You’ll often hear the phrase that there’s “a special place in hell (or a special circle of hell, or special level of hell) reserved for…” which then proceeds on to a quip about a relatively minor social infraction (“those who waste good whiskey,” “those who split infinitives”). Obviously, it’s also used to refer to the appropriate place for the especially evil (Hitler, Pol Pot). It’s a way to remind us that we need constantly to remember how evil they were, and to be on guard for more like them.
It’s not as common to hear of a “special place in heaven…” for the particularly virtuous. But, in a way, the Israelis have such a place. It’s called the “Righteous Among the Nations,” and they use it to honor people who saved Jews from the Holocaust in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
And our subject today was placed there. In fact, he was the first American to be named “Righteous Among the Nations.” I learned about him from (jeen-E-ah) Ginia Bellafante’s excellent article in the New York Times a little while ago.
Varian Fry was born in New York in 1907. Although he had a difficult family life, he went to top schools and graduated from Harvard in 1931. After graduation, he went to New York and worked as a journalist. While at the foreign affairs journal, The Living Age, in 1935, Fry was sent to Berlin to cover the effects of the young Nazi regime. While in Germany he witnessed Jews being abused in public, not only by Nazi thugs, but also by members of what would otherwise be called “the ordinary public.” All too often, Fry reported, Berliners stood by while Jews were physically assaulted while their attackers chanted anti-Semitic things like, “the best Jew is a dead Jew.”
When he returned to New York later that year, Fry wrote and published extensively about the evils of Hitler’s Germany. In 1940, he and a handful of alarmed but well-informed citizens founded the Emergency Rescue Committee. Among other things, the Committee agitated for the abolition of the 1924 Immigration Act, which greatly restricted the ease of entry into the United States, even as a political refugee. The Committee pleaded that Jewish refugees in Europe were stranded without American help, and would almost certainly be killed. But the American government remained unmoved and would not lift the restrictions.
Realizing that raising his voice and protesting in the United States wasn’t going to be enough, Fry planned to go to Europe. After the Germans invaded and occupied France in 1940, he left New York for Marseilles with $3,000 in cash strapped to his leg. Marseilles (the major French port on the Mediterranean) was under the control of the Vichy collaborationist government. Despite being in league with the Nazis, it was undoubtedly easier to try to hide a nascent refugee escape program in Vichy France than in Nazi-occupied France.
Initially, Fry got no support from the American consulate in Marseilles and, more or less, had to set up his own refugee office in his hotel room. Eventually, a sympathetic vice consul, Hiram Bingham, assisted with providing visas and information about how to obtain other travel papers. Gradually, he built up a volunteer network that helped more than 2,200 people escape Europe and, eventually, get to the United States though various, often indirect, routes. Fry provided money, fake passports and visas, and transportation arrangements for refugees, the overwhelming number of them Jewish, to get to Spain and Portugal and a ship to the United States, or sometimes through Oran in French Algeria, or Martinique in the French Caribbean.
Among the people he aided were the noted philosopher Hannah Arendt, the artist Marc Chagall, and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. But far greater in number were hundreds of ordinary Jews he rescued from the Nazi threat. Eventually the Vichy government exerted enough pressure on the American consulate that Fry’s rescue effort days became numbered. His own passport expired in 1941 and the consulate did not renew it. At roughly the same time, the sympathetic vice consul, Hiram Bingham, was transferred to Portugal and then quickly to Argentina. Fry had to leave Marseilles in September and make his way back to New York.
He continued to agitate for changes in US immigration laws that restricted political refugees from Europe when he got home. Fry wrote important articles and books that raised American consciousness about the horrors of Nazi oppression, but also about the need for immediate and tangible American help. After the war, he continued to work in journalism, in teaching, and in media, but his rescue work was soon forgotten by a country eager to get on with post-war prosperity. Varian Fry died at his home in Connecticut in 1967.
At the beginning of this episode, I mentioned that it’s not as common to hear “there’s a special place in heaven” as it is to hear “there a special place in hell.” Fry was included in that special place in heaven when he was named Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli government in 1996. And maybe one of the things we can learn from his life is that, whenever we’re tempted to use these phrases flippantly, we should stop ourselves and be genuinely thankful for people like Varian Fry.
And there’s another thing we can do. Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee and the International Relief Association (which was founded by the efforts of Albert Einstein) joined forces in 1942, and, under the name of the International Rescue Committee, it’s still going. They provide the same life saving help to people trying to escape from conflicts and disasters around the world. When you have a chance, go to help.rescue.org and make a donation. And make it in the name of Varian Fry, Righteous Among the Nations indeed.
Varian Fry, Surrender on Demand (1997)
Varian Fry’s gripping original account of the various attempts to rescue Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe.
Text and Image: