Varian Fry: The Man Who Saved the Artists of Europe

Varian Fry in Marseilles. France, 1940–1941. Credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Annette Fry.

By Jaques Gallant

Varian Fry was the American version of Oskar Schindler, but in contrast to the German businessman who saved over 1,000 Jews, many of Fry’s rescuees were decidedly more A-list.

Among the nearly 2,000 people, many of whom Jewish, that Fry helped save around 1940–41 in Vichy France were sculptor Victor Brauner, and artists Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp. Political theorist Hannah Arendt was perhaps the most famous Fry rescuee of them all.

Fry, born on Oct. 15, 1907, and raised in New Jersey, had already been working as a journalist and author of foreign affairs books for several years when he went to Marseille in 1940 with the U.S.-based Emergency Rescue Committee — a predecessor of the International Rescue Committee — to assist Jews in escaping the country.

He would certainly have been acutely aware of the danger the Jews faced in Europe as he had witnessed first-hand an attack on Jewish people in Berlin in 1935. His eyewitness account was distributed by the Associated Press and published in many newspapers, including on the front page of The New York Times, offering the U.S. one of the first glimpses of the treatment of the Jews under Hitler.

The Harvard-educated Fry was on assignment for the political journal, The Living Age, when he witnessed the antisemitic rioting. Fry was already in the area when he suddenly heard “at about 8 o’clock” that “there was an anti-Jewish demonstration in the streets” and he rushed out to see it, he wrote.

As Andy Marino said in his 1999 book, American Pimpernel: The Man Who Saved the Artists on Hitler’s Death List, Fry “felt no danger himself. It was like peering into a demonic slideshow.”

Like any good journalist, he tried to get official reaction to the incident, and so went to speak with Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s foreign press representative, the day after the rioting. Fry’s brief account of this interview, according to Dara Horn’s 2012 book, The Rescuer, appeared in a subsequent 1935 AP story.

The contrast between the relatively straightforward AP pieces from 1935 and Fry’s famous article, “The Massacre of the Jews,” published in The New Republic in 1942, are striking.

In “The Massacre of the Jews,” Fry criticises the Western world for failing to realize sooner that the Nazis were prepared to commit atrocities against the Jews. He urges countries such as the United States to immediately begin accepting Jewish refugees. But more than that, he also appears to be admitting his own shortcomings. It leads one to wonder: Did Varian Fry regret not having rung the bell sooner about the Nazis’ plans for the Jewish people?

As he wrote in “The Massacre of the Jews,” he had trouble believing Hanfstaengl, who talked about the position of the “radicals” in the Nazi Party and how they wanted to solve “the Jewish problem by the physical extermination of the Jews.” Fry admitted: “I only half believed him.”

“The Nazis have given us many reasons to change our thinking habits since they assumed power, but we have been slow to learn the new lesson,” he wrote. “I remember how skeptical I was myself the first time a Nazi official told me that Hitler and Goebbels were bent on the physical annihilation of the Jews.

“I could not believe that there were men in positions of power and authority in Western Europe in the twentieth century who could seriously entertain such a monstrous idea.”

Fry, who published his autobiography, Surrender on Demand, in 1945, died in Connecticut in 1967.

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