A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fryby Andy Marino
The story of Varian Fry, called the "real Rick" of Casablanca, is perhaps one of the most unknown, yet extraordinary sagas of World War II. This penetrating biography follows Varian Fry through his adult life--from his beginnings in the 1930s as a Harvard graduate and political journalist to his arrival in Marseille in 1940 where he managed to spirit away thousands
The story of Varian Fry, called the "real Rick" of Casablanca, is perhaps one of the most unknown, yet extraordinary sagas of World War II. This penetrating biography follows Varian Fry through his adult life--from his beginnings in the 1930s as a Harvard graduate and political journalist to his arrival in Marseille in 1940 where he managed to spirit away thousands of Europe's cultural elite by falsifying passports, creating new identities, and always resorting to subterfuge.
The list of those saved includes: Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Franz Werful and his wife Alma Mahler, Heinrich Mann, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Andre Masson, and Max Ernst among others.
A Quiet American is an effort to extensively examine the life of a genuine American hero whose political and cultural influence is still largely unacknowledged.
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RICK: I stick my neck out for nobody.
LOUIS: A wise foreign policy.
THE PENSION STERN on Berlin's wide, tree-shaded Kurfürstendamm was more hotel than boardinghouse. The hot and cold water and the telephone in every room were just what an American would expect in the better places back home, and Varian Fry took it as his due. He had arrived in Germany from New York in May 1935 and had chosen the Stern as the base for his travels. He was glad he did. It was cheap at only fifteen marks a day, and he had kindled a friendship with Michael Liebert, nephew of old Mrs. Stern, the proprietress. Fry's German, which was not as good as his French, had much improved. He now found himself speaking good colloquial Berlinese.
Fry always made it a point to talk to everybody he could when he traveled, and the clientele of the Pension Stern interested him. One such guest included a fellow American, the impresario Eugene Tiller, who had come from France to Berlin to recruit dancers for his troupe, the Tiller Girls. It was a prime time lot such an enterprise, with the clubs and cabarets being shut down more frequently now. Fry enjoyed fine unsurpassed musical satire of the nightlife Berlin had still to offer, but he sympathized with the desire of the performers to get out while the going was good. He knew that many of the most outspoken artists and writers had already fled to Vienna or Prague or Basle, out of reach (they hoped) of the Gestapo, which did notapprove of their books or jokes or lyrics. BerlinBerolina to the intellectuals and bohemianswas no longer the place for public displays of wit and irony, or for subversive ideas. People had begun to disappear.
Another guest with whom the young Fry was vaguely acquainted was Dr. Alfred Apfel, the famous anti-Nazi lawyer. He was defending one of the men on trial for setting the Reichstag fire. The Nazis were attempting to blame it on their Communist opponents, but most of the world believed they had arranged it themselves, in order to gain unopposed control of the German parliament. Though the trial was proceeding well for Apfel, he was, in fact, a worried man, unsure of how he would make his own escape when the trial was over. With the foreign journalists and their protective publicity gone, he would then be at the mercy of his ruthless government.
The famous comedian Max Adalbert, another resident at the Stern, was downcast as well. For him there was not much to laugh at or joke about in Germany anymore.
Fry had no need to worry about the random incidents of terror under the Nazi regime. A knock on the door in the middle of the night simply meant room service had arrived with his cognac. But in two months he had seen enough of Hitler's brave new world to understand what was going onenough of the gaily decked-out gingerbread towns and the wildly cheering crowds (schwarmerai was the word for it)full of gleeful children waving their red and white flags with that sinister black spider at the center, their proud mothers smiling and waving to the bull-necked brownshirts strutting along.
Varian Fry had not been vacationing. No sane person would choose the Third Reich as a place for rest and relaxation. On the contrary, he had arrived with a mission, and a fat, empty notebook that was now entirely full. For a journalist there was no substitute for being on the spot. He had observed Hitler's economic miracle in action, it was true, with its new roads and railways, kindergartens and hospitals. Grown men who had never worked a day in their lives now had jobs in the Nazi Party. They had back their self-respectfrom the look of it, perhaps too much self-respect.
All the dubious glamour of the uniforms and the ballooning nationalist uplift of Goebbels's propaganda was on display. The citizenry looked proud and prosperous. Germany was now a single-party state, and the Party defined its, and therefore Germany's, foes. The propaganda declared that the enemy lay within. Many who were excluded from Hitler's dreams of glory could not yet understand why. The atmosphere was disorientating, overwhelming. "Oh, Mother, Mother," one little girl was heard to say in a movie theater as on the screen a parade of storm troopers had marched stiffly past. "If I weren't a Jew I think I'd be a Nazi." In his own mind Fry was trying to resolve the paradoxes of terror and joy in the new Germany. Tyranny or not, and despite the latent opposition Fry had discovered, the feverish atmosphere of patriotism and racialism seemed to be the popular will of the people.
By the evening of July 15 Varian Fry had interviewed enough people, taken enough notes, and seen enough of the Third Reich to make for a thorough piece on the state of affairs in Germany. He was looking forward to a fine meal in celebration of what was almost the end of his taskjust one more interview to gobefore he returned to New York to take up the post of editor at the political journal The Living Age. He had struck the deal with its outgoing editor, who told him that if he thought it worth his while to take a couple of months off and see what was really happening in the cauldron of Europe's future, then the job would be waiting for him on his return.
Fry looked the very picture of the earnest young liberal. Smartly suited and wearing a bow tie, at twenty-seven years of age he appeared much less of a schoolboy now and finally more grown up. A dedicated, perhaps slightly prissy look was already etching itself on his features, tugging his mouth down at the corners and pursing his lips. It was a countenance that seemed to say, "I know I am right, and frankly I am astonished that you could think otherwise." His round, horn-rimmed spectacles added a certain owlish effect, but his dark wavy hair and a broad, friendly nose fought against an incipient seriousness.
Germany had both excited and depressed him. Fry adored the country but he was revolted by the injustices he had seen, the lies he had heard repeated. The place seemed to thrive on slander: it was "the Jews extort this" and "the Jews plot that," a set of falsehoods plain to anybody willing to use his brain. Yet people seemed to believe in them. Fry recognized a bullying crowd mentality that had left him clenched and angry, but had also liberated all the energy of his ferocious indignation. For indignation was Fry's lifeblood; and in a strange way he thrived on the exposure to evil he had experienced in Hitler's Germany. He was a man who supported good causes as a matter of course, but he wasn't content unless there were also bad causes to be defeated. Fry was not truly happy unless he was in some way outraged. For two months he had inhaled an atmosphere of repression like it was the scent of a flower; now he felt truly invigorated.
At about eight o'clock on that summer evening Fry left his hotel room to seek the broad and elegant boulevards of Berolina. What followed would change his life forever.
When he reached the hotel lobby he saw guests clustered at the door and windows, looking out onto the street with frightened interest. Somebody told Fry there was an anti-Jewish riot outside, and with a journalist's inquisitiveness he edged through the crush and out onto the Kurfürstendamm, where he saw people running along the road toward what seemed to be the source of the commotion. He decided to follow, and as he did the noise of cheeringor rather barking, as if wild dogs were fighting over a bonegrew louder.
The first sight that met his eyes delivered a blow of atavistic horror.
The old man's mouth was gaping and stringy with blood, screaming for help, but the plea was drowned out by the volume of the mob's blind fury. A pullulating circle of figures was flailing the elderly victim with fists and feet so that, already cringing and wet with their spittle, he was slowly sinking to the ground. Although he tried with all his might to remain upright, since falling meant certain doom, the man finally lost his strength and collapsed. The body of the crowd closed over him. An old lady who must have been his wife had been crying and clawing at the fringe of the unheeding gang of attackers. Now someone noticed her and smashed his fist into her face. Then she, too, was pulled into the blood orgy, kicked and stamped on until she went down as well.
Suddenly, Fry looked around him and saw other beatings taking place, and knots of citizens merging into larger groups as if by some magnetic attraction, until they were numerous enough to block the wide thoroughfare and slow the traffic passing through. A young man pointed his hand like a pistol at someone hurrying past. "Jew!" he shouted, and a section of the crowd surged away like swarming bees from some already motionless and crumpled shape, to converge on their new, terrified prey, pinning him against the wall and going through his pockets for his identity papers. "A Jew!" rang out the hoarse, gleeful cry again, and they were on him, sending his body crashing back over café tables before the boots and fists began to rain down once more.
On each side of the street the windows of Jewish shops and restaurants were being smashed, and the air sang with the shrill music of destruction. Oddly enough there were policemen standing guard in front of "German businesses," meaning non-Jewish ones, Fry supposed, while the mob sailed on its turbulent course toward the unprotected storefronts. Storm troopers were loitering about in obvious authority, their jodhpurs and brown mud-colored shirts straining to hold in big, hard bellies. They looked tough, all right, dumb but tough with bully slyness, redirecting the fleeing victims back into the fray with their fists.
Fry felt in no danger himself. It was like peering into a demonic slide show, unreal and grotesque, but intensely colored. People were running in all directions; he heard the slap of feet on the road. The tinny smell of blood was in the air. The pursuers went after their quarry unrelentingly, and it was as though a great good humor had taken possession of the mass. A young boy no more than twelve years old came up to him. "This is a holiday for us," he said breathlessly, and Fry looked at him, speechless. The boy meant it. He noticed smart, stout burgerlich couples of middle age, out for their evening promenade before supper or the theater, suddenly losing their senses and joining in a beating. Shop girls screamed with murderous fury at passing vehicles that the crowd engulfed, and from which they dragged the terrified occupants. Were they Aryan? They had to prove it, and if they couldn't, the spitting and kicking would begin anew, while the automobile rocked on its axles in the throng.
Still in a state of disbeliefnot because he thought it couldn't happen, but because he was there when it didFry looked up toward the far end of the Kurfürstendamm. There, in towering majesty, stood the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church. This was no time for irony, but what began to reach his ears now was evidence of another phase in the surging swell around him. The mob had begun to find its voice and it sounded, though surely it couldn't be, as if the rising notes were emanating from the church. A lone voice cried out, long and deep, like the lowing of cattle, sonorous and barely human, a line that would be repeated as slowly and deliberately by the crowd all along the boulevard. "Wenn Judenblut vom Messer spritzt," it intoned, and was echoed and multiplied by the still surging mass: When Jewish blood spurts from the knife ...
Again the voice tolled out across the bobbing heads: "Dann geht's nochmal so gut...." Then things will go even better, Fry translated silently, as once again this new line was repeated in the same funereal tempo. Other lines followed in mournful cadence, a solemn progression through an automaton's nightmare, so eerie amid this tempestuous brutality. Then Fry realized he was witnessing, loud and clear, nothing less than an inversion of the Christian liturgy. For all its dancing insanity, for all its murderous frenzy, he was sensible of a ritual aspect to this pogrom, some religious template underlying the chaos and channeling its anti-Jewish energy. The thought flashed through Fry's mind that this was not just a riot, but the beginning of a religious crusade against the Nazi devil of "Jew-Bolshevism." The high priest of this dark campaign was, of course, very near.
Fry gathered his senses and began to walk away, feeling as though he were swimming, slowly, in a dream. He was still too close to the macabre street theater to feel outrage, and he numbly entered the harbor of a café. There, Fry saw a sight that would haunt him, and which in later years he would retell only rarely and in a whisper. In a corner sat a man trying as hard as anybody could do to look invisible. Two storm troopers, ruddy faced and reeking of bull arrogance, had entered and walked toward him. The man, clearly Jewish, tremulously reached for his beer. As he did so, a knife flashed in the air and pinned his shaking hand to the table. The storm troopers laughed.
Fry walked back to the Pension Stern, past a poster outside the Ufa Palast movie theater that read WER VOM JUDEN KAUFT, IST EIN VERRATER!HE WHO BUYS FROM A JEW IS A TRAITOR! In his hotel bedroom he took out his notebook, and on the last blank page began to write. When he had finished, he picked up the telephone and asked reception to put through a call for him. The next day his report, sent via the Associated Press, would make the front page of the New York Times, and America would have its first real taste of Nazism in action.
THE PREVIOUS NIGHT had not been just a bad dream. When Fry left the Pension Stern the next morning to walk the short distance toward the Brandenburg Gate and the government buildings, the victims were still there, many where they had fallen. They were now being tended to in the street and he saw bandaged heads, bandaged hands, and fresh, clean slings of plaster over their noses. Back in New York it was the middle of the night and the presses were already rolling.
Fry had already asked for and received an invitation to the offices of the Foreign Press Division at Joseph Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda, where Ernst Hanfstaengel"Putzi" to his friendshad been entrusted by Hitler with the mission to explain Nazism to the world. Fry suspected he had been granted an interview because of all Hanfstaengel thought they had in common. In fact there were only two things: they were both Americans, and both alumni of Harvard University, although Hanfstaengel had graduated ten years before Fry. The gregarious Putzi could never resist an opportunity to meet someone with whom he could swap memories of student life.
Fry was shown in, where he refused the offer of coffee. If Hanfstaengel noticed his visitor's tight-lipped disapproval, he didn't reveal it. Fry did not know before he met him whether the man was evil or stupid; he kept an open mind about it. Now, though, his mental dial was swinging in the direction of stupidity. Hanfstaengel began the conversation predictably by asking, as he settled his large frame into his seat, how Harvard was doing. Fry smiled stiffly at him but did not make eye contact. He replied that to the best of his knowledge their old alma mater was getting along just fine without them. At this, Hanfstaengel roared with laughter. "Without me, certainly," he said, hinting at past roguishness. Fry's mind was turning on the riot of the night before, and anger at this lightheartedness began to percolate through his system. Hanfstaengel had apparently forgotten that he was a journalist. He said nothing about keeping what they were going to discuss off the record. Very well, thought Fry.
He played to the bearish Hanfstaengel's obvious weak pointhomesicknesschatting about America and lulling him into a warm feeling of nostalgia before introducing the matter of the Kurfürstendamm riot into the conversation. Hanfstaengel's face darkened with insincere concern as he agreed that it had been an unfortunate incident. An unforgivable one, corrected Fry, a wanton attack on people and property. Who did Hanfstaengel blame for it? His answer was civic indignation: a group of Jews had hissed a pro-Nazi movie at the Ufa Palast and set off the whole thing. At least, that is what he was told. It was, Fry must understand, difficult to separate out the sequence of events. Not all the Jews who were beaten up were to blame, of course, but a single spark may start a fire....
As one old Harvard man to another, he went on, he had his suspicions that fanatiker, storm troopers, might have been involved. Fry, who had seen everything, simply sat there and let him talk on. There was a struggle, Hanfstaengel explained, between two principal factions in the Nazi Party. On the one hand there were the moderates. He smiled to include himself in this group. On the other, there were more radical elements who wished to be rid of the Jews once and for allthey didn't care howand they wanted to show they had wide support. Last night's regrettable incident was provoked with that in mind.
The moderates believed that the Jewish problem could be dealt with in a more civilized manner, perhaps by designating certain areas Jews could be moved to in order to separate them from the German people, whom they antagonized. Not ghettos, Hanfstaengel added hastily, more like reservations, similar to those the United States provided for its native Indian population. The Jews would retain the benefits of German identity without experiencing their present difficulties. Or they could migrate. In fact, negotiations for the settlement of Jews in foreign territories like Madagascar were under discussion.
Fry pushed Hanfstaengel on what the so-called radicals wanted to do with the Jews. Why, they want to exterminate them, replied Hanfstaengel simply, offhandedly and off guard. Kill them all. This was the solution favored by Hitler, by Goebbels. Fry, even before last night's bloodletting, had attempted to extrapolate the logic of the Nazi movement, and such "ideology" as it possessed. His conclusion was that at the end of the road inevitably lay war and murder, and that this was in some way what it was all about, some mad Teutonic conflagration. But his image of it had been opaque. He read the things that were written, witnessed actions taken against the Jews. It was true one could almost smell the hatred. But to have the idea spelled out in plain English by somebody who was as close to the font of Nazi power as Hanfstaengel clarified everything.
What made Hanfstaengel particularly odious in Fry's view was that he should have known better. Germany had long suffered the worst, most invertebrate press in the Western world, and for centuries it had accepted an abysmal public education system. It was a sharply stratified society where one did not dare question one's superiors, and its worship of officialdom was practically a national cult, as the great but now banished German writer Heinrich Mann had pointed out in his novels written during the time of Kaiser Wilhelm. The true culprit of the Nazi phenomenon was German history: when Hitler screamed at his people about their overwhelming need to obey, he knew what he was talking about. It was like they said of the Kaiser, when a generation earlier he ordered the German people into the mad slaughter on the Western Front, "The King makes war and the people die." And Bismarck, who hadn't wanted the war, said that all the people lacked was "civilian courage," the courage to take hold of their own lives and resist the will of the ruler. They would die unquestioningly in the trenches, but they refused to see that they could ever govern themselves. Their anti-Semitism was unremarkable: every country Fry knew of despised Jews to a greater or (normally) lesser extent. But the conditions in Hitler's Third Reich had amplified a traditional feeling of surly distrust and turned it into government policy. Simply put, Germans no longer felt it necessary not to beat up Jews.
But Hanfstaengel was an American. He had grown up in a country with an egalitarian, individualistic ethos; he had received the best education money could buy. Now he was abusing that democratic inheritance and allying himself with a base and vicious regime. The man's bluff good humor was an insult. Hanfstaengel's ancestors were German, and they had left Germanylike four and a half million others over the last centuryprecisely because of its narrow-minded chauvinism and its suffocating autocracy. Those who could not get out, or were content to obey their masters, never enjoyed the advantages that America had given Hanfstaengel. Now he had returned to lord it over them. In the end it was more than stupidity. By proclaiming his friendship with Hitler, in boasting of how the Führer liked him to play "Three Cheers for Harvard" on the piano, Hanfstaengel in his own trivial way had sunk lower than Hitler himself in the moral scheme of things.
Fry was a professional journalist, and if Hanfstaengel had made him promise not to use direct quotes, he would have assented and found a more general, unattributed way to announce his discovery of the genocidal plans being entertained in the upper echelons of the Third Reich. But it was 1935 and nobody would believe him. They probably wouldn't, anyway. But because Hanfstaengel was talkingas he had saidas one Harvard man to another, Fry filed another report through the Associated Press as soon as he had left the country, quoting Hanfstaengel's exact words. It, too, made the front page of the New York Times that July. Fry could no longer visit Nazi Germany, but he didn't want to. What he feared was that Nazi Germany would soon be visiting everybody else.
Meet the Author
Andy Marino is the author of Herschel: The Boy Who Started World War II. He currently lives in North London.
Andy Marino was born and raised in Clifton Park, New York. He graduated from NYU and currently lives in Queens. He is the author of Unison Spark and Uncrashable Dakota.
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