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Varian Mackey Fry (October 15, 1907 – September 13, 1967) was an American journalist. Fry ran a rescue network in Vichy France that helped approximately 2,000 to 4,000 anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees to escape Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. He was the first American to be recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations", an honorific given by the State of Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Varian Fry as a child
Varian Fry was born in New York City. His parents were Lillian (Mackey) and Arthur Fry, a manager of the Wall Street firm Carlysle and Mellick. The family moved to Ridgewood, New Jersey, in 1910. He grew up in Ridgewood and enjoyed bird-watching and reading. During World War I, at 9 years of age, Fry and friends conducted a fund-raising bazaar for the American Red Cross that included a vaudeville show, an ice cream stand and fish pond. He was educated at Hotchkiss School from 1922 to 1924, when he left the school due to hazing rituals. He then attended the Riverdale Country School, graduating in 1926.
An able, multi-lingual student, Fry scored in the top 10% on the entrance exams to Harvard University and, while a Harvard undergraduate, founded Hound & Horn, an influential literary quarterly, in 1927 with Lincoln Kirstein. He was suspended for a prank just before graduation and had to repeat his senior year. Through Kirstein's sister, Mina, he met his future wife, Eileen Avery Hughes, an editor of Atlantic Monthly, who was seven years his senior and had been educated at Roedean School and Oxford University. They married on June 2, 1931.
While working as a foreign correspondent for the American journal The Living Age, Fry visited Berlin in 1935, and personally witnessed Nazi abuse against Jews on more than one occasion, which "turned him into an ardent anti-Nazi". He said in 1945, "I could not remain idle as long as I had any chances at all of saving even a few of its intended victims."
Following his visit to Berlin, Fry wrote about the savage treatment of Jews by Hitler's regime in the New York Times in 1935. He wrote books about foreign affairs for Headline Books, owned by the Foreign Policy Association, including The Peace that Failed. It describes the troubled political climate following World War I, the break-up of Czechoslovakia and the events leading up to World War II.
Greatly disturbed by what he saw, Fry helped raise money to support European anti-Nazi movements. After the invasion of France in June 1940, which the Germans quickly occupied, he went to Marseille in August 1940 as an agent of the newly formed Emergency Rescue Committee in an effort to help persons wishing to flee the Nazis, and circumvent the processes by French authorities who would not issue exit visas. Fry had $3,000 and a short list of refugees under imminent threat of arrest by agents of the Gestapo, mostly Jews. Clamoring at his door came anti-Nazi writers, avant-garde artists, musicians and hundreds of others desperately seeking any chance to escape France.
Some historians later noted it was a miracle that a white American Protestant would risk everything to help the Jews.
Beginning in 1940, in Marseille, despite the watchful eye of the collaborationist Vichy regime, Fry and a small group of volunteers hid people at the Villa Air-Bel until they could be smuggled out. More than 2,200 people were taken across the border to Spain and then to the safety of neutral Portugal from which they made their way to the United States.
Fry helped other exiles escape on ships leaving Marseille for the French colony of Martinique, from which they too could go to the United States. Among Fry's closest associates were Americans Miriam Davenport, a former art student at the Sorbonne, and the heiress Mary Jayne Gold, a lover of the arts and the "good life" who had come to Paris in the early 1930s.
When the Nazis seized France in 1940, Gold went to Marseille, where she worked with Fry and helped finance his operation. Also working with Fry was a young academic named Albert O. Hirschman.
Letter to his wife Eileen, February 1941
Among the people who have come into my office, or with whom I am in constant correspondence, are not only some of the greatest living authors, painters, sculptors of Europe . . . but also former cabinet ministers and even prime ministers of half a dozen countries. What a strange place Europe is when men like this are reduced to waiting patiently in the anteroom of a young American of no importance whatever.
From his isolated position in Marseille, Fry relied on the Unitarian Service Committee in Lisbon to help the refugees he sent. This office, staffed by American Unitarians under the direction of Robert Dexter, helped refugees to wait in safety for visas and other necessary papers, and to gain ship passage from Lisbon.
Fry was forced to leave France in September 1941 after officials both of the Vichy government and at the United States State Department had become angered by his covert activities. In 1942, the Emergency Rescue Committee and the American branch of the European-based International Relief Association joined forces under the name the International Relief and Rescue Committee, which was later shortened to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC is a leading nonsectarian, nongovernmental international relief and development organization that still operates today.
There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them. The recent reports of the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe are of this order... we can offer asylum now, without delay or red tape, to those few fortunate enough to escape from the Aryan paradise. There have been bureaucratic delays in visa procedure which have literally condemned to death many stalwart democrats... This is a challenge which we cannot, must not, ignore.
Fry, Varian. "The Massacre of Jews in Europe." The New Republic, 1942.
Fry wrote and spoke critically against U.S. immigration policies particularly relating to the issue of the fate of Jews in Europe. In a December 1942 issue of The New Republic, he wrote a scathing article titled: "The Massacre of Jews in Europe".
Although by 1942 Fry had been terminated from his position at the Emergency Rescue Committee, American private rescuers acknowledged that his program in France had been uniquely effective, and recruited him in 1944 to provide behind-the-scenes guidance to the Roosevelt administration's late-breaking rescue program, the War Refugee Board.
Fry published a book in 1945 about his time in France under the title Surrender on Demand, first published by Random House, 1945. (Its title refers to the 1940 French-German armistice clause requiring France to hand over to German authorities any refugee from "Greater Germany" the Gestapo might identify - a requirement Fry routinely violated.) A later edition was published by Johnson Books, in 1997, in conjunction with the U.S. Holocaust Museum. In 1968, the US publisher Scholastic (which markets mainly to children and adolescents) published a paperback edition under the title Assignment: Rescue.
After the war, Fry worked as a journalist, magazine editor and business writer. He also taught college and was in film production. Feeling as if he'd lived the peak of his life in France, he developed ulcers. Fry went into psychoanalysis and said that "as time went on, he grew more and more troubled."
Fry and his wife Eileen divorced after he returned from France. She developed cancer and died on May 12, 1948. During her hospital convalescence, Fry visited her and read to her daily. At the end of 1948 or early 1949, Fry met Annette Riley who was 16 years his junior. They married in 1950, had three children together, but were separated in 1966, thought to be due to his irrational behavior, believed to have been manic depression.
Grunwald-Spier, Agnes. The Other Schindlers: Why Some People Chose to Save Jews in the Holocaust. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press, 2010. ISBN978-0-7524-5706-2.
Isenberg, Sheila. A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry. Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2005. ISBN978-0-595-34882-4. eBook edition, published by Plunkett Lake Press, 2017. ASINB072Y8NZG3.
McCabe, Cynthia Jaffee. "Wanted by the Gestapo: Saved by America – Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee", pp. 79-91 in Jackman, Jarrell C. and Carla M. Borden, eds. The Musses Flee Hitler: Cultural Transfer and Adaptation 1930-1945. Washington, D.C.: (Smithsonian, 1983.