Historical biography about individuals who have penned their own memoirs, and who are professional writers themselves is a challenge, especially so when the subject is Varian Fry (1907-1967), an unsung World War II hero.
Biographer Shirley Isenberg might have had a reasonably straightforward task had Fry not decided to substantiate his antifascism writings by visiting Berlin in the summer of 1935, where he witnessed firsthand Nazi stormtroopers beating Jews in the streets. Throughout her dense documentation, Isenberg repeats like a mantra the haunting image which never left Fry, "a Jewish victim's hand nailed to the table beside his beer mug."
Fry returned to the United States and wrote several front-page articles for the New York Times about Nazi brutalities. But, "with isolationists dominant in American society, Fry and other intellectuals with views similar to his were generally ignored."
In 1996, almost three decades after his death, Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum named Fry, "Righteous among the Nations." Of the 16,000 "Righteous Gentiles," similarly honored by Yad Vashem, including the most well-known, Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler, who saved Jews during World War II, Fry stands out because he was an American.
At the ceremony in Jerusalem, Warren Christopher, Secretary of State at the time, apologized for then-Secretary of State's treatment of Varian Fry. Within this apology nestles the selfless and relentless struggle of one man to spread the truth about Hitler's Final Solution for the genocide of European Jewry, initially written about in his articles for The New York Times, followed by his personal rescue mission of 13 months duration in 1940-41.
On August, 4, 1940, Fry left New York on The Dixie Clipper, an aircraft that took 36 hours to cross the Atlantic to Lisbon, with two refuelling stops. A list of 250 names and $3,000 American dollars were taped to his leg under his trousers.
The Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) had laid the groundwork for Fry's journey. The ERC was founded by Karl Frank and Reinhold Niehbuhr. Frank was a psychoanalyst, who had been a communist militant in Austria in the 1920s and head of the German Socialist Party in Prague. Niebuhr, an eminent theologian and former pacifist, was totally pre-occupied with urging Christians in America to support the war against Hitler.
The ERC had amalgamated with IRA (International Relief Association), founded in 1934 by Albert Einstein to aid refugees fleeing Hitler. France fell on June 22, 1940. The 250 names on Varian's preferred list were now in danger of arrest by France's German occupiers.
Within days Fry discovered that not only were the 250 whose names he had been given at risk, but so were all the other refugees who had fled to France, because the Nazis could demand they surrender to the French at a moment's notice. Perhaps this is the reason Fry called his 1945 memoir published by Random House, Surrender on Demand.
The numbers of protTgTs (Fry's coined this covert term for his refugees) grew, and it is estimated by Yad Vashem that Fry saved approximately 1,500.
Extending his initial mandate by adding new names to his list meant that he required more US emergency visas, which infuriated the State Department. Fry was forced into a clandestine operation in Marseille that required bribing, forging and cheating at his "Centre Americain de Secours." Because Fry balked the State Department, he was nicknamed, "Varian the Contrarian."
Unfortunately, the fall of France coincided with the transfer of immigration services in the United States from the Department of Labour under Frances Perkins to the Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long. Long had been misguided for years. And President Roosevelt, like Canada's Prime Minister Mackenzie King was primarily an isolationist. It didn't seem to matter that Roosevelt received continuous pressure from his wife, Eleanor, to arrive at an agreement with South American countries in order to gain asylum for Europe's needy refugees, most of them Jews.
So successful was Fry in Marseille, that when novelist Herman Wouk wrote Marjorie Morningstar, he asked Fry to comment on the authenticity of his fictional character, Mike Egan. Fry congratulated Wouk for mentioning Egan's unconscious motivations. "Above all, rescue work makes every hour you stay uncaught very pleasant. As for anxiety and depression¨all that simply vanishes."
Eileen Hughes, seven years his elder, whom he married in l931 and divorced eleven years later, was totally supportive of his rescue work in Marseille. Letters exchanged by the couple include such bold statements by Fry as: "My work is like trying to stay a flood¨not even God can do it." Included on Fry's selected list of refugees were writers, artists and intellectuals such as Heinrich and Golo Mann, Franz Werfel. Arthur Koestler, Hertha Pauli, Dr. Otto Meyerhof, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, AndrT Breton and Jacques Lipchitz.
Eleven separate accounts of refugees who were saved by Fry add to the authenticity of Isenberg's meticulously researched documentation, but since the writing styles are so disparate and the chosen few so special, the reader is left with information which is secondary to the main text's theme, the focus of which is Fry's persistence in carrying out his rescue mission, even when the rug was pulled from under him in the summer of 1941.
On track with this part of the story¨Fry's winding down from his mission, Isenberg informs readers that by July l941, of the 3,268 authorized emergency visas, only 1,236 had actually been granted and Fry was now determined to fill this gap.
Fry used the six weeks before his actual departure to improve the underground route from Marseille to Portugal. Back in New York in November, 1941, he continued to help Daniel BTnTdite, his devoted assistant at the Centre Americain de Secours which no longer had an office. At this juncture 300 more refugees were able to escape.
Fry wrote an article for The New Republic, entitled "The Massacre of the Jews: The story of the most appalling Murder in Human History". "Two million have been slain since the war began and the remaining five million now living under Nazi control are scheduled to be destroyed as soon as Hitler's blood butchers can get around to them." Published in December, 1942, the piece attracted little attention.
In l945 when Random House published Surrender on Demand, one reviewer accused Fry of smuggling operations that violated both the laws of France and the United States. Fry's response was that he had only violated the laws of France, while he had forced the U.S. to admit refugees, who otherwise would not have been allowed in and who would have surely been murdered by the Nazis.
In August 1945, Fry once again got involved with refugees, this time with the one thousand interned in a holding camp in upstate New York, known as Fort Ontario. Fearing they would be deported, Fry pressed the then-atttorney general to obtain immigration visas to allow these refugees to enter the country legally.
In l963, Fry received his first public recognition when sculptor Jacques Lipchitz presented him with the International Rescue Committee's medal for contributions to the cause of freedom. At the ceremony Lipschitz said he owed his life to Fry.
And in April 1967, five months before his death, surrounded by his second wife, Annette, and their three children, Fry received the Cross of the Chevalier of the Legion of honor, France's highest award.
Fry was a loyal and determined individual, who liked returning to his past. When he was found dead on September l2, l967, he was alone in his bed, "surrounded by scraps of papers and notes, facts and reminiscences about that singular year in Marseille." His second wife Annette, whom Fry also divorced, told Isenberg: "I think he died of a broken heart." He had been in the right place at the right time to make a difference, but afterwards, no wife could compete with his great love, an obsession to save Jewish refugees. ˛
Sharon Abron Drache is an Ottawa-based author and journalist. Her most recent book is The Golden Ghetto.