Varian Fry: Saving the Brains of Europe

Posted on April 17th, 2016 by:

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Varian Fry: Saving the Brains of Europe

By 1940, the Jews of Europe were running out of places to go. After Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, many German Jews fled to Austria to escape Nazi persecution. Soon Austria became the center of Jewish philosophy, art and music.  In 1938, Hitler marched his Army into Austria, annexing the country and causing many Jews to flee west to France and the Netherlands or East to Poland. However, by 1940, all these countries had been swallowed up by the Third Reich and Jews who believed they had escaped persecution found the Nazi’s following them wherever they went. Only England and the USA seemed safe, but these countries had strict anti-Semitic policies that made immigration almost impossible. Artists, intellectuals, musicians, political activists and scientists saw the shadow of Nazism looming over them.

varian fry

Varian Fry

Hope came from a small office in France called the “Centre Americain de Secours.” or “American Relief Center” a poverty welfare group. The relief group was a fake. It was actually a front for an organization called the “Emergency Rescue Committee” run by an American named Varian Fry whose mission was to save the intelligentsia of Europe.

Varian Fry was a Harvard graduate and a journalist. In 1935 he had been in Berlin on assignment and saw Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Once back in the US, he wrote articles and books on the plight of German Jews and the threat of Nazism. In 1940, after the fall of France and the Low Countries, Fry and his friends saw urgent action was needed. At a lunch held by “The Friends of German Freedom”, money was donated to create a secret group called the “Emergency Rescue Committee” with Fry as its representative. Fry went to France with $3,000, and a list of people to help. He went to Marseille, the last French Port not under German control and opened the office under the guise of a relief organization.

Fry and his team soon found some of the greatest minds in Europe coming to their door for help. Fry’s group was able to send people safely across the French border to Spain, Portugal, North Africa and other places where they could eventually head to America. The group smuggled people, laundered money and issued fake and real visas to the US. He set up contacts with the French Resistance and the Corsican mob and forged documents and bribed border officials. The group soon realized that there were many more Jews who needed their help to escape the Nazi’s. Varian Fry’s mission to France was supposed to last a month, but it turned into a year. Fry and his team played a dangerous game as they saved Jews under the nose of the suspicious Vichy-French government and German Gestapo.

varian fry

Vienna’s Jews forced to wash pro-independence slogans from the city streets after German troops marched into Austria

Many of the Jews were amazed that Fry, an American Protestant, would risk so much to save them. It is estimated that Fry and his group saved over 2,000 people who would have otherwise been sent to extermination camps. Among those saved by Fry were painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, writers Franz Werfel and Hannah Arendt, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Otto Meyerhoff, historian Konrad Heiden, as well as many other prominent writers, scientists, musicians and artists.

In August 1941, Fry was told by a French police officer that he was on the verge of arrest. He ignored the warning and on August 27th was arrested, given one hour to pack and was escorted to the Spanish border with an expulsion ticket.

The US government was not happy about Fry’s work. They confiscated his passport, opened an FBI file on him and worked with the Vichy-French Government to pin him with the crime of “protecting Jews and Anti-Nazi’s”.

In the US, Fry published articles about Hitler’s treatment of Jews and the perils of Nazism but his writing fell largely on deaf ears. He was dismissed from the “Emergency Relief Committee” and was refused enlistment in the Army. His wife left him and he could not find a job. After WWII, Fry published accounts of his role in helping Jews escape from the Nazis but it never garnered much attention. Fry eventually taught high school Latin and Greek and died alone, depressed and bitter in 1967.

Five months before his death Varian Fry received one of France’s highest civilian honors, the Croix de Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. In 1996, Fry became the first American to be selected as one of the “Righteous among the Nations” by Israel for his help in saving Jews during the war.


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2 thoughts on “Varian Fry: Saving the Brains of Europe

  • Peter Kubicek says:

    Varian Fry was one of the great Gentile heroes who saved over 2,000 refugees fleeing the German Army when it had occupied Paris.
    He was second only to Aristides de Sousa Mendes who stamped Portuguese visas into any passport presented to him, thus saving some 30,000 refugees, including about 10,000 Jews.
    As it happens, my father was one of the Jews saved by Sousa Mendes.
    Sousa Mendes was subsequently recalled by his government and died in poverty. And, just like Varian Fry, Sousa Mendes was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

    1. admin says:

      Thanks for your great personal insight into the history of these two men. It is amazing how much difference they made in the lives of thousands of people.

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