Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Varian Mackey Fry (1907-1967) was an American journalist who ran a rescue network in Vichy, France that helped some 3,000 Jewish and other refugees escape and survive the Holocaust. Among those he saved in just over a year of clandestine work were artists Marc Chagall, Jean Arp, Jacques Lipchitz, and Marcel Duchamp; writers/philosophers Hannah Arendt and Franz Werfel; anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss; and Nobel-Prize winning physiologist Otto Meyerhof.

In 1966, shortly before his death, he became the first American to be recognized by Yad Vashem as a “Righteous Among the Nations,” the highest honor bestowed upon non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Copy of Fry photograph by Phillippe Halsman. (The original hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.)
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Working as a foreign correspondent, Fry visited Berlin in 1935 where he personally witnessed several instances of Nazi brutalities against Jews and became a committed anti-Nazi. Upon his return from Germany, he wrote an article about the inhuman treatment of Jews by Hitler’s Third Reich and, determined to take concrete action to make a difference, he campaigned to raise financial support for anti-Nazi movements.

When the Nazis invaded and occupied France in May-June 1940, Fry was working in New York as an editor for the Foreign Policy Association. In June 1940, he and a small group of volunteers formed the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) with the purpose of facilitating the emigration of imperiled intellectuals and other renowned figures stranded in France under Nazi rule but, recognizing the greater need, he soon expanded his mission to saving as many people as possible.

He arrived in Marseilles with $3,000 strapped to his leg, a passport valid for only six months, a list of about 200 names, and the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, who used her influence to obtain additional emergency visas beyond the existing quota to help save endangered intellectuals.

Planning to stay in France for only a month, he established a base at the Hotel Splendide, a small hotel in Marseilles. With a riotous throng of frantic and desperate refugees beating at his door seeking to capitalize on any possibility of escaping the Nazis, he assembled a group of like-minded supporters, including American expatriates and refugees with diplomatic or underworld connections, to help him interview and process about 75 people every day.

As a magazine editor and researcher, Fry lacked any experience in covert work, but he nonetheless designed and directed an intricate and sophisticated operation. In the face of regular surveillance by the collaborationist Vichy regime, he and his network of associates (see below) engaged in a variety of dangerous and illegal activities, including hiding refugees in a safe house outside of Marseilles until he could find a way out for them; arranging escapes from French internment camps; forging passports; obtaining visas for refugees who had been denied them by the authorities; and smuggling refugees across the border into Spain and on to Portugal or aboard ships bound for Martinique. He also worked with British intelligence to find escape routes for British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines.

When the Vichy authority eventually caught him in December 1940, it raided his offices, arrested him, and held him for a period of time on a prison ship in Marseilles harbor. Although two letters he wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull went unanswered and the FDR administration refused to renew his visa when it expired in January 1941, he nonetheless remained in France at great risk and continued his work.

First day cover signed by key members of Fry’s ERC.

By the time Fry was banished from France in October 1941, having been arrested by the French police and given an hour to pack, he had earned the enmity of the Vichy government; the Defense Department (all his successful rescue activities had been achieved without the approval of the United States consulate in Marseille); the State Department, which complained that his illegal activities were compromising America’s policy of neutrality in World War II (recall that this was all before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which brought America into the war); and also, sadly and ironically, the ERC itself, which disapproved of his “extralegal methods.”

Undeterred, Fry commenced a dynamic and public campaign critical of American immigration policies, particularly those that severely limited the immigration of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. He wrote several articles about the Shoah, including notably “The Massacre of Jews in Europe” (December 1942), a blistering piece in The New Republic in which he concluded that all the evidence adds up to “the most appalling picture of mass murder in all human history.”

However, not only did most Americans ignore him, he was permanently banned from ever again working for the U.S. government, the FBI kept him under surveillance, and he was shunned by his former friends and colleagues. Nevertheless, American private rescuers, who acknowledged the unique effectiveness of Fry’s rescue efforts, recruited him in 1944 to provide behind-the-scenes guidance to the War Refugee Board, the FDR administration’s belated rescue program.

Exhibited here is a remarkable signed first day cover postmarked Vienna, June 26, 1980 celebrating the United Nations’ 35th anniversary and bearing four cancelled commemorative stamps. It’s been signed by seven notable members of Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee staff:

1) Albert Hirschman (1915-2012): Born in Berlin, Hirschman studied economics in Paris and London, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and volunteered for the French Army, but fled to southern France after the Nazi occupation. Upon hearing about the ERC and its dispatching Fry to Marseilles, he met Fry at the train station, brought him to the Hotel Splendide, and quickly became “the fixer” for Fry’s entire operation.

Nicknamed “Beamish” by Fry and fluent in German and Italian, he screened refugees to weed out informers, traded currency on the black market, obtained forged documents and passports, devised creative ways for transmitting covert message, arranged for ships to transport refugees, and personally explored escape routes over the Pyrenees into Spain. When the police eventually found his trail, he joined the refugee flow across the mountains.

Hirschman immigrated to the U.S. in 1941 with the assistance of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, enlisted in the U.S. Army, worked for the OSS in Africa and Italy, and served as an interpreter during the early post-war crimes trials. After the war, he helped implement the Marshal Plan for the reconstruction of Europe at the Federal Reserve Board and made major contributions in the field of development economics and political economics, writing several major works on the subject.

2) Charles Fawcett (1915-2008): Fawcett was a wrestler, resistance worker, soldier, airman, film star, filmmaker, co-founder of the International Medical Corps, and an awardee of the French Croix de Guerre and the American Eisenhower medal.

After his unsuccessful attempt to join the American intelligence community at the outbreak of World War II, Fawcett first enlisted in the volunteer section of the American ambulance corps and later made his way to North Africa to join the Free French when he heard about Fry and joined him in Marseilles.

He steered refugees to interviewers, found hiding places, delivered messages, and made deals with Marseille gangsters, but perhaps his most interesting contribution was marrying six different Jewish refugees so they could obtain American visas. Warned in advance that the Gestapo was en route to arrest him, he fled France, flew missions for the RAF, and served with the French Foreign Legion.

After the war, he worked as an actor and filmmaker, becoming a close friend of Orson Welles, who narrated his documentary film “Courage Is Their Only Weapon.” A swashbuckling figure off-screen and on, he later helped Hungarians escape their country after the 1956 Soviet invasion.

Especially close to his heart was the Afghan cause after the 1979 Soviet Union invasion of the country, and his role in Afghanistan was portrayed in the Tom Hanks film, “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

3) Miriam Davenport (1915-1995): An American artist studying in Europe, Davenport met Fry in Marseille, and her fluency in French and German and her knowledge of art and artists made her invaluable to his operation. She rented a villa, hosted refugee surrealist artists, and covertly coordinated ways to help artists and academics escape the Gestapo, including leading people on expeditions across hostile borders to safety. Yad Vashem recognized her as a Righteous Gentile.

Following her 1941 return to the United States, she worked with the American Council of Learned Societies Committee for the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas to identify important cultural sites in danger of destruction and, after the war, she oversaw Einstein’s Princeton office of Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists.

4) Justus Rosenberg (1921-): Rosenberg, a Polish Jew, studied at a French boarding school during the war where he learned to speak French fluently. He arrived in Paris only days before the Nazis, joining the deluge of refugees desperately seeking French ports for safe passage out of Europe. There he met Davenport, who recruited the baby-faced 19-year-old to act as a courier and scout and nicknamed him “Gussie.”

Fry was unable to obtain a visa for Rosenberg, who was soon arrested and designated for transport to a concentration camp. Faking an illness and with the help of a sympathetic priest (who, ironically, was a converted Jew), Rosenberg narrowly escaped, changed his identity, and worked with the French Resistance until 1944, when he joined an American tank destroyer battalion.

After the war, he completed his studies at the Sorbonne and worked as an American college professor. He remains the last surviving member of Fry’s team.

5) Marcel Verzeano (1911-2006): A young and multi-lingual Romanian Jewish doctor just out of medical school, Verzeano was enlisted by Fry to treat sick refugees under his care, but he soon participated in the ERC’s covert operations, providing them with false passports and assisting refugees to escape to Portugal through a network of Spanish Civil War refugees living in France. Later in the war, he served with the U.S. Army Medical Corps, attaining the rank of captain.

6) Francis L. Kellogg (1917-2006): Kellogg served in the OSS during World War II and later became a special assistant to Richard Nixon’s secretaries of state, filling diplomatic roles as chairman of the executive committee of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and head of the United States Delegation to the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration in Geneva.

According to his New York Times obituary, he was also on special assignment to the CIA while serving as New York’s chief of protocol for the United States Mission to the UN in 1976.

7) Geoffrey Montgomery Jones (1919-2007): Jones joined the 82nd Airborne Division, transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1944, and parachuted behind German lines in the Basse Alps, replacing an operative who had been picked up by the Gestapo. He made contact with French resistance groups, helped coordinate their activities, and reported by radio about German movements in the area.

After the war, he organized and served as president of the Veterans of OSS for more than 20 years. For his wartime service, he was recognized with the Croix de Guerre three times, the U.S. Legion of Merit, and the Order of the British Empire, and he was also named an officer of the French Légion d’honneur.

* * * * *

The little recognition Fry has received has come after his death, though the French government did honor him with the French Legion of Honor a few months before his untimely death in 1967.

He received Yad Vashem recognition as the first American to be honored as a “Righteous Among the Nations” (1994); the square in front of the American consulate in Marseilles was renamed “Place Varian Fry” (2000); and his son planted a tree in his honor at Yad Vashem in a 1996 ceremony attended by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who apologized for the State Department’s abusive treatment of Fry during the war years.

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Finally, In 1991, Fry was awarded a medal from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and, in June-July 1993, the Holocaust Memorial Museum held a special exhibit called “Assignment Rescue: The Story of Varian Fry and his Emergency Rescue Committee,” which featured his correspondence and artifacts. Shown here is an invitation to that historic exhibit.

Yehi zichro baruch.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.