In June 1940, France fell to Hitler. More than four million refugees across Europe including French citizens, were suddenly trapped in an “unoccupied zone” of southern French provinces where an authoritarian regime was established at Vichy. Both Jews and non-Jews were threatened with extradition to Nazi Germany under Article 19 of the Franco- German Armistice- the “Surrender on Command” clause.
Varian Fry “found his courage” when called upon to act in a moment of extraordinary personal challenge, rescuing thousands of refugees in France during World War II. When Germany invaded France in June 1940, Fry agreed to go to Marseilles, a port city to which thousands of refugees fled in hopes of getting out of France, as a representative of the Emergency Rescue Committee. Working day and night, Fry assembled a team of European and American assistants and established the American Relief Center, a legal relief that also acted as a cover for an illegal underground rescue operation. Fry expanded his assistance beyond the 200 persons originally identified by the Emergency Rescue Committee and ultimately helped over 2,500 refugees during his 13- month stay in France from August 1940 to September 1941. He persevered without a passport, under constant surveillance.
By providing his “clients” with either legal or forged travel documents, he enabled their passage to Spain and other places, from which many departed for the Americas or Africa. Fry and his staff worked feverishly, often in opposition to French and even obstructionist American authorities, to help their clients make the journey to freedom through an elaborate network of escape tunnels.
Fry ignored repeated entreaties from the American government to return to the United States. In September 1941, French authorities expelled Varian Fry from France for illegal activities. Upon returning to New York, he recounted his story and tried to warn of Hitler’s impending Holocaust. In 1945, Fry published Surrender on Demand, his recollection of his missions in Marseilles.
Shortly before his death, the French government awarded Fry the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. It was the only official recognition he received during his lifetime. Varian Fry died unexpectedly in 1967 while revising his memoirs. He left behind a wealth of written and photographic materials that document his experiences in France. Fry was extensively honored after his death. Among his publications, accomplishments and awards are:
ASSIGNMENT: RESCUE, a version of his memoirs Fry wrote for young readers, was published after his death.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Council, in 1991, posthumously awarded the Eisenhower Liberation Medal to Fry.
Fry’s work in France was the subject of an inaugural exhibition, ASSIGNMENT: RESCUE, The Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee, at the United States Holocaust Museum from June 1993 through January 1995.
The Varian Fry Foundation was formed in 1997, under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee, survivor to the Emergency Rescue Committee.
Fry saved many of this century’s best talent, many of whom immigrated to the United States. Academics found teaching positions at American universities, and writers and musicians made their way to Hollywood. The avant-garde artists effectively shifted the cultural center of the world from Paris to New York. Exchanging ideas with American artists, they opened the door to abstract expressionism, which would become the next great phase of contemporary art.