What do these well-known individuals have in common: Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Arthur Koestler, Claude Levi-Strauss, Marcel Duchamp? They are among the many individuals, currently estimated to be over 2,000, that Varian Fry helped to escape from Nazi Germany and occupied France during World War II. They were largely Jewish individuals who were well-known cultural figures—artists, writers, musicians and scientists.
Fry began his work by volunteering to serve on the Emergency Rescue Committee, headquartered in Marseille that aided persons fleeing the Nazis. When he began, the group had the support of the State Department, but that ended 13 months later as the Department slowly turned against it in favor of the Vichy Government that, with the State Department’s agreement, eventually arranged his arrest and expulsion from France.
Before then he had successfully procured forged identity cards, visas to America and arranged passage on ships leaving from Marseille or smuggling those in flight across the border to Spain or Portugal. When asked about his motives for his extremely risky activities, Fry responded that when he had visited Berlin in 1935, he saw Gestapo men assaulting Jews in the city’s streets, and he felt he could no longer remain indifferent.
''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 ... Friends warned me of the danger. They said I was a fool to go. I, too, could be walking into the trap. I might never come back alive."
In her book about Fry, The Rescuer, Dara Horn is less generous. She attributes his reasons to a mental illness, characterized as a manic-depressive struggle that occupied his entire life. She writes that his son held a somewhat similar view. He is quoted as saying, “Maybe you need to be a little unhinged to do something foolhardy like that. If Prozac had existed in the 1940s, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
I regard both accounts as irrelevant to his work. What he did is far more important, indeed of historic and cultural importance, than his motives, motives that neither Fry, his son, biographer or anyone else can ever hope to fathom.
Unfortunately, Fry was never honored or received the kind of gratitude from those he saved that Sousa Mendes did from the individuals he helped escape from Nazi Germany. Mendes was Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux when Germany invaded France. The Times reported that 40 of them made a pilgrimage to Portugal recently to pay homage to the man who saved their lives.
Like Fry he has been honored in Israel as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” One of the people who made the pilgrimage to honor Mendes said, “You hear about people who argued that they couldn’t help because it was wartime and they had their own family to worry about, but here was a man with a career, a wife and an incredible amount of children who certainty did do something for others.”