Home > Uncategorized > Varian Fry, American Holocaust Rescuer – posted 12/5/2021

Varian Fry, American Holocaust Rescuer – posted 12/5/2021

Up until very recently I had never heard the name Varian Fry. I think that hardly makes me unusual. Yet, Varian Fry was one of our most important Holocaust rescuers. He was the American Oskar Schindler.

How is it that almost no one knows his story? I did not know about Fry until I read the novelist Dara Horn’s book People Love Dead Jews. Horn has a lengthy biographical essay that discusses Fry’s life and also raises many good questions.

Fry was born in New York City in 1907 to a Protestant family and he grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey. His grandfather was an important person in his early life. He was active in the Children’s Aid Society in New York. That organization placed homeless children with foster families in the American West. Fry often accompanied his grandfather on trips. It is hard to know how much this experience influenced his later life choices.

Fry went to Harvard, graduated in 1931, and after college he became a magazine editor in Manhattan. He worked for a foreign affairs magazine called The Living Age. In May 1935, he took a business trip to Berlin, Germany that changed his life. While there, he witnessed an anti-Jewish riot with Jews being kicked, beaten mercilessly and spat upon. Crowds in a festive mood chanted, “The best Jew is a dead Jew”.

Fry was in a downtown cafe and he saw two Nazi youth approach a man who was quietly drinking a beer. Fry thought the man might be Jewish. When the man put out his hand to pick up his mug, one of the Nazis pulled out a dagger and with it he nailed the man’s hand to the table. The experience floored Fry.

When the Nazis took France in 1940, Fry was moved to action. He helped to found the Emergency Rescue Committee, a group of activists who opposed the Immigration Act of 1924 that severely restricted immigration from southern and Eastern Europe, particularly Jews and Italians. Many people who had fled Germany were living in the south of France along with anti-Nazi activists and escaping Jews. The Nazis only occupied northern France at the time. Southern France was something of a refuge.

Although the Vichy government in southern France collaborated with the Nazis and had agreed to surrender on demand anyone the Nazis wanted captured, there was not the level of control the Nazis enforced in areas where they were in physical control. The Nazis were after anti-Nazi activists, leftists, Jews, and artists they considered “degenerate”.

Fry wrote Eleanor Roosevelt to argue there was a need to get Jews, artists and intellectuals out of France. He suggested there was a need for rescuers to go to France to save people from the Gestapo. When no one else stepped up, Fry volunteered to go to southern France himself to begin a covert rescue operation. He strapped $3000 to his leg, took 200 visas he wrangled from the government and left New York.

Initially Fry intended to bike around Provence for four weeks, distributing travel documents and visas to a handpicked list of artists and intellectuals. He ended up staying thirteen months rescuing hundreds of Jews, artists, activists, writers, musicians, composers, philosophers and their families.

Among those rescued were some very famous people including Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Claude Levi-Strauss, Victor Serge and Andre Breton. Here I am barely scratching the surface of the list of luminaries rescued. It was an All-Star team of the European intelligentsia of that era. Victor Serge wrote:

“Our mob of fugitives includes first-rate brains of all types who now count for nothing through the mere fact of daring to say No! (most of them rather quietly) to totalitarian oppression…If it had not been for Varian Fry’s American Rescue Committee, a goodly number of refugees would have had no reasonable course open to them but to jump into the sea from the height of the transporter bridge, a certain enough method.”

After Fry arrived in France, he quickly assembled an underground team that assisted with the creation of false forged passports, provided money and physical transport across the Pyrenee mountains from France to Spain. The cover story of the group was that they were on a humanitarian mission to provide refugees money while they waited for legal visas. One participant in Fry’s group, Miriam Davenport, described the team:

“We were misfits. We didn’t fit the pattern of human behavior, of staying out of trouble and keeping your mouth shut.”

Fry placed himself in extreme danger. The Nazis were closing the window of escape. Fry was in a race against time to rescue as many people as possible. He anguished because he saw the need for rescue greatly surpassed his limited circumstances.

You might think the U.S. government would have supported Fry’s mission. If you believed that, you would be wrong. The State Department turned against Fry’s mission. Even though Fry and his organization had rescued an estimated 2000 people, the State Department arranged for Fry’s arrest and expulsion from France by the Vichy government in 1941.

When Fry returned to America, he tried to promote public awareness of the Nazi barbarism but he was ignored. In late 1942, he wrote a cover story for the New Republic titled, “The Massacre of the Jews”. In his story he provided hard evidence of the murder of over two million Jews in Europe. Horn writes:

“He pleaded for the one thing he knew would have saved the Jews of Europe: offering them asylum in the United States. His plea was roundly ignored, to the tune of four million more murdered.”

When we tell the story of World War II, the story we like to tell is the heroic narrative of the Allied powers triumphing over the fascists. That is a good story but the darker subterranean story of U.S. complicity with the Holocaust remains untold. As the filmmaker Pierre Sauvage has written:

“We live on two myths – that we didn’t know and that we couldn’t do anything even if we did know. This is the religion and it isn’t true. We knew plenty and could have done a lot. Varian Fry was a hero but he was also a maverick who flew in the face of American policy.”

After the war, Fry became a nobody. His story remained unknown. He never successfully re-adjusted to life in America. He became a Latin teacher at a high school in Connecticut. In 1967, he died at age 59 of a heart attack.

Thirty years after he died, in 1997, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum honored Fry as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”.

I will offer an opinion why the Fry story was ignored. The story of American inaction in the face of the Holocaust is rooted in American anti-semitism. Our Immigration Act of 1924 that restricted Jewish immigration reflected the racism and xenophobia of the time. America strongly opposed more Jewish immigration and the law stood behind that.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, anti-semitism played a big role in American life and culture. Partly this was because of the influence of far right movements in America but the hate went much farther. Influential people like Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin publicly disparaged Jews as greedy and dishonest people who were out to control the world.

The popular McClure’s Magazine featured articles on “The Jewish invasion of America”, describing Jews as “unassimilable aliens” who were taking control of New York City businesses, real estate and city government.

Jews were excluded from law firms, medical practices, universities, private schools, country clubs, hotels and from living in certain residential communities. Restrictive covenants targeting Jews were common.

Anti-semitism was the primary reason the American government did not do more to save the millions of Jewish lives lost at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. The government did not publicize the mass death, did nothing to relax immigration quotas, and did not take doable actions like bombing the Nazi machinery of death at the extermination camps.

Back then, most Americans retreated into their personal lives, kept their heads down or looked away. A small number cheered the Nazis. It is a shameful story and many prefer to bury it.

Fry was not only unappreciated (even by many he saved) but he went unnoticed.

There is a parallel now between the treatment of Jews in Europe and the treatment of those fleeing the Northern Triangle countries of Central America. While it is certainly nothing on the scale of the Holocaust, very compelling reasons have led to the Central America exodus. Again, due to racism, America is closing the door. As Fry showed, we are capable of doing so much better.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Patricia Dawson
    December 6, 2021 at 6:15 am

    You always teach me things I didn’t know! This was so interesting and, yes, the parallels are strong. But I think, too, that there has always been this inherent belief that the US doesn’t make mistakes of any kind…ever. It’s not only antisemitism or racist.

    Hope you’re well. What’s up for the holidays?

  2. Kent Hackmann
    December 6, 2021 at 2:55 pm

    I just discovered your postings. I appreciate the clarity of your thought. The content resonates with me. Thanks.

    Bye the bye, I taught European history at the University of Idaho for 32 years before retiring and moving to Midtown Atlanta in 1999. We relocate to Andover in 2012. I contribute letters and occasional reviews (Dark Money, a few years ago, for example).

    • December 6, 2021 at 2:59 pm

      Thanks Kent! Andover is not so far away from Wilmot.

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