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 23, 1940, which stipulated that the French government was “obliged to surrender on demand all Germans named by the German Government in France, as well as in French possessions, Colonies, Protectorate Territories and Mandates.” His account of how he had worked to prevent the implementation of that article was widely reviewed in the press, but, given the distractions caused by the war’s end, less widely read. A new edition, sponsored by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, was published two years ago.
Now, on the basis of new research and many interviews with Fry’s collaborators in France, Andy Marino has written a book which, if far inferior to Fry’s in style—Marino never misses an opportunity to use “like” in place of “as” or “as if,” and formulations like “animosity between he and Breton” are not uncommon—and clumsy in organization, provides interesting new information about Fry’s clients and his relations with official authority, as well as a balanced analysis of his failures of sympathy and tact in his relations with his colleagues in New York.
Fry arrived in Marseille on August 15, 1940, with a list of two hundred names of persons who were at high risk of being handed over to the Nazis by the Vichy government and whose escape he was supposed to facilitate. They included Konrad Heiden, the author of the first serious study of Hitler; the novelists Heinrich Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger, whose novel Success, about Munich in the turbulent days of 1923, deeply offended the Nazis; the poet and novelist Franz Werfel and his wife, Alma Mahler; the cabaret poet Walter Mehring; the political scientist Hannah Arendt; the biochemist and Nobel Prize winner Otto Meyerhof; the painters Chagall and Matisse; and others who the New York committee thought might be in particular danger. Fry was not sure that all of the persons on the list deserved to be there or, indeed, wanted to escape, and within days of his arrival, he became aware of others who had an equal claim on his assistance. But how to go about arranging for their escape was a mystery to him.
Nor was he reassured by an early meeting with Frank Bohn, a bluff, self-confident trade unionist who had been sent to Marseille by the American Federation of Labor with a handful of visitor’s visas in his pocket and instructions to effect the escape of European labor leaders and socialists like Rudolf Breitscheid, leader of the German SPD, Rudolf Hilferding, former German Finance Minister, and the Italian Socialist leader Giuseppe Modigliani. Bohn was already deeply involved in illicit transit of refugees through Spain to Lisbon and inclined to the belief that refugees could count on the sympathy of the police and the full support of the American consular service, a conviction that Fry soon had good reason to distrust. Bohn was also making arrangements for a boat to carry his more important clients to safety and offered Fry space on it for his. Meanwhile, he suggested a division of labor, with Fry being responsible for the writers and artists and the younger members of left-wing groups and Bohn taking care of the older socialists and trade union leaders.
Fry agreed to all of this with no real confidence, suspecting that Bohn was what he called a mythomane, or fantasist. He was right. The much-vaunted boat never materialized, and in the end all of the responsibility for getting the anti-Nazi notables out of Vichy France became Fry’s. Moreover he discovered that the news of his arrival in Marseille had aroused all sorts of exaggerated expectations among the refugee population of the city, so that dozens of people not on his original list were soon besieging him in his hotel, pleading for help. Among the first of these were young Austrian and German socialists who already had American visas and were willing to take their chances with the Gestapo and the French and Spanish police, provided they had enough money to get them from Spain to Lisbon. This Fry provided, and they all succeeded in getting there—twenty-eight of them in Fry’s first two weeks. But many of the refugees had neither visas nor passports, and some, the apatrides who had been declared stateless by the Nazis, could not expect to get them by legal means. Fry, rapidly redefining and expanding his mission, soon discovered that he could not fulfill it without going beyond the law.
He had, very quickly after his arrival, begun to recruit a small staff to help him with the refugee flow. The first member of this was a young German economist named Hirschman, who had fought in both the Spanish civil war and the French army. Just before the surrender, his captain had called all the non-French members of his company together and told them he was going to make them all French citizens so that they would not be killed by the Nazis. Hirschman started his new life as Albert Hermant, born in Philadelphia of French parents, but Fry always called him Beamish, because of his smile, and wrote later:
Beamish soon became my specialist on illegal questions. It was he who found new sources of false passports when the Czech passports [which Fry had been able to procure through an arrangement with the Czech Consul, Vladimir Vochocå?, an ardent anti-Nazi, and which had been used in the escapes of Konrad Heiden and Otto Meyerhof] were exposed and couldn’t be used any more. It was he who arranged to change and transfer money on the black bourse when my original stock of dollars gave out. And it was he who organized the guide service over the frontier when it was no longer possible for people to go down to Cerbère on the train and cross over on foot.
Other collaborators were Franzi von Hildebrand, an Austrian aristocrat with a Swiss passport and experience in working for a refugee committee in Paris; Lena Fishman, who before the occupation had worked in the Paris office of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and who wrote and took shorthand in six languages; Miriam Davenport, a Smith graduate who had been studying art in Paris and who, in addition to her other talents, was helpful in determining which of the many refugees who claimed to be artists deserved the aid they were demanding; Heinz Ernst Oppenheimer, a German-Jewish production engineer who had run a relief committee in Holland after Hitler came to power, and who volunteered to keep the books in order (he was an artist, Fry later wrote, in disguising illegal expenditures “in various ingenious ways”); and, finally, Charles Fawcett, a Georgian who had been in the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps before the armistice, and who served as doorman and reception clerk.
This was the original staff of what was set up legally in Marseille as the Centre Américain de Secours, a name that was neutral enough to disguise the organization’s real purpose. It did indeed provide relief to hundreds of people for whom it could do nothing else, handing out meal tickets that Fry got from the Quakers. But its raison d’être was different. As Fry wrote, “We were…the only organization in France which was helping refugees escape.”
This was an exacting, grueling, and dangerous job. Fry and his colleagues had to look after a refugee population that was in constant danger of being arrested by Vichy police and placed in detention camps or jail. When this happened—as it did frequently in the case of the mercurial cabarettist Walter Mehring—they had, by ingratiating themselves with authority or by bribery or by effecting jail breaks, to secure their release. They had to keep abreast of the current state of all possible routes to freedom, to adjust to sudden changes and frontier closures, and to maintain contact with agents who could help the refugees through the more difficult routes. They had to improvise constantly, so that if the Spanish frontier closed suddenly they could find a way of sending their clients by boat to whatever neutral port was available.
They also had to seize on the unexpected opportunity, as Fry did when he made an agreement with the Brit-ish Ambassador in Spain, Sir Samuel Hoare, to lead remnants of the British Expeditionary Force in France to points on the Spanish coast where they could be picked up by ships sent by the British from Barcelona and transported to Gibraltar, on condition that ships be available also for certain Italian and Spanish refugees in his charge. And they had to guard their backs, watching lest a sudden police raid on headquarters turn up incriminating materials or that, like Frank Bohn, they commit themselves to escape plans whose promoters were motivated by greed rather than any real concern for the refugees. It was, in every sense, a high-risk enterprise, but Fry found himself relishing every aspect of it. Marino quotes him as saying:
I like the human relations of it, the hurly-burly, the sense of urgency, the innumerable complications and problems, perhaps even the danger, which has come to be like a needed drug to me.
He soon discovered that the refugees themselves were less than fully reliable. Some of them developed qualms even after they had the necessary visas, afraid of what might happen to them once they left France, and these had to be cajoled or bullied into leaving. Others set off but then disobeyed the instructions that they had been given, neglecting to secure an entry visa and to declare their assets immediately after they had crossed the Spanish frontier and therefore ending up in camps from which Fry could extract them only with difficulty and much expenditure of time. The Italian socialist Giuseppe Modigliani was willing to leave France but flatly refused to do anything illegal to accomplish that purpose lest it reflect upon the Italian socialist movement. The Germans Breitscheid and Hilferding stubbornly opposed the very idea of flight and sat about openly in a café next to their hotel, holding court and daring the police to apprehend them. When Fry attempted to reason with them, he was amazed, Marino writes, by
the condescension and imperious naïveté of the pair. Breitscheid was still confidently waiting for the return of the Weimar Republic, when he would be welcomed back in Berlin, carried through the streets shoulder high and hailed the returning hero.
This feckless view proved tragically mistaken when Vichy policy hardened and the two were arrested and handed over to the Gestapo. (Hilferding committed suicide in his cell; Breitscheid died in a concentration camp.)
The Werfels provided another example of this resolute refusal to admit the realities of the situation. When Fry planned a joint escape for them and the Heinrich Manns, by train to Cerbère and then over the mountains into Spain, he warned them to bring only essential belongings. When he joined them in the Gare St. Charles in Marseille, he found that the Werfels had brought seventeen pieces of luggage. He remonstrated, but Alma Werfel declared that it was all essential, for the suitcases included holograph music scores by her dead husband, Gustav Mahler, the original manuscript of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, and the manuscript of Werfel’s latest work in progress.
This was irritating but less so than the apparently irresistible desire of some refugees to boast publicly of their escape when they reached freedom or to spell out in detail how it had been effected. When the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger reached New York, he gave an interview that spared no detail about how he got over the Pyrenees and inspired press reports about the “vast rescue machine that has worked quietly and efficiently for Mr. Feuchtwanger and many others in similar circumstances.” Fry was aghast, for the interview had ruined the camouflage that he had been seeking to preserve. Further stories in the press, encouraged by Feuchtwanger’s revelations, spoke of a “secret organization which has been smuggling politicians, Jews and men of military age from France to England via Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar.” Almost immediately the Spanish border was closed, with a consequent, but fortunately only temporary, disruption of Fry’s escape system.
Such incidents did not help Fry’s relations with the Vichy government or, for that matter, with his own. With respect to the first of these, this was probably unavoidable. In the first months after Fry’s arrival in Marseille, the policies of Vichy were still slack and undefined, and he was able to exploit this to his own advantage and, on occasion, even win the sympathy of some of its agents. But as time passed the Vichy leadership found it expedient to base their policy upon that of the Nazis, and to copy their anti-Semitic measures. The first statut des juifs was passed in October, calling for a census of all non-French Jews. Only days later prefects throughout the unoccupied zone were authorized to intern foreign Jews in camps or put them under house arrest, even when their papers were in order. Meanwhile, there were anti-Jewish riots in Marseille and the local bishop publicly condemned the Jews in a sermon in which he said, “Already we see the face of a more beautiful France, healed of her sores which were often the work of foreigners.”
The refugee population was terrified by these developments, and with good cause. In April 1941 the police were authorized to arrest all Jews living in Marseille’s hotels, who were then taken to headquarters and interrogated, in the interests of what was called “control of situation.” Among those arrested was Marc Chagall, which prompted a furious intervention on the part of Fry, who called the commissioner and threatened to release the news to The New York Times, with consequent embarrassment for the Vichy government, unless the artist was released immediately. Chagall was free within half an hour, but others were not so lucky and were either expelled from Marseille or sent to concentration camps. Vichy now had 120 of these, and many of Fry’s clients were sent to them, in miserable conditions, which he was unable to alleviate, despite a special visit to Vichy in which he put their case to highly placed ministers. He was by this time the subject of increasing harassment and pressure to return home or be arrested; and when he remonstrated with Rodellec du Porzic, the chief of police, and asked him why he was the object of this treatment, du Porzic answered, “Because you have protected Jews and anti-Nazis.”
This would have been less disturbing if he had been able to count on the support of his own government, but this was not the case. He was in the business, after all, of helping refugees come to the United States, and this was not a popular idea with many Americans, including powerful officials in the State Department. To them the word “refugee” carried the connotation of troublemaker, and they were unconvinced that entry visas should be given to people who were antigovernment agitators, even if the government they opposed was evil. Moreover, some of them were probably Communists, and many of them were Jews. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long was known to be opposed to giving visas to Jews on the same grounds that would have led him to oppose their membership in his country club, and the head of the visa division at the State Department, Avra Warren, was reported to have told the consul in Lisbon, during a 1940 visit, to make sure that not a “single goddam Jew” got to America.
Fry did not share these prejudices (he was genuinely puzzled when a member of the consulate staff in Marseille asked him why he had so many Jews on his staff) and was intent only on getting entry visas for artists and writers in danger. When visas did not come he complained loudly and soon had the reputation of being a nuisance. This did not deter him, but things became more difficult when Vichy officials complained that he was using illegal means to help the refugees. The US government was intent on preventing Vichy from handing the French fleet over to the Nazis and did not want this objective to be compromised by the actions of US citizens. Soon a directive had gone out from the State Department to all consulates in France, reminding them that “this government does not repeat not countenance any activities by American citizens desiring to evade the laws of the governments with which this country maintains friendly relations.” This ended any hope that Fry might count on the support of his government when he needed it, and served as the basis for constant pressure upon him, and the Emergency Rescue Committee in New York, to stop his activities. This Fry resisted stoutly. He once said, “This job is like death—irreversible. We have started something here we can’t stop. We have allowed hundreds of people to become dependent on us. We can’t now say we are bored and are going home.” But the pressure of two governments was eventually too much even for Fry.
He was arrested on August 29, 1941, by two of du Porzic’s police agents. His own government did not protest, and he went home. Not, however, without staying in Lisbon for six weeks, attempting to save yet more refugees.
Varian Fry was only thirty-seven years old when the war ended. His magnificent achievement in Marseille had already been costly: his marriage dissolved shortly after his return to America, and his connection with the Emergency Rescue Committee had ended in acrimony and mutual misunderstanding; he felt he should have had stronger support. Although he pieced together a new career and continued to work and write (including a superb and prophetic article, “The Massacre of the Jews,” published in The New Republic of December 1942), it is hard not to conclude that the sense of mission and excitement had gone out of his life. He died in September 1967 at the age of sixty. Earlier that year, in April, in a ceremony at the French consulate in New York, he had been presented with the Croix du Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur for services to the French resistance. He had indeed worked with the French resistance; but this citation rather missed the real point of his achievement. If he had lived to experience it, he would probably have been prouder of the fact that in 1996 he was pronounced by Israel “Righteous Among the Nations” and had a tree planted in his memory on the road leading to the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem—especially since Secretary of State Warren Christopher attended the ceremony and apologized for the way in which the State Department had treated him during the Vichy days.
December 2, 1999