Varian Fry: The Holocaust Rescuer whom Roosevelt Blocked

by Rafael Medoff 

Varian Fry arrived in Vichy France, on August 14, 1940 –seventy five years ago this week– with $3,000 taped to his leg and a list of refugees he intended to smuggle out of the country. It was the start of what would be one of the few shining moments in the otherwise bleak record of America’s response to the Holocaust.

A sophisticated New England prep school graduate who enjoyed bird watching and fine wines, Fry was not the kind of person one would expect to become a refugee-smuggler. “Certainly my manner and appearance did not suggest the daredevil,” he later acknowledged. But when history beckoned, the 32 year-old Harvard-trained classics scholar and foreign affairs journalist answered the call.

The prelude to Fry’s rescue mission was the German conquest of France in June 1940. Thousands of refugees, including both French Jews and exiled German Jews, fled to southern France to avoid capture by the Nazis. Many were prominent political dissidents, intellectuals, writers, and artists. In New York City, American friends and colleagues of the refugees established the Emergency Rescue Committee, with the goal of bringing some of the refugees to the United States.

With help from the First Lady, the committee persuaded the Roosevelt administration’s to authorize emergency visas to several hundred hundred artists and intellectuals, and their families. President Roosevelt was willing to make this small exception to his strict anti-immigration policy because he regarded these particular refugees as “the cream of European civilization.”

Fry volunteered to travel to Marseille, in southern France, to organize the exodus. He later said he was motivated in part by memories of the Berlin pogrom of July 1935, which he had witnessed by accident and reported on for the New York Times.

Fry and a team of local humanitarian workers held their “staff meetings” in the bathroom of a Marseille hotel with the faucets turned on full, so the noise would prevent their discussions from being overheard by any eavesdropping German police.

One of Fry’s comrades was Charles Fawcett, a former professional wrestler from South Carolina, who “married” at least six different women in order to get them released from French concentration camps and qualify them for visas to the United States. An official at the U.S. consulate in Lisbon, through which many of the would-be immigrants passed, later recalled how puzzled she was at the number of “Mrs. Fawcetts” among the applications she processed.

Another key figure was Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV, an American diplomat in France–and son of the famous explorer on whom the movie character of Indiana Jones was based. Bingham helped break the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger out of a detention camp by dressing him in women’s clothes and having him pose as Bingham’s mother in law. Also part of Fry’s effort were the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts, and his wife Martha. They had recently rescued an anti-Nazi member of the Czech parliament by sneaking him out of a hospital morgue in a body bag.

Fry outfitted many of the refugees in field laborers’ clothing, and then marched with them to vineyards in the Pyrenees Mountains along the French-Spanish border, as if headed for a day of harvesting grapes. Once they reached Spain, they were able to continue on to Portugal, and from there they boarded ships bound for the United States. Among the rescued were such famous artists as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Jacques Lipschitz, as well as the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Otto Meyerhof, author Franz Werfel, architect Walter Gropius, philosopher Hannah Arendt, and Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism.

When the painter Marc Chagall was arrested, Fry threatened a senior Vichy police official that he would call the New York Times and tell them of the arrest unless Chagall was released within half an hour. The police, fearing the controversy, gave in. At one point, Fry himself was arrested and held on a boat for a number of days before being released as a result of Harry Bingham’s protests.

Catching wind of the Fry operation, furious German and French officials complained to Washington. The United States was not yet in the war, and the Roosevelt administration was still trying to maintain cordial relations with Nazi Germany. Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent a telegram to  the American ambassador in Paris, instructing him to warn Fry to halt all “activities evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintains friendly relations.” When Fry persisted in his rescue efforts, the State Department revoked Fry’s passport and transferred Bingham out of France.

The history of America’s response to the Holocaust largely revolves around the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to act. Indifference in the face of oppression is bad enough. But the experience of Varian Fry exposes an even more tragic part of that history: a time when the administration did act–to sabotage a Holocaust rescue operation.

August 2015