- 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
Then in 1949 he met Annette Riley. She could hardly have been more unlike Eileen. Where Eileen had been mature, wise, maternal, Annette was bouncy and naive—and almost twenty years younger than Fry. The daughter of the head of the philosophy department at Vassar, she also had the kind of lively, unspoiled intellect and curiosity that Fry found irresistible. They were married in 1950.
The early years of their marriage, during which they had three children, two sons and a daughter, were among the happiest of Fry’s life. Then things started to go sour. The sound-recording studio he was running failed, and he had to take up free-lance writing again as well as teaching Latin and Greek. But he had trouble finding magazines that wanted to publish his work, and he couldn’t hold down a teaching job for more than a year or two—not because he wasn’t a good teacher but because he had a tendency to denounce his colleagues for being bad, lazy teachers.
Once more he began brooding, now more bitterly than ever, about the way his work in Marseilles had been forgotten, about the way he had been rejected and snubbed by some of the very people whose lives he had saved. As his unhappiness grew, he took it out on Annette, the children, his colleagues, anyone who came within striking range of his despair.
Then, at last, came the recognition for which he had been waiting for more than twenty-five years. On April 12,1967, in a brief ceremony at the French consulate in New York, he was awarded the Croix du Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.
Convinced that the world was finally ready to hear his story, Fry set out again to write a book about that year, long ago, when the fate of so many of Europe’s writers and artists was in his hands. He dug out old notes. He looked up old comrades. He contacted as many of the former refugees as he could find. And he moved out of New York City.
The Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Connecticut, had offered him a job as a Latin teacher, an offer he had eagerly accepted. Not only was it a good teaching job but it also gave him an opportunity to make a graceful exit from a marriage that now lay in ruins. Above all, it gave him an opportunity to go off alone and write the book that would earn him the respect and admiration he felt were his due.
He found a large house in Easton, Connecticut, a few miles from Redding, and in the late summer of 1967 he moved in. He was in exceptionally good spirits, looking forward to the teaching as well as the writing. He began both a few days later.
On Tuesday morning, September 12, only a week after he had started his new job, Fry failed to show up at the school. School officials called his home, but there was no answer. The next day, when he again failed to appear, they became worried and notified the police. A young officer named Richard Schwartze was sent to investigate.
The front door was unlocked, Officer Schwartze reported, and there was a light on in the bedroom upstairs. There he found Varian Fry, dead of a heart attack. He was lying in bed, a pillow propping up his head. In his hand he held his glasses, unfolded, as if he had just taken them off, tired of reading. Next to him were manuscript pages of his book. Questioned by a reporter for a local newspaper, Officer Schwartze described the manuscript. “It appeared to be a work of fiction,” he said.
HARRY BINGHAM was transferred at his own request from Marseilles in 1941, first to Lisbon and then to the American Consulate in Buenos Aires. He returned to Washington in 1945 and the next year resigned from the foreign service. He now lives on his four-hundred-acre farm near Salem, Connecticut.
JOHANNES AND LISA FITTKO didn’t get out of France until October 1941 and weren’t admitted into the United States until 1948, by which time Johannes Fittko was in failing health as a result of living wretchedly in Cuba for seven years while waiting for an American visa. They went to Chicago, where Fittko worked as a printer until he died in 1960. Lisa Fittko still lives there, in a small apartment by Lake Michigan, where she devotes her time to social causes and the nuclear-freeze movement.
BILL FREIER was arrested by the Vichy police in 1941 and handed over to the Germans, who shipped him to a death camp near Auschwitz. Somehow he survived, though he weighed barely seventy pounds when the camp was liberated. Then he proceeded to walk across France until he found his wife and the four-year-old son he had never seen. Shortly after they were reunited, however, the accumulated horrors of the past four years overwhelmed them. She went insane and died in an asylum in 1953. Today Bill Freier is one of France’s most popular cartoonists; he lives, with his second wife, outside Paris.