A U G U S T 3,   2011

Although World War II ended more than 70 years ago, many of its events are still shocking today. We continue to learn about ever new facts that, without exaggeration, have largely shaped the development of European and world art. What would Jackson Pollock be without the influence of André Masson had the latter been unable to leave the Nazi-invaded France in 1941? Or else, could Masson’s legacy have been confined to erotic graphic works and his wonderful Venetian landscapes have not been seen by us?

Or take Marc Chagall, who lived in the US for 45 years after he had left France and did hundreds of works. Or else, André Breton, the founder of world Surrealism, the writers Lion Feuchtwanger and Heinrich Mann and THOUSANDS (!!!) of other cultural figures and scientists?

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Left to right: Jacqueline Breton, André Masson, André Breton и Varian Fry. Photograph Musée Cantini, Marseilles. Photo credit: Ylla and ©Pryor Dodge

We want to give credit to the people who risked their lives to save members of the European cultural elite – artists, writers, musicians, scientists and engineers – by taking them away from the erstwhile freedom-loving democratic country and now the Vichy France, which had betrayed her own people, to neutral states and then on to the USA.

After six-week resistance to the Nazi invaders the French government signed the capitulation pact, paragraph 19 of which demanded that Jews, Germans with anti-Nazi leanings and citizens of other nationalities from the occupied territories be deported to Germany. The police of the Vichy government hunted throughout France for scientists, artists and writers blacklisted by the Nazis. A young American reporter, Varian Fry (1907-1967), who visited Berlin in 1935 and saw with his own eyes how the German authorities treated the Jews, initiated the foundation of the Emergency Rescue Committee to help those who failed to leave the war-ravaged Europe. The Committee members collected $3,000, made a list of cultural figures and scientists in greatest jeopardy, and turned to Eleanor Roosevelt for help with getting the American visas. The Department of State of the USA, which had just recovered from the Great Depression, pursued a fairly rigid policy in respect to the inflow of immigrants from Europe. Nobody volunteered to go to France, and Fry personally went to Marseilles.

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Rumor of the arrival of an American emissary with a rescue mission soon spread through the artistic community. Writers, artists, musicians and hundreds of other people lined up by the door of Fry’s hotel room seeking to leave France. Many wondered why a white American Protestant was willing to risk his life to rescue them.

From 1940 on a small group of volunteers hid people at the Air-Bel villa in Marseilles, which was controlled by the Vichy regime but was not occupied by the Nazis, till they could be taken out of the city. Over 2,200 people were taken across the Spanish border to the neutral Portugal, from where they were shipped to the US. Another rescue route led from Marseilles to French Martinique or North Africa and on to the US. A total of about 4,000 people were shipped to the US and given financial support.

Fry had as his chief assistants Miriam Davenport, an American artist and sculptor who studied at the Sorbonne, and Mary Jane Gold, a heiress fond of arts who came to Paris in the early 1930s and led a life of luxury, travelling across Europe on her own airplane. After Paris had been invaded, refugees of different nationalities flocked to southern France in the hope of rescue. Many Americans also headed south because the US Administration insisted on their coming back home. Gold moved to Marseilles and, instead of saving her skin, began to help Fry finance his rescue operation. Fry was also aided by the young scientist  Albert O. Hirschman, who eventually made a brilliant career in the US.

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The paper processing procedure was bureaucratic and rather complicated. Only those who had Gestapo-registered permits to leave France and transit Spanish and Portuguese visas could get American entry visas. The American consulate was authorized to issue 200 visas under the Rescue Committee program. Fry quickly realized that he had underestimated the situation and the extent of danger. As he had come on an official mission of a charity organization, he had to open an office in the center of Marseilles to receive refugees with the required papers. Fry chose cultural figures who had no problems with the authorities. Simultaneously his office engaged in rescuing Nobel Prize winners, great writers and artists wanted by the police. They had to use all sorts of methods, including false papers, black market currency exchange, cooperation with gangsters, illegal ship charters, mountain passes in the Pyrenees, secrecy and conspiracy.

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It was impossible to do without American consular officers’ support. The young Vice Consul Hiram Bingham IV, who was critical of the US stance on European refugees, was very helpful. At his personal discretion he issued both legal and illegal visas. He granted 2,200 visas instead of the authorized 200 and personally gave shelter to Lion Feuchtwanger, Marc Chagall and some others.

The Unitarian Service Committee in Lisbon received immigrants in Portugal. American Unitarians worked under Robert Dexter at that human rights committee, helping to procure missing papers and accommodating the refugees waiting for ships.

Among the rescued people were:


When the US attitude to Nazi Germany changed, rescue operations began to be conducted at the government level, but were not so effective. In 1942 the Emergency Rescue Committee and the American branch of the International Relief Association merged to form the International Rescue Committee, which is in business to our day.

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After 13 months of working in Marseilles, Fry was arrested on September 4, 1941 and deported to the US. In 1945 he published Surrender on Demand. In 1968 his book was published again under the title Assignment: Rescue, subsequent reprints appeared under both titles.

Shortly before Fry’s death of a heart attack in 1967, the French government recognized his contribution to saving lives and freedom and awarded him the Legion of Honor Order. He is the first American on the list of the names of those who contributed to the rescue cause on the Holocaust Memorial obelisk at Yad Vashem (Israel).

This theme got an additional impetus after Mary Jayne Gold published her Crossroads Marseilles 1940 in 1980 and following the death of Hiram Bingham IV in 1988, when his family discovered in his house wartime documents that he had never mentioned.

In 1997 the Irish filmmaker David Kerr made a documentary, Varian Fry: The Artists’ Schindler. Barbra Streisand co-produced the movie Varian’s War, made by Lionel Chetwynd in 2001 for American TV. Thanks to the Yekaterinburg Art Studio we can watch this movie (under the Varian’s List title) in Russia.

A square in Marseilles has been named after Fry, as well as a street where the Berlin Wall stood in Berlin and another street in his native Ridgewood, NJ.



Fragments from the motion picture «Varian’s War»: