A Hero Of Our Own

A Hero Of Our Own

by Sheila Isenberg


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"Fry was the American Schindler...with desperate exiles, menacing Nazis, forged documents and midnight escapes...[think] Casablanca."

--New York Times

Varian Fry, the only American honored at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, was a young New Yorker who rescued more than 1,500 Europeans from the Nazi's including Mar Chagall, Max Ernst, Hannah Arendt, and other intellectuals, political activists, and "degenerative" artists, many of them Jews. This moving Holocaust rescue story is set against the backdrop of American isolationism and anti-Semitism.

"The drama here is in the thrill of rescue, the realistic portrait of a complex leader, and the decidedly nonheroic truths about WWII at home."

--American Library Association

"One of the BEST BOOKS of 2001"

--St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780595348824
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/20/2005
Pages: 388
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dear Eileen,
We have left the Azores far behind and are now nearing Lisbon . . . there are some Don Quixote windmills on the brow of the hill be- hind the town, turning just as they must have been when he tilted at them. The Azores would be a delightful place to have a villa—at the end of one’s days.


Early in the afternoon of August 4, 1940, Varian Fry crossed the ramp at La Guardia Airport to board a Pan American Airways Boeing B-314 to Europe for what would turn out to be the greatest adventure of his life. His wife and a small group of friends were there to see him off. As he walked toward the water where the seaplane was docked, sunlight danced off Fry’s glasses, mirroring the delight in his eyes. A slender man, above-average height, with dark brown hair and green eyes, he sparkled, pressed and immaculate, eager to be on his way. Over the gangplank, onto the Clipper, and belted in, Fry sank back finally to wave farewell to his wife and friends through the tiny window.

His destination was Marseille, a large, dirty port city near the southernmost tip of France that had become the last stop for many thousands of refugees from Hitler. From there, they hoped to embark to the United States, Britain, Canada, Mexico, Cuba—any country without a Nazi presence. By the time of Fry’s trip, Marseille was jammed with penniless, bedraggled exiles from all over Europe struggling to emigrate. Long before he left New York, he was aware that most were failing at these attempts, that some were already interned in French concentration camps under primitive and inhumane conditions. His mission, oncehe arrived, was to assist in any way he could, a handful of people, the intellectual elite of Europe, whose names had been given him by various leaders in American arts and sciences.

Fry left behind his wife of nine years, Eileen Hughes Fry, who had expressed a hope that he would return with a French child for them to adopt. He had taken a four-week leave of absence from his job as an editor at the Foreign Policy Association’s Headline Books. Naively thinking his mission to save the refugees could be accomplished in that short time, he had purchased a return Clipper ticket for August 29. Just before he left New York, worried whether he had the correct clothing, Fry went on a last-minute shopping spree, buying items that he imagined necessary for a month on the Continent.

Taped to his leg were a list of two hundred names, the most endangered refugees, and three thousand dollars in cash. As European representative for the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), an ad hoc group organized days after the fall of France, his mandate was to help German and Eastern European refugees obtain the visas and other documents they needed to escape from France.

Just before he left, Fry’s conversations with his wife revealed how little he understood public opinion in America regarding the European war and its refugees. He did not realize that it would be nearly impossible to mobilize Americans to support both refugee rescue and the liberalization of U.S. immigration policy. Eileen tried to explain the state of mind of the American people, but he never got it. Fry, who cared deeply about the well-being of all people, could not comprehend the narrow, selfish isolationist viewpoint of a majority of Americans who wanted neither to fight in the war nor to help its victims. This inability to understand American attitudes would hurt and hinder him during his year in Marseille as he came up against them repeatedly while he was dealing with American officials.

In some ways, Varian Fry was a likely candidate for the job he had undertaken. He spoke good French and some German, was Harvard-educated, and had a liberal Protestant background with a strong family emphasis on helping others. His paternal grandfather, Charles Reuben Fry, had been a prominent social worker and “child saver.”

Varian Fry was also a passionate antifascist who would now be able to act on his beliefs. Despite his political predilection for this work, however, his personality did not lend itself to his becoming a foreign emissary. He was outspoken and undiplomatic, and often anxious and moody. In addition, the leadership of the ERC, and Fry himself, had doubts about sending him to Europe because of his lack of experience in this type of political work. In the end, however, he was the only volunteer, and therefore the one to go.

His antifascism had been reinforced on a visit to Europe five years earlier, during the summer of 1935, when he witnessed Nazi storm troopers beating Jews on the streets of Berlin. His memory of this incident, of a victim’s “hand nailed to the table beside the beer mug,” influenced his decision to volunteer for the mission to Marseille. Haunted by what he had seen in Berlin, Fry wrote about it. Working at a series of editorial positions from 1935 on, he tried desperately but unsuccessfully to bring public attention to the coming Holocaust. Even front-page articles he wrote for The New York Times about the storm troopers’ brutality and its aftermath did not bring condemnation of Nazi actions. The majority of Americans were not interested. With isolationists dominant in American society, Fry and others with like views were generally ignored.

Since September 1939, Germany had vanquished the nations of Europe, including, during the April, May, and June 1940 “Blitzkrieg,” Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Luxembourg. “The enemy is aiming for the heart of France,” wrote Russian émigré Victor Serge, “and Paris is threatened.” In New York, as they waited for the inevitable invasion of France, Fry and other politically concerned people were frantically trying to figure out how to help their European friends.

Fry became involved in a number of different groups that were forming. He lunched often at Child’s restaurant on Fortieth Street in Manhattan with the dashing and mysterious Karl Frank (aka Paul Hagen) and his second wife, activist-heiress Anna Caples. (It was at these meetings that the groundwork was laid for the formation of the Emergency Rescue Committee.) He joined the American Friends of German Freedom, which Frank had created along with the progressive theologian Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr. When Frank first arrived in New York in 1935, he had read Fry’s New York Times article about the Nazis beating Jews in Berlin and sought out the young journalist. A psychoanalyst and “professional revolutionary,” Frank had been a communist militant in Austria during the twenties, then head of the German Socialist Party in Prague. Niebuhr, formerly a pacifist, was now urging “Christians to support the war against Hitler.” Fry also met the daring and glamorous Buttingers. From 1934 to 1938, Joseph Buttinger led the underground Austrian Socialist Movement, then emigrated to the United States with his wife, Muriel Gardiner, the scion of a wealthy American family.* As other bright politically concerned young people gathered around the locus of the Franks and the Buttingers—including Ingrid Warburg, of the influential banking family, and Eileen Hughes Fry—Fry became involved in yet a third group, the International Relief Association (IRA). Founded in 1934 by Albert Einstein to aid refugees from Hitler, this group operated independently in Europe for a time.

On June 14, 1940, German forces, which had been bombing on the outskirts of Paris, entered the city and marched triumphantly down the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe. As French citizens cried tears of “heartbroken rage,” Fry and his circle across the Atlantic were also grief-stricken. France fell days later, on June 22 Article Nineteen of the Franco-German Armistice called for France to “surrender on demand” to the Nazis all Germans who sought asylum “in France as well as in French possessions, colonies, protectorate territories, and mandates.” “ ‘Germans’ included Austrians, Czechs, and, in practice, any others whom the Nazis chose to terrorize . . . no one doubted that the Gestapo would soon start tracking down these old enemies.” At that time, how the French would respond to Article Nineteen was unclear, and as a result all refugees in France felt at risk because the Nazis could demand they be surrendered.

When Germany conquered France, the country was divided into “unoccupied” and “occupied” zones, with the unoccupied sector under a nominal French government headquartered in Vichy. This government, led by Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, immediately forbade expressions of French nationalism, such as the national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” and substituted “Work, Family, Fatherland” for the French motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

In New York, Fry and his friends, horrified that refugees in France might have to be handed over to the Germans, were appalled by Vichy’s plans to rid France of its foreigners, particularly Jews. Germans and other European exiles who had fled Hitler were now outcasts in the country where they had sought refuge. They had chosen France for asylum over Belgium and Switzerland. Refugees in Belgium were often pushed back and forth over the French-Belgian border, nor was the Swiss government much better; it was stingy with permits allowing refugees to remain. Although it was difficult for refugees to gain entry into France, once inside, it was easier for them to remain.
Unfortunately, after the fall of France, the Vichy government passed legislation preventing refugees from leaving the country. Vichy, if it so decided, could then surrender them on demand to the Germans. As a result, antifascists, writers, “degenerate” artists, scientists, labor leaders—most of them Jewish—were trapped in France, waiting for the Germans to pounce.

Since, from the spring of 1940 on, there were fewer and fewer passenger ships sailing from Europe until “points of departure . . . narrowed almost to Lisbon and the British ports,” the refugees’ dilemma was how to get from France to Lisbon, and then to a free nation. This was one of the chief questions considered by Fry and his friends in New York as they held meeting after meeting. But there was no resolution, no plan of action. On June 24, the American Friends of German Freedom wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for her support, which she gave. A day later, the group held a fund-raising luncheon at the Hotel Commodore in Manhattan. Radio commentator Raymond Gram Swing spoke on the plight of the European refugees. Fry, an organizer of the luncheon, was moved by Swing’s eloquence. Reinhold Niebuhr asked the two hundred guests to donate money, then led a discussion about resolving the problems of the refugees. Many spoke out, including Erika Mann, Thomas Mann’s daughter. Everyone agreed that a new organization was needed, an amalgam of Einstein’s IRA and the American Friends of German Freedom, whose sole purpose would be to help the European refugees. Finally, Fry thought, some action. The Emergency Rescue Committee was born that day. Although most of its members were journalists, religious leaders, and activists from the traditional American left, Fry’s background was more intellectual and humanitarian. His instincts were the same as the other founders of the ERC, but his political agenda was always second to his strong desire to help people.

The leaders of the ERC, including Fry, met again a few days after the luncheon, at Ingrid Warburg’s apartment on West Fifty-fourth Street, to discuss the desperate need to send someone to France to see what was actually going on. Fry said he would consider volunteering if no one else could be found.

The ERC took shape with an office at 122 East Forty-second Street and several new members: Methodist minister and University of Newark president Dr. Frank Kingdon; New School for Social Research president Dr. Alvin Johnson; perennial presidential candidate and socialist Norman Thomas; and other leaders in the arts, education, religion, labor, and the media. Kingdon became the committee’s chairman, David F. Seiferheld was its treasurer, and Mildred Adams its secretary. Harold Oram, a socialist militant who had raised funds for Spanish Civil War refugees in the thirties, would oversee fund-raising, and Ingrid Warburg volunteered to be Kingdon’s assistant. A national committee to boost the fledgling organization’s profile included writers John Dos Passos and Upton Sinclair; the presidents of Yale University, Smith College, and the University of Chicago; and journalist Dorothy Thompson.

In late June, Fry wrote to the president and received an answer from Eleanor Roosevelt: “The President has seen your letter of June 27,” she wrote. “He will try to get the cooperation of the South American countries in giving asylum to the political refugees.” By early July, lists were being compiled of endangered refugees, including not only Jews but communists, leftist political activists, religious war objectors, and other outsiders.

The ERC was still seeking a representative to send to France. “In the end,” Fry wrote, “I volunteered myself.” He had no “experience in the underground” and made his offer “out of impatience at delay,” as well as his real desire to do some good. “I believed in freedom,” he wrote later. “I remembered what I had seen in Germany. I knew what would happen to the refugees if the Gestapo got hold of them. . . . It was my duty to help them. . . .” Despite Kingdon’s conservative tendency toward safety first, action later, the ERC moved ahead and appointed Fry, an unknown quantity, as its European representative. He would travel to France and meet with as many endangered refugees as possible, helping them acquire visas and other necessary documents so they could escape Europe before they were arrested and turned over to the Nazis.

*Gardiner has claimed to be the model for the underground hero “Julia,” described by Lillian Hellman in her memoir Pentimento.

Copyright 2001 by Sheila Isenberg

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A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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A thrilling biography of Varian Fry, the only American honored as a Righteous Gentile by Israel's Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. Fry saved 1,500 men, women and children from the Nazis in a daring underground escape operation during 1940-41. He saved Marc Chagall, Andre Breton, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Lipchitz and 1,500 artists, writers, and others who resisted the Nazis. This is the real Casablanca story, an untold and fascinating tale of a hero who dared to resist the greatest evil of the 20th Century.