A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry. St. Martin’s Press. 403 pages. $26.95
Varian fry may be the great American civilian hero of World War II — although by the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, his political activities against the Axis had ended. In 1996, he became the only American to be named Righteous Among Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial — although few Americans know of the dangerous activities for which he was honored.
As the Marseilles representative of the New York-based Emergency Rescue Committee (Emerescue) from August 1940 to September 1941, Fry aided 4,000 refugees from Hitler. He was responsible for the escapes of from 1,200 to 1,800 prominent European writers, artists, intellectuals, and politicians specifically targeted by the Gestapo, most of them Jews. They included Heinrich Mann and his nephew, the historian Golo Mann; Lion Feuchtwanger; Franz Werfel; the Hitler biographer Konrad Heiden; Marc Chagall; and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.
Those unfamiliar with Fry’s 1945 memoir Surrender on Demand may wonder just how dangerous his activities in Marseilles really were — whether he was truly a death-defying solo liberator, or simply the public face of an admirable but risk-averse charity. In A Quiet American, Andy Marino, a freelance historian in London, sets out to give a meticulous narrative of exactly what Fry did in Marseilles. Marino’s subject looms larger with every detail.
Fry, born in the New Jersey suburbs in 1907, had difficulty getting his life on track. It could be argued that, except for his 13 months in France, he never did. Sensitive, independent, haughty, he left Hotchkiss in disgust at its hazing rituals, which were directed at him with a particular intensity. At Harvard, he founded, with his friend Lincoln Kirstein, the important literary quarterly The Hound and Horn, and married (after a homosexual stage) Kirstein’s sister Eileen.
He drifted into political journalism. In May 1935, visiting Berlin as the new editor of the New Age magazine, he witnessed the first of Nazi Germany’s bloody pogroms, and wrote it up for the New York Times. He devoted himself increasingly to the anti-fascist cause but was unpopular within it, largely because he was fiercely anti-Communist (not merely anti-Stalinist) as well. He was fired from the Spanish Aid Committee set up to combat Franco when he tried to purge its Communists. He wrote several books on global affairs, and by 1938 was warning in his lectures of a "Second Great War."
Fry made contact with the American Friends of German Freedom, founded by the University of Newark’s Frank Kingdon, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and the German Social Democrat Paul Hagen. At a fundraiser three days after France’s surrender in June 1940, Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika warned that of the hundreds of thousands of refugees now fleeing south into unoccupied "Vichy" France, artists and intellectuals were in special trouble. The problem was that France’s surrender treaty obliged the "Free" French to deliver to the Gestapo any foreign citizens Germany requested —usually Jews and public opponents of the regime. So Emerescue was founded, and Fry volunteered to be its man on the ground in Marseilles. The State Department promised to cooperate by issuing visas to the more famous of the refugees. Fry arrived in August 1940 to report on refugee conditions, look for some 200 refugees who were on a list compiled in New York, and set up an operation that could continue his work once he left. That was supposed to take three weeks.
But the situation proved both more dangerous and more promising than Fry had anticipated. It was impossible to tell whether France was simply a nation subjugated by the Nazis or a semi-free country that had forged an alliance with them. On one hand, Fry found the "overwhelming majority of the French" people anti-Vichy. Sympathetic police would warn him of raids, and one even shared (for a price) the Gestapo’s round-up list. On the other, France had a long tradition of anti-Semitism in mainstream politics; as anti-Semites were promoted into major law enforcement positions, Vichy was soon outstripping even the Nazi-occupied zone in its issuance of anti-Jewish decrees. Sometimes the authorities would leave Fry alone; sometimes the blue-bereted goons of the Jeunesse Populaire Française would descend on the offices he set up in a hotel on the Vieux Port.
A number of bureaucratic catches had turned France into a Kafkaesque "man-trap," as Fry put it. As soon as Germany attacked, France herded all German citizens — this meant primarily Jews and anti-Nazis — into concentration camps, as potential Nazi spies. They frequently escaped only when their captors retreated to avoid advancing German infantry. For some who avoided arrest or capture, Fry could get visas from the American consulate. But emigrants also needed to apply for exit visas from France, and all such applications were forwarded to the Gestapo. Fry’s clients could cross the border into Spain without exit visas. But they would then be arrested for lacking a transit visa — and returned, via France, to a German concentration camp. To get a transit visa, they had to show an "onward visa" from a Portuguese port. The Siamese consulate issued these, but there was no way to get from Lisbon to Siam, and the Gestapo was active in kidnapping fugitives who stayed in Portugal too long. The Chinese gave out stamps with two huge ideograms that read "Under no circumstances is this person to be allowed entrance to China." At least they looked like visas — but these, too, were rendered useless when Portugal stopped receiving refugees without prepaid boat tickets.
It became apparent that Fry would get next to no one out of occupied France without resorting to illegality, and that it would take far longer than anticipated. As soon as Fry began to work underground, he was courting the death penalty. He got phony passports from the pre-invasion Polish, Lithuanian, and Czech consuls. He sent refugees illegally over the border and through Spain, thanks to an underground railway run by the early French resistance. He broadcast to London and worked with British diplomats in Madrid to evacuate British troops trapped in southern France. Later he would help two of his employees set up Resistance cells. By the end of the year, Fry had succeeded in sending 300 people to safety.
Corruption was common, and many in Marseilles played both sides. Typical was Georges Barellet, who rented out his Hotel Bompard as a women’s concentration camp. He got 15 francs a day from the Germans for every woman, but he also confiscated inmates’ ration cards, and sold their food back to them at three times the market price. He would, however, release any of them for several thousand francs — and Fry used him on occasion.
Responsibility for much of the derring-do was given to Fry’s right-hand man, a German Jew who had fled his country in 1933, then worked with anti-Mussolini groups in Italy and fought in the Spanish civil war before joining the French army. A cheery, carpe-diem sort who liked to spend his lunch breaks at whorehouses, he made contacts with the more pro-British of Marseilles’s two big Mafia families (the other was pro-fascist). Working under the assumed name of Alfred Hermant, he was hunted by the Gestapo for his anti-fascist activities. When the police finally showed up at Emerescue’s offices, he escaped to the United States — where he became an architect of the Marshall Plan and one of the giants of twentieth century American social science. He was Albert O. Hirschman.
Fry had to work in a climate of minimal trust and absolute unpredictability. The petty thief Fry hired to launder money for him (to circumvent Vichy’s phony exchange rate) turned out to be a Gestapo informant, and Fry took out a contract on his life. (The crook fled.) German officers appeared in the cemetery that the refugees used as a crossing into Spain. The egomaniacal novelist Lion Feuchtwanger described the whole escape network, complete with routes, to the New York Times as soon as his boat docked in America. The sympathetic police inspector Dubois, who had kept Fry informed of operations against him, was demoted.
One of the last things Dubois told Fry was that none other than the U.S. consulate was helping Vichy police to build a case against Fry. America did not want to burn its bridges with Vichy, and many in the consulate and State Department were openly sympathetic. Consul Hugh Fullerton, Fry’s nemesis, bragged that the American Foreign Service in France had got rid of half its Jewish employees. The consulate dragged its heels in filling out visas. When Fry convinced Marc Chagall to move to Marseilles and wait for a boat out, Fullerton wouldn’t even give Fry a letter to get him a Swiss visa. Chagall was soon arrested (and released only on Fry’s intervention). When Fry delivered a report on impending agreements between France and Germany to the American embassy — an act for which he could have been executed as a spy — the embassy sent it back to him by mail, and it was read by the censor.
The vice consul, Harry Bingham, was sympathetic to Fry’s work. He hid Golo Mann at his villa and sent his own car to fetch Feuchtwanger from the concentration camp where he was being held. Largely because of such activities, Bingham was ordered to Lisbon and sent home. The State Department pressured Emerescue to recall Fry — and the pro-New Dealers who made up the board were inclined to comply. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote Fry’s wife, "I think he will have to come home because he has done things which the government does not feel it can stand behind."
When Fry was deported by Vichy authorities in September 1941, his life fell apart. His marriage ended. Soon after, he was fired from Emerescue, which had grown impatient with his intensity, particularly his insistence that only he understood the refugee problem in France. (Correct, as it turned out: He was never replaced.) He served for a few months as assistant editor at the New Republic, where he wrote, in December 1942, an extraordinary document called "The Massacre of the Jews," the first piece of journalism to give hard evidence that Hitler had launched a program to exterminate the Jews of Europe. But Fry resigned weeks later after an argument over the Moscow show trials, damning TNR’s other editors as fellow travelers. He lasted a few months at Common Sense, a few more at the New Leader. He grew increasingly conservative (without describing himself as such), joining the American China Policy Association and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and showing enough sympathy for Joseph McCarthy that Mary McCarthy would describe him as "a perfect madman."
He taught creative writing at CCNY for a year. He latched on as a writer/consultant for Coca-Cola, but was fired when he turned one of his reports into a taunting account of the stupidity of the company’s board of directors. He taught Latin and history at the Episcopalian Day School in New York, but was fired when he fought with its headmistress, the Reverend Mother Ruth. Fry confessed himself increasingly "baffled by his own behavior." After bouts of hypochondria and paranoia, after psychoanalysis, after volunteering the story of his sex life to Alfred Kinsey, he told his doting second wife to "go get a divorce" and died of a stroke a few weeks later, just shy of his sixtieth birthday.
Marino aptly describes what it was about Fry that made him so deft at heroics and so bad at regular life: "He felt terribly scared and isolated," Marino writes of the Marseilles period, "but at the same time he found himself exhibiting a sort of nothing-to-lose daring that thrilled him. He was acting very unlike himself, and he was getting to like it." Beyond that, Marino adds little new material to what we know of Fry’s adventure from Surrender on Demand. He merely torques up the drama with novelistic tricks — and gilds the lily of Fry’s undoubted heroism with a few dubious claims. Marino awards Fry credit for what was actually a pro forma Vichy report on concentration camps: "Vichy had somehow been embarrassed into making a gesture, and the likelihood is that Fry’s efforts were the determining factor, the first coherent outcry against what would soon develop into full-fledged Holocaust." Far from having major influence over Vichy, Fry was regarded as a menace in every corner of Vichy. Moreover, to claim the only reason France’s Nazi collaborators kept their concentration camps going was that no one had made a "coherent outcry" against them is preposterous.
One reason Fry’s heroism has been hard to capture is that most of what he did consisted of organizing paperwork and working the visa department. This is less vividly heroic than risking one’s life in battle, but Fry understood that the road in and out of the death camps passed through the visa department, and he was modest enough to make his stand there, even if others might not understand the glory of it.
Was he guilty of passing over the anonymous millions in order to save a few big-ticket intellectuals and artists? Certainly, he sent cables telling his Emerescue allies, "PLEASE MAKE THEM REALIZE WE HAVE UNDERTAKEN IMMENSE TASK SAVING CULTURE EUROPE" And there was indeed a grim triage going in Marseilles, under which Fry’s assistants would vet candidates to determine which of them were "artistic" enough to have their lives saved. But this was far from Fry’s fault. It was nearly impossible to get the sluggish State Department to issue visas for anyone but the already famous, and it was hard to get Emerescue to fork out money for anonymous victims. As one director wrote to Fry, "If Albert Einstein could be brought to America today, we could raise one million within a short time by exhibiting him throughout the country. Casals is probably worth one hundred thousand, Picasso fifty thousand. Your trio [Werfel, Mann, Feuchtwanger] brought in thirty-five thousand. Since their arrival we have had nothing good to offer the public."
No, there was a war on. Fry’s choice was not between saving a thousand artists and saving a million anonymous refugees, but between saving a thousand artists and going home having saved no one. He’s a hero because he stayed. The great gift Fry brought to his task was a keen understanding of human imperfection — rather a desideratum in Nazi-occupied France. He applied this knowledge not just to his clients’ persecutors but to his clients themselves. Of Walter Mehring (the Berlin poet who moved to Hollywood, bought a Packard roadster, and never spared a thought or a cent for those he’d left in Europe), of Heinrich Mann (who stopped writing, and spent the last years of his life drawing doodles of women with big breasts), of Lion Feuchtwanger (whose idiotic tale-bearing about Fry’s rescue network could have cost dozens or hundreds their lives), Fry felt, as Marino puts it, that "just because these people had been persecuted, it was not fair to expect them to be any greater, morally speaking, than other human beings."
An unwillingness to cut himself similar slack was the source of both Fry’s heroism and his maladjustment to peacetime life. If he was without honor in his own country, it’s understandable. Fry was impossible to work with, mentally troubled, locked in himself. But let us not forget that he was a prophet, too, and put himself in harm’s way to prevent the future he saw unrolling before him. Not the ideal person, maybe. But certainly the kind that every generation everywhere has always had too few of.