- 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
After the last of the refugees had departed each day, Fry, Beamish, and their secretary, Lena Fishman, would adjourn to the bathroom, turn on all the taps to foil any attempts at electronic eavesdropping, and there they would talk over any special problems that might have arisen during the day. When the discussion was over, Fry and Beamish would hide the most incriminating documents—usually by loosening the screws on the mirror inside the closet door and sliding the papers behind the mirror before tightening the screws again. Whatever cash was on hand was counted and placed in a bag to go home with Beamish to his hotel. Finally, Fry would spread the index cards in careful disarray on one of the desks so he could later tell if they were tampered with, and they switched off the lights and left.
The biggest problem facing Fry in those early days was to find an escape route. The most obvious—by sea—was also the most perilous. The available boats were often unseaworthy and the traffic in and out of the harbor at Marseilles was subject to tight restrictions and closely monitored. Further out, Italian and German fleets patrolled the Mediterranean, adding their hostile presence to the hazards of the open sea. And even if a boat survived the crossing to North Africa, there was still a considerable risk of being captured and returned to France.
That left the Pyrénées. Although the Spanish and Portuguese had repeatedly compromised their neutrality in their willingness to accommodate Hitler, they still were prepared, most of the time, to allow refugees to travel through their countries on transit visas, so long as they had an ultimate destination such as the United States. The problem was to find a way to get out of France illegally—that is, to slip across the border undetected, without an exit visa—and yet still enter Spain legally.
Beamish knew a way. He had fought briefly with a Republican unit in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and he remembered that in the mountains above Cerbère, a fishing village in the southeast corner of France that was about 240 miles from Marseilles, the French and Spanish frontier posts were situated so that neither was visible to the other. It was possible, he told Fry, to climb the mountain on the French side without being seen by the guards there while also managing not to overshoot the Spanish border station, where it was necessary to get the Entrada stamp in one’s passport.
Beamish drew Fry a sketch. This map, drawn in pencil on a little scrap of paper, was to become a crucial document in the cultural history of our time.
But there were other, more formal documents that were needed before an escape attempt could even be contemplated—a carte d’identité , for example, which was required of anyone traveling in France, and of course a passport. As very few of the people on Fry’s list could risk traveling under their own names, this meant that the American had to acquire a large number of passports and blank identity cards, and he had to find a skilled forger who could make them usable.
Blank identity cards were easy to come by. The government itself saw to it that they were in wide circulation. Like any fascist regime, Vichy wanted to keep close tabs on everyone who fell under its sway. The passports, however, were another matter. They were available from only two sources: the black market, where the price was high, and the Czech consul, a man named Vochoc, who had stayed on the job after the German takeover of his country for the sole purpose of helping refugees from Nazism. Fry made abundant use of both sources.
To forge the documents, he engaged the services of a diminutive Austrian cartoonist named Bill Freier. Freier, who had fled to France when the Germans entered Vienna in March 1938, spent his days drawing portraits of people he saw down by the Vieux Port and his nights in his hotel room altering passports.
Freier would take a black-market passport—usually a Dutch or Belgian one, because they were less likely to be scrutinized—and with a razor blade carefully remove the original photograph, replacing it with a picture of the person who would be using the document. Then, with a very fine brush, he would painstakingly reproduce the stamp that made the passport official. This part often took hours, because Freier insisted on replicating the stamp exactly from a real one in another passport, taking particular care to copy all the imperfections and blurs. Finally, if the passport seemed a little too pristine for the number of entries recorded in it, Freier would quickly age it with the help of a few drops of water, some cigarette ash, and fine sandpaper.