- 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
The first to make use of Freier’s handiwork was Konrad Heiden, the man who had revealed Hitler’s true nature to the world in his masterful biography, Der Führer . Of all the refugees, “probably none was in greater danger than Heiden,” Fry wrote later. “I couldn’t take the responsibility of letting him travel through Spain under his own name.” According to the papers that Fry gave Heiden, the man who left Marseilles was a businessman named Silbermann. He made it to Lisbon.
Following Heiden, in rapid succession, were Emil Gumbel, the great mathematician whose outspoken pacifism had once provoked a riot at Heidelberg; Hans Natonek, the anti-Nazi Czech journalist; Dr. Otto Meyerhof, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist; and the novelists Leonhard Frank, Alfred Polgar, and Hertha Pauli. They, too, made it safely to Lisbon. Fry’s underground railroad was in business.
While most refugees would have done anything to be able to get on it, there were a few who had misgivings. The most prominent among these were Franz Werfel and Heinrich Mann. The pessimistic Werfel probably would have had misgivings about any plan, but in this case his worries were justified; he had suffered a serious heart attack two years before, and he was overweight, with dangerously high blood pressure. The rigors of the journey, and especially the climb up to the border, might be too much for him. Mann, who was almost seventy and in frail health, was also concerned about his ability to endure the long, strenuous trip. Fry finally persuaded them by volunteering to go with them.
So, at five o’clock on Thursday morning, September 12, 1940, a small group gathered in a corner of the Gare St. Charles in Marseilles. There were Varian Fry, Franz and Alma Werfel, Heinrich and Nelly Mann, and Thomas Mann’s son Golo, who had been in hiding at Harry Bingham’s villa. There was also, despite Fry’s pleas that they bring only essential luggage, a pile of twelve suitcases—all of them belonging to Alma. At 5:30 A.M. the six of them, plus Alma’s luggage, boarded the train.
It was late afternoon when the train pulled into the station at Cerbère. After checking Alma’s bags with a porter at the station, they moved into a hotel for the night. At breakfast the next morning Alma presented Fry with another unwelcome surprise: she had put on a blindingly conspicuous white dress in which to climb the sunlit mountainside. To make matters worse, Nelly Mann went into a mild panic when she realized that it was Friday the thirteenth.
After a tense breakfast Fry led the group up to the town cemetery, a walled-in enclave of ornamental tombs perched in isolation on a mountain overlooking the bay. There he explained once more the exact procedure and once again checked to make sure that none of them was carrying anything that might arouse suspicion. Sure enough, there was something. Heinrich Mann, whose passport identified him as Heinrich Ludwig, had the initials HM on his hatband. “When I began scratching the initials out of the hatband with my penknife,” Fry wrote later, Mann said miserably, ‘We are obliged to act like real criminals.’ ” Fry supplied the group with American cigarettes for pacifying the police and bade them farewell. He returned to town to accompany Alma’s luggage on the short train ride through the international tunnel to Port-Bou, in Spain.
Before sundown they were all reunited in the train station at Port-Bou. Two days later they were all in Lisbon.
ONCE IN LISBON , Fry set about doing the two things that he could not do in Marseilles: he sent a complete report on his activities to the Emergency Rescue Committee in New York (all communications out of France were read and censored by the authorities), and he interviewed refugees he had helped to escape to see if they had encountered any unexpected hazards along the way.
Each person had a different story to tell, but the only tale that really unnerved Fry was the last one: a group that had tried to cross the border the day after Fry had done so said that they had found Cerbère swarming with Germans. They therefore had spent the night in the mountains west of town and had only managed to escape by approaching the Spanish frontier post from the inland side. What troubled Fry about this was that several other refugees, including Lion Feuchtwanger, had also been scheduled to leave in the days following Fry’s departure. What if they had walked into a trap?
A few days later, as he was preparing to return to Marseilles, Fry’s question appeared to have been answered by a headline in The New York Times which he saw in the American embassy in Lisbon:
Back in Marseilles, Fry learned to his great relief that the story was untrue. Feuchtwanger was, in fact, safely in Lisbon. Nonetheless, the story could so easily have been true that Fry decided at once to change the escape route. The question was how to find a new way over the Pyrénées.