L'Chaim / Living Judaism
February 27, 1998 / 1 Adar (Rosh Chodesh), 5758

America's Schindler

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

Marseilles --- There is no memorial to Varian Fry in this busy French port city. But the quiet American Fry remains one of its great World War II heroes.

Fry - whose story reads like a movie script - was a preppy journalist who pulled off one of the war's most dramatic escapes. Under the eyes of both France's collaborationist Vichy regime and its Nazi patrons, Fry and a small group of helpers managed to smuggle more than 2200 people out of Marseilles, across the French border to the safety of neutral Portugal and then the US. His "clients list" read like a Who's Who of European creativity: painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, writers Franz Werfel and Hannah Arendt, musician Wanda Landowska just to name a few.

The son of a New Jersey stockbroker, Fry had personally witnessed Nazi savagery on a 1935 reporting trip to Germany. Later, he jumped at a chance to return to Europe to save people trapped in conquered France. With help from US backers, Fry landed in Marseille in 1940 with $3000 strapped to his leg -- just enough to set up his "American Rescue Committee". He was 31.

The Mediterranean city was crammed with thousands of refugees who feared they'd be arrested and turned over to the Germans. Anti- Nazis - Jews and non-Jews - were tops on Hitler's wanted list and the Vichy was eager to please. Posing as a YMCA relief worker by day, and working as an underground railroader by night, Fry and his small band of devoted helpers defied the authorities, hustling up fake passports and visas, and slipping people out on small boats or by foot across mountain trails.

Among Fry's closest associates: a beautiful Chicago born heiress named Mary Jayne Gold who'd come to Paris in the early Thirties "to have a good time". When the Nazis marched down the Champs Elysees in 1940, Gold headed south to Marseilles where she met Fry. "He was a Harvard man and a bonafide WASP just like me," she told me before she died last year. Gold helped finance Fry's operation and often used her beauty to coax officials into closing their eyes to the rescue work.

Shamefully, it was the US State Department - which wanted to maintain "good relations" with the Vichy French - that helped block Fry's work. The US consulate confiscated his passport, and connived with the French fascists to have him expelled from Marseilles for the crime of protecting "Jews and anti-Nazis".

Bitter, Fry returned to the US and tried to set off warning bells about the Holocaust he saw coming. But he remained under a cloud, and even after Pearl Harbor, his talents and energy were never utilized by the US war effort. With time he slipped into obscurity and in 1967, he died alone in Connecticut where he was teaching high school Latin.

In recent years, there's been an attempt to honor Fry -- albeit belatedly. He received a French Medal of Honor shortly before his death and posthumously became the only American ever honored at Jerusalem's Yad vaShem Memorial. More recently, both Washington's Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Museum in New York held Fry exhibits. But sadly and unfairly he has been largely forgotten, especially here in France where no memorial honors him -- no statue, no plaque.

American author John Hunt, who now lives with his beautiful wife Chantal in the medieval town of Uzes north of Marseilles, is one of those - like myself - who believe the time's come to correct this blemish on history. In this prolonged season of revisiting just who did what to whom in World War II, the US government would do well to sponsor a Varian Fry Memorial and exhibit in France. The idea deserves solid backing from organizations like the World Jewish Congress, the Anti Defamation League and the Wiesenthal Center. Above all, it's a golden opportunity for the French, who 53 years after the war are finally coming to terms with the Vichy sins from which Varian Fry helped save so many.


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JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.

©1998, NY Daily News