On August 4, 1940, eager passengers waited in line to board Pan American Airways’ Boeing 314 Dixie Clipper at New York’s La Guardia airport for the flight to Marseille, France. On board that summer day was an ordinary-looking man of 32, a Harvard intellectual, a loner who shunned the limelight and carried $3,000 strapped to his belt. Along with the money, Varian Fry carried a list of 200 of the brightest names in the fields of art, science, literature and medicine who were trapped in Nazi-occupied France. Fry was about to embark on one of the most dangerous yet least known rescue missions of World War II.
At the time of his flight, Fry was an editor with the Foreign Policy Association’s Headline Books and a member of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), which had been established to rescue the most important intellectuals stranded in France, many of whom were just one knock on the door away from being sent to prison camps by the Germans. He was multilingual, speaking both French and German, and anti-Fascist in his politics. Among those on Fry’s rescue list were Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Andr Breton, Marcel Duchamp and the sculptor Jacques Lipschitz. By the time Fry left France a little over a year later, he had managed through clandestine means to rescue more than 2,000 civilians and military personnel.
Fry was born in New York City on October 15, 1907, and grew up in Ridgewood, N.J., in a dysfunctional family. During his youth, his mother spent many months in a hospital with severe emotional problems. He was raised by two of his aunts, who served as surrogate mothers. His father, a stockbroker, was away at work most of the time, and there was little contact between father and son.
A very important person in young Varian’s life was his grandfather Charles, who was active in the Children’s Aid Society. Charles often took Varian along with him on his trips, and the child would spend the summer at his grandfather’s camp for children in Brooklyn.
Fry attended both the Hotchkiss and Taft schools in Connecticut, then moved back to New Jersey, where he attended the Riverdale Country School, not far from his home. Harvard was next, and Fry’s years there were intellectually challenging. With a friend named Lincoln Kirstein, he founded a literary magazine called the Hound & Horn. The opinionated Fry also managed to get himself expelled for rebellious conduct but was eventually allowed back in.
While at Harvard, Fry met and eventually married Eileen Hughes. Shortly before graduation, he wrote on a form what his ideal job would be — "A European representative, preferably in France, Spain, Italy or Greece." He graduated in May 1931 and, now with a young wife, began job hunting in the discouraging Great Depression job market.
The Frys moved to New York, settling in lower Manhattan. Eileen taught school, while Varian began a series of publishing jobs that took him to Scholastic magazine, then The Living Age, a journal that concentrated on foreign affairs. That job gave Fry access to information on what was then going on in Europe.
In May 1935 Fry took a business trip for The Living Age to Germany to see for himself the conditions that he had been hearing about regarding the plight of European Jews. He spent three months in Germany, staying in Berlin. While in the capital, Fry witnessed the first purges in Germany, the systematic rounding up of Berlin’s Jews by the secret police. The horror of that episode left him determined to do something. Upon his return, he wrote an article on what he had seen for The New York Times.
By 1937, Fry had moved on to a job with the Foreign Policy Association’s Headline Books in New York. His new duties allowed him to write several books on foreign affairs, including The Peace That Failed.
As persistent news accounts of Jewish persecution in Europe reached the United States, Fry joined the ERC, dedicated to aiding refugees. Its immediate goal was to raise enough money to rescue a large number of intellectuals then trapped in France. In June 1940, the victorious Nazis divided France into two distinct areas. The Germans occupied northern France, while a French puppet government ruled the south from the city of Vichy. One of Adolf Hitler’s first decrees required that the Vichy regime hand over any person that the Germans demanded without any prior notice. It became painfully obvious that once a person was handed over to the Germans, his or her chances of coming back were virtually nil.
Initially the ERC had intensively lobbied Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to loosen U.S. visa laws so that more immigrants could flee to the United States. The administration expressed sympathy but offered no tangible aid.
With no help from the government on the horizon, the committee took matters into its own hands. It asked for volunteers to go to France to assist these detainees to freedom. When no one else took the offer, Fry stepped forward. Over the next several weeks, Fry put his personal business affairs in order, said a tearful goodbye to his wife and, with a list of those most in need of rescue and money to fund his venture, he took off for France.
After Pan Am’s Dixie Clipper made stops in neutral Portugal and Spain, Fry landed in the wild city of Marseille, the last French port that was not then in Nazi hands, on August 15, 1940. He checked into the Hotel Splendide, which would be his temporary home. After unpacking, Fry made a visit to the U.S. consulate in Vichy, to see the officer who handled visa applications. Fry introduced himself, explained his mission and, much to his surprise, was given no cooperation at all. The Vichy government had put pressure on the Americans to not rock the boat as far as the plight of the detainees was concerned. Lacking contrary orders from the State Department, Fry was left to his own devices.
The first person who offered to help Fry was Dr. Frank Bohn, a representative of the Jewish Labor Committee. Bohn had heard about the young editor and approached Fry, who handed him the list of people the ERC wanted brought out of France. Bohn gave him a number of emergency U.S. visitor’s visas, but the refugees needed other documentation — "safe conduct" passes to travel within France, as well as departure visas, which were all but impossible to obtain at the time. The only way out of France, said Bohn, was by illegal or covert means, through the border into Spain. (Spain and Portugal were still issuing transit visas to Jews and others — if they could get there.) Fry’s job was going to be a tough one.
During his first week in Marseille, news had gone out that an American representative was in town who could help refugees escape, and soon people on the list began to appear at Fry’s hotel. Over a period of time, Fry hired a few trusted people to handle the load of applicants who swarmed into the hotel to see him. In order to facilitate his work, he rented space out of the hotel and began a covert business he called the Centre Americain de Secours (American Relief Center). Fry gave hopeful escapees spending money and met with them at night to discuss future plans.
His activities did not go unnoticed by the local French police, and Fry had to be extra careful not to be caught doing anything illegal that could put his clandestine mission in jeopardy. At the same time, he had come to realize how important his work was. During this time he wrote a letter to his mother in New Jersey, saying, "You can see that I am not staying on because it is fun, but because I don’t see how I can leave. Everyone agrees that my office would collapse without me." One person on whom Fry came to rely was 25-year-old Albert Hirschmann, dubbed "Beamish," a man who knew where to buy a false passport and whom to bribe. Hirschmann had served with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and later in the French army. When he left the French army, he picked out a new alias — becoming Albert Hermant from Philadelphia.
Hirschmann was Fry’s conduit to the underworld in Marseille and used all his connections to help smuggle the refugees out of France. One of the men Hirschmann used was known only as "Malandri," a "Corsican businessman." Fry learned of Malandri from a woman named Delapre who worked at the American consulate. Malandri led Hirschmann to a petty thug and restaurant owner named Jacques. Using his considerable connections, Jacques introduced Hirschmann to "Dimitru." These men were able to exchange money on the black market for Fry’s use. At one point, more than 330,000 francs were put into Fry’s undercover operation.
Another of Fry’s precious contacts was the Czech consul, Vladimir Vochoc. Vochoc gave the Centre genuine Czech passports for the people on Fry’s register. Valid passports could also be bought at the office of the Lithuanian consul. One hundred dollars bought a passport, no questions asked.
Miriam Davenport, one of Fry’s most trusted employees, put him in touch with a forger named Bill Frier, aka Wilhelm Spira. Frier, a cartoonist by trade, had been arrested by the Germans in France, and he wanted to do something to aid the Allied cause. What better way than working for Varian Fry?
Fry introduced Frier to Marseille con-man and forger Frederic Drach, a onetime employee of the French intelligence service. Drach took Frier under his wing and taught him how to properly forge passports that would pass inspection. Drach’s work helped hundreds of people escape from France.
Fry’s first success came in September 1940. Henry Ehrmann was a lawyer who had escaped the Nazis and fled to Paris, where he met and married his wife Claire. Following the fall of the French capital the couple fled to Vichy. Fry arranged for them to get emergency visas, and they covertly left Marseille, making the dangerous overland hike to Spain. With the help of friendly Spanish border guards, the Ehrmanns were allowed to enter that country, where they boarded New Hellas. Sometime later, the couple docked in New York.
By the end of the year, Fry was having additional success. Using all his available resources — from forgers, guides that took people over the Pyrenees, and aid from a few reliable foreign diplomats in Marseille — he was able to help 250 Jews escape by the end of September alone. People who lived along the French-Spanish border and worked for Fry kept detailed records of the French guards’ comings and goings. From them, Fry knew when the guards took their rest. During those periods large numbers of refugees quietly slipped into Spain.
Besides using overland escape routes, Fry made contact with Italians sympathetic to his cause, and they helped smuggle his people out of France by ship. His Italian liaison men were Emelio Lussu and Colonel Randolfo Pacciardi. Lussu had been successful in previous attempts to bring detainees to safety via a secret North African route. Pacciardi had served with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War and was opposed to Europe’s Fascist regimes. Although escape via the North African route was generally successful, at one point a number of refugees were arrested. Other effective sea escape channels put refugees aboard ships bound for the Caribbean island of Martinique, and later Trinidad, where the escapees were given safe harbor.
The only American diplomat in Marseille who aided Fry in his work was Hiram Bingham, a consular officer from a wealthy family. His father served in the U.S. Senate, and his great-grandfather was one of the founding members of New York City’s famous Tiffany & Co., a Fifth Avenue landmark. Among the notable refugees who were aided by Bingham were Charlotte Brand, an artist from Germany who found passage to New York, and Adam and Paulina Kaufman from Poland, who fled imprisonment from the Czechs and made their way to Marseille, after which they were supplied with a visa by Bingham.
During an inspection tour of his operations, Fry met secretly at the British Embassy in Spain with a Major Torr, who was working for MI-6, the British secret intelligence service. Fry told Torr of his covert work in getting people out of France and asked Torr if the British would be interested in using some of his ship-borne routes for the large number of trapped British troops then languishing in Marseille. To Fry’s amazement, the British officer showed no interest.
Soon though, Fry received a call from Torr asking for his help. In an unexpected move, the Spanish government had suddenly agreed to allow Germans, as well as people living in German-occupied territory who had the proper exit papers, to cross into Spain. In a conversation that shook Fry to the core, Torr asked him to become a part of MI-6. Fry met with the British ambassador to Spain, Sir Samuel Hoare, who asked him to help British soldiers then being held in France to escape to Spain. As it happened, the British appeal to Fry was a bit disingenuous. They had known all about Fry’s secret work for months but had done nothing to aid him. Now they wanted him to secure ships to enable the British soldiers to escape. If Fry agreed to the deal, the British would provide him with $10,000 for his expenses in finding the ships. All Fry had to do was locate the ships and get the soldiers out of France.
Fry immediately accepted Hoare’s offer, with one caveat: The British had to turn up ships carrying Spanish registry themselves and take them secretly from Barcelona to Marseille. From there, Fry would help them with their plan. Hoare agreed but had one final condition: "Fry should never involve English soldiers and Italians at the same time, as this would unnecessarily compromise the English."
Fry instructed Hirschmann to get in touch with a British officer named Miles, who was in Marseille, to discuss a plan to exfiltrate a number of British soldiers over the Pyrenees. Although plans for the removal of large numbers of British soldiers from France were stymied by the arrest of several of Fry’s escapees along the French-Spanish border, the American operative still managed to get a small number of soldiers out on ships by way of North Africa via Oran, Algiers, Lisbon, Casablanca or Gibraltar, where the British had a large military contingent.
Ever since his arrival in Marseille, Fry had been under constant surveillance by both the Gestapo and the local French police. The authorities had been keeping a wary eye on him and his covert network. Pressure to interfere with his work was finally exerted by the Vichy government, and in December 1940 French police arrested Fry and a number of his associates. Fry was eventually released, but he knew that his time was running out. In January 1941 his American passport finally expired, and the American consulate did not renew it. Soon thereafter he was expelled from France, his highly successful rescue mission finally over.
Fry came back to the United States in September 1941 and resumed his career in publishing. He found a job as an editor with The New Republic magazine and wrote numerous pieces on the plight of European Jewry in the following years. In 1945 he wrote his memoirs, Surrender on Demand, in which he told of his exploits in France.
Varian Fry died at his Connecticut home in 1967 at age 59. He was never given any recognition by the U.S. government for his gallant work in Marseille. But his humanitarian exploits were recognized by the government of Israel, which accorded him the prestigious "Righteous Among the Nations" award in 1996 — an honor he shares with Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.
This article was written by Peter Kross and originally appeared in World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!