We do not remember Varian Fry.
While Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg have become household names in Holocaust memory, Fry, a Harvard-educated American who helped smuggle some 2,200 Jews out of France, remains relatively unknown.
It’s all the more curious when one considers that Fry helped rescue some of the most revered intellectuals, artists and political dissidents of the 20th century—Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, André Breton, and Jacques Lipchitz, to cite a few.
Varian Fry had no business rescuing Jews: born in 1907, he grew in up in New Jersey, was educated at Hotchkiss, and went on to study classics at Harvard. The “old time WASP”—as one of his few biographers has put it—didn’t even have any army experience.
But Fry could not ignore the escalating anti-Jewish violence in Europe. In one instance during a visit as a foreign correspondent to Berlin in 1935, Fry witnessed an assault of a Jewish man from outside of his hotel room. Though he never recorded the event in his report, a friend later recounted that he seemed deeply traumatized by it.
Fry, an intellectual at heart, was also a man who loved the arts and the minds that created them—a quality key to understanding his later actions.
When the French signed an armistice with Germany in 1940, a group of Americans worried over a particularly ominous article of the agreement. Article 19 stated that the French would “surrender on demand” any citizen of greater Germany asked for by the German authorities.
In the end, the Vichy government turned over very few refugees to the Germans as a result of Article 19. But at the time, a New York-based group of Americans thought that the clause signaled the impending destruction of European intellectuals—both Jewish and gentile—who had found refuge in France, often from eastern Europe and Germany.
Pierre Sauvage, a Hollywood filmmaker whose Jewish family remarkably survived the Holocaust even after being refused Fry’s help, has become one of the most knowledgeable of Fry’s story. (According to Fry’s estimate, his office dealt with some 15,000 cases by May 1941. Of these, assistance was provided to approximately 4,000 people, 1,000 of whom were smuggled from France.) Sauvage explains the American cultural elite’s response to Article 19 thusly:
“In New York… 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. 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]…”
“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 [Emergency Rescue Committee]—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… that she had displayed about Nazi persecution in the ’30s.”
Indeed, that standpoint reflected the murky stances that the US State Department, too, took regarding the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). When the ERC informed the US government of its rescue operation, the State Department agreed to approve the visas. (To leave occupied France, one had to have two visas: one for the destination country, and one to exit France; since the latter visa would have informed the French—and thereby German authorities—of one’s location and intention to leave, Fry had to arrange mostly illegal escapes.) But the State Department soon realized that approving such visas would compromise its relationship with France, which the US needed to keep as an ally. The State Department then began to block many visas.
Fry arrived in the French port city of Marseille in 1940 with little idea of what his operation would bring. Although Fry undoubtedly acted out of a humanitarian disposition, the prospect of an extended visit to France where, during the course of arranging visas, he would meet some of the intellectuals he admired, at least partly motivated his mission. As Dara Horn notes in her recent biography of Fry, “The Rescuer:”
“American writers, curators, and scholars took great pains to compile an A-list of great brains in need of rescue. It did not appear to occur to anyone at that time, as premier American minds argued over which premier European minds to include on the list, that there was a sort of eugenics to this anti-Nazi exercise as well—though later it would very much occur to Varian Fry. But when Fry volunteered, it was precisely the mission’s elitist nature that excited him. In the introduction to his memoir, ‘Surrender on Demand,’ Fry admitted it as one of his main reasons for going to France. ‘Among the refugees who were caught in France were many writers and artists whose work I had enjoyed; novelists like Franz Werfel and Lion Feuctwanger; painters like Marc Chagall and Max Ernst; sculptors like Jacques Lipchitz,’ he wrote. ‘For some of these men, although I knew them only through their work, I had a deep love; and to them all I owed a heavy debt of gratitude for the pleasure they had given me. Now that they were in danger, I felt obligated to help them, if I could; just as they, without knowing it, had often helped me.’”
Whatever preconceived notions Fry may have had of his mission, it quickly became clear that his work would be complicated by rumors that had spread among those desperate to escape. Within four days of his arrival in Marseille, a long line had formed outside of his hotel; soon thereafter, he was forced to open up a separate office for his operation.
Fry had various methods of getting people out: some would escape on ships leaving for the French colony of Martinique, from where refugees could travel onward to the US. For others, Fry arranged on-foot treks through the Pyrenee Mountains over to Spain. Fry didn’t work alone: Among Fry’s closest associates were Americans Miriam Davenport, a former art student at the Sorbonne, and the heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who had come to Paris in the early 1930s.
These American expats, along with French nationals and some refugees, established the American Rescue Center (Centre Américain de Secours) and began interviewing between 60 to 70 people every day for about a year, according to Yad Vashem. Years later Fry described how he decided who was to be helped:
“We had no way of knowing who was really in danger and who wasn’t. We had to guess, and the only safe way to guess was to give each refugee the full benefit of the doubt. Otherwise we might refuse help to someone who was really in danger and learn later that he had been dragged away to Dachau or Buchenwald because we had turned him away.”
While the US government came to represent Fry’s biggest hurdle—when Fry’s passport expired, the State Department refused to renew his passport unless he returned home—Fry also faced investigation by the French police, who followed him and tapped his phone and office. Thereafter, he arranged meetings with his workers in the bathroom, water running to muffle their conversations.
Though Fry likely thought his actions were putting his life at risk, he probably was not in grave danger. As Sauvage points out, “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.”
Fry continued working in France despite his expired passport. But he was ultimately arrested in August 1941, around a year after his arrival. According to Yad Vashem, he was “given one hour to pack his things, and was then accompanied to the Spanish border. He was told that his expulsion had been ordered by the French Ministry of Interior in agreement with the American Embassy.” Upon his forced return to the US, Fry was put under FBI surveillance.
Fry went on to pen an article titled “The Massacre of the Jews” for a 1942 edition of the New Republic, where he had once served as literary editor. But by and large, Fry’s actions remained unrecognized, while those that he saved, who in many cases ended up contributing significantly to American culture, went on to enormous fame and fortune.
For the rest of his life, Fry made a quiet living as a teacher of Latin in a boys’ school, until his death in 1967 at age 59. Shortly before, the French government honored him with the rank of Chevalier in the Legion d’Honneur, the only official recognition he received during his lifetime. In 1994, over thirty years after his death, Yad Vashem awarded Fry the title Righteous Among the Nations.
Nonetheless, Fry’s story remains largely unknown, perhaps because of what it symbolizes: an embarrassment to the US government and a reminder that most people on both sides of the Atlantic chose not to interfere in the destruction of European Jewry. Likewise, his story seems at times self-serving, unfitting for how we would like to remember righteous gentiles.
According to Horn, who spoke to Tablet online magazine, Fry had an idea of Europe as “the height of human development and human tradition… that he was saving western civilization… but western civilization was not a civilization that valued people like him.”
We do not remember Varian Fry. But as we remind ourselves that the vast majority chose to save no one, perhaps we should.