As World War II looms, darkens and erupts, a group of artists, writers and other exiles gather in Marseilles, where their escapes are plotted and executed by a doughty group led by American Varian Fry.
If Sullivan’s writing seems at times a bit too perky and aimed at readers who know little about the Second World War, her subject matter is of surpassing importance—and her efforts are ultimately effective. An astonishing array of talent fled to Marseilles in the early 1940s, fleeing the Nazi advance, names recognizable as among the most significant in the 20th-century worlds of art and literature: Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, André Breton, Victor Serge. Sullivan (Labyrinth of Desire, 2002) artfully interweaves their journeys and backstories. The escape narratives of Serge and Breton (told near the end) are as harrowing as any emerging from the War. Sullivan’s great contribution here, though, is to bring to life those committed Americans and Europeans who risked all to help others. Fry, who headed the Marseilles activities of the Emergency Rescue Committee (headquartered in New York City), stands out. Although his own government often impeded his work (erecting, rather than removing, barriers), and although the ERC eventually fired him (they found him abrasive), he saved the lives of many hundreds. He found for them difficult trails over the Pyrenees, fetid ships and slow trains—but in doing so, found them freedom. Sullivan also relates the stories of husband and wife Danny and Theo Bénédite, French nationals who worked tirelessly, even after multiple arrests. Others include Hans and Lisa Fittko (Germans), who guided refugees over the mountains, and American heiress Mary Jayne Gold, whose money kept the operation going in the early days. A number of the principals survived to publish their memoirs. The Marseilles villa, the structure where the fearful waited for visas and rescue, was razed in 1970.
A complex tale showing how hope and courage flourish, even in the toxic soil of totalitarianism.