Sunday, September 4, 2011

In Defiance of Hitler. The Secret Mission of Varian Fry by Carla Killough McClafferty

Varian Fry was an American citizen who moved to Marseilles France in August, 1940 with the sole purpose of aiding a special group of refugees flee to safety from the Gestapo. Fry had in his possession a list of approximately two hundred artists, writers, muscians, and scientists who were at risk of being captured and either sent to concentration camps or executed. Among the names were Marc Chagall, Heinrich Mann, and Max Ernst.

Fry had been to Germany in 1935 and saw firsthand what Hitler had in mind for the Jews of Europe. He was appalled at the brutal behaviour of the young German people who rioted and smashed the shops and homes of Jewish citizens. During his visit, Varian met with Ernst Hanfstaengl who was the chief of the Foreign Press Division of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. Hanfstaengl told Fry that it was the Nazi Party's goal to remove all Jews in Europe either by deportation or by murdering them. Although Varian wrote a piece for The New York Times detailing the Nazi's plans, most of America remained unconvinced and unconcerned about the Jewish people at this time.

However in 1940 when Germany defeated France and set up a puppet government in Vichy, part of the armistice agreement required "the French government to surrender upon demand all Germans named by the German Government in France" as well as preventing the "removal of German war and civil prisoners from France into French possessions or into foreign countries". Varian knew that this meant people who opposed the Nazi Party, as well as people of Jewish ancestry, were in grave danger. Both political refugees and Jewish refugees had fled parts of Europe previously overrun by the Nazis and come to France in the hopes of leaving Europe for safer countries. Article 19, as the above portion of the Armistice was known, would prevent them from doing so.

Varian Fry along with several hundred other Americans met in the late spring of 1940 and formed the Emergency Rescue Committee. The main purpose of the ERC would be to help well-known refugees escape France. After an unfruitful search for someone qualified to accomplish this task, Varian volunteered to travel to France to set up the organization in Marseilles. Eventually Varian Fry was allowed to travel to France with a detailed list of refugees he should seek out and aid in leaving France. To accomplish this task he was given $3000 which he taped to his leg.

In Defiance of Hitler details Fry's work in setting up the ERC in Marseilles and the difficulties he had during his stay of just over a year. McCalfferty presents the reader with an uncompromising and detailed portrait of Varian Fry and his work in Marseilles, France. We see a man who worked 12 to 15 hours a day interviewing 50 refugees per day. He had to decide who was most likely in danger and which to save. We get a real sense of the danger and the difficulty Fry and his team experienced as well as the effort the refugees had to make to escape from France into Spain and on to freedom.
I had not known about Varian Fry until I saw this book on the shelf in my local library. It's a wonderful book about a man who couldn't stand by and watch while a certain group of people were being hunted down simply because of their beliefs or their heritage. Altough Fry knew that war in Europe had created millions of refugees, the vast majority of whom he couldn't help, he felt that each person he could help was a small victory. Imagine if the world had had many more Varian Fry's.

For further reading, try the following websites: Varian Fry. The American Schindler and the Varian Fry Institute.

Book Details:
In Defiance of Hitler. The Secret Mission of Varian Fry by Carla Killough McClafferty
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux 2008
196 pp.

No comments: