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How Varian Fry Helped My Family Escape the Nazis

United Archives GmbH/Alamy
Jacqueline Breton, André Masson, André Breton, and Varian Fry at the Villa Air-Bel, near Marseille, France, 1941

I never knew my grandfather, the book publisher Jacques Schiffrin. He got emphysema during the war and then died of lung cancer in 1957. He was a committed smoker, and I still have the cigarette case his friends gave him when he left Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1918, a heavy metal box with their signatures embossed on it—I always imagined a carefree group of old-fashioned men, perhaps in big fur coats with twirling mustaches like my Baku relatives in the photo album I inherited from my great aunt Bella Brodsky.

Living first in Italy, my grandfather worked with the great American art historian Bernard Berenson. Later, after Jacques moved to France, in 1919 or 1920, Peggy Guggenheim gave him some money when he started Éditions de la Pléiade in 1923 in order to make beautifully bound classics on fine paper. He subsequently sold the imprint, still one of the most prestigious in France, to Gallimard because my grandfather needed capital to develop the business. He had retained control of Pléiade at Gallimard but was fired within days of the anti-Jewish laws going into effect in occupied France in 1940.

That year was a terribly difficult one. Jacques had taken French citizenship in 1927 and was drafted in 1939. Serving in the military delayed his departure from France and ruined his health. Eventually, in 1941, he fled occupied France, taking with him his wife, Simone, and son, André—my grandmother and father. After a harrowing wait in hopes of boarding a ship out of Marseille, he received help from an American journalist named Varian Fry. With the visas Fry helped to obtain for them, the Schiffrin family finally made its way to New York—an escape reminiscent of the plot of Casablanca.

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In 2013, my father, the publisher André Schiffrin, was close to dying. Our family had moved to Paris to be with him for his last months and watched as he slipped gradually into unconsciousness. Restless late at night and checking email, I was surprised by one from a French student, Amos Reichman, who was looking for a research topic and thought my family’s history in book publishing would be of interest. We met for coffee, and I pointed him toward some archives. About two years later, he sent me an early draft of his book about my grandfather and our family’s escape, Jacques Schiffrin: A Publisher in Exile, from Pléiade to Pantheon.

I had imagined a somewhat happy story, of rescue and a new life in the US, but it was much harder and sadder to read than I had thought. Since he’d already emigrated once, from the wreckage of Imperial Russia, by 1941 my grandfather was older and not in good health—and had no wish for this second exile. His letters show him to be demanding and meticulous when it came to the manuscripts he left behind but was still shepherding through the publication process. He also seemed exhausted and unhappy. As I read more about the times in which he lived, I began to understand the reasons for his melancholy.

German intellectuals, Jews, and leftists had been leaving Germany since 1933. According to the German literature professor Mark Anderson in his 2000 book Hitler’s Exiles, some 27,000 political prisoners were in concentration camps by the end of 1933 and some 65,000 Germans had fled; 40 percent of the latter had ended up in France. In 1939, in the run-up to the German invasion, many of these were declared enemy aliens. Then, after the Nazis occupied France in 1940, the passage of the Statute on Jews meant that German Jews were liable to be interned in the French transit camps of Gurs and Drancy. A wave of refugees fled south, to Marseille.

The German writer Anna Seghers describes the Mediterranean port in Vichy France in 1941 vividly in her novel Transit. Marseille had by then become the last stop for people trying to leave Axis-occupied Europe and anxiously seeking travel papers and tickets. Ships were few and far between, visas were hard to get. In her e-book The Rescuer (2012), Dara Horn explained that in order to leave Vichy France, refugees needed two visas: an exit visa from France and a permit to enter the destination country:

The visa game had complicated rules. The US State Department had authorized special emergency visas, but the America Consulate in Marseille, eager to please its allies in the Vichy government, took its time issuing them. Even refugees who were able to obtain French exit visas often found that by the time they did so, their American visas had expired. Sometimes a third “transit visa” was also required for travel through Spain and Portugal to Lisbon where New York sailings departed. Many stateless refugees could not obtain even the necessary papers for travel within France.

The US State Department refused to grant an entry visa to anyone who might become a “public charge,” and by 1941, fears of fifth columnists meant that any refugee who admitted to being an “anti-fascist” could be tarred as a communist and denied papers. Currency restrictions further hampered rescue efforts. The philanthropist and humanitarian Harold Oram (working with Fry’s wife, Eileen) was raising $20,000 a month in New York to help the refugees, but it was illegal to wire funds to France. Stateless refugees, many of whom had run out of money or couldn’t access their savings, suffered the most.

The days of waiting were long and terrifying. Seghers describes refugees sitting in cafes, running out of money, and trying each day to obtain the documents they needed so they could escape Marseille. This was my grandfather’s story. Jacques Schiffrin’s connections saved my family: the writer André Gide, whom Jacques had published, sent him money several times, enabling my grandfather to pay for their tickets. Another of his contacts, Peggy Guggenheim, describes in her 1946 memoir Out of This Century how she ran into her “old friend Jacques Schiffrin” in Marseille in 1941:

I have never seen anyone so demoralized and frightened of the Nazis. Of course, he was right to realize what his fate would be if he remained in Europe: concentration camps, torture and death. But he hardly had the strength left to get out of France. I think all his papers had expired one by one while he was waiting for a boat. I did everything I could for him, but it was difficult to get him passage. Finally at the last minute, Fry managed to find room for him on a boat and he got off.

Fry was indeed the hero in all of this. During the year he spent in Marseille, from 1940 to 1941, he and his colleagues created a rescue network that saved at least 2,000 people from the Nazis—including Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Arthur Koestler, Max Ophüls, Seghers herself, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and scores of other writers, artists, and philosophers. Fry was tenacious and creative, finding a forger and bribing border guards. Fry and his allies spent their days trying to get people visas and onto boats in a desperate rush against time. Because of his extra-legal methods, Fry was shunned by the US Consul in Marseille. But the refugee rescue organization that Fry and his helpers built has been credited with saving from annihilation a crucial piece of European culture.

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Raised in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and educated at Harvard, Fry was an editor who worked for The Living Age, a magazine founded in 1844 that reprinted excerpts from the foreign press. He also wrote for The New Republic, and was a contributing editor for several years. While visiting Berlin in 1935, Fry saw a group of storm troopers and civilians attacking any passing Jew on the Kurfürstendamm. Fry went home and wrote a piece for The New York Times warning of what was to come: “I saw one man brutally kicked and spat upon as he lay on the sidewalk, a woman bleeding, a man whose head was covered with blood…. Nowhere did the police seem to make any effort whatever to save the victims from this brutality.” (Later, in 1942, Fry wrote a cover story for The New Republic titled “The Massacre of the Jews.”)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Annette Fry
Fry on a balcony in Berlin, which he visited while serving as editor of The Living Age, Germany, 1935

Fry didn’t just sound the alarm but, along with Reinhold Niebuhr and others, cofounded the Emergency Rescue Committee (which later became the International Rescue Committee). Following the example of the American Federation of Labor, which had already sent over Frank Bohn to rescue labor activists, Fry decided that intellectuals needed similar help. He helped organize a lunch at the Commodore Hotel in New York on June 25, 1940, to raise funds for the ERC.

Fry’s group first met in the apartment of Ingrid Warburg, the banking heiress, at 25 West 54th Street. Deciding whom to put on the list was difficult and arguments ensued, but “from this small apartment,” wrote Fry’s biographer Andy Marino, “the fate of hundreds of extraordinary and gifted people were decided, and the course of European culture was changed forever.”

The organizers soon realized that someone needed to actually go to France to oversee the rescue effort. Fry volunteered. In August 1940, he arrived in Marseille with $3,000 in cash strapped to his legs. He rented a room at the Hotel Splendide, from where he began searching for the people on the committee’s list. Once he located them, he tried to wrangle visas from the reluctant US consulate. The consul, Hugh Fullerton, resisted providing assistance, but Fry was aided by the sympathetic deputy consul, Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV, who is credited with issuing numerous visas, including the ones that saved Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and Victor Serge.

Among many other kindnesses, Bingham managed personally to extricate the bestselling German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger from a French concentration camp at St. Nicolas, giving him women’s clothes as a disguise for the transit, and then hiding Feuchtwanger at his own home for weeks until the German was able to leave. For refugees who didn’t have passports, Bingham sometimes provided an affidavit that helped them cross the Spanish border. When word got out of his efforts, Bingham was punished by being transferred to Lisbon, and his State Department career stalled.

Fry was able to call on the help of a large group of volunteers. Mary Jayne Gold later remembered it as the only important year of her life. Sadly out of print, Gold’s wonderful 1980 memoir is a coming-of-age story of a fearless rich young woman set against the backdrop of the war. In Crossroads Marseilles, 1940, Gold writes:

I was not there to witness the worst, only the beginning, and even then I was sometimes embarrassed into a sort of racialism—like being ashamed of belonging to the human race. Fortunately, at the time of which I speak, not one of us could know what was coming. In our ignorance of the limits of human depravity there was time for fun and laughter.

Besides Gold, there was Miriam Davenport, a Smith College graduate from Iowa, a young French leftist named Daniel Bénédite, and German-born Albert O. Hirschman, then a member of the French Resistance and later a leading American economist, who fled himself in late 1940. The adventurer Charlie Fawcett (who served, at different times, with the RAF, the French Foreign Legion, and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan) handled crowd management for Fry, as hordes of refugees heard of Fry’s work and came to his office to try to get on his list. Franz von Hildebrand, son of the anti-Nazi intellectual Dietrich von Hildebrand, helped interview refugees and prepare reports to facilitate their obtaining exit papers.

International Rescue Committee
Fry at his office in Marseille, France, 1941

There were essentially just three ways out of France. The first method was by walking over the border to Spain via the Mediterranean town of Portbou, often with the help of a Dutch couple named Rob and Lisa Fittko. Spanish border guards sometimes allowed refugees through, so they could then take a train to Madrid, and on to Lisbon, where they could try to get visas and on a boat there. Fry’s memoirs record many such passages, including one memorable scene of the imperious Alma Werfel (who had once been married to the composer Gustav Mahler), arriving with seventeen suitcases and huffing and puffing up a hill outside Portbou. It is unclear why the border was closed on the day that the German writer Walter Benjamin arrived in September 1940. In despair, and fearing imminent deportation to a concentration camp, he committed suicide on the French side of the border; there is a memorial to him in Portbou.

The second means of escape—for about six months during 1941—was by sea from Marseille on ships bound for Martinique. The Caribbean territory was in Vichy hands, but the historian Eric T. Jennings argues in Escape from Vichy: The Refugee Exodus to the French Caribbean (2018) that French officials simply wanted a “relief valve designed to rid France of the undesirables that had swarmed the nation.” Thus, in his view, the Martinique Route—though a valuable if temporary device for Fry’s operation—amounted to a “racist expulsion” consonant with Vichy collaborationism.

Among the passengers on these ships were Claude Lévi-Strauss, André Masson, André Breton, Victor Serge, and Wifredo Lam. When the Surrealist contingent arrived in Martinique, several formed friendships with such intellectuals of Négritude as René Ménil, Aimé Césaire, and his wife, Suzanne Césaire. This cultural encounter influenced the painting of Lam and the poetry of Breton, as well as leading to a creative partnership in the journal Tropiques, despite Vichy censorship and shortages of paper and funds.

The third way out was via ship, first to Casablanca, then to Lisbon, and onward to New York. This is the route my family took. Like the Laszlos in Casablanca, the Schiffrins were stuck for two months in the Moroccan city waiting for a visa, but André Gide, though himself still in France, again helped with money and found them an apartment.

Some of Jacques’s own authors had to make the journey into exile, too. Seeing a cartoon of a giraffe by Hans Rey in a newspaper, my grandfather had commissioned from Hans and his wife, Margret, Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys (1939), the first in what would become the Curious George series of children’s books. The Reys, however, were forced to take a different route, fleeing via Spain to Brazil. As a consequence, the later books in the series were published in the UK.

As for my grandparents and father, they finally reached New York on August 20, 1941 (we have a dated news clipping of their arrival). Eventually, the Schiffrins settled into a small apartment on Park Avenue and 75th Street, and made their new lives in America. Yet my grandparents regretted having to leave France; for Jacques, especially, this second exile was hard. Money was tight, so Simone worked making buttons for her friend, the couturier Pauline Trigère.

Jacques did a brief stint at the bookstore Brentano’s, which, at the time, published some books in French. On his own initiative, Jacques also published a number of books in French, including some of Louis Aragon’s poetry, the writings of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Jean Bruller’s wartime classic Le Silence de la mer (which the French director Jean-Pierre Melville adapted as his first feature film, in 1949).

After all their struggles, the Schiffrin family was relieved when, in 1944, Jacques was invited to join the emigré German publisher Kurt Wolff and his wife, Helen, in their new American venture, Pantheon Books. Despite this marked improvement in circumstances, Jacques was haunted after the war by the idea of returning to his life and work in France. He longed to go back to his old publishing house, but at length it became clear that the Gallimard family did not want him back. Even as he was dying, I learned from his letters, Jacques Schiffrin fantasized about opening a little bookshop in Nice.

After his father’s death, my father, André, also joined Pantheon. From 1962 until 1990, he worked there as an editor and publisher. Following disagreements with Pantheon’s then-owners, the Newhouse family, over the firm’s editorial policy, André resigned, along with a number of colleagues. He then went on to found the independent publisher The New Press.

In their respective careers as publishers, both my grandfather and my father played a significant part in bringing European and French authors to an American audience. Despite paper shortages, Jacques Schiffrin published André Gide, Denise de Rougemont, Joseph Kessel, and Jacques Maritain. For his part, André Schiffrin brought out Annie Cohen Solal’s groundbreaking biography of Sartre, as well as work by Michel Foucault, Marguerite Duras, and countless other French authors. He also published E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Michel Foucault, and the entire Myrdal family, including Gunnar and Alva Myrdal’s daughter, Sissela Bok. The New Press continues his legacy of championing politically engaged writers.

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André Gomes/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Fry (center, wearing glasses) with a group of artist and writer refugees that included André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba Breton, Jacques Hérold, and Wifredo Lam, at the Villa Air-Bel outside Marseille, France, 1941

None of this would have been possible without the heroism of Varian Fry. The artists and intellectuals Fry rescued brought fresh energy to the cultural life of the United States. Yet the State Department never forgave Fry for circumventing its rules with his freelance operation, viewing him “a maverick who flew in the face of American policy,” as the filmmaker Pierre Sauvage described to Dara Horn. When Fry’s passport expired in 1941, the State Department refused to renew it—a measure to prevent foreign travel that was usually reserved at that time for known “subversives” such as Paul Robeson, a Communist.

Finally, on August 29, 1941, the Vichy authorities—under prodding from US officials—arrested Fry and ordered him to leave. Even after his deportation, Fry’s network continued to help refugees escape until 1942, when the Germans took effective control of Vichy France. As Pierre Sauvage related:

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 Defferre—kept the American Rescue Center alive, with no more Americans involved locally, and little or no support from the US… Vichy finally shuttered the operation in June 1942, and formally closed it down with the German occupation of the southern zone that November.

After Fry returned to New York, in 1942, the Emergency Rescue Committee and some of the refugees came under suspicion for their anti-fascist activities and were investigated by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. Fry himself was watched, which was ironic since he soon became a staunch anti-Communist—writing heated letters to The New Republic, accusing his colleagues of pro-Soviet bias. Finally, in 1945, he demanded they remove his name from the masthead.

By then, Fry had divorced his first wife, Eileen Hughes. In 1950, he was married again, to Annette Riley, moved upstate, and became a Latin teacher at a grammar school. He maintained contact with people he’d rescued—and, in 1966, tried to get the artists to contribute lithographs to a book that would raise money for the Emergency Rescue Committee. But he found many of them shockingly ungrateful, unwilling to lift even a finger to help the ERC raise funds for its continued work of aiding refugees, including people fleeing from tyranny, just as they had.

Fry’s son, James D. Fry, believes his father suffered from bipolarism, which may explain his often tumultuous relationships with friends and colleagues. Earlier this year, a novel by Julie Orringer, The Flight Portfolio, appeared; in it, she portrays Fry as gay, giving him a male lover and imagining an orgy scene involving Fry and the Surrealists at the Villa Air-Bel, where he did, in fact, live briefly, with Victor Serge, Max Ernst, and others, after leaving the Hotel Splendide. When Cynthia Ozick’s review ran in The New York Times in May, a flurry of letters to the editor followed, discussing Fry’s sexuality. James Fry settled the matter, in effect, when he wrote in to say: “My father exhibited well-documented signs of bipolar disorder; add to that the psychological toll of being a closeted homosexual in mid-twentieth-century America and you have a recipe for his mental breakdown.”

Others, too, paid a price for their efforts in Marseille. Harry Bingham was transferred to Argentina, where he tried, to little effect, to warn the US State Department about the dozens of senior Nazis escaping there after the German defeat. Offered next a lousy post, he quit. Back home in Connecticut, Bingham’s disappointed wife forbade him to talk about his experiences in France. Distressingly, he became a rabid anti-Semite in later years, according to his niece. After a campaign by supporters, he was posthumously honored for his work in Marseille by being commemorated on a US postal stamp in 2006.

USHMM, courtesy of Daniel Bénédite
Daniel Bénédite with Fry, Marseille, c. 1941

Despite Fry’s publishing a gripping memoir, Surrender On Demand, in 1945 about his exploits in Marseille—and the appearance in English in 1948 of a novel about him by the French writer Jean Malaquais, whom the American had rescued—Fry remained relatively unknown in the US. He died, just a few weeks short of his sixtieth birthday, in 1967, and was buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. It was not until 1994 that Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center) honored him for his work in Marseille. This recognition was followed by the publication in 1999 of an excellent biography, by Andy Marino; and in 2001, a second biography, by Sheila Isenberg, appeared. That same year also saw a movie about Fry’s exploits, Varian’s War, but it was disappointing, and came and went. His own memoir remains perhaps his greatest testament; I have lost count of how many copies I’ve given to friends.

What motivated Fry? According to Pierre Sauvage, Fry was one of those rare people who can’t resist helping people in distress. He acted because he couldn’t not act. And as James Fry notes, there was a “moral clarity” about his father’s cause. For obvious reasons, he is a hero in our family.

In this time of turmoil and anger, where refugees and asylum seekers, in particular, are being reviled and demonized, it’s impossible not to think back to those wartime refugees from Nazism and to the courageous young men and women who tried to save them. The world needs more people like Varian Fry.