The stirring story of an American journalist who, working in Vichy France, helped thousands of artists and intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt, Heinrich Mann and Marc Chagall, escape Nazi persecution.
Little in Varian Fry’s early background suggested that he would become a heroic rescuer of refugees. An only child from a privileged background, Fry grew up a spoiled, somewhat arrogant hypochondriac aesthete, and intellectual. But in one of the jobs he drifted through after graduating from Harvard, Fry witnessed the beatings of Jews in Berlin and, as a result, tried to awaken readers to the growing Nazi menace. After France fell to Hitler in June 1940, Fry, his wife, and others helped organize an Emergency Rescue Committee dedicated to saving intellectuals and others trapped in France. It’s at this point that Marino’s (Herschel: The Boy Who Started World War II, 1997) narrative, previously largely a biography of an interesting but obscure intellectual, turns into an account that reads like spy fiction. Fry arrived in Marseilles and founded the Centre Americain de Secours, ostensibly dedicated to legal charitable activities but really devoted to the rescue, by illegal means, of intellectuals in danger of persecution by the Nazis. Aided by an unlikely combination of expatriate liberals, Communists, intellectuals, and members of French criminal organizations, Fry helped approximately 2,000 writers, artists, and scientists (and others, including escaped British prisoners of war) escape across the Pyrenees into Spain, using false documents procured by Fry. Despite increasingly sinister harassment by Vichy’s Fascist regime and the Gestapo, sniping by isolationist State Department officials, unwanted publicity by some of the refugees, and diminishing support by pusillanimous or jealous colleagues in New York, Fry continued his secret work until August 1941, when he was expelled from France. He died in 1967.
A dramatic story, well told, of an authentic hero who has been rightly dubbed “America’s Oskar Schindler.”