [Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, Lion Feuchtwanger] brought in thirty five thousand.  Since their arrival we have had nothing good to offer to the public and they are pretty shopworn by this time."88

And if some really big names elude Fry—Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Pablo Casals, André Gide, André Malraux are among those who have no wish to go to the United States—he does deliver.  “YOUR LETTER MARCH TWENTYFOURTH BRETONS MASSONS EN ROUTE MARTINIQUE,” Fry cabled to the Museum of Modern Art.  “ERNST CHAGALLS LEAVING INCESSANTLY ARPS SOON AS GET EXIT VISAS KANDINSKY NOT TILL AUGUST STOP  WILL TRY TO HELP LEONOR FINI.”89  (Fry never was able to provide Arp, Kandinsky, and Fini to his American backers.)

Emergency Rescue Committee Chairman Dr. Frank Kingdon became particularly frustrated with Fry.  When Eileen Fry tried to help get her husband’s passport renewed, she was able to talk to Mrs. Roosevelt twice on the phone, and with her help thought she was even making headway with the unsympathetic Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long.  But Kingdon “would not back up my request,” Mrs. Fry reported to her husband, “and refused to see me.”90

The breach that developed with the E. R. C. would never heal.  Only a few weeks after Fry’s return to the U. S., Kingdon, after a trip to Washington, would tell Fry “that he had been reluctantly forced to conclude that the State Department would grant no visas to applicants presented by the Emergency Rescue Committee as long as [Fry] was connected with it.”  Fry, “European Director” of the E. R. C., was compelled to resign, and would thereafter find himself advising his refugee friends, in their own interest, not to mention his name.91

There had been a clumsy attempt to replace Fry in early 1941, but after Fry went home, nobody would be sent to succeed him.  Despite dwindling support from New York, the remaining French A. R. C colleagues would do their best to continue the work, but the financially ailing Emergency Rescue Committee would soon be taken over by another organization, which in turn would become the current and very active International Rescue Committee.92

Indeed, when Fry was astutely recommended to the budding Office of Strategic Services (“Mr. Fry is probably the only qualified American expert on the means of moving people around the continent of Europe despite regulations and occupations”93), the possibility of Fry being hired for government intelligence work was not increased by E. R. C. Treasurer David Seiferheld, who worked very closely with Kingdon.  According to an O. S. S. report, Seiferheld had the following to say about his onetime colleague:

Varian Fry is an intelligent but highly unstable man.  He is uncontrollable even with a supervisor on the spot.  He has an infinite capacity for intrigue but not very successful intrigue.  He managed to irritate American officials to an extraordinary extent. . . . Despite these handicaps he did a fairly good job, that is he managed to get a considerable number of people out and he managed to hold on to his job and retain his cover intact longer than [the E. R. C.] expected, but in doing so he made a good deal of trouble.94

But despite the displeasure of the E. R. C. and even when he had to go on without the safety net of an American passport, Fry dug his heels in.  “This job is like death—irreversible,”95 he wrote to his wife, as the marriage crumbled visibly in the correspondence exchanged between them (“Much love, if you’re interested,” Eileen Fry signed one of her letters”96).

“We have started something here we can’t stop.” Fry went on.  “We have allowed hundreds of people to become dependent on us.  We can’t now say we’re bored and are going home.”97  On another occasion, he cabled: “Could no more abandon my people here than could my own children.  Leaving now would be criminally irresponsible."98  At that time, Fry had no children.

10.    The Officials

Vichy took its time getting rid of him.  Fry would never forget Marseille police chief Maurice Rodellec du Porzic’s reproach when the latter told Fry that he was being expelled: “d’avoir trop protégé les juifs et les antinazis”—that he had provided too much protection to the Jews and the anti-Nazis.99  That word “trop”—too much—suggests that exasperation as well as political retaliation may have motivated the expulsion.100

Though Vichy probably knew exactly what the Fry Committee had been doing all along, including the illegal activities engaged in, police officials seemed above all to be obsessively troubled by the presence of Trotskyites or former Trotskyites in Fry’s entourage.  After Fry’s arrest, A. R. C. staffer Lucie Heymann was able to meet with the highest Vichy official for the area.  She reported that the official “speculated about Mr. Fry’s being either insane, a saint, or an anti-Nazi ‘Bolshevik’ agent.”  The feisty Heymann responded “that [Fry] was probably a saint, probably insane, but definitely not a ‘Bolshevik’ agent of anti-Nazism.”101

Astonishingly, Fry was not even precisely expelled; he was refoulé—which was a milder form of expulsion that did not preclude his asking for a visa to come back.102

What is certain is that by the end of his year in Marseille, everybody—except his A. R. C. colleagues and the refugees!—had wanted him to go home: the State Department, its patience entirely dissipated; the Emergency Rescue Committee; Vichy—and maybe above all the U. S. officials at the American consulate in Marseille.

Even Eleanor Roosevelt’s support ebbed.  When Fry and Mary Jayne Gold are among those briefly detained by French authorities in December 1940, Mrs. Roosevelt awkwardly writes on his behalf to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles: “I'm sure that though he was helping refugees, [Fry] did nothing actually reprehensible."103  At a crucial juncture later on, Mrs. Roosevelt reported back to Mrs. Fry that “there is nothing I can do for your husband.”  “I think he will have to come home,” Mrs. Roosevelt advises, “because he has done things which the government does not feel it can stand behind.”104

Despite what should have been natural affinities of social class, prep school education, wasp and possibly antisemitic backgrounds, Fry immediately rubbed the local American officials the wrong way and it only got worse.  Fry’s writings are full of disparaging remarks about those officials, and it is unlikely that in France he kept his feelings to himself.  American representatives in Marseille and Vichy early on pegged him as a trouble-maker, and some of them soon came to loathe him.

According to Marseille police chief Rodellec du Porzic, with whom U. S. Consul General Fullerton developed good relations, it was as early as December 1940 that Fullerton had asked the police official “de me débarrasser de [Fry]”—to get rid of [Fry].105  A few weeks later, a Vichy document indicates that the U. S. Embassy was conveying to the French that it had “decidedly unfavorable information as to [Fry’s] morality and his activities.”106  For the rest of his stay in France, the American campaign against Varian Fry would never subside.

When after Fry’s return to the U. S., the Department of State ordered that a French receptionist at the Consulate be fired as politically suspect, the Consul General wrote to the American Embassy in Vichy to convey his conviction that the dismissal of the employee had been Fry’s handiwork.  Fullerton did not acknowledge that his furious memo, which he seems to have typed himself, may have had something to do with the fact that the pretty receptionist in question was his mistress.107  He ended his “Strictly Confidential” note to First Secretary H. Freeman Matthews as follows:

In conclusion, dear friend, I think my previous intention to carry with me to Washington a considerable dossier of “Fryana” should not be shaken[,] as if the snake is attacking minor employees on the Marseille staff he is doubtless saying things far from nice about me, Doug, Woodie and even your august self.108  I sometimes wonder if it was, after all, wise of me to restrain the Intendant of Police at Marseille from execution of his original intention to put Varian behind the bars.109

One can speculate as to who, of the Vichy police chief or the American consul general, had really wanted Varian Fry behind bars the most.  After the war, settled in a job running the American Hospital in Paris, Fullerton would claim to Charles Fawcett that when it came to the Consulate’s frosty relations with the A. R. C., he had merely been “following orders.”110  If so, those orders appear to have been followed with enthusiasm.

Further research is required to determine whether it was, in fact, American officials in Washington or in Marseille who did the most to undermine Fry’s mission.111  At the time, Fry attributed his “final defeat” in large part to “the craven heart of a consul general.”112

It is, in any event, an ironic touch that the little square outside the current location of the U. S. Consulate in Marseille was in 2000 renamed in Varian Fry’s honor.  Consul General Fullerton’s successors now receive their mail at 1, place Varian-Fry.113

11.    The Enemies

It is also not clear whether opposition to opening the doors of America to refugees wasn’t at times even more insidious and effective in Marseille and other American consulates than it was in Washington.  In this regard, though the name William L. Peck has not yet entered the history books, perhaps a place should be found for him or at least for his memo of March 6, 1941, on immigration policy at the Marseille consulate.  (Consul Peck had then taken over the Visa Section from Hiram Bingham IV, who was shunted by the State Department to less sensitive posts and soon gave up on a life in the foreign service.)114

In his memo, Peck sought to establish his goodwill by stressing at the outset that he did not “subscribe to the school of thought which advocates refusing visas to all persons whose faces we do not like, on some flimsy pretext or by invoking the technicalities of immigration law to extreme limits.”

Although Peck deplored “as much as anyone the influx into the United States of certain refugee elements” and protested the notion apparently held in some other American consulates that the Marseille office was “more lenient” than any other in granting visas, he was “convinced . . . that the Department does desire that visas be issued, when quota numbers are available, to persons legally qualified for admission to the United States.”

Peck also wished to stress his soft spot for old people:

These are the real sufferers and the ones who are dying off.  The young ones may be suffering, but the history of their race shows that suffering does not kill many of them.  Furthermore, the old people will not reproduce and can do our country no harm, provided there is adequate evidence of [financial] support.115

The memo is not just buried in Consul General Fullerton’s files.  On April 11, 1941, shortly before going off to Lisbon for the rest of the month—leaving Peck in charge at the consulate116— Fullerton sent the memo on to the Secretary of State and to others:

As of possible interest to the Visa Office I am attaching a memorandum prepared by Consul William L. Peck, in charge of our Immigration Section in Marseille over a considerable period, reflecting in a general way the attitude which we have assumed toward immigration at this particular time.  I may add that copies of this memorandum have been sent to the consular officers at Lyon and Nice for their information.117

It was during that same month that Fry received from New York a copy of an article in the New York Post outlining the obstructionist policies being carried out by the American consulate in Marseille.  He sent it on to Peck, with the following comment: “I thought you’d be amused.”  Peck scribbled a few words next to Fry’s: “I am not amused.”118

In June 1941, Fry made a note to himself about what may have been a conversation with Consul General Fullerton (the word “General” is written but crossed out, as if not to identify the speaker too precisely): "The [Consul] was giving me advice.  'Why do you have so many Jews on your staff?' he asked.  I told him I didn't have as many as the police accused me of having.  Less than half the staff was Jewish.  'Well,' the Consul said, 'I think you make a mistake to have so many.  The Department withdrew all the Jews on the Embassy and Consular staffs in France shortly after Pétain came to power.  I think there's only one left, a clerk at the Embassy."119

In August 1941, just before Fry’s expulsion, Fullerton passed on some documents to the American Embassy in Vichy, with the following cover note: “I am enclosing some ‘fryana’ which somebody up there may care to read and which were left with me the other day.”120  The documents consisted largely of A.R.C. reports, many of them meticulously prepared by Daniel Bénédite, detailing conditions in the French internment camps.

The biggest enemies of Fry’s mission to France were not French officials; they may not have been really all that unhappy with what he was doing.  Nor were they German officials, who only cared at that point to get their hands on certain definable opponents of the Reich, and perhaps not all that many of them.  The biggest enemies of the rescue effort were Americans.

12.    The Stakes

What gives the Fry mission its greatest significance is not just that it highlights the conflicting American refugee—and “Jewish”—policy at that time, but also that it was during that very time, in 1941, that the Nazis decided on what has to be characterized as a major change in policy, a change glaringly obvious to most scholars and yet dimly perceived by most Americans.

Even major historians stumble into anachronistic lapses with regard to this Nazi change in attitudes.  In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II,” Doris Kearns Goodwin writes of the summer of 1940: “It was the summer of high hopes.  As long as America and other countries were willing to open their doors to the Jews, the Nazis, at this juncture, were still willing to let them go.”121 

But the Nazis were not merely “willing” to let the Jews go at that time—they were eager.

For all of Hitler’s dire “prophecies” and whatever his murderous fantasies and genocidal longings, it took time, war, and specific circumstances for the Nazis to begin to imagine—let alone begin to implement—something on the grand scale of the Final Solution as we have come to know it.

Until then, German policy had long been one of “solving the Jewish question by means of emigration or evacuation,” as historian Michael R. Marrus has summarized it.122  The old plan of resettling Jews in Madagascar and letting them fester or die off there—should that be what happens—had not been entirely shelved; it was gradually abandoned only when it became clear that continued British sea power made access to the island impossible.123  Other territorial solutions were also seriously considered.

The objective always was to get the Jews out of the Third Reich and out of Europe—one way or the other.  The hope undoubtedly was for world domination and the total elimination of the Jews, but hope and fantasies are just that—policies are what people do, and policies, ultimately, are what count.  “Nazi policy changed course,” historian Saul Friedländer has stated clearly, “when it replaced emigration/expulsion with extermination.”

It was in October 1941 that Jewish emigration from Germany and German-held lands was banned, and mass deportations of German Jews to the East began.  For historian Yehuda Bauer, “The decision-making process in Germany probably culminated in the late summer or early fall of 1941 in the consensus that all Soviet Jews should be murdered, and then immediately afterwards into a consensus that all European Jews should be murdered.”124

Historian Philippe Burrin made the case, endorsed in 1994 by Friedländer, that there was a specific decision made by Hitler in mid-September 1941.125  Burrin argued that even the escalating and violent slaughter of Jews in conquered Russian territories after the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, did not necessarily constitute a reversal of the overall plan to resettle Europe’s Jews after the war.126

Historians Christopher R. Browning and Richard Breitman continue to believe that the decision was made earlier in the summer,127 and Breitman has outlined evidence that seeks to tighten “the intrinsic connection between the mass shootings of Jews in the Soviet territories and the assembly-line gassings of European Jews in the extermination camps,”128 which began at Chelmno in December 1941.  (Breitman has also detailed how British interception of German radio communications allowed British authorities to know immediately the extent of the massacres—and how British officials chose to keep this information to themselves, not even disclosing it for the Nuremberg trials.129)

But the precise date of the decision is surely less important than its essential meaning, which Friedländer has put this way: “Since there was nowhere for them to be sent, the Jews would vanish by the only remaining route: death.”130

One year earlier, in October 1940, some 6,500 German Jews had been loaded onto trains and deported to the West, bringing them into 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.  “Put bluntly,” Michael Marrus and Robert O. Paxton write in “Vichy France and the Jews,” “the Germans wanted to dump Jews in the Unoccupied Zone; Vichy wanted to keep them out.”131

Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles prepared a response to the French Ambassador’s plea for help, 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 they would never hear the end of it.  The Germans would, in effect, be in a position to keep shoving the poor refugees down American throats.132

Information reaching us is conclusive that if we or the other American Republics yield to these blackmailing totalitarian tactics, the Germans will inaugurate something approaching a “reign of terror” against the Jewish people, not only those remaining in Germany but those as well in countries under occupation or which may be occupied in the future.  Thus hundreds of thousands of unhappy people will be dispossessed of their homes and their goods to be used as pawns in a German maneuver calculated to embroil opinion in the democratic countries overseas.133

The greatest fear in high-level American circles was not that Jews wouldn’t be able to escape Hitler’s Europe; it was that the U. S. might find itself pressured to take in large numbers of these refugees.  Moreover, such an influx, it was assumed, would inevitably exacerbate the already startlingly high—and growing—levels of antisemitism in the U. S.

The extent and depth of antisemitic and pro-Nazi sentiment in the United States in the late ’30s and early ’40s has not yet been fully chronicled and is certainly unfamiliar to most Americans today.  The war effort and the flag-waving patriotic hoopla in the American media of the time have obscured the powerful, dark forces that had permeated American life.

In the late ’30s, Nazi military attaché in Washington Ulrich von Gienanth encouraged one American fascist leader—there were many aspiring Hitlers around—with the opinion that there was ten times more anti-Jewish feeling in the U.S. then than there had been in Germany before Hitler's rise to power.134

According to a Roper poll conducted in July 1939 and not released at the time, 53% of Americans believed that Jews were different—and should be restricted.  Ten percent of the public openly declared to the pollster that they favored expelling Jews from the U. S.  Historian David S. Wyman analyzed surveys from the late ’30s and early ’40s and noted that approximately a third of the American public was in favor of, or at least sympathetic to, “a general anti-Semitic campaign” (roughly another third was ready to actively oppose such an undertaking, while the rest, presumably, were “indifferent”).135  In April 1939, the very mainstream Fortune magazine reported widespread American opposition to taking in German Jewish refugees—83% of respondents were then opposed to letting in more European refugees—and asked whether Hitler and his American allies wouldn’t be safe in the “joyful conclusion...that Americans don’t like the Jews much better than do the Nazis?”136

Indeed, all the public opinion polls would chart a continuing rise in American anti-Jewish feelings throughout the war years, and regardless of the news from Europe and the increasingly obvious plight of the Jews there.137 

As for the reaction of American Jews to the growing Jewish crisis in Europe, Eleanor Roosevelt—whose passion for civil rights blazed through those years even when her concern for the oppressed European Jews did not—puzzled over it in the fall of 1941.  According to a friend, the daughter of American Jewish Congress President Rabbi Stephen Wise, the First Lady confided the following to her during an overnight stay at the White House:

One of the things that troubles me is that when people are in trouble, whether it’s the dust bowl or the miners—whoever it is, and I see the need for help, the first people who come forward and try to offer help are the Jews.  Now in these terrible days, when they need help, why don’t they come?  Or when they come, why do they speak in a lower fashion?138

Whatever the reasons, until late 1941 “The door is bolted on the Allies’ side, not on the Germans’ side,” Christopher Browning stresses.  “The Germans were smuggling more Jews out than all the rescue groups.  Certainly, when you’re talking about the refugees in the Vichy zone, if the Allies had been willing to take these people, there’s no reason why the vast bulk of them couldn’t have been rescued.  But the Allies were trying to resist what they considered Hitler’s totally hostile attempt to flood them with refugees.”139

Yehuda Bauer has underscored that while the Nazis had long “thought that the West might be willing to buy [the Jews],”140 the Allies, for their part, “were convinced that one could not negotiate with the Nazis or bribe them.”141  “The Allies,” Bauer asserts, “never understood the Nazis, not even when they defeated them.”142

If Adolf Hitler and his pathological hatred were necessary for the Final Solution to occur, as most historians agree, he nevertheless could not have imposed such extreme measures against the will of his people.  Who is to say that he could have imposed them against the will of the rest of the world?

Elie Wiesel was once asked what was the most important thing the world had learned from the Holocaust.  His answer: that you can get away with it.  If that is so, then must we not ask how we let them get away it with it?

To be sure, there may be little evidence that Hitler and the Nazis could be swayed by world opinion, since world opinion seldom opposed them very strongly.143  Yet Konrad Heiden, the writer and Hitler biographer high on the Nazi “most wanted” list—who happily was also on Fry’s list—had in 1938 summarized the risks of such indifference: “The lesson is pure and simple.  Whenever the world rises against the Jewish persecution in Germany, those persecutions slacken.  Whenever the attention of the world wanders, they are resumed.”144

In assessments of the Allied response to the Holocaust, the issue often gets reduced to whether mass rescue was possible once mass murder had begun.  But rescuing the potential victim of a murderer once the crime is being committed is one thing; it is quite another to have contributed to the climate that nurtured the potential murderer and indeed allowed him to become one.

Referring to Germany, Philippe Burrin has suggested that “widespread moral indifference” was perhaps “the most effective facilitator of the Final Solution.”145  Did the moral indifference outside of Germany not ease the way as well?

Despite the specific obsessions and circumstances that may have led Hitler to his fateful decision, is it not legitimate to ask whether the Nazis weren’t influenced in their thinking by the realization that the U. S. and the Western World didn’t want these Jews either and certainly wouldn’t negotiate on their behalf—that in fact the Western world probably wouldn’t care all that much?

Trained to resist speculation, historians will be uncomfortable with such highly speculative questions.  But is it not, in fact, speculative to dismiss out of hand the possibility that different attitudes outside of Germany—even just in the United States—could have changed the course of history?

What if America, from 1933 to 1941, had been a nation of Varian Frys, Miriam Davenports, Mary Jayne Golds, Charles Fawcetts, and Harry Binghams?  And was the American consular corps with which they tangled in Marseille not in the front ranks of the moral indifference chronicled in historian David Wyman’s landmark study “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust.”146

Varian Fry, of course, could not know in 1941 what was happening behind the scenes and how the world was changing, although he may have retained in the back of his mind what fellow Harvard graduate and Nazi propagandist Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl had told him in Berlin in 1935: “that the ‘radicals’ among the Nazi Party leaders intended to ‘solve’ the ‘Jewish problem’ by the physical extermination of the Jews.”147  (Fry had only “half believed him.”)148

When Wyman, then a young graduate student, embarked in the ‘60s on the first scholarly study of the American response to the Holocaust, he sought Fry’s help.  Fry wrote to Wyman that “The subject of your doctoral dissertation interests me very much indeed,”149 and invited Wyman over to his house in Connecticut.  The two men pored over the contents of some cartons Fry had brought down from his attic.150

With Wyman’s pioneering research, it seemed that Fry’s time had finally come, but he died before “Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941” was published.  We will never know to what extent Fry would have approved Wyman’s challenging closing words:

One may level the finger of accusation at Franklin Roosevelt for having done so little and at Congress for having done nothing.  But the accuser will find himself simultaneously pointing at the society which gave American refugee policy its fundamental shape.  Like the President, the majority of Americans condemned Nazi persecution.  But most opposed widening the gates for Europe’s oppressed.  Viewed within the context of its times, United States refugee policy from 1938 to the end of 1941 was essentially what the American people wanted.151

Viewed within the context of its times, Fry’s mission seems not “merely” an attempt to save some threatened writers, artists, and political figures.  It appears in hindsight like a doomed final quest to reverse the very direction in which the world—and not merely the Nazis—was heading.

13.    The Questions

But the obvious question arises: can one justify the fact that Varian Fry’s initial motivation was—and primary thrust remained—to assist and save select figures of the artistic and political worlds?  If it is true that the mission wound up encompassing quite a few anonymous refugees, does the charge of elitism nevertheless carry some weight?  For that matter, is a mediocre artist any less entitled to life than a great one?

Indeed, if there are some whom the Fry group simply was not able to get out of France, despite its efforts, there were many others whose candidacy for help was rejected, while they were given meal tickets and sent over to the Quakers: they were just not deemed to be within the purview of Fry’s operation.

Among those who unsuccessfully sought Fry’s help were the “authors” of the author of these lines, the young journalist Léo Sauvage, a Jewish intellectual without American connections, who had found refuge in Marseille with his wife, a Polish Jew who ultimately lost much of her family to the death camps.  Fry colleague Jean Gemähling remembered encountering Léo Sauvage at the American Rescue Center.  A list of A. R. C. “clients” reveals that the Sauvages had gone so far as to include their real names long successfully buried behind French identities: Sauvage-Smotriez, Leo; Sauvage-Suchowolska, Barbara.152

Not able to leave France, Sauvage threw himself into Marseille’s lively intellectual life at that time, founding a theatrical troupe that staged French medieval farces.  Later, he and his pregnant wife found shelter in a singular haven of refuge in the mountains of south-central France, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.  There the determined policy was to turn no one away.153

Was the selectiveness of Fry’s effort immoral or at least distasteful?  Are we wrong to be mesmerized by the fact that Fry and his friends contributed to the survival of so many “stars” of twentieth-century culture?

Karel Sternberg, a Czech refugee who worked at the American Rescue Center, provided, with some exasperation, what may be the most important answer:

In any operation you do what you can.  You don’t measure an assignment by what you cannot do.  You measure it by what you can do.  That you cannot help 50,000 people doesn’t mean that you cannot help 2,000 people.  Let me repeat, you judge the importance and the meaning of an assignment by what you can do, not by what you cannot do.  Because it’s always limited, what you can do.154

It is also true that a number of the prominent figures in whom Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee took a special interest were particularly vulnerable because of their celebrity status—a major advantage to get an American visa, no doubt, but one still needed to get out of France without an exit visa.

But finally, it may be no less important to remember that if Fry was committed to “democratic solidarity,”155 he was also somebody who deeply, passionately cherished the arts and culture.  Is it not legitimate to begin by saving those whom one loves?

14.    The Temperament

After the war, Fry analyzed for his friend Albert Hirschman the components of his own motivation in Marseille:

You say you wonder what the predominant constituent of my temper was during those times—whether enthusiasm, hope, resignation, or outright cynicism.  There was a fair measure of cynicism in it, certainly.  I entirely agree with you that it is necessary to have a sense of irony if one is to handle human miseries professionally.  But there was a good deal of idealism—less and less as time went on—a certain amount of naiveté, but above all, a common orneriness, which I inherit from my Scotch ancestors.  It was a tough struggle, and it took all of my tough Scotch character to stick it out.156

Fry would have appreciated that it was the French who have the best, the pithiest—and untranslatable—term for him.  He was an emmerdeur—somebody who drives you nuts.

This was indeed a time when it was important not to be accommodating, and a man surfaced in the right place, at that time, who was incapable of disregarding his judgment in order to be accommodating.  To use the familiar understatement, he didn’t suffer fools gladly—but he was as sensitive to moral obtuseness as well as intellectual flaccidity.  Even when the stakes were low, Fry would refuse to give in, would not compromise in the slightest, would engage in a barrage of relentless letters.

In Marseille in 1940 and 1941, the stakes had been priceless.

15.    The Exile

When Fry’s train left for Spain from Cerbère, a dozen members of his team were lined up by the tracks to bid goodbye to their leader, a moment captured in the last of the many photographs Fry took during his European adventure.157  He cried on the train.158  "I was very sad at having to leave you and all my friends," Fry later wrote to the night watchman at the office in Marseille, "more sad, perhaps, than you were to have me go.  For I lost all my friends in going, whereas you lost only one."159

In Spain, on his way to exile in America, Fry reflected on his experience for his wife, conveying that he was no longer the same man that he had been when he’d boarded the Dixie Clipper in New York just a year before:

The roots of a plant in a pot too small will eventually burst the pot.  Transplant it to a larger pot and it will soon fill it.  But if you transplant it to a pot altogether too large, it will “go to root,” as gardeners say, and may even die from the shock.  I was transplanted, 13 months ago, to a pot which I more than once had occasion to fear was too large; but I didn’t die; in the end I think I very nearly filled it—not entirely, but nearly.  At least I didn’t die from the shock or the sense of my inadequacy.160

In Marseille, after Fry’s departure, faithful Daniel Bénédite, Lucie Heymann, Anna Gruss, Paul Schmierer and their colleagues—with invaluable help from lawyer and future Marseille mayor Gaston Defferre161—kept the American Rescue Center alive, with no more Americans involved locally, and little or no support from the U. S.  According to Daniel Bénédite, there was surprising goodwill from new U. S. Consul General Benton.  When the latter introduced Bénédite to a young U. S. Embassy attaché named Cassidy, the Embassy official felt comfortable enough to warmly shake Bénédite’s hand with two hands and say, “I was deeply shocked by the [State] Department’s hostility towards your boss, Varian Fry.”162

Vichy finally shuttered the operation in June 1942, and formally closed it down with the German occupation of the southern zone that November.  Bénédite, Jean Gemähling, Justus Rosenberg (a young German Jew who had served as an office boy), would be among those who enter the Resistance—where patriots, alas, were not encouraged to concern themselves with the fate of refugees or Jews.  Schmierer wrote to friends in New York: “It’s curious how very much easier it seems to be to organize emigration toward death than emigration toward life.”163

Fry wrote a note to himself: “Since, silence.  I have tried again and again since to reach my friends in France, to have even one direct word from any one of them.  I have tried again and again, but I have always failed.  Whether I whisper or whether I shout there is not even an echo to reply; only silence, silence so complete that I can hear my blood ringing in my ears.”

In New York, Fry tried doggedly and unsuccessfully to sensitize American public opinion to the refugee crisis in Europe and then to the “massacre of the Jews”—a cover story in The New Republic in Dec. 1942.  The article began as follows:

There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them.  The recent reports of the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe are of this order.  Letters, reports, cables all fit together and add up to the most appalling picture of mass murder in all human history.164

Curiously, Fry, Miriam Davenport and Mary Jayne Gold all went into psychoanalysis during the war years, and Fry considered it one of the great adventures of his life—even greater than Marseille, he wrote to a friend.165

Fry’s superb and voluminous correspondence and other writings—which cry out for anthologizing—make it especially sad that when he decided to write and publish “Surrender on Demand,” his memoirs of his Marseille adventure, he himself had to surrender to the merciless and censoring scalpel of his Random House editor.166  Though the editor may have been right that American public opinion was not inclined to hear the complaints Fry wanted to voice on American refugee policy and his “shame” at being an American citizen in light of that policy, Fry’s original manuscript, which has been roughly reconstituted from the successive and jumbled drafts he left in his papers,167 was more textured than the slim book that was published at the end of 1945.

Despite some good reviews, “Surrender on Demand” didn’t sell and quickly went out of print.  Fry wrote to a top Hollywood agent, asking “whether there wasn’t anything there which could be adopted for the movies,”168 but nothing came of that either.

The edition published in 1997, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,169 wisely included as an afterward the heart-breaking and blunt foreword he had intended for the book.  Not mentioned, however, was that in Fry’s papers this text, including the following words, had been preserved in a folder marked, in his hand, “Suppressed Material”:

If I have any regret at all about the work we did, it is that it was so slight.  In all we saved some two thousand human beings.  We ought to have saved many times that number.  But we did what we could.  And when we failed, it was all too often because of the incomprehension of the government of the United States.  It was not until 1944 that the President created the War Refugee Board, to do in a big way, and with official backing, what we had tried to do in our little way, against constant official opposition.  But then it was too late.170

16.    The Memories

Among those who had been left behind in France was the young German Jew Justus Rosenberg, who had been befriended by Miriam Davenport and Mary Jayne Gold, and brought in to the American Rescue Center to help out.  Rosenberg survived in the maquis, and found his way to America after the war, becoming a professor.  He had lost touch with his Marseille friends, and in those pre-Internet days it wasn’t easy to find people.  But in 1952, Rosenberg sent a letter to Miriam Davenport.

If you recall Marseille, France, 1940/41, “Le Centre Américain de Secours” with its assortment of sometimes odd, but also original and lovable characters, Mary Jayne Gold and the escapade of the “Legionnaire” [a reference to Gold’s gangster lover], “then perhaps you might also remember me, a bewildered young chap who went by the nickname of “Gussie” and who acted more or less as a “valet à tout faire.”  Despite the confusion, those were very formative days and I have kept of them a very lasting impression; among them you always occupied a very central position, since it was partly thanks to you that I survived in those trying days.171

A week later, Miriam Davenport sent her response, which included her own reflections on that period, untainted by the growing attention being given to the story today or by any desire for self-promotion.  After all, nothing, in 1952, could have been more obscure and of less interest to Americans or anybody else than the Fry mission.  Rosenberg found the letter in his papers after Miriam Davenport Ebel’s death in 1999 and her burial on a beautiful day in a beautiful cemetery in the corn fields of Riverside, Iowa.

My dear Dr. Rosenberg!

How very formal and improbable it seems to be addressing ‘Gussie’ as a Herr Associate Professor in Dayton, Ohio! . . . It was when I came to ‘Gussie’ that I saw through your reincarnation and simply shrieked with joy!

I remember a great deal about you—you were a symbol of sorts, to me, in those days.  Everyone was moving Heaven and earth to save famous men, anti-fascist intellectuals, etc.  And there were you, a nice, intelligent youngster with no family, no money, no influence, no hope, no fascinating past.  I remember one evening [writer] Hans Sahl tried to tell you how much worse off and in danger he was than you.  And I recall telling Sahl (to his horror!) that he was a helluva lot better off, since many Americans would do everything possible for him, but that you were just another kid, a Jew, ‘nice boy, but there’s nothing we can do’...”172

This last quote is what Varian Fry had said to Miriam Davenport when she had tried to press Rosenberg’s case.173

It’s strange how that brief period in Marseille looms so large in retrospect.  We are “a people apart” somehow.  It was a curious nightmare—it seemed awful at the time, but it must have been happy too.  We all had a purpose, a highly moral task to perform.  And we and our friends had to survive no matter how.  We were unencumbered by baggage and freed of all pretense of middle-class respectability.  All joy was intense because of imminent danger.  Will our wits and vision ever be so sharp again?  I wonder.174

17.    The End

In Marseille, in 1940, Fry had sent his mother one of those hideously colorized postcards of that time, apologizing for it, and explaining that he had bought it from a war veteran with two medals in his lapel who had limped from table to table in a restaurant where Fry was eating with friends.  "The indifference with which human beings treat the heroes of yesterday always appalls me" Fry wrote, presumably with no inkling that he himself was to experience that indifference for the rest of his life.

What is true for most rescuers became part of the saga of Varian Fry as well: the rescued did not, for the most part, maintain contact.  Few lasting friendships had been established in Marseille with the “clients”; the affinities were circumstantial and did not survive transplantation to the New World.  Only the ties with the key aides remained strong.

Fry separated from Eileen shortly after his return to the States, and after her death in 1948, he married Annette Riley in 1950.  They would have three children of whom two survive.  His politics, always staunchly anti-Communist, became quite conservative.  Ultimately leaving behind the world of editing and political writing for which he was suited, resisting till the end the lure of academia, which should have been second nature to him, Fry instead, with varying success, sought to earn a living in unexpected pursuits for such a man, such as television advertising and the promotion of Coca-Cola.

His friend Stanton Catlin thought that in entering the dog-eat-dog world of business in New York, Fry was determined to show his mastery at something new and original, and also felt the need to assert in that manner a conventional manliness.175  For his Marseille cohort Albert Hirschman, so successful in America, Fry’s postwar years were marked mainly by his desire “not to play second fiddle to himself.”176  Daniel Bénédite came to see in him a “fallen idol.”177

Fry seems seldom to have brought up his exploits in France in 1940-41, but this great Francophile decided in the ‘60s that he wanted and deserved to receive French honors.  The matter had dragged on until it had finally been brought to the attention of André Malraux, then Minister of Culture.  Malraux remembered visiting the offices of the A. R. C. in 1941, refusing to leave France, but entrusting Fry with the reels of his dangerous film on the Spanish Civil War, as the film itself was then at risk.  It was only a few months before his death that Fry and his family attended a ceremony where he received the croix de Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

Fry had been divorced from Annette Fry and had just become the Latin teacher at a preppy Connecticut high school when he died on Sept. 12, 1967, at the age of 59, of a cerebral hemorrhage.  Shortly before, 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.”

“In some ways I owe him my life,” the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, who had remained devoted to Fry, wrote to Annette Fry in his condolence letter.  “I did not want to go away from France.  It was his severe and clairvoyant letters which helped me finally to do so.  And of what help he was once I decided to go to America!  I mourn with you this marvelous man, lost a little in our difficult world, and I will cherish his memory to the end of my life.”

Flying in from Italy for the memorial service, Lipchitz raised his eyes towards the sky and directly addressed his friend, seeking to express what Fry had represented for “all of us.”  At key moments in history, he said, individuals emerge with precisely the qualities required by the situation.  In everyday life, Lipchitz added, Fry “was like a race horse hitched to a wagonload of stones.”

Fry himself had for some reason in 1943 attended a church service and torn out and kept in his papers his whole life a quotation from the program.  The words were from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in abridged form they could serve as emblematic for Varian Fry in Marseille: “There are men . . . to whom a crisis . . . comes graceful and beloved as a bride.”178

“Heroes of flesh and blood are complex creatures,” Mary Jayne Gold closed her account of her year in Marseille in 1940-41, “born sometimes to shine brilliantly only for their short and finest hour.  Varian Fry went to Marseille to his appointed task and fulfilled his mission, not less glorious because it was brief.  Let the record speak.”179

© Chambon Foundation, 2000-2007


Abbreviations used are as follows:
CF                     Chambon Foundation
COL                  Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Crown               Interview videotaped for And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille, upcoming feature documentary by Pierre Sauvage (Varian Fry Institute)

1 The spelling “Marseille” will be used throughout, although references to “Marseilles” in cited texts will not be modified.
2 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry, Feb. 3, 1941 (COL).
3 Varian Fry’s approximation in 1944 (Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand, original draft foreword, COL/CF reconstruction).  This round number is not likely to be a very precise one, and such estimates are further complicated by the overlap between Fry’s rescue operation and others.
4 Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand, original draft, p. 42 (COL/CF reconstruction).  The official is American Minister to Portugal Herbert C. Pell, whom Fry at that time found “very sympathetic about the plight of the refugees.”  However, documents cited by David S. Wyman suggest otherwise (David S. Wyman, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1968], pp. 143-145.
5 The Ohio-born Mildred Theis was previously honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations with her husband Edouard Theis, assistant pastor of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during the war.  She had, however, taken on French citizenship by that time.
6 There is information on the documentary at the Chambon Foundation’s Varian Fry Institute website at www.varianfry.org/crown1_en.htm.  Pierre Sauvage can be reached at sauvage@varianfry.org or at Chambon Foundation, 8033 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA  90046-2471.
7 Interview with Mary Jayne Gold (Crown).  Also, Mary Jayne Gold, Crossroads Marseilles 1940 (New York: Doubleday, 1980), p. xvi.
8 Interview with Henri Amouroux (Crown).  Also, Henri Amouroux, Pour en finir avec Vichy: 1. Les oublis de la mémoire 1940 (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1997), p. 269.  Anita Kassof points out that the German demand, on its face, was not unprecedented.  “Singularly disturbing about the extraditions ordered under Article 19, however,” she underscores, “was Vichy’s apparent willingness to surrender refugees whom the Nazis defined as guilty of crimes.”  (Anita Kassof, Intent and Interpretation: The German Refugees and Article 19 of the Franco-German Armistice, 1940-41, (M.A. thesis, 1992).

9 Interviews with Henri Amouroux and Jean-Pierre Azéma (Crown).  See also Amouroux, Pour en finir avec Vichy: 1Amouroux points out that the clause was patterned after a similar clause imposed on Germany by the Allies in the Versailles Treaty after World War I.  Azéma underscores that the expectation was that a peace agreement would soon follow, and that France’s traditional attachment to the concept of political asylum would then be upheld.  It should be noted, however, that Socialist leader André Philip, then visiting the Huguenot village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France, insisted on the iniquity of the clause.  (Interview with pastor Edouard Theis in Pierre Sauvage’s 1989 feature documentary Weapons of the Spirit.)

10 The exact number of refugees handed over to the Germans as a result of Article 19 has yet to be established.  Anita Kassof indicates that “Vichy might ultimately have surrendered as few as thirty German nationals to the Reich under its terms in the period between June 1940 and November 1942.”  (Anita Kassof, Intent and Interpretation, p. 100)

11 Interview with Ingrid Warburg Spinelli (Crown).

12 Interview with Jack Jacobs (Crown).
13 Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2, 1933-1938, (New York: Viking, 1999), p. 312, in a chapter entitled “A Silence Beyond Repair.”  If the Fry story is in large measure a story about Americans, the perplexing relationship that the crusading First Lady had with the Emergency Rescue Committee—and indeed with the later massacre of the Jews—is a piece of the puzzle that deserves far greater research and analysis than the shallow and mostly evasive treatment it has received to date.  What is one to make of her astounding question to a Zionist in January 1943, at a time when everybody had a sense of what was happening to the Jews of Europe: “Why can’t Jews be members of a religious body but natives of the lands in which they live?”  (Letter to Dr. Joseph Dunner, reprinted in his The Republic of Israel: Its History and Its Promise [New York, 1950].)  In 1952, providing a preface to the publication of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (New York, 1952), all Mrs. Roosevelt saw in the work was “one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war.”  She also felt no need to make any reference to Anne Frank being Jewish.
14 Varian Fry to Eleanor Roosevelt, June 27, 1940 (COL).
15 The first dramatic movie based on the Fry mission, the Showtime cable production Varian’s War, written and directed by Lionel Chetwynd, was appalling in almost every important respect.
16 Fry, Surrender, original draft, p. ? (COL/CF reconstruction).  Also, interview with François and Fanny Charles-Roux (Crown).
17 Hertha Pauli, Break of Time (New York: Hawthorn, 1972), p. 195.
18 Ibid.
19 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry, Sept. 7, 1940 (COL).
20 Communication to Pierre Sauvage.
21 Interview with Miriam Davenport Ebel (Crown).  It should also be noted that Fry is not a Quaker, though he has frequently been identified as such.
22 Interview with Alfred Kazin (Crown).
23 For information on Charles Fry and the Children’s Aid Society, see Annette R. Fry, The Orphan Trains (New York: New Discovery Books, 1994).
24 Varian Fry to Jean Gemähling, Jan. 9, 1945 (COL).
25 Varian Fry, Tribute to the Memory of My Father, April 11, 1958 (CF photocopy).
26 Andy Marino, A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).
27 Varian Fry to Dean A. C. Hanford, Sept. 7, 1945 (COL).
28 Varian Fry to Lansing Warren, May 2, 1945 (COL).
29 Weapons of the Spirit, feature documentary by Pierre Sauvage (Chambon Foundation, 1989).
30 Interview with Marcel Verzeano (Crown).
31 E.g., American Rescue Center memo, Jan. 14, 1941 (COL).
32 Daniel Bénédite, La filière marseillaise: Un chemin vers la liberté sous l’occupation (Paris: Clancier Guénaud, 1984), p. 273.
33 Interview with Marcel Verzeano (Crown).
34 Daniel Bénédite, Administrative Report, Sept. 3, 1941 (CF).
35 Barbara Sauvage communication to Pierre Sauvage, date unrecorded.
36 Fry disguised him as “Jacques” in Surrender on Demand.
37 Daniel Bénédite, Administrative Report, Sept. 3, 1941 (CF).
38 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry, Feb. 9, 1941 (COL).  Hirschman’s false name at the time was actually Abel Hermant.  Hirschman writes about his work with Fry in A Propensity To Self-Subversion (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1995).
39 Lisa Fittko, Escape Through the Pyrenees (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern U. Press, 1991).  Interview with Lisa Fittko (Crown).
40 Interview with Bil Spira (Crown).
41 Miriam Davenport Ebel, An Unsentimental EducationEbel’s brief account of her wartime experiences in Europe is posted at the Chambon Foundation’s Varian Fry Institute website at www.varianfry.org/fry_ebel_en.htm).
42 Varian Fry to Miriam Davenport, Aug. 27, 1940 (COL).
43 Interview with Miriam Davenport Ebel (Crown).
44 Interview with Mary Jayne Gold (Crown).
45 Varian Fry had disliked Mary Jayne Gold’s boyfriend, Raymond Couraud, nicknamed “Killer,” who had been a source of problems for Fry.  Andy Marino is wrong, however, to cast doubt on whether Couraud really was a deserter from the Foreign Legion and to write that he “fancied himself in London with de Gaulle.”  Couraud’s unusual but real military career has been documented by Colonel Roger Flamand in L’’Inconnu’ du French Squadron (privately published, 1983).  Also, Mary Jayne Gold, Crossroads Marseilles 1940 (New York: Doubleday, 1980).
46 Gold, Crossroads Marseilles 1940.
47 Interview with Mary Jayne Gold (Crown).
48 Mary Jayne Gold, Crossroads Marseilles 1940 .  Excerpts are available on the Internet at www.varianfry.org/gold_en.htm.  The book, for which rights are available from Pierre Sauvage, is being published in 2001 in France by Éditions Phébus.
49 Gold, Crossroads Marseilles 1940.
50 Interview with Charles Fawcett (Crown).

51 Gold, Crossroads Marseilles 1940, p 164.
52 Interview with Charles Fawcett (Crown).
53 Interview with Charles Fawcett (Crown).  Also Surrender on Demand.  Although Fawcett and others remember Ball’s first name to have been Leon, Fry refers to him as Dick.
54 Interview with Mary Jayne Gold (Crown).
55 Hiram Bingham IV to Rose Bingham, Sept. 12, 1939 (Bingham Family Collection).
56 CF (Tracy Strong, Jr. Collection).
57 Interview with Tracy Strong, Jr. (Crown).
58 Interview with Miriam Davenport Ebel (Crown).
59 How little we know about American relief work in Europe during that time—its strengths, its weaknesses, its dilemmas.  Why has there never been an academic conference on this subject?  Why is it that to this day, with the exception of the interview cited here, Tracy Strong, Jr.—a vigorous, well-traveled gentleman with a good memory—has never been interviewed by anyone about his significant experiences in France, Switzerland and Germany from 1940 to 1949?  Of course, as always, such action of the few underscores the indifference of the many.  Americans, to be sure, still find it easier to ignore all that was done—all that could be done.  How else is one to explain how long it has taken the Fry mission to surface?
60 Interview with Jack Jacobs (Crown).
61 Department of State telegram to U. S. Consulate, Marseille, Sept. 18, 1940 (CF photocopy).
62 Marseille American Consul General Hugh S. Fullerton, May 26, 1941 (CF photocopy).
63 Howard L. Brooks, Prisoners of Hope: Report on a Mission (New York: L. B. Fischer, 1942).
64 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry (COL).
65 Interview with Albert O. Hirschman (Crown).
66 Interview with Lisa Fittko (Crown).
67 Varian Fry to his mother, Nov. 3, 1940 (COL).
68 Interview with Mary Jayne Gold (Crown).
69 Interview with Albert Hirschman (Crown).
70 Varian Fry (unsigned), memo, Lisbon, Aug. 9, 1940 (CF photocopy).
71 Fittko, Escape Through the Pyrenees, pp. 152-3.
72 Daniel Bénédite to Varian Fry (COL).
73 Interviews with Diego Masson and Luis Masson (Crown).
74 Interview with Charles Fawcett (Crown).
75 Fry, Surrender on Demand, original draft, diary, Feb. 12, 1941 (COL/CF reconstruction).  The reference is to anti-Nazi lawyer Alfred Apfel.
76 Fry, Surrender, p. 177; Marino, A Quiet American, p. 264
77 Fry, Surrender on Demand, original draft, diary, Feb. 10, 1941 (COL/CF reconstruction).
78 Annette Riley Fry communication to Pierre Sauvage.
79 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry (COL).
80 Interview with Stéphane Hessel (Crown).
81 Fry, Surrender on Demand, original draft, diary, March 8, 1941 (COL/CF reconstruction).  Adapted by Varian Fry from Varian Fry to his mother, March 8, 1941 (COL).

82 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry, Oct. 27, 1940 (COL).
83 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry, Jan. 5, 1941 (COL).

84 Eileen Fry to Varian Fry. Jan. 21, 1941 (COL)

85 Eileen Fry to Varian Fry, Jan. 28, 1941 (COL).

86 Varian Fry, memo to EMERSCUE [Emergency Rescue Committee], New York, Jan. 21, 1941 (COL).

87 Varian Fry, memo (unsigned), Jan. 14, 1941 (COL).

88 Harold Oram to Varian Fry, Jan. 22, 1941 (COL)

89 Varian Fry cable to Museum of Modern Art, April 21, 1941 (COL).

90 Eileen Fry to Varian Fry, Feb. 21, 1941 (COL)

91 Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand, original draft, p. 700 (COL/CF reconstruction).

92 Interview with Reynold Levy (Crown).

93 CF photocopy.

94 Robert J. Ullman to George K. Bowden, Memo, Sept. 16, 1942, about his talk with David Seiferheld, Treasurer and Active Executive [sic] of the Emergency Rescue Committee (CF photocopy).  Fry did, however, do some consulting for government intelligence services.  Varian Fry to Herbert H. Lehman, Dec. 23, 1942 (COL).

95 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry (COL).

96 Eileen Fry to Varian Fry, Feb. 18, 1941 (COL).

97 Varian Fry to Elieen Fry (COL).

98 Varian Fry cable, Oct. 1, 1940 (COL).

99 Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand.

100 According to Donna Ryan and Serge Klarsfeld, Rodellec du Porzic would vigorously implement Vichy anti-Jewish policies throughout the war years.  Interviews with Donna Ryan and Serge Klarsfeld (Crown).  See also Donna Ryan, The Holocaust & the Jews of Marseille (Chicago: U. of Illinois Press, 1996), p. 5.

101 Lucie Heymann report, Sept. 2, 1941 (COL).

102 Varian Fry to Albert Hirschman, Nov. 31, 1941 (COL).

103 Eleanor Roosevelt to Sumner Welles, Dec. 9, 1940 (CF photocopy).

104 Eleanor Roosevelt to Eileen Fry, May 13, 1941 (COL).

105 Confidential document, Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône (CF photocopy).

106 Memo, Jan. 3, 1941 (CF photocopy).  It may not be coincidental that there were, apparently, attempts to entrap Fry.  “They are even trying to 'frame' me on a morals charge, Fry writes to his wife “sending both girls and boys.  I must sound as though I had gone stark nuts, but it is the plain truth.  Needless to say, I don't touch the people sent any more than I touch the 'important documents' which people tell me someone told them I could get to the British authorities for them.  Yet it is a strain receiving so many provocateurs.  I would like to know who it is who sends them.)"  May 31, 1941, COL.  Attacks on Fry’s “morality,” were apparently circulated, since they even reached his wife.  "Your stories about being attemptedly [sic] framed on morals charges were interesting,” Eileen Fry responds , “as the stories had already reached me in garbled form, more disturbing than your explanation, which I was glad to get."  July 8, 1941, COL.

107 Communication from daughter of fired receptionist to Pierre Sauvage.

108 “Doug” was Douglas MacArthur II.  “Woodie” was Woodruff Wallner.

109 Hugh S. Fullerton to H. Freeman Matthews, Oct. 15, 1941 (CF photocopy).

110 Interview with Charles Fawcett (Crown).

111 Putting forward a different view of Consul General Fullerton as cowardly but “relatively amenable,” Andy Marino quotes the Unitarian Service Committee’s Howard L. Brooks, who served in France in 1941: “Fullerton understood Fry’s job and was sympathetic to it.”  Nothing in the record bears out this assertion.

112 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry, Sept. 7, 1941 (COL).

113 American Marseille Consul General in 2000 Samuel V. Brock was instrumental in obtaining the honors for Varian Fry.  Interview with Samuel V. Brock (Crown).

114 Born to wealth and social status, Bingham died unrecognized and impoverished.

115 William L Peck Memorandum on immigration policy at the Marseille consulate, March 6, 1941 (CF photocopy).

116 Hugh S. Fullerton to Fry, letter, April 14, 1941.  (CF photocopy).

117 Hugh S. Fullerton to the Secretary of State, April 11, 1941 (CF photocopy).

118 Varian Fry to William L. Peck, date to be determined (CF photocopy).

119 Varian Fry, Handwritten note, Marseille, June 1941 (COL).

120 Hugh S. Fullerton to H. Freeman Matthews, Aug. 14, 1941 (CF photocopy).

121 Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

122 Michael R. Marrus, The Unwanted (New York, 1985), p. 232.

123 A bizarre footnote to Fry’s stay Marseille is the allegation put forward independently in the early 1960s by writers Victor Alexandrov and Marcel Wallenstein, and later repeated by Charles Wighton, that Adolf Eichmann met with Varian Fry in Marseille in 1940 thinking that Fry represented the American government (!) and wishing to negotiate the possibility of letting shiploads of Jews go to Madagascar, in return for $5,000 for each Jew and in the context of the attempt to reach a negotiated peace with Great Britain.  Fry later denied that such an encounter or such discussions ever happened, even with Nazi officials other than Eichmann, and there is not a shred of credible evidence that they did.  However, the notion of such a discussion taking place between German and American representatives in the summer or early fall of 1940 is not inherently absurd from a strictly political point-of-view, according to historian Yehuda Bauer, and given the good connections that Alexandrov and Wallenstein seem to have had with intelligence services—and the fact that they get some relatively obscure details right, though their accounts are riddled with absurdities—it would certainly be interesting to know how and why this completely forgotten story ever surfaced in the first place.  See Victor Alexandrov, Six Millions de Morts: La Vie d’Adolf Eichmann (Paris, 1960); Marcel Wallenstein, “How ‘the Blackest Nazi’ Tried To Bribe the U. S. With Jewish Lives,” Kansas City Star, Aug. 14, 1960; Charles Wighton, Eichmann: His Career and His Crimes (London, 1961).

124 Interview with Yehuda Bauer (Crown).

125 Philippe Burrin, Hitler and the Jews: The Genesis of the Holocaust (London, Edward Arnold,1994).  Introduction by Saul Friedländer.

126 Burrin, Hitler and the Jews.

127 Interviews with Christopher R. Browning and Richard Breitman (Crown).

128 Richard Breitman, Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew (New York: Hill & Wang, 1998), p. 227.

129 Breitman, Official Secrets.

130 Burrin, Hitler and the Jews, p. 19.

131 Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews. (New York: Basic Books, 1981).  Also interviews with Robert O. Paxton, Max Liebmann, and Hanne Liebmann (Crown).

132 Amb. Gaston Henry-Haye to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Nov. 25, 1940 (CF photocopy).  Sumner Welles memo to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dec. 21, 1940 (CF photocopy).  Cordell Hull to Gaston Henry-Haye, Dec. 27, 1940 (CF photocopy).

133 Sumner Welles memo to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dec. 21, 1940 (CF photocopy).

134 Charles Higham, American Swastika (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 82.  Some ground-breaking reporting was done by Higham in both American Swastika and Trading With the Enemy (New York: Delacorte, 1983).

135 Wyman, Paper Walls, p. 22.

136 Fortune, April 1939.  Also interview with Haim Genizi (Crown).  According to Fortune, 83% of respondents would be opposed to a bill “to open the doors of the U. S. to a larger number of European refugees than now admitted under our immigration quotas.”  8.79% of respondents were in favor of opening up the quotas.

137 By D-Day, according to one hopefully inaccurate poll, Americans viewed Jews as a larger threat to the U.S. than the Nazis or the Japanese.

138 Monty Noam Penkower, The Holocaust and Israel Reborn: From Catastrophe to Sovereignty (Urbana, Ill. and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994).  Penkower cites an interview he conducted with Judge Justine Polier on May 17, 1976.

139 Interview with Christopher R. Browning (Crown).

140 Yehuda Bauer, Jews for Sale?: Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945 (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1994), p.32

141 Ibid., p. 61.

142 Ibid.

143 Nazi invulnerability to public opinion has been overstated.  The still little known Rosenstrasse Street public protests in Berlin in 1943, which defied the Gestapo and succeeded in reversing a planned deportation of Jews, suggests that direct challenges to the Final Solution were not necessarily doomed to failure.  The story was discovered, researched and recounted by Nathan Stoltzfus, Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany (New York: Norton, 1996).  The book will be the basis of a planned Chambon Foundation documentary, as well as a dramatic motion picture to be produced by Pierre Sauvage.

144 Konrad Heiden, The New Inquisition (New York, 1938), p. 174.

145 Burrin, Hitler and the Jews, p. 151.

146 David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust (New York: Pantheon, 1984).
147 Varian Fry, “The Massacre of the Jews” (The New Republic, Dec. 21, 1942).

148 Ibid.

149 Varian Fry to David S. Wyman, April 29, 1965 (CF).

150 Interview with David S. Wyman (Crown).

151 Wyman, Paper Walls.  Wyman was tougher on President Roosevelt’s record with regard to the Holocaust in the subsequent The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust .

152 Deutsche Bibliotek, Frankfurt, Germany.

153 Weapons of the Spirit, a feature documentary by Pierre Sauvage (Chambon Foundation, 1989).

154 Interview with Karel Sternberg (Crown).

155 Fry, Surrender on Demand, p. ix.

156 Varian Fry to Albert Hirschman, Nov. 3, 1941 (COL).

157 Varian Fry’s original negatives from 1940-41 are in the archives of the Chambon Foundation, along with the Miriam Davenport Ebel collection, the Mary Jayne Gold collection, the Justus Rosenberg collection, the Tracy Strong, Jr. collection, and other photographs and documents relating to that time.

158 Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand, original draft, p. 719 (COL/CF reconstruction)

159 Varian Fry to Adolfo Diaz, Jan. 22, 1942 (COL).

160 Varian Fry to Eileen Fry, Sept. 4, 1942 (COL).

161 Interview with Edmonde Charles-Roux (Crown).

162 Bénédite, La filière marseillaise, p. 333.

163 Paul Schmierer to “Charlie” and “Kathleen,” Aug. 30, 1942, cited by Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand, original manuscript, p. 846 (COL/CF reconstruction).

164 Varian Fry, “The Massacre of the Jews” (The New Republic, Dec. 21, 1942).  Why has there never been an anthology of contemporaneous writings about the Holocaust?  Could it be, yet again, that there is a reluctance to face everything that a few caring people suspected, knew. said, shouted?

165 Varian Fry, COL.

166 Varian Fry to Robert N. Linscott, (COL).

167 COL (original papers) and CF (reconstituted original draft in photocopy, assembled by Pierre Sauvage).

168 Varian Fry to Paul Kohner, July 11, 1945 (COL).

169 The U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s first temporary exhibit when the museum opened its doors in 1993, “Assignment: Rescue—The Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee” (initiated and supervised by Susan W. Morgenstein) was largely responsible for initiating the growing interest in the rescue mission in the 1990s.  Donald Carroll, Cynthia Jaffee McCabe, Henry and Elizabeth Urrows, and Andrew St. George wrote the first important articles on the Varian Fry mission.

170 Surrender on Demand, original draft, foreword (COL/CF reconstruction).

171 Justus Rosenberg to Miriam Davenport Burke, June 23, 1952 (CF).

172 Miriam Davenport Burke to Justus Rosenberg, June 30, 1952 (CF).

173 Interview with Justus Rosenberg (Crown).

174 Miriam Davenport Burke to Justus Rosenberg, June 30, 1952 (CF).

175 Interview with Stanton Catlin (Crown).

176 Interview with Albert Hirschman (Crown).

177 Interview with Hélène Bénédite (Crown).

178 The full quotation is as follows: “There are men who rise refreshed on hearing a threat; men to whom a crisis which intimidates and paralyzes the majority,¾demanding not the faculties of prudence and thrift, but comprehension, immovableness, the readiness of sacrifices,¾comes graceful and beloved as a bride.”

179 Gold, Crossroads Marseilles 1940.

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