- Historic Sites
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
As soon as the luncheon was over, the new committee’s members, including Karl Frank and Varian Fry, held their first meeting and tackled their first problem: Who would be willing and able to undertake such a risky mission? After hours of fruitless speculation and argument, Fry grew impatient and, half-facetiously, volunteered to go himself. The others, much to his surprise, warmly endorsed the idea.
For the next several weeks Fry worked feverishly to prepare for the trip. He coaxed a passport out of the State Department, which at that time took a dim view of Americans traveling to Europe. He coaxed a letter of introduction out of his friends at the International YMCA, a letter identifying him as a relief worker, because the French authorities took a dim view of anyone who wanted to enter France without having some kind of official business. He quizzed refugees and other recent arrivals from Europe about conditions in the “free” part of France, now governed from Vichy. He spoke to Eleanor Roosevelt, enlisting her support for his efforts— specifically with the American consuls in France. He conferred with Thomas Mann, Jacques Maritain, Jules Romains, and many others, who provided him with the list of names of those whom it would be his job to save from the Nazis.
Fry arrived in Marseilles on Thursday, August 15, 1940, after traveling overland by train from Lisbon. He had with him two suitcases of clothes, a list of two hundred names in his pocket, and three thousand dollars in cash taped to his leg. Immediately he installed himself in Room 307 at the Hotel Splendide, which sits at the bottom of the vast stone staircase that spills down from the Gare St. Charles.
WITHIN HOURS word of his arrival was racing through Marseilles. As the Czech writer Hans Natonek later recalled in his memoirs: “Like the first bird note of a gloomy morning, a rumor ran around the cafés. It was said that an American had arrived with the funds and the will to help. It was another distraction in a city in which rumor abounded, a city in which black-market operators sold hysterical men berths on ships which did not exist to ports which, in any case, would have denied them entry. But the rumor persisted and grew. It was said that this American had a list. …”
If Marseilles was ready for Fry, however, he wasn’t ready for Marseilles. Indeed, it would have been a miracle if he had been. Today, long after the story of Vichy France has become a matter of public record as well as private memory, one still can find Frenchmen who steadfastly refuse to believe that their compatriots could have so dishonored themselves in their abject eagerness to please their conquerors. Even the Nazi leaders were said to have been taken aback by the collaborationist zeal of the French.
Pétain decreed null and void the old French law protecting minorities against libel and slander on the basis of race or religion, and daily, in posters, in newspapers, in broadcasts from Radio Vichy, a torrent of vilification poured forth against Jews and other “traitors.”
The Vichy government issued one ominous decree after another. One of the earliest ordered an immediate census taken of all Jews. This was followed by a law prohibiting them from holding elected office and banning them from the judiciary, the military, the civil service, the news media, banking, teaching, and any position where they might “influence cultural life.” Similarly, all Jewish-owned businesses had to be registered, for possible “Aryanization.” Shortly thereafter a statute was enacted authorizing prefects of police to arrest foreign Jews without cause and have them interned in any of the growing number of French concentration camps, where they were to be segregated and, if desired, formed into forced-labor gangs. Then it was announced that all foreigners between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five could be so interned.
No one was allowed to leave the country without an exit visa—and all applications for exit visas were handed over to the Gestapo. Consequently, for those in the greatest danger if they remained in France, the very act of asking to leave was sufficient to guarantee instant arrest, internment in a concentration camp, and ultimately, deportation to Germany.
Small wonder, then, that when Fry arrived in Marseilles, he found the city’s swollen refugee population gripped alternately by panic and despair. Day after day, throughout the hot summer, they had been crowding the cafés, sitting for the most part in stricken silence, picking their way through the hundreds of pitiful newspaper advertisements: “Mother seeking infant daughter who disappeared on the road north of Limoges….” “Please help me find my wife, last seen in Tours on June 21st. …” “Small reward for anyone who knows the whereabouts of my parents. …”