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The Rescuer

Varian Fry led the effort to save Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and thousands of other European intellectuals from the Nazis. Why was he forgotten?

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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.

To read Dara Horn’s full story in Tablet Magazine’s first-ever Kindle Single, see here. And remember: You don’t need a Kindle to read—Kindle Singles can be read with a free Kindle app for your iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry smartphone or tablet, or on your computer. The complete, 16,000-word version of The Rescuer costs $1.99.

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Judith says:

He wasn’t completely forgotten–there was a movie with William Hurt, Varian’s War.

David Peters says:

“Varian’s War”, 2001, with William Hurt, told this story.

In that movie, as I remember, he raised money from his friends and acquaintances, most of whom could not understand why he would want to save Jews, but they ponied up, anyway.

The State Department gave him the posting due to his connections, not becasue they wanted to help.

I’m a fan of Dara Horn’s work and I’ll read this. But, snarky comments about LA are not appreciated or germaine.

Had Fry written a book about his European experiences, he would have been much better remembered, like William Shirer, the journalist. In the generation after WWII, the survivors were too busy trying to get their lives back together and to start new families to worry about their European nightmare. None of them really wanted to burden their children or the rest of the world with feelings of inferiority and the horrors they went through.

Unfortunately, Mr. Fry didn’t live a long life, dying before his 60th birthday in 1967, well before the era of Holocaust museums and large scale memorials.

Nicholas Winton’s efforts to rescue Czech Jewish children during the Kindertransport period between Kristallnacht and the outbreak of WWII are better remembered, especially in England, and were popularized by the movie “All My Loved Ones”. Read his story on Wikipedia.

Thanks to all the readers above for your thoughtful comments on this excerpt. Most of the questions you’ve raised are answered in the full-length piece, which you can access at the bottom of the excerpt.

“Varian’s War” was a made-for-TV docudrama that offered a fictionalized (and often inaccurate) version of Fry’s mission. It does not go into any of the questions my essay explores at length– the complexity of the rescuer-rescued relationship, the psychological motivations of this particular rescuer (there was a limit to what could be said about Fry while his ex-wife was actively involved in his legacy), and the larger civilizational implications of what we value and why. The full-length essay also explains Fry’s work with– or more accurately, against– the State Department, where he actually had few if any connections (and the ones he had did him little good).

My apologies for the LA snark– you’re right that it’s cheeky, but it actually is very germaine to the full-length piece, which also explores the sometimes reluctant relationship that some famous European refugees had with their new home in Los Angeles.

Fry did write a book about his experiences. In the essay I quote it many times, and I also discuss why its reception was so disappointing. There have been several visible American tributes to Fry in the past fifteen years (including the TV movie, a 22-minute PBS special, and a traveling museum exhibit), but his name is still not nearly as known in the U.S. as Raoul Wallenberg’s, for instance– even though Fry was American and the people he saved were world-famous.

Many participants in WWII were reluctant to dwell on or publicize their experiences in the years after the war, but this was not true of Fry. The reasons for his relative obscurity are much more complex and disturbing, and the full-length piece explores them in depth. I hope you will enjoy reading it!

It’s unfair to say Varian Fry was forgotten. The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles has featured information about Varian Fry’s deeds at its Multi-Media Learning Center at the Museum and online since 1993. It sponsored Visas for Life, an exhibition that has toured the world examining the deeds of many diplomats who risked their lives to save Jews, including several who worked closely with Fry. And it regularly honors diplomats who did this work, including Hiram Bingham in 2011, who worked with Fry in France and was chastised by the US State Department and saw his career as a diplomatic ruined because of the work he did. Finally, a small point, the streets to which the author refers are not in the Hollywood Hills but in Pacific Palisades, near Santa Monica, where many of the European refugees she discusses, including Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenburg, settled.

Arieh Lebowitz says:

Dara Horn says “Varian Fry led the effort to save Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and thousands of other European intellectuals from the Nazis,” and then asks “Why was he forgotten?”
But Varian Fry was not forgotten. Just go to Google and search under the Books tab for “Varian Fry” and quite a good number of books whose main or sole focus is Fry come back. To name a few:
Varian Fry: Hero of the Holocaust, by Sean Price – 2007; Surrender on demand, on Varian Fry, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – 1997; A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry, by Sheila Isenberg – 2005; Varian Fry: Assignment rescue : the story of Sierra de Teruel, by André Malraux, Walter G. Langlois – 1991; Varian Fry: Vichy France, Hound, Lincoln Kirstein, Hannah Arendt, …, by Lambert M. Surhone, Miriam T. Timpledon, Susan F. Marseken – 2010; Assignment–rescue: an autobiography, by Varian Fry – 1992; Saving the Jews: amazing stories of men and women who defied the … – [Varian Fry discussed starting Page 61], by Mordecai Paldiel – 2000; A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry, by Andy Marino – 2000; Toby Belfer Learns about Heroes and Martyrs – [Varian Fry discussed starting Page 87], by Gloria Teles Pushker, Mel Tarman, Emile Henriquez – 2009; America views the Holocaust, 1933-1945: a brief documentary history – [Varian Fry discussed starting Page 126], by Robert H. Abzug – 1999; The good neighbors: the story of the two Americas, by Delia Goetz, Varian Fry – 1941; Bricks without mortar: the story of international cooperation, by Varian Fry – 1938 …
And if you do a basic Google search for “Varian Fry” and “Congressional Record” you will find that as far as the U.S. Congress has been concerned, he has not been forgotten.
Let me add that the overwhelming majority of the many hundreds – indeed, the number runs into the thousands, I suspect – of teachers in U.S. public schools who teach about the Holocaust know at least something about Varian Fry …

Arieh Lebowitz says:

Actually, Fry wrote two books about his experiences. According to this website of resources – http://www.almondseed.com/vfry/fryreso.htm
“Varian Fry himself wrote two memoirs about his experiences in France. In 1945, he published a book about his experiences entitled Surrender on Demand which has been reprinted (ISBN 1-55566-209-9) (see Books, below).

“Assignment:Rescue, a revised version created especially for young readers, was published in 1967 by Scholastic Press. It was reissued, with a new introduction, in 1993 in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibition of the same name and is still available in print (ISBN 0-590-46970-3).”

Arieh Lebowitz says:

There are interesting and useful pieces of information about Varian Fry in Rescue & flight: American relief workers who defied the Nazis, by Susan Elisabeth Subak and William F. Schulz – 2010. I found it online, or, rather, was able to peruse and search it online via Google. [Actually, I was trying to track down information on a colleague of Fry, Frank Bohn, but that is another article.] See esp. pp 227-230.

Matthew says:

Hey I’m concerned about the e-Book. It doesn’t have a page indicating ISBN number or the publisher. How am I supposed to cite this book?

artcohn says:

I first learned of Varian Fry about 20 years ago, whe the San Francisco Library had a special exposition on him, Two yers later the Palo Alto JCC also had a similar exposition devoted to him. in the following years there was a major TV movie about him (that was marred by theemphasis on him beinf supposedly homosexual).
As Dara Horn states: Fry was honored by Yad Vashem in 1997. How she never heard of him even though she graduated from Harvard is disturrbing.

Jesse Oxfeld says:

Matthew, See here for APA guidance on citations for ebooks:
http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2011/06/how-do-you-cite-an-e-book.html

Hope that helps.

Samuel says:

It might possible that V. Fry and what he did is not known in the United States but the situation is quite different in France. Just these last ten years, numerous books and articles ( also acadmic ones) have been published on him.
One can put “Varian Fry” on Amazon.fr and see the results.

Terrific and fascinating piece!

Isa Milman says:

I first learned about Varian Fry in 2006, in the terrific book by Rosemary Sullivan, “Villa Air-Bel”. Sullivan is a noted Canadian writer, and I highly recommend this book, in which Fry is the central character of the narrative. Curious, for me, to read all the comments, but no mention of Sullivan’s book.(no, I haven’t yet purchased Horn’s entire piece.)

jacob arnon says:

Fry was a hero, indeed.

However, let’s not forget all those who perished and who were not geniuses.

Remember Fry but let’s also remember the “not so famous Jewish” who made up the roster of the dead.

Peter Katel says:

PART 1 of 3: Dara Horn provides an insightful portrait of the heroic Varian Fry. His story should not be forgotten. But it would be unfortunate if Ms. Horn’s readers came away thinking that Fry and his intrepid comrades were the only people trying to help targets of the Nazis escape Europe through Marseille in the early 1940s.

All told, about 25 organizations were working with refugees in Vichy France, not all of these groups restricting their work to relief efforts. The biggest of these, which operated during and after Fry’s mission, was HICEM, an alliance of three Jewish immigration agencies of which the biggest and best-organized was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). The HICEM office was responsible, according to historians Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, for saving 24,000 Jews in the 1940-1943 period (a 1947 report gives a figure of 6,449 people who left Europe legally, through 1942, thanks to HICEM).

Fry, of course, didn’t limit his efforts to Jews. HICEM, on the other hand, didn’t restrict itself to saving artists and intellectuals—though some of them were among the beneficiaries of the organization’s work. CONT’D..

Peter Katel says:

PART 2 of 3: HICEM staffers, among them my late parents, Jacques and Helen Katel, worked informally with Fry and his colleagues, as well as with Charles (Carel) Sternberg, a refugee of Czech origin who ran the International Relief Association from an office he shared with Fry (that organization merged in 1942 with the Emergency Rescue Committee to form the International Rescue Committee, of which Sternberg was the longtime director).

Fry, it must be said, didn’t go out of his way to acknowledge the work of others outside his group, including (unless I’ve missed it) his office-mate Sternberg. “We were still the only organization in France which was helping refugees escape,” Fry wrote in his memoir, adding that HICEM wasn’t operating when he arrived. “It was not until several months later, when France began giving exit visas to the refugees, that the Hicem was reopened to the public.”

For its part HICEM as an organization seems deliberately to have kept Fry at arm’s length, writes Susan Elizabeth Subak in a history of rescue projects in Marseille. HICEM would have had ample reason for extreme caution concerning a conspicuous and perhaps indiscreet foreigner. As Jews working for a Jewish agency HICEM staffers were acutely aware of their extreme vulnerability. Wladimir Schah, the HICEM director, told my mother to quit typing Resistance documents on her office typewriter because the typeface could be traced. CONT’D…

Peter Katel says:

PART 3 of 3: Following the Nazi takeover of the south of France in 1942 HICEM moved from Marseille and went into semi-clandestinity, meanwhile shifting its focus to secret escape work. All the while, HICEM maintained its membership in the Vichy-established Union Générale des Israélites de France (UGIF), which HICEM had entered in order to engage in legal emigration work. After the door to legal departure was closed, Schah wrote in a 1944 report, “I thought more than once about presenting my resignation. But, given that, at the moment, the Germans had begun the merciless persecution of the UGIF, arresting employees as well as Council member, I concluded that resigning would amount to desertion in the face of the enemy.”

Fry, for his part, was under no obligation to recognize others’ contributions. And if he acted incautiously and exposed others to danger, as HICEM may have thought, his approach got results. Decades later, though, we who have the luxury of examining the nightmare years in tranquility should take care to acknowledge that Fry was not the only hero in Marseille.

Peter Katel
Albuquerque, NM

I am not sure why the author thinks Varian Fry’s story is unknown in the US. I, and many of my friends, know all about him. We were also friends to Lisa Fittko, who, with her husband, saved many Jews and political refugees, while they themselves were on the run from Hitler, and knew and worked with Varian Fry. (Lisa settled in Chicago, where a group of devoted friends grew up around her until her death several years ago.)

I think it might be more accurate to say that many Americans know nothing about history — any history. But that’s just my take on it.

Natan79 says:

Well, after visiting LA in order to see if I could live there, I had the same impressions as Dara Horn – plus the oppressiveness of the car culture. Distances are immense and you cannot live there without a car. Public transportation was largely destroyed in the 30′s and ’40s. I took a pass on LA.

Stephen Green says:

My respects to one who loved the Jewish people if more had done so and not listened to the Nazi lies and anti Semetic filth spouted during that era more would have been saved. Unfortunately the Europeans were complacent in sending many Jews to the gas chambers or knowing about the Holocaust and doing nothing about it.
May God bless this man and his family. Bless you Mr Varian Fry. I am going to find this film on the internet now.
Shalom Israel we love you.

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The Rescuer

Varian Fry led the effort to save Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and thousands of other European intellectuals from the Nazis. Why was he forgotten?

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