- 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
He succeeded in spite of the growing police surveillance— and harassment—that his activities inevitably attracted. He succeeded in spite of the constant lack of cooperation, even discouragement, he received from American consular officials in Marseilles. He succeeded in spite of the demoralizing and debilitating effects of the hunger that came with the food shortages in the winter of 1940–41, during which time he lost almost fifty pounds. He succeeded in spite of the reluctance of some, like Lipchitz, to leave behind their beloved Europe. He succeeded in spite of the arrogant attitude of others, like Chagall, that anything short of death would be preferable to living in a cultural wasteland like America. (After the passage of Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws, however, Chagall reconsidered. He asked Fry if there were any cows in America and was assured there were. Fry wrote, “I could see from the look of relief on his face that he had already decided to go.”)
Varian Fry’s work came to an end on Friday, August 29, 1941, when he was taken into custody by agents of the Sûreté Nationale . After being held incommunicado overnight at police headquarters, he was taken to Cerbère for his second and last trip through the international tunnel into Spain.
At Cerbère, Fry had the last, bitter laugh on Vichy. Because his passport had expired, his exit visa and all the other visas were invalid. And since he didn’t have the right papers, they couldn’t throw him out. So for the next five days he sat in cafés drinking wine and arranging for the continuing work of his committee while the Americans, French, Spanish, and Portuguese labored to get his expulsion papers together.
On Friday, September 5, his new passport arrived with all the necessary visas in it. It rained that night in Cerbère. It was still raining the next morning when the train disappeared into the tunnel under the mountains over which he had sent so many to freedom.
When he got to Lisbon, Fry wrote a letter to his mother explaining why he had lingered so long in France. He had stayed, he said, because it took courage to stay—”and courage is a quality I hadn’t previously been sure I possessed.”
On the same day, he wrote to his wife, Eileen, “Now I think I can say that I possess an ordinary amount of courage.”
TO PARAPHRASE Euripides, those whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes heroes. Almost from the day Varian Fry stepped ashore back in New York, his life began to fall apart. He had trouble finding a job, and whenever he did find one, he couldn’t keep it for very long. He couldn’t even join the Army: when he tried to enlist he was told that his chronic stomach problems were “psychogenic.” Sorry, they said, but he wouldn’t be able to stand the pressure of being in Europe during wartime.
In the face of such setbacks his marriage to Eileen began to buckle and in a matter of months collapsed completely. Now lonely and frustrated, the contrast between his successes in France and his failures back home began to haunt him. He tried writing his way out of his gloom, hammering out one article after another recalling his experiences overseas. While the articles frequently contained penetrating analyses of the situation in Europe, they were not always publishable. Many, in fact, were rejected.
Wounded but undaunted, Fry decided he would write a book about his time in Marseilles. Thus began another cycle of disappointments. Many of the key people on whom he was depending for critical dates and information proved impossible to track down. Others wanted to forget about the whole business and just get on with their lives. Some, including people who had once begged on their knees for Fry to save them, were too busy to be bothered by his modest requests for help.
He persevered nonetheless, and his book, Surrender on Demand , was published in a small edition by Random House at the end of the war. For whatever reason—the rather schoolmasterly prose, the timing of its publication—the book failed abysmally. Few people, it seemed, cared what Varian Fry had done. He was shattered.
Although he had a small income from his free-lance writing (he was contributing editor at the New Republic ), it was hardly enough to live on, so he applied for a regular job with every publication he could think of. He even wrote Coronet and the Chicago Daily News . They all turned him down.
And there was more bad news still to come. In 1947 Eileen was found to have lung cancer. Though they were now divorced, Fry had remained devoted to her, and he was devastated. At the same time, perhaps because it took his mind off his own suffering, he began to develop a new strength, a new sense of purpose. After Eileen was hospitalized, he went every day to the hospital and sat by her bedside, chatting with her, reading to her, trying to cheer her up. She died in early May of 1948.