- 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 answer was provided by a young German couple, Johannes and Lisa Fittko. Johannes Fittko had been a prominent journalist and an active Social Democrat in Berlin up until 1933. Then, shortly after Hitler came to power, the Nazis passed a law decreeing the death penalty for anyone who could be considered the “intellectual author” of a capital crime. Within only a few weeks it was used to get rid of Fittko. A Nazi was murdered in Berlin—by other Nazis, as it turned out—and the crime was blamed on an article Fittko had written in Die Aktion . The newspaperman was forced to flee to Prague, where he found out that he had been condemned to death in absentia —and where he met Lisa.
For the next seven years Fittko continued to turn out articles against the Nazis while the Gestapo pursued him and Lisa across Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland, and finally France again. Like so many others, they had ended up in Marseilles. But unlike most, they had a great deal of experience in slipping across borders with the Gestapo at their heels. Thus, when Beamish met them one day in Marseilles and discovered that they had already scouted the eastern Pyrenees for their own escape, he immediately brought them to Fry. The American’s passionate persuasiveness convinced the Fittkos to delay their departure by several months in order to help guide Fry’s people over the border.
Thus at the end of September the Fittkos left Marseilles for Banyuls, a town a few kilometers up the coast from Cerbère, where, with the help of identity papers impeccably forged by Bill Freier, they moved into a large house and did farm work in local vineyards along the border. That house would soon become a transit hotel for waves of writers, artists, and scholars fleeing Europe.
“So that no police agent could present himself to F__,” Fry wrote at a time when he still didn’t dare use Fittko’s name, ”… we also gave each of our departing protégés half of a torn strip of colored paper. On the end of each strip there was a number. F__ had the other half, with the same number on it. If the numbers agreed, and the two pieces of paper fitted each other perfectly, he knew that the person was what he represented himself to be.” Fittko would take “his friends” out into the fields with him ostensibly to work or picnic, and they would simply fade into the hills. “In the course of about six months,” Fry wrote, “F__ passed more than 100 people over the frontier this way. Not a single of them was ever arrested, or even questioned by the police.”
At about this time, two other problems, which had been with Fry from the beginning, started to become critical. One was getting money into France to finance his operation; the other was getting messages out. To deal with the money problem, he approached a well-known Corsican gangster in Marseilles, a man who had the same problems as Fry but in reverse: he had friends who wanted to get money out of France. So the young idealist and the old hoodlum made an arrangement. Every time one of the Corsican’s friends wanted to transfer a sum of money out of the country, Fry would cable the Emergency Rescue Committee to pay that sum in dollars to a bank account or designated agent in New York, and then the Corsican would hand over the money to Fry in francs. It was as simple as it was symmetrical.
In spite of the growing police surveillance that his activities attracted, Fry succeeded in organizing during twelve months the escapes of nearly 1500 men and women.
Fry’s solution to the communication problem was more homespun. Whenever an important message needed to be sent to New York, Fry would type it out on light airmail paper. The paper was then cut into thin strips—each containing a single line—and these were glued together end to end. When the glue had dried, the long, slender message was rolled up tightly and placed in a condom. Next, Fry would make a slit near the bottom of a half-empty tube of toothpaste, slip the message inside, and then roll the tube up so that it looked like every other half-used toothpaste tube. The “tubegram” was then given to a refugee to deliver when he got to America. It is a tribute both to the cleverness of the scheme and to the scrupulousness of the refugees that not one message failed to get through.
By such means Varian Fry succeeded, between the fall of 1940 and the late summer of 1941, in organizing the escapes of nearly fifteen hundred men and women. He succeeded in sending to these shores artists such as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, André Masson, WiIf redo Lam, and Max Ernst; musicians such as Erich Itor-Kahn and Wanda Landowska; scholars and scientists such as Otto Meyerhof, Peter Pringsheim, Emil Gumbel, Fritz Kahn, and Jacques Hadamard; writers such as Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Konrad Heiden, Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Franz Werfel.