The life of a little-known American WWII hero.
Varian Fry is the only American honored at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial. And he’s there with good cause—in the year and a half after the fall of France and before the implementation of the Final Solution, Fry smuggled hundreds of thinkers, artists, and other at-risk Jews out of France and into America. Outwardly, Fry was an American Schindler, and this is certainly how Isenberg would like the reader to view her hero. However, there is something incongruous in the author’s praise for Fry, and the character that emerges from her own text. Fry went to France to save writers, artists, and intellectuals. He selected whom to help, and those he decided society would not miss were left behind. Selection involved an ugly calculus that Fry ultimately regretted, but accepted. This problem is compounded by Fry’s own noblesse oblige attitude towards his task. He rarely spared himself any comfort, took a little too much pleasure from hanging out with the famous among the exiled, and complained of being overworked. On one particularly trying day, he confessed, “I was actually glad to have a few of the most insistent and pestiferous ‘clients’ carried shrieking off.” Fry’s life was also marked by a reflexive contempt for authority, which consistently undermined his “brilliance.” It was in France that Fry fulfilled his potential. His job required working around the authorities, and he excelled. His employers, however, were never comfortable with his work. Although Isenberg faults their failure to understand occupied France, one cannot help but wonder if their primary complaint—that his staff of 21 was too large—was not correct. Fry returned to the US expecting a hero’s welcome, which he never received. Now, at a time when Americans are determined to leave no corner of WWII bravery un-praised, Fry has found his trumpeter. But despite both Isenberg’s and his wishes, heroism, even when great, can be ugly.
An undistinguished biography of a problematic hero.