- 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
It was the relative silence in the streets that first struck Fry about Marseilles. Though gorged with people, the ordinarily clamorous seaport was hushed. Ignoring his fatigue after the long and uncomfortable train journey from Lisbon, Fry moved quickly to establish contact with as many people on his list as he could find. The first ones he located were the Czech novelist Franz Werfel, whose The Forty Days of Musa Dagh had been an international best seller, and his already legendary wife, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel. They were staying in a hotel down near the harbor. Fry found them distinctly unappealing: Werfel, a fat little man with thick glasses, was full of whining self-pity; his wife, of imperious self-importance.
Much more congenial was the aristocratic and soft-spoken Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann’s older brother, who at that time was probably better known as a writer, at least in Germany and France, than his brother. Indeed, such was the respect he commanded that in 1932 he had been put forward by the social democratic press as a candidate for president of the German Republic, and in 1933, when Hitler came to power, Mann was the first person to be stripped of his German citizenship. He and his young wife, Nelly, were staying in a hotel right across the street from the Splendide.
THE NEXT NAME Fry checked off his list was that of Lion Feuchtwanger, a distinguished historical novelist whose books, with primarily Jewish themes, were anathema to the Nazis. Feuchtwanger, who, like Mann, had been deprived of his German citizenship in 1933, had the most interesting refuge of all: he and his wife, Marta, were living comfortably with the American vice-consul, Harry Bingham. Feuchtwanger had found sanctuary there because Eleanor Roosevelt, a great admirer of his work, had seen a photograph of him confined in the St. Nicolas concentration camp near Nîmes, and she had cabled the consulate in Marseilles to take whatever steps were necessary to save him. However, as the consul-general was determined not to take any steps that might compromise American neutrality or complicate America’s relations with Vichy (or for that matter, to do anything that might please the Roosevelts—he still had, in 1940, a portrait of Herbert Hoover above his desk), Bingham had taken it upon himself to help ensure Feucht wanger’s survival.
After these initial contacts, it was only a few days before Fry had managed to get in touch with a majority of the people on his list. Actually, so efficient was the refugee grapevine that most of them found him before he could find them. Likewise, he recruited some much-needed helpers from among those who came to the Splendide to volunteer information or assistance. Two were to become crucial to the success of his operation: Albert Hirschman, a baby-faced twenty-five-year-old German economist whom Fry nicknamed Beamish, and Miriam Davenport, an attractive and energetic young Smith graduate from Boston who had been studying art history at the University of Paris when the war broke out and who was determined not to return to the United States until she could take her Yugoslav boyfriend back with her. With the thirty-two-year-old Varian Fry as their ringleader, this improbable little band of conspirators proceeded to launch one of the most audacious rescue operations of the war.
The first order of business was to establish a cover for the operation and, if possible, to get some sort of official sanction for it. So Fry went to see the secretary-general of the prefecture and spelled out his plans for setting up an American Relief Center to aid needy refugees. Whether it was the fact that the plan sounded innocent enough, or the fact that Fry certainly looked innocent enough in his pinstriped suit embellished with a silk handkerchief and a boutonniere, the secretary-general gave his blessing to the enterprise. A few days later the Centre Américain de Secours opened its doors in an abandoned handbag factory in the rue Grignan.
There, from early in the morning until late at night, Fry and his two young cohorts interviewed refugees. The basic information about each—plus the name of someone who could verify the information—was written down on an index card. Addresses, however, were omitted, as such information could be fatal if the cards ever fell into the wrong hands. Some refugees were given money for food, and perhaps a letter of introduction to the American consulate or a bona fide relief agency; others, principally the ones on Fry’s list, were told to stand by for news of possible “travel plans.”