Oct. 15, 1907 – Sep. 11, 1945
by Soror Lux
I believe Varian Fry is an American hero, and that his outstanding work of rescuing Jewish refugees from the Nazi Gestapo during World War II epitomizes the principles that we find so valuable in Order of Thelemic Knights. During his year in France, Fry demonstrated courage, strength, valor, discipline, self-reliance, and compassion. His work saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish artists, writers, scientists and their families.
France was under control of Nazi Germany. On June 22, 1940, the French government signed an armistice agreement with Germany. Fry writes, “This puppet government signed an armistice with Germany. And in the armistice was the hateful Article 19. This article stated that the French government must ‘surrender on demand’ all refugees from the Greater German Reich.” The capitol city had been relocated to Vichy and this created a lot of confusion. This confusion would prove very beneficial for Fry and his American Relief Center. In reaction to the armistice, the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) was formed from Americans dedicated to helping the Jewish refugees. The ERC asked for a volunteer to go to France and rescue the refugees. Fry volunteered, believing the Committee would reject him. “I was sure the Committee would turn me down. I didn’t know much French, and what little I spoke was with an accent that would quickly mark me as an American. Also, I had no underground or secret agent experience at all. There was only one thing in my favor, I could get a letter from the International YMCA saying they were sending me to France to help the refugees.”
The ERC sent Varian Fry to Marseilles, France in August 1940 to rescue Jewish artists, writers, intellectuals, and scientists. He had $3,000 cash and a list of names strapped to his leg to pass through customs. His lists included names of people like Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacquez Lipchitz, Marchel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton and hundreds more. As soon as he arrived, Fry got started on his assignment. He set up his interviewing process in his hotel room and met a fellow rescue worker, Frank Bohn, who gave him some tips to get started.
After arriving in Marseilles, Fry quickly realized that it would be difficult to get people out under legal methods. This was largely due to the fact that the French government stopped issuing exit visas to anyone in August 1940. Also, many refugees were so well known they were afraid to travel under their real names and needed phony identification cards or passports. Fry, now, had to break the laws of a foreign country under control of a fascist government. Fry set up a refugee center giving out food, clothing, and money to those in need. This was originally to cover for his illegal activities. Soon, however, this would become a necessity for many refugees to live, as many were without income or shelter.
Within a day of Varian Fry’s arrival, word got out among the Jewish refugees, “an American had arrived from New York, like an angel from heaven. His pockets were stuffed with money and he could get passports, visas, or documents of any sort, for anyone who needed them.” People began filling the lobby of the hotel waiting for an opportunity to be interviewed by Fry. The police would round up the people and question them about him and his activities. After an inspector came to talk with him, Fry made an appointment with the Police Headquarters to “square it with the police.” He told them about the American Relief Center and received official approval to conduct his business.
As more refugees arrived, Fry’s workload became very demanding. He hired on staff members to keep up with the interviews. Soon, the Center needed a new space — Gestapo soldiers stayed at the hotel. A Jewish shopkeeper left his shop to them and they moved into the new space. It was much larger and could accommodate more interviewers; Miriam Davenport was hired. Charles Fawcett was hired to handle the crowds.
Throughout his time in France, Fry’s relations with the U.S. consul were very strained. He often faced threats of expulsion. It began in September 1940. Fry was told by U.S. Consul Hugh Fullerton to close the Center and return to New York. His response was simply that he would leave when his replacement arrived.
Likewise, Fry was unsuccessful at motivating the U.S. government at home into supporting his work. He made several requests for more emergency visas. However, due to many restrictive immigration laws passed in previous years to prevent overcrowding in the United States, Fry’s requests were not granted and the immigration laws were not changed in spite of the evidence of concentration camps presented.
Fry also wrote to various officials regarding the “unspeakable” conditions of the French concentration camps. These were dismissed as “Fryana.” For example, U.S. Consul Hugh Fullerton writes, “I am enclosing some fryana which somebody up there may care to read and which were left with me the other day.” Unfortunately, Fry was unsuccessful at changing the way the camps were conducted.
Varian Fry made the journey into Spain himself taking a group of refugees with him. In his group were Franz Werfel and Heinrich Mann. They traveled to the Spanish border by train and were denied access twice, not having exit visas. The commissaire suggested they go over the hill into Spain and warned them to leave before it was too late. The party climbed the hill, while Fry, having the only exit visa, took the train and luggage across the border. Later that evening, the group met on the other side in Spain and began their way to Lisbon, from there America. It was discovered later that the Gestapo had moved into the area the day after and closed off the trail over the hill. If the party had waited, they may not have made it out of France.
While in Madrid, Spain, Fry met with the British Ambassador at the British Embassy. The Ambassador offered him $10,000 to help British soldiers cross the “frontier from France into Spain on the grounds that they are escaping prisoners of war.” Fry, although reluctant, agreed to become a British secret agent. He arranged to have fishing boats pick up soldiers and refugees off the French cost and bring them to Spain.
Fry continued his work with little support from the ERC. Due to pressure from the US Embassy and Vichy government, the ERC decided to replace Fry. Fry agreed to this, as long as a competent replacement could be found. His first priority was the Center and refugees. He wanted to make sure it didn’t close.
Unfortunately, his replacement didn’t arrive before Fry was escorted out of France. In August 1941, Varian Fry was placed under arrest and held without explanation. After being held overnight he was shown an order signed by the Captain. “It said that Varian Fry, being an undesirable alien, was to be conducted to the Spanish frontier immediately and there refoule — pushed out.”
Fry was conducted to the border and held while his own papers were being processed. During these last days, he was able to meet with his staff and make the necessary arrangements for the Center to continue in his absence.
Although the United States government did not provide Varian Fry any official recognition for his rescue work in France during his lifetime, in 1967 he received the Croix de Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, one of France’s highest civilian honors. Five months later, he passed away.
On April 22, 1991, The Hon. Tom Lantos’ tribute to Varian Fry in the House of Representatives Congressional Record. He stated, “Although Mr. Fry is no longer with us, his heroic fight against Nazism will long be remembered. Responsible for saving the lives of more than a thousand refugees, this past week he was posthumously awarded the Eisenhower Liberation Medal during the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council’s Days of Remembrance 1991. The event took place in the rotunda of our National Capitol.”
On February 4, 1996, Secretary of State Warren Christopher planted a tree in honor of Varian Fry. He became the first American ever to be honored as “Righteous among the Nations” Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Authority, Jerusalem. In 1998, Fry was one of the few also awarded “Commemorative Citizenship of the State of Israel.”
On the initiative of the present U.S. Consul General in Marseilles, Samuel Brock, the square in front of the Consulate was renamed “Place Varian Fry.”
The city of Berlin has honored Varian Fry by naming a street leading to the Potzdamer Platz “Varian Fry Strasse”.
He saved hundreds of lives through his hard work and dedication to the project with little support from his country and employers. Under constant pressure from the Vichy government, he diligently persevered. His efforts in Marseilles truly show that one ordinary man can do extraordinary things.