Varian Fry-Journalist and WWII Hero

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As so often before Varian Fry is the prove that one man can make a difference.

Varian Mackey Fry (October 15, 1907 – September 13, 1967) was an American journalist. Fry ran a rescue network in Vichy France that helped approximately 2,000 to 4,000 anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees to escape Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Varian Fry was born in New York City. His parents were Lillian and Arthur Fry, a manager of the Wall Street firm Carlysle and Mellick. The family moved to Ridgewood, New Jersey in 1910. He grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey and enjoyed bird-watching and reading. During World War I, at 9 years of age Fry and friends conducted a fund-raising bazaar for the American Red Cross that included a vaudeville show, ice cream stand and fish pond. He was educated at Hotchkiss School from 1922 to 1924 when he left the school due to hazing rituals. He then attended the Riverdale Country School, graduating in 1926.

An able, multi-lingual student, Fry scored in the top 10% on the entrance exams to Harvard University and, while a Harvard undergraduate, founded Hound & Horn, an influential literary quarterly, in 1927 with Lincoln Kirstein. He was suspended for a prank just before graduation and had to repeat his senior year. Through Kirstein’s sister, Mina, he met his future wife, Eileen Avery Hughes, an editor of Atlantic Monthly who was seven years his senior and was educated at Roedean School and Oxford University. They married on June 2, 1931.

While working as a foreign correspondent for the American journal The Living Age, Fry visited Berlin in 1935 and personally witnessed Nazi abuse against Jews on more than one occasion and “turned him into an ardent anti-Nazi”. He said in 1945, “I could not remain idle as long as I had any chances at all of saving even a few of its intended victims.”

Following his visit to Berlin, Fry wrote about the savage treatment of Jews by Hitler’s regime in the New York Times in 1935. He wrote books about foreign affairs for Headline Books, owned by the Foreign Policy Association, including The Peace that Failed.It describes the troubled political climate following World War I and the break-up of Czechoslovakia and the events leading up to World War II.

Greatly disturbed by what he saw, Fry helped raise money to support European anti-Nazi movements. Following the Occupation of France in August 1940, he went to Marseille as an agent of the newly formed Emergency Rescue Committee in an effort to help persons wishing to flee the Nazis, and circumvent the processes by French authorities who would not issue exit visas. Fry had $3,000 and a short list of refugees under imminent threat of arrest by agents of the Gestapo, mostly Jews. Clamoring at his door came anti-Nazi writers, avant-garde artists, musicians and hundreds of others desperately seeking any chance to escape France.

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Arriving in Marseilles in August 1940, Fry settled in his room in the hotel Splendide, and began writing letters to the people on his list. Rumors of his arrival had spread, and hundreds of people came to ask him for assistance. He soon discovered that the American consulate was not going to help him get people to the US, and that he would have to work independently. Faced with the plight of the desperate refugees, Fry decided to act and began finding ways – most of which were illegal – to smuggle out those refugees who faced immediate danger of falling into German hands. The lines of refugees in front of his hotel room were so long that he rented an office and put together a group of associates – American expatriates, French nationals and refugees – to help him in the process of classification. They established the American Rescue Center (Centre Americain de Secours) and began interviewing between 60-70 people every day. Years later Fry described how he faced the dilemma of who was to be helped: “We had no way of knowing who was really in danger and who wasn’t. We had to guess, and the only safe way to guess was to give each refugee the full benefit of the doubt. Otherwise we might refuse help to someone who was really in danger and learn later that he had been dragged away to Dachau or Buchenwald because we had turned him away.”

At great personal risk, Varian Fry set up contacts with the French Resistance and the Corsican mob, hired forgers, bribed border guards, and he personally escorted Franz Werfel and Heinrich Mann over the Pyrenees – his rescue efforts made an indelible influence on our culture.

Although he had no experience in underground work, Fry put a manifold operation into place. His office dealt in legal as well as illegal ways: Once the two hundred US visas were exhausted, Fry’s office tried to obtain visas to other countries; a former Viennese cartoonist was enlisted to forge documents; some refugees were smuggled on French troopships to North Africa – still under French control – disguised as demobilized soldiers; other refugees were spirited out of France over land.

Fry tried twice to appeal to US Secretary of State Cordell Hull. “Thousands find themselves in prisons and concentrations camps of Europe without hope of release because they have no government to represent them….Cannot the US and other nations of the Western Hemisphere take immediate steps, such as creation of new Nansen passports [formerly used to help stateless Russian refugees] and extension of at least limited diplomatic protection to holders of them?”, he wrote on November 10, 1940. Both his letters remained unanswered.

Fry’s activities reached such significant dimensions that it became difficult to keep them secret. The French police decided to take firm action against him. The US Embassy in Vichy and the Consulate in Marseille, adhering to their country’s strict immigration policy, didn’t intervene on Fry’s behalf. As a first step the French police raided his offices. In December 1940, he was arrested and held for a while on a prison ship in the Marseille harbor. But nothing deterred him from working on. He remained in France even though his passport expired, and continued his rescue activities. He was ultimately arrested by the French police in August 1941, given one hour to pack his things, and was then accompanied to the Spanish border. He was told that his expulsion had been ordered by the French Ministry of Interior in agreement with the American Embassy. Fry was to describe his departure: “It was grey and rainy as I boarded the train. I looked out of the windows and innumerable images crowded my mind. I thought of the faces of the thousand refugees I had sent out of France, and the faces of a thousand more I had had to leave behind.

Fry wrote and spoke critically against U.S. immigration policies particularly relating to the issue of the fate of Jews in Europe. In a December 1942 issue of The New Republic, he wrote a scathing article titled: “The Massacre of Jews in Europe”.

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“There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them. The recent reports of the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe are of this order… we can offer asylum now, without delay or red tape, to those few fortunate enough to escape from the Aryan paradise. There have been bureaucratic delays in visa procedure which have literally condemned to death many stalwart democrats… This is a challenge which we cannot, must not, ignore.“

Fry, Varian. “The Massacre of Jews in Europe.” The New Republic, 1942

According to Fry’s estimate his office dealt with some 15,000 cases by May 1941. Of these, assistance was provided to approximately 4,000 people; 1,000 out of them were smuggled from France in various ways. Among the Jews Fry helped to smuggle out of France were a number of well-known figures, such as Hanna Arendt, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Siegfried Kracauer, Franz Werfel, Lion Feuchtwanger and many others.

When asked as to his motives, Fry responded that when he had visited Berlin in 1935, he saw SA men assaulting a Jew, and he felt he could no longer remain indifferent.

After his forced return to the United States Varian Fry was put under the surveillance of the FBI. For the rest of his life he was avoided by his former colleagues and friends and until his premature death in 1967 at age 59, he made a living as a Latin teacher in a boys’ school. Shortly before his death, the French government awarded him with the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur.

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In 1994 he was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

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Varian Fry’s son planted a tree in his honor at Yad Vashem in 1996. The ceremony was attended by US State Secretary Warren Christopher, who on that occasion apologized for the State Department’s abusive treatment during the war years.

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It is scary to know that we have not learned from the heroic actions of this man. Today there are journalists across the globe reporting on the things they see happening and they are not being listened to and ignored by their governments.

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