In small towns across America, in the months following the end of the Second World War, you were apt to discover, if you went into a saloon on a Saturday morning, a row of neatly dressed young men sitting at the bar, each with a shot of whiskey and a glass of beer in front of him, as well as a freshly opened pack of cigarettes and the change from a five-dollar bill. If you seated yourself beside one of them, there would be a decent pause until you had ordered your drink, and then he might ask,”Were you ever in Majuro (or, as the case might be, Simpson Harbor or Okinawa)?” Whatever you answered, he would then tell you the story of his war.
To an entire generation of young Americans, the war was the greatest experience in their lives. It had interrupted their former existences, taken them off to far places, shown them things they had never seen before, and taught them things, not least about themselves. It did not leave them easily, complicating the process of readjustment to civilian life, and in some cases it never left them at all, so that their existences were permanently burdened with a mixed sense of accomplishment and incompleteness and regret. This was the case with Varian Fry.
After the fall of France in 1940, which posed an imminent threat to thousands of German, Italian, and Polish opponents of National Socialism who had found refuge in that country, an Emergency Rescue Committee was formed and financed by a group of well-to-do private citizens in New York. The committee asked Varian Fry, at that time a thirty-two-year-old political journalist who was editor of Headline Books for the Foreign Policy Association, to go to France and make a general assessment of the refugee situation, help well-known anti-Nazi intellectuals to get to Lisbon or Casablanca, whence they could make their way to England or the United States, and identify persons who might serve as future agents for the committee.
Fry had no previous experience in this kind of activity, but he was told the assignment should not present great difficulties and was not expected to take more than two or three weeks. Instead, he remained thirteen months in France, during which time he improvised one of the most remarkable relief efforts of the war, which brought vital assistance to more than four thousand refugees and helped between 1,200 and 1,800 of them, by legal or clandestine means, to escape to freedom. This for one man was an unparalleled achievement, the more so because it was doggedly opposed by Fry’s own government, which in the end forced his recall from France, and was never fully appreciated by his own committee, which compelled him to resign from its membership after his return home.
In 1945, Fry published a book about his mission in France under the title Surrender on Demand, a reference to the nineteenth article of the Franco-German Armistice of June …