Varian Fry and Miriam Davenport, c.1940
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 educated at Hotchkiss and Taft School and Harvard University. He founded Hound & Horn, an influential literary quarterly, in 1927 with Lincoln Kirstein while a Harvard undergraduate. He married Kirstein's sister, Eileen.
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 wanted to help.
Read Varian Fry in Marseille by Pierre Sauvage, free from VarianFry.org.
Greatly disturbed by what he saw, he 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. Fry had $3,000 and a short list of refugees under imminent threat of arrest by agents of the Gestapo. Clamoring at his door came anti-Nazi writers, avant-garde artists, musicians and hundreds of others desperately seeking any chance to escape France.
Some later confessed they thought it a miracle that a White American Protestant would risk everything to help them.
Emergency Rescue Committee
Beginning in 1940, in Marseille, despite the watchful eye of the collaborationist Vichy regime, he and a small group of volunteers hid people at the Villa Air-Bel until they could be smuggled out. More than 2,200 people were taken across the border to Spain and then to the safety of neutral Portugal from which they made their way to the United States.
Others he helped escape on ships leaving Marseille for the French colony of Martinique, from which they too could go to the United States. Among Fry's closest associates were Americans Miriam Davenport, a former art student at the Sorbonne, and the heiress Mary Jayne Gold, a lover of the arts and the "good life" who had come to Paris in the early 1930s.
When the Nazis seized France in 1940, Gold went to Marseille, where she worked with Fry and helped finance his operation. Also working with Fry was a young academic named Albert O. Hirschman, who eventually went on to a distinguished career in America.
Especially instrumental in getting Fry the visas he needed for the artists, intellectuals and political dissidents on his list was Hiram Bingham IV, an American Vice Consul in Marseille who fought against State Department anti-Semitism and was personally responsible for issuing thousands of visas, both legal and illegal.
From his isolated position in Marseille, Varian Fry relied on the Unitarian Service Committee in Lisbon to help the refugees he sent. This office, staffed by American Unitarians under the direction of Robert Dexter, helped refugees to wait in safety for visas and other necessary papers, and to gain ship passage from Lisbon.
In 1942, the Emergency Rescue Committee and the American branch of the European-based International Relief Association joined forces under the name the International Relief and Rescue Committee, which was later shortened to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC is a leading nonsectarian, nongovernmental international relief and development organization that still operates today.
Back home in the United States, Fry published his book in 1945 about his time in France under the title Surrender on Demand. In 1968, the US publisher Scholastic (which markets mainly to children and adolescents) published a paperback edition under the title Assignment: Rescue, and subsequent reprints have appeared under both of the above titles.
He 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".
Although by 1942 Fry had been terminated from his position at the Emergency Rescue Committee, American private rescuers acknowledged that his program in France had been uniquely effective, and recruited Fry in 1944 to provide behind-the-scenes guidance to the Roosevelt administration's late-breaking rescue program, the War Refugee Board.
In 1967, the government of France recognized his contribution to freedom with the Legion of Honor. Mary Jayne Gold's 1980 book titled Crossroads Marseilles 1940 sparked an interest in Fry and his heroic efforts.
Known as the American Schindler, in 1995 Varian Fry became the first United States citizen to be listed in the Righteous among the Nations at Israel's national Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem (in 2006, fellow Americans Waitstill Sharp and Martha Sharp were added to the list). He was awarded the additional honor of "Commemorative Citizenship of the State of Israel" on 1 January 1998.
On the initiative of Samuel V. Brock, the U.S. Consul General in Marseille from 1999 to 2002, the square in front of the Consulate was renamed Place Varian Fry. A street in the newly reconstructed East/West Berlin Wall area in the Berlin borough of Mitte at Potsdamer Platz was named Varian-Fry-Straße in recognition of his work. In 2005, a street in his home town of Ridgewood, New Jersey was renamed Varian Fry Way.
In 1997, Irish film director David Kerr made a documentary entitled Varian Fry: The America's Schindler that was narrated by actor Sean Barrett. Fry's story was also told in dramatic form on film in 2001 when Barbra Streisand co-produced the made-for-television motion picture, Varian's War, written and directed by Lionel Chetwynd and starring William Hurt and Julia Ormond.