Terms such as despair, suffering and hopelessness were all redefined by the victims of the unimaginable atrocities of the Holocaust under Hitler's cruel reign and the Nazi empire's unyielding terror. However, words such as hero, gallantry and courage were elevated and heightened by numerous Nazi resistors and strong Holocaust rescuers. Such stories of bravery have become foundations for historical precedents and models for incredible bravery. For example, the name Oscar Schindler resounds in history throughout the world, and a major film, Schindler's List, exudes the man's life and rescue efforts. However, far less acclaimed, yet equally as distinguished, are those heroes that seem to have been left with the departed days of World War II. Hardly any people native to the United States realize there exists a valiant Holocaust hero on their own soil; Varian Fry, a man considered the "American Schindler", yet who's legacy was ignored for decades due to selfish governmental policies and false ideas of crime.
1 His impacts upon the Holocaust are nearly unrivaled by any other American, and the lives he saved represent key Americana symbolism. And while he is a hero who has been lost in time and forgotten from the history books, had any other person undergone his life-threatening journey, today's strong American culture may have been forever changed and thousands more lives lost to the hands of Hitler's realm.
Varian Fry was born on October 15, 1907 in Manhattan, New York to Arthur Fry (a Wall Street broker) and Lillian Mackey Fry (a former teacher) as an only child. By the time Fry was fourteen, the family moved to Ridgewood, New Jersey and sent Fry to the notable Hotchkiss Prep School in Lakesville, Connecticut. Although considered very intelligent by his instructors, Fry had many behavior problems and significant disregard for authority. He was wild, rebellious and often clashed with those in power. He left Hotchkiss after only two years by "mutual consent" and relocated to Watertown, Connecticut at Taft Prep School - for less than six months. In 1925, he attended Riverdale Country School where he was suspended for "loss of control and unpardonable impertinence" while simultaneously being considered "brilliant" and "genius." He next attended Harvard in 1926, where he spent his freshman year very socially. However, he was put on probation during his sophomore year at the university for excessive drinking and disruptiveness. Fortunately, his father worked out a way to get him back into school as a junior with good standing, but only to see Fry get in trouble the next fall. In June of 1929, he was put on probation yet again at Harvard, and this time only allowed to return when he developed "a proper sense of responsibility. " Meanwhile, he met and fell in love with Eileen Avery Hughes, who petitioned for his return to the school. Fry eventually joined his original class in the fall of 1930 and ultimately graduated with a bachelor's degree in classical studies.
2 In June 1931, Varian Fry and Eileen Hughes married. They then moved back to Manhattan, where Fry worked as both an English and Latin teacher as well as a writer for Consumers' Research. Between 1932 and 1935, Fry held various jobs at various magazines; however, his most important position was as an editor at The Living Age, a magazine that centered on international issues.
3 It was due to this job that he was able to travel to Germany in May of 1935 and first handedly observed Hitler's rule.
4 Already a stark liberal and antifascist, his visit only heightened his ideals as he witnessed brutal storm troopers viciously beat innocent Jews on the open, public streets - including a certain memory that would haunt him forever.
5 At a café on the Kurfurstendamm, an avenue in the heart of Berlin, a Jewish man was sitting and drinking a beer, completely unaware of two Nazis intently watching him. Nonchalantly, the unsuspecting Jewish man perfunctorily reached over for his beer on a table beside him and, in a second's time, found a dagger forced completely through his hand and nailed to the table by the work of the two Nazis. Mary Jayne Gold, a close colleague and friend to Fry, noted that while he told the story, it was impossible to ignore his sad, quiet, apprehensive tone. The sights he experienced in Berlin made him realize the dire need of help for victims of the Nazis.
6 Varian Fry's impact on Holocaust and American history begins here. Upon his return to the United States, Varian Fry and Karl Frank (a close friend to Fry), immediately set up an aid organization called the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), established to rescue intellectual refugees in France. These refugees had fled from Nazi Germany only to be under siege once again in France. And due to Article 19 of the cease-fire agreement between Germany and France, France was to hand over any anti-Nazi refugees. While the establishment of this organization was the direct impact of his experience overseas, it was simply a stepping stone towards his unmatched American efforts against the Nazis. It was because of this committee that, fortunately, the United States government agreed to allow for two hundred visas to be awarded to French refugees.
7 Varian Fry gladly volunteered himself and was chosen to represent the ERC in France.
8 He had an intense, important mission - he was to travel to Marseille, France with a list of two hundred names and $3,000, and get the names on his list into the safety of the United States.
9 It was here that his true valor, courage, and determination allowed him to fall into history as a savior and discover and avenge the lasting effects of his memories in Berlin.
When Fry arrived in Marseille, he quietly began writing letters to the people on his list, but the rumor of his act quickly spread and he was soon confronted with hundreds more people desperate to escape. While he begged for additional United States aid to help save the many more lives, it became very apparent to Fry incredibly fast that the United States was not going to cooperate with his rescue efforts. However, unable to simply ignore the refugees' pleas, he knew he would have to work independently in order to succeed. Fry soon established the American Rescue Center, with intentions to interview sixty to seventy people who wanted to escape per day. He used both legal and illegal means to transport these refugees; when the two hundred legal visas ran out, he chose to sneak the refugees onto French troopships bound for Africa, smuggle people across borders, or via any other means to save them from the Gestapo. He even appealed to Cordell Hull, the US Secretary of State at the time, for help to prevent the thousands of innocent people from being thrown into concentration camps, but, yet again, no one answered his pleas.
10 Unfortunately, Fry's underground work was not safe from French officials. In December 1940 (with an ironic tip from the US Embassy), he was arrested after French police raided his office. However, despite this arrest, he maintained his work in France even afterwards through an expired visa. After thirteen months of rescue, he was arrested once again and deported from France.
11 It is estimated that out of the 15,000 cases Fry was confronted with, an astonishing 4,000 were rescued from Nazi territory.
12 Such saved people include Marc Chagall, Siegfried Kracauer, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Hanna Arendt. These people all helped to shape and understand American culture, from Chagall's distinct surrealism influence as seen in buildings across the country to Kracauer's influence on sociology and the importance of film.
13 Despite Fry's incredible accomplishments in France, his return back to the United States on November 2, 1941 was less than celebrated. He received no credit for his valor due to his defiance of both United States and French orders. He was also met with cold shoulders from his friends and coworkers, and even surveillanced by the FBI.
14 Fry's Emergency Rescue Committee eventually merged with the International Relief Association to form the International Relief and Rescue Committee. He also published a book in April 1945 called Surrender on Demand, an account of his time in France. For the remainder of his life back in the United States, his activities spanned from journalism to working with the American Civil Liberties Union and the International League for the Rights of Man. He died on September 18, 1967, having only received one award, the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, in his lifetime.
15 In 1994, however, Fry was the first American to be named The Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem and a tree was planted in his honor in 1996.
16 Varian Fry's noble actions are truly astounding and unique when compared to the lack of American involvement during the Holocaust. His visit to Berlin and eyewitness account of the brutality of the Nazis changed his life goals, morals, and priorities forever, and the actions he took after his return to the United States rewarded those he forever saved. It was Fry who realized the timely necessity for international interference in the Holocaust and no other organization was as determined as the Emergency Rescue Committee. It is also very likely that, had anyone else made the dangerous trip to France, only two hundred of the 4,000 lives would have been saved. Once the two hundred visas were exhausted, many would have simply returned to American and left the other thousands behind. One could attribute Fry's boisterous childhood and chronic discount of authority to his blatant resistance of United States policy. His vast intelligence could also be used to justify his willpower to develop the means of accomplishing his personal goals. It was his personal diligence and fortitude that made such an absolute impact. His case is also a testament to the politics that countries find more favorable than actual human beings. The United States, first of all, simply ignored replies to help more refugees escape. The government favored its own anti-Semitic ideas and hidden discrimination rather than allowing thousands the chance for survival. Public opinion was widespread upon protecting individuality, American culture and job openings, and allowed many officials and powerful people to focus more on their own well-being instead of Hitler's victims' sufferings. Secondly, the government rejected giving Fry prestige for his accomplishments. This fact is an excellent example of the emphasis countries place upon regulation and politics above the people they supposedly protect and serve. Varian Fry saved thousands of lives, yet because he "went against orders," his accomplishment was ignored and he was seen as deviant and criminal.
The United States likes to pride itself on charity and nobility, but if someone such as Varian Fry has been virtually omitted from American History books for defying orders to save thousands of invaluable lives, it forces one to consider the amount of occurrences of hypocrisy that seem to tarnish the valiant image of freedom and superiority that Americans hold so dearly. It also forces one to question exactly how orders and regulations become more precious than human lives. Varian Fry's should not simply be the subject of a college research paper, but, just as Oscar Schindler, the focus of extreme praise and idolatry - it takes a true "American hero" to morph two hundred lucky names on a list into four thousand free human beings on secure and hopeful solid ground.
1. Information from Louis Bulow, Varian Fry, The American Schindler. http://www.varianfry.dk/
2. Biography, facts and quotes from Justus Rosenberg, "Fry, Varian. " American National Biography Online. http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-03467.html
3. Information about Fry's jobs and The Living Age from Rosenburg.
4. Date of Fry's visit from Rosenburg.
5. Account of Fry's visit from Sheila Isenburg, A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry. (New York: Random House, 2001. ), 4-5.
6. Details about Fry's visit from Pierre Sauvage, "Varian Fry in Marseille. " Varian Fry Institute. http://www.varianfry.org/sauvage_fry_oxford_en.htm
7. Establishment and discussion of the Emergency Rescue Committee from Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies. "Fry, Varian. " Yad Vashem. http://www1.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%206740.pdf
8. Information about Fry's volunteerism from Isenburg.
9. Fry's mission as outlined at "An American in Marseille. " Yad Vashem. http://www1.yadvashem.org/righteous_new/usa/fry.html
12. Information about those who were saved from Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies. "Fry, Varian. " Yad Vashem. http://www1.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%206740.pdf
13. Information about Marc Chagall from "Marc Chagall Paintings. " http://www.chagallpaintings.org/ and information about Siegfried Kracauer from "Siegfried Kracauer," Photography Encyclopedia. http://www.answers.com/topic/siegfried-kracauer
14. Information from "An American in Marseille. " Yad Vashem. http://www1.yadvashem.org/righteous_new/usa/fry.html
15. Information about Fry's life after his time in France from Rosenburg.
16. Varian Fry's induction into The Righteous Among the Nations found at "An American in Marseille. " Yad Vashem. http://www1.yadvashem.org/righteous_new/usa/fry.html
"An American in Marseille. " Yad Vashem. http://www1.yadvashem.org/righteous_new/usa/fry.html
Bulow, Louis. Varian Fry, The American Schindler. http://www.varianfry.dk/
Isenberg, Sheila. A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry. (New York: Random House, 2001. )
"Marc Chagall Paintings. " http://www.chagallpaintings.org/ and information
Rosenburg, Justus. "Fry, Varian. " American National Biography Online. http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-03467.html
Sauvage, Pierre. "Varian Fry in Marseille. " Varian Fry Institute. http://www.varianfry.org/sauvage_fry_oxford_en.htm
"Siegfried Kracauer," Photography Encyclopedia. http://www.answers.com/topic/siegfried-kracauer
Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies. "Fry, Varian. " Yad Vashem. http://www1.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%206740.pdf