Varian Fry mounted probably the most successful private rescue operation of World War II.
During 1940-41, Varian Fry, a Harvard-educated American working in Vichy France for the ad hoc New York-based Emergency Relief Committee, ran one of the most successful private rescue missions of the war. Fry’s operation, which especially sought out artists and intellectuals, saved from Hitler more than 1,000 refugees, both Jews and non-Jews, including such luminaries as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Ernst, Franz Werfel, Max Ophuls and son Marcel, then 14, Surrealism pioneers André Masson and André Breton and a bouquet of other “degenerate” artists. (Because American immigration rules required sponsors in the U.S. who would accept financial responsibility for the refugees, lack of celebrity status became a death sentence for many others.)
Sheila Isenberg's somewhat dry biography pays homage to Fry’s life and work while it reinforces the gloomy – and timely – historical lesson that even “friendly” governments cannot be relied on to help threatened individuals in their time of need.
By 1941, some 30,000 German-speaking refugees were hiding in the south of France, in continual peril of arrest and deportation. Though his background was privileged, Fry had a defiantly anti-authoritarian streak; realizing that tidy legal ways did not exist to save the refugees, he turned to illegal means. With an office in a Marseilles hotel staffed by a group of volunteer and paid assistants, he bought passports, forged documents, bribed officials and figured out escape routes by sea and through the Pyrenees into Spain.
To the impoverished, frightened refugees, Fry – good-looking, well-dressed, with an easy manner – was an American angel disbursing small stipends and the currency of hope. Laboring indefatigably on their behalf, he defied not only the Vichy authorities but also his respectable bosses in New York, who had imagined that he would simply arrange visas and buy tickets to Lisbon for the refugees. Not understanding how “dirty, messy and frayed at the edges” the real situation was – “blithering, slobbering idiots,” Fry called them in frustration – they complained that Fry’s limited expenditures were “overly large considering emigration results.”
Meanwhile, as an American and an anti-fascist, Fry expected support from U.S. officialdom. But with few exceptions, American officials were unsympathetic. Though lives were at stake, their response time was slow, their methods obstructionist. The State Department’s visa policy, fueled by anti-Semitic and nativist sentiment, imposed limitations that aborted the chance of immigration for many of Fry’s “protégés.” Though the U.S. knew, perhaps as early as 1941, that Nazi Germany was set on murdering Jews, consular officials in France remained well-disposed toward the Germans. (Vice-consul Harry Bingham, replaced for being too helpful to Fry, saw his career at State purposely ruined afterward.)
Fired by the ERC and forced by consular officials to return home, Fry continued his work to help refugees and change U.S. government policy. But his 1942 article, repeating his prescient 1935 warning about the impending Holocaust, attracted little attention. By the time Surrender on Demand
, his account of his 15 months in France, appeared in 1945, both his career and his personality had begun to disintegrate.
After the war, Fry taught, wrote, worked for the ACLU (offending colleagues with his rabid anti-Communism) and sired three children with his second wife, but a skein of financial reverses and family problems turned him confrontational, self-righteous, obsessively self-certain and “incredibly fussy.” A justifiable sense of under-appreciation for his war-time work was exacerbated when many artists he had helped failed to contribute to a portfolio of lithographs commemorating victory over the Nazis for which he solicited their contributions. (The project came to fruition finally in 1964, on a smaller scale than initially planned.)
Fry died in 1967, shortly after being named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his work in France. He was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Israel; in 1996 Yad Vashem dubbed him one of the Righteous Among the Nations – the only American so honored. At the ceremony, then-secretary of state Warren Christopher apologized for the American government’s lack of support when it would have mattered.
In telling Fry’s story, Sheila Isenberg, author of Women Who Love Men Who Kill
and a teacher of English at Marist College in upstate New York, intersperses brief accounts of the artists’ escapes with descriptions of Fry’s work, but her narrative often lacks drama. Overall, her treatment, which includes nearly 50 pages of endnotes (and inexplicably omits a list of Fry’s “protégés”), has an academic feel to it, like a doctoral thesis turned into a trade bio.
Nonetheless, A Hero of Our Own
is significant for its implicit investigation into the combination of heroism, pure goodness and personal need that made Fry undertake the rescue of strangers at considerable personal risk and with no promise of reward. It also provides an unpleasant reminder that nations and their bureaucrats have both private concerns and a tremendous tropism toward indifference. Fry’s experience suggests that like, say, Tibetans or Rwandans, Jews today would be foolish to believe too fully (those who still can after the Holocaust), that powerful friends have their best interests, or even their survival, at heart. After all, there’s always the opportunity for apologies later.