- 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
ALL WARS , great and small, can be counted on to produce four things: misery, death, destruction, and refugees. As far as the first three are concerned, the Second World War differed from its predecessors only in scale. In the matter of refugees, however, the conflict produced a wholly new phenomenon: the mass transplanting of the intelligentsia of one continent to another continent. To quote Laura Fermi, herself a distinguished refugee and the wife of the great physicist Enrico Fermi, what took place in 1940 and 1941 constituted “a unique phenomenon in the history of immigration.”
Indeed, historians have argued that in the eighteen months between the German conquest of France and the American entry into the war, the United States enjoyed a cultural and intellectual windfall of unprecedented proportions. It was without parallel both in its scope and in its consequences. But it wasn’t a windfall.
There was someone up there shaking the tree. His name was Varian Fry. It is not a name you are likely to have come across, for it turns up principally in footnotes to scholarly works and brief paragraphs of tribute in memoirs. Thus has one of the most remarkable rescue missions ever undertaken remained shrouded in obscurity for more than forty years.
Varian Fry hardly seemed handpicked by destiny to deliver Europe’s artists and intellectuals from the Gestapo. The son of a stockbroker, he was born in New York City on October 15,1907, and grew up in suburban Ridgewood, New Jersey. As a child he was moody, introverted, and an accomplished hypochondriac.
In an effort to awaken his interest in his schoolwork and schoolmates, Fry’s parents sent him away at the age of fourteen to Hotchkiss, the distinguished private school in Lakeville, Connecticut. There he found himself challenged for the first time both intellectually and socially. And his response to these challenges, typically, was to find new ways of isolating himself. He displayed an extraordinary gift for languages, particularly Latin, and an equally extraordinary intolerance for those not similarly gifted. Socially he went to even greater lengths to put distance between himself and his peers. He became an exceedingly fastidious dresser, and he cultivated an interest in good food and wine, though his budget (and his age) seldom permitted him to test his newfound expertise—and his fragile stomach punished him whenever he did. He developed a protocol of eating to which he would adhere however inappropriate the circumstances; he would, for example, insist on a knife and fork when served a sandwich in a snack bar. And he took up smoking. That is, he took up cigarettes, which he thought looked good in his hands; he never inhaled.
Of course, this erudite and precociously jaded sophisticate attracted few friends and much ridicule, so much in fact that one day in the middle of his third year at Hotchkiss he showed up at his father’s office in Manhattan and announced that he had “resigned” from school. A few weeks later he was enrolled in another Connecticut prep school, Taft, which he found more to his liking.
In the fall of 1926 Fry entered Harvard. Suddenly exposed to the seductive freedom of being able to choose where and how he wanted to live and what courses he wanted to take, his do-it-yourself sophistication let him down.
His academic performance became erratic as his intellectual arrogance became more abrasive; his behavior became more eccentric, his sartorial idiosyncracies more pronounced. His only triumph came in September 1927, at the start of his sophomore year, when he founded, with his friend Lincoln Kirstein, The Hound & Horn , a literary magazine of enough merit to have its appearance hailed in The New York Times . But Kirstein soon wearied of Fry’s pedantic tantrums, and Fry became irritated with Kirstein’s lack of “moral passion” on issues involving the correct use of English. They quarreled, and Fry left the magazine.
Fry arrived in Marseilles on August 15, 1940. He had with him two suitcases of clothes, a list of two hundred names, and three thousand dollars in cash taped to his leg.
During his senior year he fell in love with Eileen Hughes, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly . A maternal woman seven years his senior, she was as gentle, patient, and tolerant as he was not. They were married in June 1931.
After Fry’s graduation the couple moved to New York City. While Eileen taught English at Brearley, a private girls’ school in Manhattan, Fry worked as an assistant editor at Scholastic magazine, for which he also wrote articles and book reviews. Then, in 1935, he was offered the chance to succeed Quincy Howe as editor of The Living Age , a prestigious review of international affairs. The only condition that Howe attached to the appointment was that Fry should first go to Germany and inform himself about what was happening under the Third Reich.
And so it was that the dapper twenty-seven-year-old found himself on the Kurfürstendamm, the broad thoroughfare running through the heart of Berlin, on the evening of July 15, 1935—a night on which the Nazis orchestrated a savage anti-Semitic pogrom. For the better part of that evening Fry looked on in disbelief as Nazi toughs swarmed up and down the Kurfürstendamm in a murderous frenzy, beating and kicking Jews, dragging them out of shops, pulling them out of cars, pummeling them, spitting on them, hurling rocks, chairs, tables through their windows, screeching insults at them as they fell under the blows. And singing:
On his return to the United States, at last equipped with a cause worthy of his moral and intellectual passion, Fry mounted a furious campaign both in print and from speakers’ platforms to warn Americans of the threat Hitler represented.
In 1937 Fry quit his post at The Living Age and moved to the Foreign Policy Association, where he continued to warn of the coming of another Great War. Convinced by the spring of 1939 that it was inevitable, he began to write a pamphlet entitled The Peace That Failed . He was working on the final chapter when the Germans invaded Poland in September.
Immediately he joined the American Friends of German Freedom, a group that was raising money for the anti-Fascist cause in Europe. Its chairman was the distinguished theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, but the real moving force behind its work was an Austrian emigré named Karl Frank, a veteran of the anti-Nazi underground. Although he and Fry were strikingly dissimilar, they became fast friends on the basis of their shared conviction that the United States should be prepared to go to any lengths, including war, to bring down Hitler.
In 1939 this was far from being a popular view in America and it became even less popular in the spring of 1940, when the “Phony War” along the Maginot Line turned into the Blitzkrieg that engulfed Denmark and Norway, then Holland, Belgium, and France. By late May, with the German armies striking deep into French territory, and with Franco in power on the other side of the Pyrénées and Mussolini on the other side of the Alps, it was clear that soon—perhaps in a matter of days—the entire continent of Europe would be a Fascist garrison. For the preceding seven years intellectuals from all over Europe had been pouring into France to escape the Gestapo. Now the Germans were closing in fast. For these refugees, their former haven could become a Nazi slaughterhouse.
Fry and Frank decided they would conduct a fund-raising campaign to bring to the United States as many of these refugees as possible. And to launch it, they came up with the idea of holding a big luncheon to which they would invite various dignitaries as guest speakers. After booking a banquet room at the Commodore Hotel for June 25, they started sending out the invitations.
Meanwhile, the news from France became grimmer by the day. On June 10 Italy entered the war against its reeling neighbor. On June 14 the Germans occupied Paris. On June 17 the French government, on the run in Bordeaux, capitulated. Then came a long, suspenseful week of waiting to hear what armistice terms Hitler would impose.
The news came through on June 24, the day before the luncheon at the Commodore. In the words of the headline in The New York Times that morning: NAZI SHADOW FALLS ON HALF OF FRANCE UNDER TERMS . The Germans were to occupy roughly the northern half of France, plus a corridor running the entire length of the country’s Atlantic coastline, while the French government of eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain was to be left in nominal control of the south. That was good news, such as it was. The bad news was contained in Article XIX of the armistice agreement: The French were obliged to “surrender on demand” anyone the Germans wanted.
PERHAPS BECAUSE OF the obvious implications of this provision or perhaps because of the number of illustrious figures who had agreed to put in an appearance at the Commodore—including the radio commentators Elmer Davis and Raymond Gram Swing—the luncheon on the twenty-fifth was packed, and thirty-five hundred dollars was raised for the purpose of helping the most endangered intellectuals to escape.
Money alone, however, would not save them. Clearly some sort of rescue operation had to be mounted as well. Erika Mann, daughter of the great German novelist Thomas Mann, urged that an organization be set up to send someone to France to arrange the escapes in person. Everyone agreed, and the Emergency Rescue Committee was established on the spot.
As soon as the luncheon was over, the new committee’s members, including Karl Frank and Varian Fry, held their first meeting and tackled their first problem: Who would be willing and able to undertake such a risky mission? After hours of fruitless speculation and argument, Fry grew impatient and, half-facetiously, volunteered to go himself. The others, much to his surprise, warmly endorsed the idea.
For the next several weeks Fry worked feverishly to prepare for the trip. He coaxed a passport out of the State Department, which at that time took a dim view of Americans traveling to Europe. He coaxed a letter of introduction out of his friends at the International YMCA, a letter identifying him as a relief worker, because the French authorities took a dim view of anyone who wanted to enter France without having some kind of official business. He quizzed refugees and other recent arrivals from Europe about conditions in the “free” part of France, now governed from Vichy. He spoke to Eleanor Roosevelt, enlisting her support for his efforts— specifically with the American consuls in France. He conferred with Thomas Mann, Jacques Maritain, Jules Romains, and many others, who provided him with the list of names of those whom it would be his job to save from the Nazis.
Fry arrived in Marseilles on Thursday, August 15, 1940, after traveling overland by train from Lisbon. He had with him two suitcases of clothes, a list of two hundred names in his pocket, and three thousand dollars in cash taped to his leg. Immediately he installed himself in Room 307 at the Hotel Splendide, which sits at the bottom of the vast stone staircase that spills down from the Gare St. Charles.
WITHIN HOURS word of his arrival was racing through Marseilles. As the Czech writer Hans Natonek later recalled in his memoirs: “Like the first bird note of a gloomy morning, a rumor ran around the cafés. It was said that an American had arrived with the funds and the will to help. It was another distraction in a city in which rumor abounded, a city in which black-market operators sold hysterical men berths on ships which did not exist to ports which, in any case, would have denied them entry. But the rumor persisted and grew. It was said that this American had a list. …”
If Marseilles was ready for Fry, however, he wasn’t ready for Marseilles. Indeed, it would have been a miracle if he had been. Today, long after the story of Vichy France has become a matter of public record as well as private memory, one still can find Frenchmen who steadfastly refuse to believe that their compatriots could have so dishonored themselves in their abject eagerness to please their conquerors. Even the Nazi leaders were said to have been taken aback by the collaborationist zeal of the French.
Pétain decreed null and void the old French law protecting minorities against libel and slander on the basis of race or religion, and daily, in posters, in newspapers, in broadcasts from Radio Vichy, a torrent of vilification poured forth against Jews and other “traitors.”
The Vichy government issued one ominous decree after another. One of the earliest ordered an immediate census taken of all Jews. This was followed by a law prohibiting them from holding elected office and banning them from the judiciary, the military, the civil service, the news media, banking, teaching, and any position where they might “influence cultural life.” Similarly, all Jewish-owned businesses had to be registered, for possible “Aryanization.” Shortly thereafter a statute was enacted authorizing prefects of police to arrest foreign Jews without cause and have them interned in any of the growing number of French concentration camps, where they were to be segregated and, if desired, formed into forced-labor gangs. Then it was announced that all foreigners between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five could be so interned.
No one was allowed to leave the country without an exit visa—and all applications for exit visas were handed over to the Gestapo. Consequently, for those in the greatest danger if they remained in France, the very act of asking to leave was sufficient to guarantee instant arrest, internment in a concentration camp, and ultimately, deportation to Germany.
Small wonder, then, that when Fry arrived in Marseilles, he found the city’s swollen refugee population gripped alternately by panic and despair. Day after day, throughout the hot summer, they had been crowding the cafés, sitting for the most part in stricken silence, picking their way through the hundreds of pitiful newspaper advertisements: “Mother seeking infant daughter who disappeared on the road north of Limoges….” “Please help me find my wife, last seen in Tours on June 21st. …” “Small reward for anyone who knows the whereabouts of my parents. …”
It was the relative silence in the streets that first struck Fry about Marseilles. Though gorged with people, the ordinarily clamorous seaport was hushed. Ignoring his fatigue after the long and uncomfortable train journey from Lisbon, Fry moved quickly to establish contact with as many people on his list as he could find. The first ones he located were the Czech novelist Franz Werfel, whose The Forty Days of Musa Dagh had been an international best seller, and his already legendary wife, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel. They were staying in a hotel down near the harbor. Fry found them distinctly unappealing: Werfel, a fat little man with thick glasses, was full of whining self-pity; his wife, of imperious self-importance.
Much more congenial was the aristocratic and soft-spoken Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann’s older brother, who at that time was probably better known as a writer, at least in Germany and France, than his brother. Indeed, such was the respect he commanded that in 1932 he had been put forward by the social democratic press as a candidate for president of the German Republic, and in 1933, when Hitler came to power, Mann was the first person to be stripped of his German citizenship. He and his young wife, Nelly, were staying in a hotel right across the street from the Splendide.
THE NEXT NAME Fry checked off his list was that of Lion Feuchtwanger, a distinguished historical novelist whose books, with primarily Jewish themes, were anathema to the Nazis. Feuchtwanger, who, like Mann, had been deprived of his German citizenship in 1933, had the most interesting refuge of all: he and his wife, Marta, were living comfortably with the American vice-consul, Harry Bingham. Feuchtwanger had found sanctuary there because Eleanor Roosevelt, a great admirer of his work, had seen a photograph of him confined in the St. Nicolas concentration camp near Nîmes, and she had cabled the consulate in Marseilles to take whatever steps were necessary to save him. However, as the consul-general was determined not to take any steps that might compromise American neutrality or complicate America’s relations with Vichy (or for that matter, to do anything that might please the Roosevelts—he still had, in 1940, a portrait of Herbert Hoover above his desk), Bingham had taken it upon himself to help ensure Feucht wanger’s survival.
After these initial contacts, it was only a few days before Fry had managed to get in touch with a majority of the people on his list. Actually, so efficient was the refugee grapevine that most of them found him before he could find them. Likewise, he recruited some much-needed helpers from among those who came to the Splendide to volunteer information or assistance. Two were to become crucial to the success of his operation: Albert Hirschman, a baby-faced twenty-five-year-old German economist whom Fry nicknamed Beamish, and Miriam Davenport, an attractive and energetic young Smith graduate from Boston who had been studying art history at the University of Paris when the war broke out and who was determined not to return to the United States until she could take her Yugoslav boyfriend back with her. With the thirty-two-year-old Varian Fry as their ringleader, this improbable little band of conspirators proceeded to launch one of the most audacious rescue operations of the war.
The first order of business was to establish a cover for the operation and, if possible, to get some sort of official sanction for it. So Fry went to see the secretary-general of the prefecture and spelled out his plans for setting up an American Relief Center to aid needy refugees. Whether it was the fact that the plan sounded innocent enough, or the fact that Fry certainly looked innocent enough in his pinstriped suit embellished with a silk handkerchief and a boutonniere, the secretary-general gave his blessing to the enterprise. A few days later the Centre Américain de Secours opened its doors in an abandoned handbag factory in the rue Grignan.
There, from early in the morning until late at night, Fry and his two young cohorts interviewed refugees. The basic information about each—plus the name of someone who could verify the information—was written down on an index card. Addresses, however, were omitted, as such information could be fatal if the cards ever fell into the wrong hands. Some refugees were given money for food, and perhaps a letter of introduction to the American consulate or a bona fide relief agency; others, principally the ones on Fry’s list, were told to stand by for news of possible “travel plans.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MIRIAM DAVENPORT returned to the United States in 1941, after a complicated and hair-raising detour to Yugoslavia, where she collected, and married, her Yugoslav boyfriend. They were divorced in 1946, after which she married William Burke, an art historian at Princeton, who died in 1961. She now lives with her third husband, Dr. Charles Ebel, a professor of ancient history, in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. She got her Ph.D. in French literature in 1973. She occupies herself now by doing research in her field and by painting, growing roses, hunting ducks in season, and writing lengthy, funny letters all year round.
ALBERT HIRSCHMAN (“Beamish”) was in the Pyrénées checking on the escape route when the police came looking for him at Fry’s office in Marseilles. Fry got word to him in time, and he headed over the mountains rather than back to Marseilles. Settling in the United States, he spent two years at Berkeley as a Rockefeller Fellow in economics and then joined the U.S. Army, serving with an OSS intelligence unit in Italy. By serving in the American army, he became a naturalized citizen, moved to Washington after the war, and worked for the next six years as an economist with the Federal Reserve Board, helping to devise and administer the Marshall Plan. He went on to teach at Yale, Columbia, and Harvard and to write several books on economic development and international trade that have come to be regarded as classics. Today he and his wife live at Princeton, where he is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, and his beaming cordiality continues to justify the nickname Fry gave him forty-three years ago.