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.


  1. Thanks for writing about Fry. I've never heard this bit of history, and now is a good time to consider his actions.

    1. Yes, he's still not terribly well-known to this day, which is a real pity. I'm so glad you found this worth reading.