During the months following the German conquest of France in June 1940, thousands of refugees, including both French Jews and exiled German Jews, fled to southern France to avoid capture by the Nazis. Many were prominent political dissidents, intellectuals, writers, and artists. On June 22, Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime, the ruling authority in the southern part of the country, signed an agreement with the Nazis, agreeing to “surrender on demand” anyone sought by the Germans.
Three days later, in New York City, American friends and colleagues of the refugees established the Emergency Rescue Committee, with the hope of bringing the most prominent cultural figures among the refugees to the United States. With help from the First Lady, the committee secured the Roosevelt administration’s agreement to provide emergency visas to two hundred artists and intellectuals and their families. Varian Fry (1907-1967), a Harvard-trained classics scholar and foreign affairs journalist, volunteered to travel to Vichy France to organize the exodus. A sophisticated New England prep school graduate who enjoyed bird watching and fine wines, Fry was hardly the sort of person one would expect to become a refugee-smuggler. “Certainly my manner and appearance did not suggest the daredevil,” he later acknowledged. Fry did have more than a passing connection to the subject matter: while stationed in Germany on a journalistic assignment in 1935, Fry he witnessed a harrowing Nazi mob assault on Jews in Berlin and reported on it for the New York Times. Memories of that experience galvanized his involvement with the Emergency Rescue Committee. In August 1940, Fry arrived in Marseille with a list of two hundred endangered individuals and $3,000 taped to his leg to hide it from the Gestapo.
Word of Fry’s arrival spread quickly, and soon long lines of refugees formed outside his hotel room each day. Fry and his assistants held their “staff meetings” in the bathroom with the faucets turned on full so the noise would prevent their discussions from being overheard by any eavesdropping German police. Among those who lent Fry a helping hand was Frank Bohn, an American Federation of Labor activist who was aiding anti-Nazi European labor leaders. Bohn in turn introduced Fry to Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV, an official at the local U.S. consulate and son of the famous explorer on whom the movie character of Indiana Jones was later based. Bingham surreptitiously provided Fry with documents needed to protect refugees, such as affidavits in lieu of passports and travel papers.
Years later, in Fry’s postwar memoir, “Surrender on Demand,” which was published while Bingahm was still in the diplomatic service, Fry tried to protect him by quoting Frank Bohn as saying that Harry “does everything he can to help us, within American law.”
Another member of Fry’s team was Charles Fawcett, a former professional wrestler from South Carolina, who fraudulently married at least six different women in order to get them released from French concentration camps and qualify them for visas to the United States, which Bingham provided. An official at the U.S. consulate in Lisbon, through which many of the would-be immigrants passed, later recalled how puzzled she was at the number of “Mrs. Fawcetts” among the applications she processed.
Also part of Fry’s network were the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts, and his wife Martha. They actually arrived in Europe before Fry, and worked for a time in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, helping Jewish refugees and anti-Nazi activists escape. The Sharps once saved a Czech member of parliament by smuggling him through a hospital morgue in a body bag. When the danger of arrest became acute in 1940, they relocated to Lisbon to help facilitate the passage to America of Fry’s escapees.
Fry and Bingham smuggled novelist Lion Feuchtwanger out of a French internment camp by disguising him in women’s clothes and then hiding him in Bingham’s house until they could get him and his wife to the Spanish border. There, with Rev. Sharp’s help, the Feuchtwangers were taken across the Pyrenees to safety. The operation was nearly torpedoed when, at the customs line to enter Portugal, an American journalist spotted the famous novelist and called out, “Mr. Feuchtwanger!” Sharp pulled her aside and silenced her in the nick of time. “I just wanted a scoop,” the reporter weakly explained.
Fry outfitted many of the refugees in field laborers’ clothing, and then marched with them to vineyards in the Pyrenees Mountains along the French-Spanish border, as if headed for a day of harvesting grapes. Once they reached Spain, they were able to continue on to Portugal, and from there they boarded ships bound for the United States. Among the rescued were such famous artists as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Jacques Lipschitz, as well as the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Otto Meyerhof, author Franz Werfel, architect Walter Gropius, philosopher Hannah Arendt, and Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism.
When Marc Chagall was arrested, Fry threatened a senior police official that he would call the New York Times and tell them of the arrest unless Chagall was released within half an hour. The police, fearing the controversy, gave in. At one point, Fry himself was arrested and held on a boat for a number of days before being released as a result of Harry Bingham’s protests. The process of getting Chagall out of France exemplified the complications and hazards of what Fry and Bingham were doing. They met with Chagall in Bingham’s villa in December 1940 to plan his escape, and then escorted the artist to the U.S. consulate in Marseille, where Bingham quickly granted him an immigration visa, even though Chagall did not possess the required affidavits. Unbeknownst to Fry, the Museum of Modern Art had already asked the State Department to grant Chagall a visa back in November—but it took until February 1941 before it was processed. “In other words,” Fry noted in his diary, “it took the Department three months to grant him an ‘emergency’ visa, whereas [Bingham in] the Consulate only required a day or so to give him an ordinary immigration visa.”
In April, Chagall and his wife, Bella, moved to a hotel in Marseille in preparation for their departure from France, but when the Vichy police swept through the city’s hotels, arresting all Jews, Chagall found himself in prison. After Fry’s intervention brought about his release, Chagall and his wife made their way to Lisbon on May 11, but his paintings were held up by Spanish customs authorities, under pressure from the Gestapo. While Chagall’s daughter Ida worked to secure the artwork, her husband Michel was arrested trying to cross the French border into Spain, and had to be smuggled out of prison. Ida, Michel, and the crates of artwork eventually made it across the Atlantic in a typhoid-ridden journey on a barely-seaworthy cargo ship that avoided German torpedoes on the way to America. On the way back, it was hit and sunk.
Catching wind of the Fry operation, furious German and French officials complained to the State Department. Secretary of State Cordell Hull responded with a telegram, in September 1940, to the American ambassador in Paris, instructing him to “inform Dr. Bohn and Mr. Fry [that] this Government can not, repeat not, countenance the activities of Dr. Bohn and Mr. Fry and other persons, however well-meaning their motives may be, in carrying on activities evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintains friendly relations.”
The Secretary of State also sent a telegram to Fry, pressing him to “return immediately” to the United States in view of “local developments,” meaning the opposition of the Germans and French. Fry soon discovered that Hull’s position had also been communicated to the Vichy police, and Fry believed a recent police raid on his office was the result of the French authorities concluding that they were free to act against him now that the Roosevelt administration had “disowned” him. Instead of heeding Hull’s directive, however, Bingham arranged for Fry to meet an officer in the Marseille police, one Captain DuBois, who was strongly anti-Nazi and became an important source of inside information about arrests of refugees and escape opportunities.
But time was running out on the rescue activists. Determined to avoid irritating American-German relations, the State Department in early 1941 revoked Fry’s passport and shortly afterwards transferred Bingham to Lisbon. It then moved him out of the European theater altogether, sending him to the U.S. embassy in Argentina. He was never permitted to rise in rank and ultimately resigned in disgust from the foreign service.