Varian Fry was an American journalist who helped anti-Nazi refugees escape from France.
Varian Fry was born in New York City on October 15, 1907. He graduated in 1931 with a degree in classics from Harvard University, moved back to New York City, and married Eileen Hughes, an editor at Atlantic Monthly. Fry worked as a researcher and editor at several magazines in the early 1930s, during which time he traveled to Nazi Germany to report on the country under Hitler’s rule. Upon witnessing an anti-Jewish riot in Berlin on July 15, 1935, Fry wrote several dispatches for the New York Times, describing what he had observed.
After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Fry resigned as editor of the foreign policy magazine The Living Age to work for the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. Despite its name, the committee supported the Republican side of the war, which included communists, and Fry, a fervent anti-Communist, resigned in June 1937. With wars breaking out all over the world, Fry began writing books for the Foreign Policy Association, including War in China, The Good Neighbors (about U.S. relations with Latin America), Bricks Without Mortar (about international diplomacy), War Atlas, and The Peace that Failed (about the Nazi seizure of Czechoslovakia).
After Germany invaded France in June 1940, a group of more than 200 intellectuals, headed by Frank Kingdon, met at the Commodore Hotel in New York and decided to create an Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Eleanor Roosevelt interceded to obtain “emergency” non-quota visas for endangered intellectuals. The ERC decided they needed an emissary to Vichy France to oversee rescue efforts. Fry volunteered, and flew to Europe on August 4, 1940.
His mission was to aid anti-Nazi refugees who were in danger of being arrested by the Gestapo. Fry was given $3,000, and instructed to explore rescue possibilities for the individuals on his list. He was to leave on August 4, 1940, and return within a month, with a possible extension of two more months.
In Marseille, Fry’s network of accomplices forged documents and created clandestine escape routes. Fry wrote letters from his hotel room to all those on his 200-name list whose addresses were known. He offered aid to antifascist refugees, both Jews and non-Jews, threatened with extradition to Nazi Germany under Article 19 of the Franco-German armistice (the “Surrender on Demand” clause).The resultant stampede of people to his hotel room led him to open an office called the Centre Américain de Secours. He discovered that some intellectuals were afraid to disclose their whereabouts or, as in the case of Walter Benjamin, had preferred to end their life.
Fry stayed in France for 13 months. He was under constant surveillance and was, more than once, questioned and detained by authorities. He established a legal French relief organization, The American Relief Center, and worked behind its cover using illegal means – black-market funds, forged documents, secret mountain passages, and sea routes – to spirit endangered refugees from France.
As the job was beyond the capacity of one man, he assembled a staff of trustworthy people to help him in what would become a vast rescue operation, including Albert Hirschman, Mary Jane Gold, former French police officer Daniel Bénédite, Miriam Davenport-Ebel, Willi Spira (a Viennese cartoonist who helped to falsify credentials), Marcel Verzeano, and Johannes (Hans) and Lisa Fittko. The aim now was to get as many people as possible out of the country, in whatever way possible. In Fry’s words, “I had come to think of illegal emigration as the normal, if not the only way to go.”
The escape routes included Route A: from Marseilles to Lisbon through Spain, via the French border town of Banyuls; B: to Spain over the Pyrenees; C: with authentic-looking forged papers, from Pau (France) to Saragossa (Spain); D: Cuban visas on questionable passports; E: from Marseilles by boat to Oran (Algeria); F: an alternate crossing into Spain: G: from Marseilles to the French colony of Martinique.
By May 1941, the office had handled more than 15,000 requests, of which 1,800 fell within the scope of Fry’s direct work, representing some 4,000 people. Altogether 1,000 were sent out of the country, and support and allowances were distributed to 560 others. Many others were referred to separate welfare agencies. Persons helped to leave France included novelists Franz Werfel, Heinrich Mann, and Lion Feuchtwanger, painters Max Ernst and Marc Chagall, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, political scientist Hannah Arendt, physiologist Otto Meyerhof and many others.
The French lodged protests with the American consul in Marseilles over Fry’s illegal emigration methods, and the police several times raided Fry’s offices in search of incriminating documents. The French wanted him deported, as did U.S. diplomats in Vichy France (including the consul-general in Marseilles, Hugh S. Fullerton, and the U.S. ambassador, Admiral William Leahy), who felt that Fry’s methods were hurting the good relations existing then between the U.S. and Vichy France.
In Washington D.C., the State Department complained that Fry’s “continued presence was an embarrassment to everybody.” Fry was continuously followed by French secret agents, “part of a campaign to frighten me into leaving France of my own free will.”
In a June 1941 letter to his wife, Eileen, Fry wrote, “If I leave, I abandon those human beings, many of whom I have come to know and to like very much, and most of whom have come to depend on me.” Fry was arrested in August 1941 and given an hour to pack, driven to the Spanish border, and told that his expulsion had been ordered by the Ministry of the Interior, “with the approval of the American embassy.”
Fry’s office continued to function, headed by his French aide Bénédite, until the office was closed by the authorities on June 2, 1942. After his forced return to the U.S., Fry criticized the State Department’s immigration policy. Asa result, he was placed under FBI surveillance as a subversive agent on the orders of J. Edgar Hoover. In a piece called “The Massacre of the Jews,” published in The New Republic in December 1942, Fry called upon the Allied governments to immediately set up tribunals to begin to collect evidence on the Nazi massacres of Jews, while at the same time open their doors to any refugees fleeing the Holocaust, and for the pope to threaten with excommunication all Catholics who in any way participated in these frightful crimes.
In 1967, a few months before his death, France, which had expelled him in 1941, conferred upon him the Chevalier de Légion honor. In 1991, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council awarded the Eisenhower Liberation Medal to Varian Fry.
In a ceremony at Yad Vashem, on February 2, 1996, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher apologized on behalf of the State Department for its earlier abusive treatment of Fry and underlined the pride of the U.S. in a man of such high moral caliber that he was named the first and only American to receive the Righteous Among the Nations Award.
Fry died unexpectedly in 1967 while revising his memoirs. He left behind a wealth of written and photographic materials that document his experiences in France. Assignment Rescue, the version of his memoirs Fry rewrote for young readers, was published shortly after his death.
In 2000, the square in front of the U.S. consulate in Marseilles was renamed “Place Varian Fry.”
Yad Vashem Archives M31–6150; V. Fry, Surrender on Demand, (1997); A. Marino, American Pimpernel (1999); M. Paldiel, Saving the Jews (2000), 61–73; idem, Sheltering the Jews (1996), 137–41.