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Escape From Vichy
One of the most ingenious and least known rescue missions of World War II was engineered by a young American dandy, Varian Fry, who shepherded to safety hundreds of European intellectuals wanted by the Nazis
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
And so it was that the dapper twenty-seven-year-old found himself on the Kurfürstendamm, the broad thoroughfare running through the heart of Berlin, on the evening of July 15, 1935—a night on which the Nazis orchestrated a savage anti-Semitic pogrom. For the better part of that evening Fry looked on in disbelief as Nazi toughs swarmed up and down the Kurfürstendamm in a murderous frenzy, beating and kicking Jews, dragging them out of shops, pulling them out of cars, pummeling them, spitting on them, hurling rocks, chairs, tables through their windows, screeching insults at them as they fell under the blows. And singing:
On his return to the United States, at last equipped with a cause worthy of his moral and intellectual passion, Fry mounted a furious campaign both in print and from speakers’ platforms to warn Americans of the threat Hitler represented.
In 1937 Fry quit his post at The Living Age and moved to the Foreign Policy Association, where he continued to warn of the coming of another Great War. Convinced by the spring of 1939 that it was inevitable, he began to write a pamphlet entitled The Peace That Failed . He was working on the final chapter when the Germans invaded Poland in September.
Immediately he joined the American Friends of German Freedom, a group that was raising money for the anti-Fascist cause in Europe. Its chairman was the distinguished theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, but the real moving force behind its work was an Austrian emigré named Karl Frank, a veteran of the anti-Nazi underground. Although he and Fry were strikingly dissimilar, they became fast friends on the basis of their shared conviction that the United States should be prepared to go to any lengths, including war, to bring down Hitler.
In 1939 this was far from being a popular view in America and it became even less popular in the spring of 1940, when the “Phony War” along the Maginot Line turned into the Blitzkrieg that engulfed Denmark and Norway, then Holland, Belgium, and France. By late May, with the German armies striking deep into French territory, and with Franco in power on the other side of the Pyrénées and Mussolini on the other side of the Alps, it was clear that soon—perhaps in a matter of days—the entire continent of Europe would be a Fascist garrison. For the preceding seven years intellectuals from all over Europe had been pouring into France to escape the Gestapo. Now the Germans were closing in fast. For these refugees, their former haven could become a Nazi slaughterhouse.
Fry and Frank decided they would conduct a fund-raising campaign to bring to the United States as many of these refugees as possible. And to launch it, they came up with the idea of holding a big luncheon to which they would invite various dignitaries as guest speakers. After booking a banquet room at the Commodore Hotel for June 25, they started sending out the invitations.
Meanwhile, the news from France became grimmer by the day. On June 10 Italy entered the war against its reeling neighbor. On June 14 the Germans occupied Paris. On June 17 the French government, on the run in Bordeaux, capitulated. Then came a long, suspenseful week of waiting to hear what armistice terms Hitler would impose.
The news came through on June 24, the day before the luncheon at the Commodore. In the words of the headline in The New York Times that morning: NAZI SHADOW FALLS ON HALF OF FRANCE UNDER TERMS . The Germans were to occupy roughly the northern half of France, plus a corridor running the entire length of the country’s Atlantic coastline, while the French government of eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain was to be left in nominal control of the south. That was good news, such as it was. The bad news was contained in Article XIX of the armistice agreement: The French were obliged to “surrender on demand” anyone the Germans wanted.
PERHAPS BECAUSE OF the obvious implications of this provision or perhaps because of the number of illustrious figures who had agreed to put in an appearance at the Commodore—including the radio commentators Elmer Davis and Raymond Gram Swing—the luncheon on the twenty-fifth was packed, and thirty-five hundred dollars was raised for the purpose of helping the most endangered intellectuals to escape.
Money alone, however, would not save them. Clearly some sort of rescue operation had to be mounted as well. Erika Mann, daughter of the great German novelist Thomas Mann, urged that an organization be set up to send someone to France to arrange the escapes in person. Everyone agreed, and the Emergency Rescue Committee was established on the spot.