Varian Fry – today known as the American Schindler, a reference to Oscar Schindler, who saved 1200 Jews during the Holocaust – only recently began to win widespread recognition and his exploits are just coming to light. During World War II this quiet, faintly absent-minded American hero risked his life to save the heart and soul of Europe during the Holocaust and helped numerous writers, artists and thinkers escape the Nazis. One of the great men of the twentieth century, a Scarlet Pimpernel.
Like Schindler Varian Fry also had a list of life, including 200 of the brightest names in art, science, literature and medicine. Among those on Fry’s list were painters Marc Chagall, Bernard Reder and Andrè Masson, Nobel laureate physiologist Otto Meyerhof, mathematician Jaques Hadamard, writers Franz Werfel, Hannah Arendt, Heinrich Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, the hebraic scholar Oscar Goldberg, Max Ernst, Konrad Heiden, Hans Habe, Wanda Landowska, and many more.
At great personal risk, Varian Fry set up contacts with the French Resistance and the Corsican mob, hired forgers, bribed border guards, and he personally escorted Franz Werfel and Heinrich Mann over the Pyrenees – his rescue efforts made an indelible influence on our culture.
But unlike Oscar Schindler, whose story became a best-selling book and an Oscar-winning movie, the legacy of Varian Fry is little known and his courageous acts went largely ignored for years.
The Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel – Nobel Prize For Peace recipient, teacher, sage, activist, humanitarian – has dedicated his life to ensuring that none of us forget what happened to the Jews. He has taught us that we must not forget – that there is no greater sin than that of silence and indifference. He wrote:
“Memory is a passion no less powerful or pervasive than love. What does it mean to remember? It is to live in more than one world, to prevent the past from fading and to call up the future to illuminate it. It is to revive fragments of existence, to rescue lost beings, to cast light on faces and events and to drive back the sands that cover the surface of things, to combat oblivion and to reject death …
In those times there was darkness everywhere. In heaven and on earth, all the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed. The killer killed and the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude either of complicity or of indifference. Only a few had the courage to care …”
One of them was Varian Fry. According to Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority it is estimated that Fry and his team dealt with some 15,000 cases by May 1941. Of these, assistance was provided to approximately 4,000 people, over 1,000 of whom were smuggled from France in various ways.
When asked as to his motives, Varian Fry responded that when he had visited Berlin in 1935, he saw SA men assaulting Jews in the city’s streets, and he felt he could no longer remain indifferent. When he returned to US he decided to act:
”I remembered what I had seen in Germany. I knew what would happen to the refugees if the Gestapo got hold of them … It was my duty to help them … Friends warned me of the danger. They said I was a fool to go. I, too, could be walking into the trap. I might never come back alive.”
At the age of 32 Varian Fry had found his vocation …
– Louis Bülow