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Friday, April 1, 2022

Who is Varian Fry?

Who is Varian Fry?

Most of us have heard of Oscar Schindler thanks to Spielberg's film 'Schindler's List'. He saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his Polish munitions factories.

By Unknown author - Yad Vashem, Public Domain,
Oscar Schindler is the only member of the Nazi party to be buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion

Most of us have heard of Nicholas Winton, who saved the lives of 669 mostly Jewish children on the eve of the WW2. His operation became known as the Czech Kindertransport.

By cs:User:Li-sung - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,
It took almost 50 years until the world noticed Winton's achievements when he was re-united with some of the children - now adults - who he had saved.

But who has heard of Varian Fry? The American journalist who led a humanitarian mission to Marseille in 1940 and spent 13 months helping over 2,000 people to escape occupied France. Most of the people he saved were Jews, artists, and prominent anti-Nazi politicians. Fry and the team he recruited locally helped these people with false papers, money and escape routes, mostly via Spain to Lisbon where they were able to board a ship to the USA using the (mainly false) American visas Fry had obtained for them.

Max Ernst, Jacqueline Breton, André Masson, André Breton, and Varian Fry in Marseilles, France, 1941. Photo: Ylla (Camilla Koffler). Gift of Mrs. Varian Fry. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
Fry (with the glasses) and some of the artists who he helped to flee from the Nazis in France

Fry wrote 'an autobiography' on his return to the USA in 1941 and called it 'Assignment: Rescue'. In it he describes in his easy journalistic style how he befriended French Police, American Consul staff, gangsters and locals in his extreme attempts to continue his work successfully without getting arrested. The list of famous people whom he saved from the Gestapo in occupied France reads like a Who's Who of Surrealism and modern art. It includes André Breton, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, André Masson, and many many others.

After he was eventually arrested and deported, the team he had assembled continued his work and saved around another 1,000 lives, including one of my favourite artists, Marcel Duchamp, often referred to as the founder of modern art.

Marcel Duchamp gesturing from prow as he sails to the New World
(photo by André Gomès)
Fry's team arranged for Duchamp to board this ship leaving Marseilles

When it became too dangerous for Fry and his team to work from their offices in Marseille, they rented the beautiful Villa Air Bel just outside the city. Apparently the food situation became so bad that they ate the fish in the pond and supplemented their meagre food allowance with whatever they grew in the grounds. On a more positive note, the Villa became a meeting place where they appear to have had various artistic gatherings at weekends which were combined with the undercover efforts being made to get papers for those same artists.

Netflix are currently making a programme on Fry's life which should bring the great man's work to a wider audience. Fry died in 1967, aged just 59. I hope the Netflix work will bring his work back to life for today's and tomorrow's generations.

“There were two more influential, albeit not publicized, backers of Varian’s work: in the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife, and, in Marseilles, the American Vice-Consul, Hiram Bingham.”

Miriam Davenport, member of the Emergency Rescue Committee (who worked alongside Varian Fry)

Varian Fry

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