Sunday, January 29, 2017

Varian Fry, the American who saved refugees

In light of what's been going on, it seemed clear who my next profile should be...

Varian Fry, the man who fought and fought to save 2,000 refugees from the Holocaust--by getting them into the U.S.

It started with artists. Fry was a New York intellectual who moved in artistic and leftist circles; the plight of Jewish artists and leftist intellectuals trying to leave war-torn Europe concerned him and his friends. He himself was a political analyst and thus one of the few Americans to become aware that as part of the armistice, Vichy France--the place where most of these people had fled to, after initially displacing to Paris--had signed an agreement with the Germans to "surrender on demand" any foreign nationals the Germans wanted. Worried for people like Chagall, Ernst, and Kandinsky, his circle put together a privately funded, shoestring operation they called the "Emergency Rescue Committee," held some fundraisers, and sent Varian to France with $3000 in his shoe.*

Varian Fry didn't look like a hero; not even close. He wore tweeds and bowties, loved Latin, Greek, birdwatching and naughty limericks. He has been described as "foppish." Reading about him, I immediately thought of the Scarlet Pimpernel. It seems I'm not the only one, though Varian wasn't quite up to claiming the name for himself: he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, "What is urgently needed now is a new Scarlet Pimpernel... I have volunteered to go myself and will do so if no more suitable person is found." He was a non-conformist through and through. The French described him with one of their vivid words: un emmerdeur, someone who gets under your skin, who drives you up the wall. (That's not a literal translation.)

He arrived in Marseille in August 1940, the beginning of a year of what would, for him, become pure bureaucratic insanity. Marseille, France's biggest port city, was the real-life Casablanca, bursting at the seams with refugees desperate to leave. Consulates were mobbed; doors slammed in faces. Varian and the small group he gathered--soon called the American Rescue Committee--plunged into the work. First legally--a few U.S. "emergency visas" were granted--then through more and more shady means. Underworld contacts. (Marseille was rife with gangs; one of Fry's female colleagues even had a lover who was a gangster turned résistant.) Forgery. Lies. His colleague Charles Fawcett entered into a series of fraudulent marriages to get visas for the women involved. There were many, many more refugees desperate for help than Fry and his colleagues could save no matter what they did. (The focus on big names, though maintained by the ERC back home, quickly faded to the background as they tried to save everyone they could.) Fry reached a point of such exhaustion that he later admitted to once or twice feeling relief when a particularly insistent "client" was arrested and interned. You have to understand this was because--until every chance was gone--he kept trying. He kept using every method at or anywhere near his disposal to get those people into the U.S.

The State Department hated him. His advice to people actually making a legal application for asylum: don't mention my name.

Yeah. Let's talk about the State Department. Let's talk about the U.S. government.

Why does this story exist? Why was a Scarlet Pimpernel necessary? To smuggle people out of the prison Europe had become? No. Although ostensibly you needed an exit visa to leave France, Fry mostly ignored this in his work and the French Vichy government ignored right back. They wanted refugees to leave.

So did Hitler.

Before October 1941, official Nazi policy had nothing to do with mass extermination. Yes, the Nazis wanted the Jews gone from Germany and all its conquered territories, but they really didn't care where they went as long as 1) they went, and 2) they left their money and possessions behind. It's not that it hadn't occurred to Hitler to murder the Jews. He didn't think he could get away with it. It was when foisting them on the other nations of the world--including the U.S.--failed so spectacularly that he began to reconsider.

The reason Varian Fry was needed was because, not unlike today, the U.S. had no interest in letting these people in.

There was a standard quota for German citizens immigrating to the U.S.--27,000, a drop in the bucket in terms of national populations. Although in 1938 three hundred thousand people applied, the State Department granted fewer visas than the quota allowed for--about 20,000. American officials worried, not that Jews would be trapped in Europe, but that they would end up in large numbers in the U.S. The American in the street was even blunter on the subject: 53% of Americans said in a 1939 poll that Jews were "different" and should be restricted, and 10% felt comfortable saying they should be expelled from the U.S. No love from the land of the free.

And then of course when America entered the war, visas were sharply restricted. After all, German spies and saboteurs might enter the country posing as refugees.

Yes, the U.S. did eventually repent and change its policy on this. In 1944. I know I keep harping on this, but there it is. If you wait to act like a neighbor till the stakes are life and death, it is written: you will come too late.

My meditation on this story today is this: ordinary, peace-loving Muslims are today's German Jews. No, ISIS isn't murdering them in death camps, but do you know what it's like to be a Muslim in Syria who doesn't believe in ISIS? I don't. But I know enough to know that if I knew I would be fleeing so fast. Yet we've decided not to let them in*, and why? Because they look too much like our enemies who are killing them. Who have killed so many more of them than of us. Because they're different. Because they're people we have kind of a fraught relationship with and we've given ourselves permission not to look them in the eye and acknowledge them as human beings. Because everywhere you turn there's someone who wants you to just face facts and admit that everyone would be a lot safer if they were restricted.

We don't imagine Americans thinking about Jews this way nowadays, but Americans absolutely did. Is it different? What will history say when it judges?

If we wait to find out, we will come too late.

As for Varian Fry, he worked and worked and he and his colleagues got just over 2,000 people out--and in. He got Marc Chagall and Max Ernst out, and Claude Levi-Strauss and Hannah Arendt; and many, many other people whose names we wouldn't know. And yes, I do feel a bit queasy about his going into it for the sake of the big names, and I can just imagine what Isaac Levendel (who was at the time the 6-year-old son of a shopkeeper) would have to say about it, but I respect him because once he looked people in the face he decided to forget whether anyone recognized their name. He spent a year in Marseille doing this until Vichy finally kicked him out. After the war he became the first--and for years, the only--American to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations (i.e. non-Jewish rescuers of Jews.) The square in Marseille where the American consulate stands was named after him; you can see his name there today.

I only wonder: who will be--or who is--the new Varian Fry?


Credit where credit is due: I drew almost everything for this post from a longer article, "Varian Fry in Marseille" by Pierre Sauvage, well worth reading if you want to know more details. Pierre Sauvage, who made the documentary "Weapons of the Spirit" about Le Chambon, has been making a documentary about Fry as well. (Though it seems production may have been halted, since searches don't turn up anything recent.)

*(OK, it may not really have been in his shoe. I could've sworn it was but I can't seem to find that reference anymore.)

* I'm not just talking about the ban here. The ban is beyond reprehensible; we never did anything so bad even during WWII. We should have been letting a lot more Syrian refugees in even in the first place. The world is experiencing its worst refugee crisis since World War II and the U.S. has done very little to help.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Pierre Piton: Boy Scout and Jew smuggler

Pierre Piton was a French teenager who helped about 60 Jewish people escape occupied France in 1942 & 43.

He had grown up in low-income family in Normandy, already working in a factory to help support his family as a young teenager, but education was so important to him that he studied hard in the evenings at the same time. He applied to the Ecole Nouvelle Cévenole, the boarding school begun by pastor Andre Trocmé in Le Chambon, for the school year 1941-1942 and was accepted.

That was, of course, the year Jewish refugees were arriving in waves in Le Chambon, the year that followed the day Magda Trocmé opened her door. Pierre was already a Boy Scout* troop leader and a dormitory "surveillant" (something like an RA), and roughly 16 years old. The town leaders must have picked him out as a young person likely to be able to handle responsibility, and that was something they needed. The movements of young people were much less likely to attract attention. Madame Mireille Philip, wife of a French politician and an organizer in Le Chambon's nascent underground, asked him if he would help.

The first phase of his work was done right in Le Chambon: his job was to meet new arrivals and take them from a temporary, less safe "safehouse" in the center of town out into the snowy wastes of the winter plateau to whichever farmhouse they had been slated to be sheltered in, all under cover of night, pulling their meager belongings behind him on his sled. His written testimony describes their arrival, usually around one o'clock in the morning, the farmers opening the door, beckoning them in quickly to hide, and immediately welcoming them with an array of their best food (often involving pork, and I do wonder about that b/c he made no comment!) and hot soup that had been simmering on the winter fire in readiness. There they would be bedded down in the hayloft, which was the actual attic of these houses that were shared with farm animals (barn and house separated by a simple inner wall, so that the whole household could hibernate together through the harsh plateau winter), burrowed into a long tunnel in the hay, well hidden. Then he would sled back down into town as fast as he could, taking care not to be seen when he entered the town, sleep two hours, and return at dawn to his dormitory duties, pretending he hadn't been anywhere that night. After passage into Switzerland had been arranged for the refugees he would come back for them using the same method.

Near the end of 1942 he was asked by Madame Philip to take on a new job: "passeur," or people-smuggler. One of the other passeurs (he never knew how many there were nor what other routes there were besides his own) had been compromised and had to quit, and a replacement was needed. He was 17 at this point and would do his work in a Boy Scout uniform, a way to stand out while throwing off suspicion. Most of the people he was guiding spoke no French; they got their instructions before the trip from someone who could translate, and were told to follow him the whole way at a slight distance, make no eye contact with anyone on the trip, and pretend to sleep whenever possible. The Scout uniform of course made him easy to spot. With his method he would lead them on a long train trip with two overnight stops in safe-houses, never actually interacting with them except when he passed them their train tickets. When they got to their destination, a little town on the Swiss border, they would hide in the attic of a priest's house until dark and at the signal that the patrol had passed, Pierre would lead them out (no longer in uniform) to a spot where they could crawl under the barbed wire to freedom. "The worse the weather," he says, "the more luck was with us." Once his charges were safely through he would hide in the ditch till the next patrol passed and go back.

His career as a passeur ended one night when the patrol came too early. Two refugees out of three were already through--he could see they were just barely on official Swiss soil past no-man's-land--and he shouted at them "Go on, go on!" But the third, a German nurse, was still halfway under the barbed wire. She and Pierre were arrested.

They were interrogated all night, but without torture. He claimed she was a chance-met stranger he had offered to help. They were lucky; this zone of France at the time was occupied not by the German army but the Italians, who were much more lenient and had no particular wish to persecute the Jews. After three weeks in a makeshift jail he was released--he thinks because of his young age--and the nurse too, for less clear reasons.

Then, due to what he calls--well, I suppose I'd translate it as "teenage cluelessness"--he decided to turn around and simply try again. She had to get to Switzerland, after all. Bad call. The second bad call: despite the constant instruction "If you are arrested, you don't know your passeur," the nurse, when she was picked up by police, claimed Pierre as a witness that she wasn't Jewish. It didn't work. It just got him arrested too.

Incredibly, not only Pierre but also the nurse still made it through. As Pierre was being taken off the train in handcuffs, he made sure that the pastor who was waiting to meet him saw him and saw what was happening. The pastor contacted a Catholic ally who apparently had some political pull. This man went straight to the police and somehow--I don't know how--got both of them released.

Pierre was of course extremely compromised at this point; he went straight back to Le Chambon and was pulled out of his passeur role. He went on to become an organizer in the Maquis, the guerilla wing of the Resistance, in the countryside around Le Chambon.

I'm grateful to Pierre for his written testimony, which I read in a book called Témoignages de Résistants (Resisters' Testimonies); thanks to the wealth of detail he offered I learned exactly how a passage into Switzerland worked (I haven't given you most of the details here, but they are in the novel), and also the hidden role of Pastor Edouard Théis, the assistant pastor whom my main character's father is based on. (He was the other logistical organizer of underground activities besides Madame Philip.)

I've based a character on Pierre, though with many changes.

* Not the actual organization that goes by the name Boy Scouts in the U.S. of course, but one of the French equivalents of the time. There was more than one because, interestingly, they were religiously affiliated: there were Catholic scouts, Protestant scouts, and Jewish scouts.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


My friend died much sooner than expected and the funeral is today. Sorry, I know I promised a new story this Sunday. I will come through, but tomorrow.

Tomorrow I'll post the story of Pierre Piton: Boy Scout and Jew smuggler.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Listen, children;
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I'll make you little jackets;
I'll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There'll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Death, the thief

"Death has come, the stranger. Death, the thief."

That's a quote from How Huge the Night, a phrase that keeps running through Nina's thoughts the day her father dies (expectedly) of tuberculosis. Part of me feels, now, that it was melodramatic to put it that way. On the other hand, can any words be dramatic enough, for losing your father at sixteen? All I know is I bit off an awful lot to chew with that scene.

The phrase came back into my mind, this week, when I heard the news that a dear friend has just gone on hospice care.

He's older, a grandfather, and has been disabled almost all his life with rheumatoid arthritis and with a lung condition that means constant congestion he's had to keep at bay with daily effort. We've been friends for years--I've visited and chatted with him once a week since shortly after I moved to the intentional community where we live--and really good friends for the past two years or so, since we discovered how much we enjoyed talking about writing, about Story, together. He became my writing mentor, really. That whole time his health has been declining. Many bouts of pneumonia, home IV antibiotics, hospitalizations; he's a person who believes in talking about things, and he has talked about dying. I always knew this was the cost of a deepening friendship with him. I didn't really know how long we had. No-one did. Now the bill is coming due.

Because now it's sure. He's just been diagnosed with one more condition. This one's an auto-immune disease. He can't take immune suppressants; what immune system he has left is the only thing that's keeping him alive. He has six months to live at the very most. More likely much less.

I've never really had a friend die before. (And I'm 35. That's privilege right there.)

I wasn't ready. I was hoping I could finish this book in time for him to read it. He's helped me so much with it. It's going to be dedicated to him. My husband and I will be helping with the care he needs in order to stay at home--me, sitting with him when his wife is at work (at times when their kids or other friends can't be there), and my husband doing caregiving things he is experienced with. I'm glad of the chance, at least, to spend extra time with him before the end.

I don't really know what to say about this, that will make it worth reading for others. 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Well yes, definitely. I wouldn't trade a single one of our conversations for not feeling sad now. The very idea of not feeling sad now feels sadder than anything. I seem to remember a quote from somewhere that grief often feels like fear. I think that's true. The first three days after I got the news that made all this final, I was so exhausted from my emotions by evening I could barely focus, my body physically felt like I was carrying a bag of rocks. I can only imagine how it feels for his wife. I don't know how it will feel in the days to come. But yes, it's worth it. And walking with him right to the end, for however long I can be a friend, is a privilege I wouldn't give up.

I don't know. Maybe, just now, that's all I've got to say.


Next week I'll try to start writing rescuer stories again.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Book review: A Wolf in the Soul

Hi friends, not much today for the New Year, no long thoughtful posts on resolutions or the meaning of the year or anything. I just thought I'd recommend you the book I'm re-reading.

Do you enjoy the strange? Would you like to learn about an unfamiliar culture through a novel packed with humor, strange coincidences, and an unpredictable plot? Or do you perhaps already have a particular interest in or familiarity with Orthodox Judaism... or werewolves?

If any of these apply, pick up A Wolf in the Soul. Gregor Samstag (pun intended) finds an unexpected transformation occurring in his body and his soul. Strange dogs follow him throughout the city... he falls asleep unexpectedly in public places and dreams of hunting down elk and eating them raw... also his parents' marriage is falling apart and it's very complicated for him. And his new roommate at Columbia is the weirdest and refuses to eat animal products unless they're invertebrates. Eventually the "animalistic forces" pursuing Gregor catch up with him: he's bitten by an actual werewolf and begins to transform, and it's up to him to conquer the transformation by re-connecting with his Judaism and finding the right path to connect the animal with the spiritual & bring wholeness to his life.

I may not be representing that last bit quite right; I'm halfway through my re-reading and don't quite remember what really does it for him. I do remember there's a thoughtful exploration of the difference between self-discipline and legalism (legalism makes the wolf problem worse instead of better) and of the meaning of civilization and wildness. On that second count there are definitely some flaws--some of the descriptions of wolf life that he sees in his dreams are definitely inaccurate, like a wolf father physically attacking his son's family to the point of killing his own grandcubs, which I'm positive wolves never do--and this goes along with (or stems from?) an overly negative view of wildness. Still, it's a thoughtful and compelling book with realistic and striking characters, and I find it really fascinating how it has a definite religious perspective (or even agenda?) yet doesn't have anything like the heavy, cloying feel that agenda-driven Christian fiction tends to have.

Also for those interested in such things, there is apparently a genuine Jewish tradition about werewolves. I barely know anything about it so I won't try to inform you, but what I do know is that Benjamin is supposed by some to have been a werewolf. Yep! Gonna leave it at that because that's all I know. Also this book has some kabbalah references but I only know that because it says so on the back.

I partly picked this up because "Jewish werewolf novel" sounded way too interesting, and partly because I've been trying to explore traditional & Orthodox Judaism for the past couple years, ever since I established that a major character in A Flame in the Night, my work-in-progress, is a very observant Jew. I'd heard some criticism about the Jewish characters in my first book, How Huge the Night, and on reflection it was very true: I didn't know enough, treated their faith very generically, and didn't try deeply to understand their own experience of it. Christian familiarity with the Hebrew Bible does not equal familiarity with Judaism, but we too easily assume that it does. So I've gone on a deliberate quest to do better in this one. I've gone to non-fiction sources for facts, of course, but I've been trying to look at Jewish fiction as well, and well... combining learning with werewolves? I couldn't pass that up, and I'm glad I didn't.