Varian Fry led the effort to save Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and thousands of other European intellectuals from the Nazis. Why was he forgotten?
One balmy winter morning last year, I took myself on a tour of homes in the Hollywood Hills, cruising along palm-lined streets called Napoli Drive, Amalfi Drive, Monaco Drive, and other names evoking the opposite side of the planet. I was the only tourist. The cartoonish palm trees among the European names reinforced my existential fear of Los Angeles, a city that lacks so many of the things I was raised to consider normal—things like seasons, or aging, or people who reserve the word “historic” for events that occurred prior to 1982. It is a place without markers of mortality, which made my tour particularly complicated. Instead of driving by the homes of Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen, I was looking to solve the mystery of a group of people saved from the Holocaust by an American named Varian Fry.
Between 1940 and 1941, working out of a hotel room and later a small office in the French port city of Marseille, Varian Fry rescued hundreds of artists, writers, musicians, composers, scientists, philosophers, intellectuals, and their families from the Nazis, taking enormous personal risks to bring them to the United States. Fry was one of the only American “righteous Gentiles,” a man who voluntarily risked everything to save others, with no personal connection to those he saved. At the age of 32, Fry had volunteered to go to France on behalf of the Emergency Rescue Committee, an ad hoc group of American intellectuals formed in 1940 for the purpose of distributing emergency American visas to endangered European artists and thinkers. The U.S. Department of State, which initially supported the committee’s mission, slowly turned against it in favor of its supposed allies in the “unoccupied” pro-Nazi French government—to the point of arranging for Fry’s arrest and expulsion from France in 1941. During Fry’s 13 months in Marseille, he managed to rescue 2,000 people, including a hand-picked list of the brightest stars of European culture—Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and André Breton, to name a few. Until recently, I had never heard of Fry, even though it is arguably because of him—and because of his equally brave colleagues, including several other non-Jewish Americans—that these artists and intellectuals not only survived but reshaped the culture of America. But now I was driving through Los Angeles to see the former homes of some of these rescued luminaries—and to meet a filmmaker who is one of the few living Americans who has heard of Varian Fry.
“We pay tribute to the righteous in order to ignore them. There have been no high-caliber books written about the righteous, no rigorous, critical studies of what made these people do what they did.” This is what I was told by Pierre Sauvage, a filmmaker who has spent much of the past 14 years working on a documentary about Varian Fry. Bearded and bespectacled in a red polo shirt and looking less like a French cineaste than an American dad who had just dropped his daughter off at college, Sauvage is convinced that the stories of Holocaust rescuers like Fry should be not merely inspirational, but instructional—that by studying these exceptional people, we can learn to be more like them. It’s a surprisingly lonely point of view. In 1984, Sauvage helped organize an international conference on the righteous, chaired by Elie Wiesel. “We brought all these righteous Gentiles to Washington,” Sauvage recalled. “In the breaks between sessions, the righteous Gentiles were standing around being ignored by the scholars. No one spoke to them, no one engaged them. How can scholars not be fascinated by these people?”
Sauvage is the director (and proprietor) of the Varian Fry Institute, a nonprofit archive of “Fryana,” as he calls it. On a warm winter morning in Los Angeles, he welcomed me to the “institute,” which turned out to be a small office with floor-to-ceiling shelves of binders that revealed an obsession bordering on mania. Sauvage’s collection of Fryana included everything from copies of Fry’s letters to textbooks Fry wrote for a public-affairs think tank to a poem he composed in French not long before his death. But most of the Fryana was stored on computers containing video files of what was easily several months of Sauvage’s filmed interviews with nearly every person who ever worked with, talked to, knew of, or breathed near Varian Fry.
Sauvage’s fascination with rescuers comes in part because he owes his life to them. He was born in 1944 in Le Chambon, France, a Huguenot village in the south central part of the country in which the entire town, following the leadership of its Protestant clergy, formed a silent “conspiracy of goodness,” as Sauvage has called it, to shelter Jews from the Nazis. Sauvage’s parents were among the thousands of Jews hidden by the righteous of Le Chambon. His 1989 film Weapons of the Spirit is a documentary about the village; it has become an educational staple that I watched in my high-school French class. Sauvage’s parents went to Le Chambon, he later discovered, after being rejected for rescue by Varian Fry.
Fry was honored by Yad Vashem in 1997, 30 years after his death, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations; there is also a street named after him in his hometown of Ridgewood, N.J., not far from where I live. But to Sauvage, this kind of recognition is meaningless when we make no attempt to learn what motivated people like Fry. “Many years ago in New York, I read about a guy who had fallen onto the subway tracks, and another man had jumped down to rescue him,” Sauvage told me. “When he was asked why he did it, he said, ‘What else could I do? There was a train coming.’ For most people, that would be the reason not to do it. But this man’s response was automatic. Fiction and drama have given us a distorted sense of how rescuers think. Writers need a narrative arc, so they show these people wrestling with themselves, agonizing over what to do. But rescuers actually don’t hesitate or agonize. They immediately recognize what the situation calls for. When they say that what they did was no big deal, we think they are being modest. They aren’t. They genuinely experienced it as no big deal.”
From his research in Le Chambon, Sauvage developed his own theory about the righteous: that they are happy, secure people with a profound awareness of who they are. “I’ve never met an unhappy rescuer,” he claimed. “These are people who are rooted in a clear sense of identity—who they are, what they love, what they hate, what they value—that gives them a footing to assess a situation.” He described the inspiration the people of Le Chambon drew from their Protestant history and faith. Then he began showing me his interviews with Fry’s colleagues, introducing me posthumously to several exceedingly intelligent, colorful, and sincere Americans. All of them did indeed seem like happy people, with a deep sense of who they were.
The only person missing from his footage is Varian Fry.
I’ve long been uncomfortable with stories of Holocaust rescue, not least because of the painful fact that they are statistically insignificant—as are, for that matter, stories of Holocaust survival. But for me, the unease of these stories runs deeper. When I was 23 and just beginning my doctoral work in Yiddish, I barely understood the world I was entering. It is a very distant world from what we are taught to assume in American culture, where happy endings are so expected that even our stories of the Holocaust somehow have to be redemptive. In Holocaust literature written in Yiddish, the language of the culture that was successfully destroyed, one doesn’t find many musings on the kindness of strangers, because there actually wasn’t much of that. Instead one finds cries of anguish, rage, and, yes, vengeance. Stories about Christian rescuers are far more palatable to American audiences, because while they have the imprimatur of true stories, they also conveniently follow the familiar arc of fiction. The overwhelming reality of the unavenged murder of innocents—the reality one finds recorded in the culture that was actually destroyed—doesn’t play as well in Hollywood.
But unlike the humble peasants of Le Chambon, Varian Fry felt oddly familiar to me. Not just because he was young and American, but because he was very much the kind of young American I know best. Like me, he grew up in a commuter suburb in northern New Jersey; he graduated from Harvard in 1931, 68 years before I did. In photographs, he looks a lot like the guys I went to college with: thin, awkward, but handsome in a dorky way, his then-stylish glasses and carefully knotted ties a failed but endearing attempt at coolness. His personal letters, which I read in Columbia University’s Rare Book Room, are well-written and irreverent in a tone I recognize from my college friends—full of witty references to nerdy things ranging from the Aeneid (“I was surprised to find so many more/ had joined us, ready for exile …”) to Gilbert and Sullivan (“I am never disappointed in them [the rescued artists]—what never? Well, hardly ever!”). If he hadn’t been dead for more than 40 years, I might have dated him.
What felt creepily familiar about him, too, were his motivations.
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Agenda: I.B. Singer, Stephen Sondheim, Tony Kushner, and Gilad Shalit-inspired monologues in New York, Joan Rivers in California, and more