Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee
Lesson Plan for “Assignment: Rescue”
Dr. Ellen Heckler, Director, Holocaust Outreach Center, Florida Atlantic University
Dr. Alan L. Berger, Raddock Eminent Scholar, Chair of Holocaust Studies, Florida Atlantic University
The materials presented here are with the permission of Dr. Ellen Heckler (Author)
and Dr. Alan L. Berger (Editor). These materials are designed for high school.
The overall goal of the unit is to acquaint the student with the autobiography of an altruistic American who saved many lives in Vichy France.
Day One Objectives:
- to differentiate between a biography and an autobiography
- to place the story of Varian Fry in its historic context
- to introduce the usage of the journal
- to hand out copies of Assignment Rescue by Varian Fry
- to discuss how the Holocaust unfolded in France
Europe: Political. (1992) World History: Perspectives on the past Geography Skills Worksheets. New York: D. C. Heath and Company. See attached map.
- The teacher will place the word BIOGRAPHY and AUTOBIOGRAPHY on the chalkboard and elicit their differences. Students will be asked to classify The Diary of Anne Frank and Night as to whether they are biographies or autobiographies and to name other biographies and autobiographies they have read or with which they are familiar. The teacher may wish to differentiate between a memoir and an autobiography.
- The teacher will make a transparency of the map of Europe and point out the extent of territory controlled by the Nazis during their domination of Europe. Students will be asked to share some of the problems encountered by the native populations under the control of the Nazis. Students should be guided to include the loss of political rights, restrictions such as not being able to listen to certain radio stations, the lack of control over what was taught in schools, requirements such as identity papers or food rationing, loss of national treasures taken to Germany, industry dedicated to serving the Nazi war machine, workers taken for forced labor, propaganda, censorship, persecution of certain groups previously left relatively undisturbed, and changes in the values considered important to the society. The teacher should advise that there were other options…activities of the helpers (Righteous Gentiles).
- Students will be asked how they might react were this to happen to them. How might they respond if they were a visitor or a nonnative resident of a country in which this treatment was happening? Explain the autobiography they will be reading is the story of one man living in Nazi dominated France, who built a network to help rescue imperiled world renowned politicians, artists, writers, scientists, and musicians.
- Explain the process to be used for student journals. Students will be expected to reflect on class discussions, readings, reactions to materials in addition to assigned journal topics. The teacher might prefer to have students write in their journals for the last five minutes of each class. Students should be instructed to date each entry and to date each page. The entry may be a visual or written document; a student may respond to the day’s lesson, may relate a personal experience, may include poetry and prose, and/or any other pertinent material. Journals should be collected at regular intervals, and the teacher should respond in writing to the entries and questions which have been raised.
- The class will read aloud and discuss the Introduction by Dr. Albert O. Hirschman. The teacher should be prepared to discuss the relationship between France and Germany and the Petain government and the Nazis. France and Germany had a long tradition of enmity. This relationship was fueled by: 1) the Franco-Prussian War in which Prussia (Germany) defeated the French, 2) the French demand for reparations and German territory as part of the Versailles Treaty which ended World War I, and 3) the decisive and rapid German defeat of France in 1940 resulting in the surrender of France in the railroad car in which Germany had surrender in 1918. France was divided into two areas: the north controlled directly by the German military, the south by Marshal Petain, a former French military hero. The latter was known as Vichy France since its headquarters was at Vichy. France with its liberal traditions had become the home for many fleeing Nazi persecution in their own countries. With France’s surrender refugees sought an avenue of escape. The Vichy government adopted racist laws reflecting the strength of anti-Semitism in France and cooperated with the Nazis in their deportation of Jews. It is important to note that the gendarmes were rounding up Jews, albeit non-French Jews, before the Nazis arrived.
- Students should note that the autobiography deals with a limited time in Fry’s life, August 1940 until August 1941. His original assignment called for a three week stay. Fry, 32 years old at the time, was a writer who had gone to Germany and had seen Jews being attacked by Nazi thugs. This left him deeply shaken. Ask a student to review what he/she has previously learned about the Nazi racial policy and the manner in which Jews were treated. Why is Article 19 of the pact signed by France and Germany significant for those who have been marginalized by the Nazis? (It required the French government to hand over to the Nazis any non-French citizen living on French soil.) What is it implication for fleeing non-French political leaders? Jews? Opponents of the Nazi regime? (Threatened with return to Germany where they faced probable internment in a concentration camp)
Homework: Fry, p.1-33
Day Two Objectives:
- to understand Fry’s motivation for undertaking his assignment
Video, Charlie Chaplin’s The Dictator
- 1. The teacher might show an excerpt from Charlie Chaplin’s The Dictator, a film which can be used to point out some of the common misconceptions contemporaries may have held about Hitler. This film also provides a vehicle for discussion of satire as a manner of commentary. Fry points out that many people “wanted to think of Hitler as the little man with the funny mustache.” (P.1) Ask students to differentiate between how Hitler appeared and the climate he created.
- Discuss the actions that Fry had experienced that helped to create what he called an “air of hatred and oppression.”
- The great pogrom against the Jews
- Encouraging emigration whether to Palestine or Madagascar
- Mention of possible extermination of Jews
- Puppet Vichy government which handed “enemies” over to the Gestapo
How did Fry react to those facing the Nazi onslaught Nazis? How was U. S. Immigration policy another obstacle to refugees fleeing from Nazism? (The State Department placed strict limits on the number of immigrants, only were allowed each year, but President Roosevelt was convinced to grant a limited number of emergency visas.) What conditions made American policy anti-immigrant?
- What was the purpose and significance of the Emergency Rescue Committee? (Get 200 prominent artists, writers, musicians, union leaders, scientists, intellectuals, and political figures out of France before they were seized by the Third Reich; the Committee didn’t give help specially to Jews although many he helped were Jews) If time permits, the teacher might want to show an excerpt from the film Casablanca. Consider the propaganda value of the movie at the time it was released as well as its theme, rescue of a political figure from the Nazis. Later, the teacher may want to contrast the romantic Hollywood concept with the reality of Fry’s experience.
- Why was Fry chosen and why did he accept the assignment? What made him an unlikely choice for this assignment? (He had the time, a letter from the YMCA endorsing his work with refugees, he could get a visa, poor French language skills, no experience as an underground or secret agent. He was a New York writer with no training in relief work, but he was familiar with contemporary politics & knew the job had to be done) He accepted because he felt it was his duty since so many of these people had given him pleasure. He learns that people without papers will be arrested and realizes they ultimately will end up in concentration camps or dead. Look at his picture found in the center of the book; compare him with Humphrey Bogart. Does he fit the image one has of a secret agent? A hero? What can be learned from this?
- Using the map have students articulate the advantages/ disadvantages Marseilles provides in helping refugees to escape. Discuss the method(s) to be used for escape. (Go over the mountains to Spain or by sea from Marseilles to North Africa. Spain and Portugal were neutral countries so refugees were able to leave Europe from there.) What problems existed for refugees? (France was reluctant to give exit visas necessary to leave France, a transit visa was needed to travel to Spain and Portugal, it was problematic to get paperwork and transportation arranged together.) In what way was Bohn’s helpful? How successful were Fry’s early attempts at helping refugees? How and why did Fry react the way he did when the police came to see him? What would have happened to an undercover agent? What were conditions like in a concentration camp? How is this different from a death camp?
- Divide the class into small groups; students will discuss and develop categories useful in evaluating behavior. They will categorize the behavior of those people they encounter in the story. The teacher might guide them to classify in terms of perpetrator, bystander, rescuer, and/or other categories they may generate. Have them assess the behavior/ manner of the police inspector; what evidence is there of his sentiments? Is it unusual for a person to feel one way yet know that they will soon have to act in another? What examples can they provide from life experiences or literature they have read?
- Discuss the American Relief Center and its role in helping Fry achieve his mission. (It served as a cover for his illicit mission and provided him with leads to locate the people on his list.)
- What methods did Fry and his staff employ to guard refugees against liability? (They never listed their address, spoke of certain subjects only in the bathroom with the water running, enclosed messages within toothpaste tubes, moved their offices so they won’t be close to the Gestapo, destroy all incriminating written papers.)
- Ask students about their interest level in Fry’s story. They should be made aware that although Fry may have had some harrowing experiences, much of his job was hard work and routine. The teacher should use this an as opportunity to discuss the issue of values and skills. This might be used as an opportunity for a teacher to discuss some of the characteristics needed for pursuit of careers.
Homework: Fry, pp.34-63
Day Three Objectives:
- *to understand how necessity made Fry adapt to his mission
- Discuss the ways Fry dealt with the limited time he had to accomplish his mission. (He decided to take bigger risks.) Ask the students what other suggestions they would have made to help him accomplish his task. How did the committee accomplish the three tasks they had to solve?
- They obtained Polish & Lithuanian passports & Chinese Visas
- They found an artist to create identity cards
- They obtained money unknown to the police
Discuss why and how Fry was forced to operate outside the law. (The U. S. Consul won’t meet with him when he arrives and won’t issue a visa unless that person has person has an exit visa. He realized he couldn’t do his job if he didn’t create escape routes and underground operations since the French and American governments undercut his actions.
- Discuss the ways “everyday” people help cooperate with and protect the refugees. Ask students to provide some examples such as the Chief of the Bureau of Foreign Residents who tells him about a doctor who will state that some one had been too ill to apply for his certificate and showed a list of three men who needed to be warned that the Gestapo wanted them to be arrested. What is at stake for these French citizens? The teacher should make students aware of the penalties imposed by the Nazis on civilian populations for helping Jews and others classified as enemies of the state.
- How and why does Fry begin to take greater risks? (He sends groups to the frontier accompanied by an experienced underground worker; had they been caught, Fry could no longer claim that he had nothing to do with helping refugees get out of France, and when Bohn’s plan on sending those who will be recognized in Spain to Gibraltar by ship is thwarted, Fry makes his own plan.)
- The teacher might assign a student to find out who Franz Werfel and Thomas Mann were and why Hitler would want to have them arrested. What is the incentive behind Fry deciding to lead a trip out of France himself? (Werfel and Mann were too recognizable to get an exit visa so he decides to take them over the Pyrenees Mts. by foot. This would give him the opportunity to send a truthful report to New York, find out what happened to the refugees who had been) arrested, and speak to the British about getting a boat.)
Homework: Fry, pp. 64-92
Day Four Objectives:
- to understand the plight of those fleeing Hitler
Map of Europe showing the location of the Pyrenees Mts. Meltzer, M. (1988) Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust. New York: Harper Trophy. Videos: Raoul Wallenberg: Between the Lines, The Courage to Care, The Other Side of Faith, They Risked their Lives, and Weapons of the Spirit.
- Students should give brief reports on the careers of Franz Werfel and Thomas Mann. The class should discuss why the Nazis desired to restrict the movements of these men. Why do totalitarian governments try to stifle ideas not sympathetic to their own. Ask students to give examples of other writers whose works they know who have been gagged. Was the government successful in keeping out ideas? Several examples might include Voltaire, Upton Sinclair, Socrates.
- Discuss how “righteous” Frenchmen aid Fry’s efforts. He is helped once again by a French official who advises him to “go over the hill” with the refugees, while he still can and shows Fry the best route. Other French border guards help find the best way to avoid the border check points. These are other examples of an individual subverting the official collaborative policy of the Vichy government. Discuss whether these men are patriotic. Ask students to define and discuss patriotism. Can you be patriotic while taking a position contrary to that of your government? Is a soldier who refuses to carry out what he believes is an immoral order patriotic? Is the young man who morally opposes a conflict and refuses to serve his country a patriot?
- Students should be given the book Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust to read and told that at the completion of this unit they will be asked to write a paper reacting to the quote from the last speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. found on the page opposite page 1 of Rescue. They should plan on referring to examples of how gentiles helped Jews and the application of the mode of behavior to their own lives. Why did some people react with humanity and others turned their backs on Jews and other refugees? Has their definition of being a hero changed? Ask students to explain the concept of brotherhood and steps needed to be taken to develop this concept in a people. The teacher should also consider showing one or parts of several videos dealing with rescue; these might include Raoul Wallenberg: Between the Lines, The Courage to Care, The Other Side of Faith, They Risked their Lives, and Weapons of the Spirit. Teacher guides are available with many of these videos.
- Discuss those who Fry helps. Who are they? They are prominent people, some writers, politicians, some Jews. Ask students about the plight of the ordinary Jew; were rescue efforts being undertaken in their behalf? Why not? The teacher should remind the students that the national policy of most nations was to avoid giving emigration slots to Jews; conferences held at Evian and Bermuda resulted in nation’s refusing to take in Jewish refugees. America and Britain closed down access. America even refused to admit Jewish children. There were few nations which openly granted Jews visas.
- How and why does Fry’s behavior seem more like that of a foreign agent? What were the consequences of being caught for those he was helping, his assistants, himself? What advice did Fry receive from the American Consul? How did he respond? What might explain the behavior of the US government with regard to Fry’s activities? What might explain the behavior of the US government with regard to helping refugees in general? To helping Jews? The teacher should explain that at this time the United States was a neutral power and would not risk its neutrality by aiding enemies of any other nation. Additionally, US emigration policy sought to exclude Jews. Students should be referred to David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews.
- Have small groups generate examples of how Fry can be described as a creative thinker who “thinks on his feet”. For example, when Spain closes its entire frontier and documents required for entry by Spain and Portugal are changing on a daily basis, Fry makes accommodations. He helps to obtain freedom for the friends of the German underground leader who were held at Vernet Concentration Camp. Yet why does he fail to gain freedom for many?
Homework: Fry, pp.93-120
Day Five Objectives:
- to appreciate the dedication of those determined to help escapees from Nazi Europe
- Discuss the new regulations were imposed on the French, and their impact on Fry’s work? (The names of all visa applicants must be sent to Madrid, French police were given the right to intern persons “dangerous to Public safety” without trial, foreigners between 1855 could be used for labor gangs, anti-Jewish laws were adopted, all foreign Jews could be placed in concentration camps, people were forbidden to listen to English radio broadcasts, and the Kundt Commission was empowered to look at internees for those who should be sent to Germany.)
- In what manner did he respond to these changes? (He realized that he had to reorganize his work. He would have to support many of the refugees and keep them out of jails and/or concentration camps.)
- Discuss how Fry helped to get British skilled pilots and soldiers out of France. Why does the sea become the only avenue of escape for these men? Why does sea rescue seem doomed to failure?
- What was the “F” Route, and how had conditions changed along it? How do Fry and his helpers manage to operate their network in the open?
- Discuss the “gusty” way in which Fry dealt Vichy regarding refugees interned in French concentration camps. Why wasn’t this enough?
Homework: Fry, pp.121-154
Day Six Objectives:
- to appreciate the commitment to help individuals fleeing for their lives
- What were some of the techniques that Fry and his friends used to rid themselves of incriminating evidence? Why, under what authority, and how were Fry and his helpers arrested? What would be different if that arrest were to occur in the United States today? What protection did being an American afford Fry? What guarantees under our Constitution were the prisoners on the SS Sinaia denied? (The premises were searched without a proper search warrant; they were not read their rights prior to their arrest; they were not allowed a phone call; they did not know the charges against them; they were held on ship, not a “habitable” place; they were fed substandard food; they were held longer than 48 hours without knowing the charges against them.) The teacher should tell students to bring their US history book to class so that students may refer to the Constitution usually included at the end of the textbook.
- Discuss the reasons Fry believes that things will be getting worse for those remaining in France? (Vichy collaborates in arresting people the Nazis demand; the arrest took place without warning. Also rumors fly that Vichy France will soon be occupied by the Germans.) How realistic is his assessment? Ask students to discuss his overall ability to assess the situations in which he finds himself. Has he been a Pollyanna?
- How effective is the method used for getting British soldiers and refugees out of France with the death net of Nazism closing in on those trying to get out? (They are placed on ships bound for French ports such as Beirut, Algiers, or Casablanca) What difficulties do the escapees encounter? (They are arrested on the other end since there is no network in place to help them in the port of destination.)
- Ask students to characterize Fry’s reaction to the fate of the Breitscheid’s, Hilferding, and Baby? Is it ironic? Guilty? Sarcastic? Sympathetic? Explain your answer.
- Assign students to present oral reports on some of those saved by Fry:
Hannah Arendt, writer
Hans Aufricht, motion picture producer
Andre Breton, writer
Marc Chagall, artist
Marcel Duchamp, artist
Max Ernst, artist
Hans & Lisa Fittko, political activists
Oscar Goldberg, Hebrew scholar
Hans Habe, author
Jacques Hadamard, “Einstein of France”
Konrad Heiden, writer
Erich Itor-Kahn, musician
Fritz Kahn, medicine
Siegfried Kracauer, film critic
Wilfred Lam, artist
Wanda Landowska, harpsichordist
Lotte Leonard, singer
Jacques Lipchitz, sculptor
Emilio Lusso, editor & publisher
Heinrich Mann, writer
Andre Masson, artist
Alfredo Mendizabel, Catholic philosopher
Otto Meyerhof, Nobel-winner biochemist
Boris Mirkins, Sorbonne professor
Giuseppe Modigliani, Italian Socialist
Hans Natonek, anti-Nazi Czech writer
Peter Pringsheim, physicist
Victor Serge, Russian revolutionary
Franz Werfel, author
Josef Witlin, Polsih poet
Homework: Fry, pp.155-183
Day Seven Objectives:
- to understand how Fry’s mission comes to an end
- Have small groups assess the effect of the excerpt from Mrs. Breitscheid’s memoir. How does Fry feel at the time? How does he feel upon learning the ultimate fate of each man? How might you have felt in these circumstances? What, if anything, could he have done to help them?
- Have the class define and discuss resistance and the forms it might take. How did the French express their opposition to the occupation? (Writing VH and calling the Germans , the “potato bugs”) What else might they have done? What were the risks for the civilian population? Is this a “black” or “white” situation? The teacher may want to provide students with a moral dilemma involving choiceless choices. Students should realize that risk-free is not the definition of being human.
- Have a student present the oral reports. How does Fry succeed in having Chagall released when other Jews were taken away, sent to concentration camps, or placed in forced labor? Why would the French bend? ( Tells the officials that the arrest of one of the world’s greatest artists would be embarrassing to the Vichy government) Have the student giving the oral report show examples of the art created by Chagall after his escape from Vichy France. The teacher should remind the students that many other artists were not as lucky as Chagall. The teacher may want to show the class some of the art done in the concentration camps by known and unknown artists and discuss the great loss suffered by the world in aesthetic terms, not to mention the murder of human beings.
- Contrast the views of justice of Captain de Rodellec du Porzic to those held by Fry. Ask students to discuss the morality of the Captain’s beliefs. Can someone’s beliefs be moral even if they are abhorrent to another? Ask for students to brainstorm some examples of this.
- Describe the circumstances and manner in which Fry finally leaves France. What role did the American Embassy play in his expulsion? What might it have done? To the end, there were some French who behaved as “their brother’s keepers”, ask students to recall some of these people and what they did that reinforces one’s faith in humanity. Students should be asked to put themselves in Fry’s place and assess the feelings that were going through his mind as he was leaving France. He admits to feeling sad, but sad doesn’t describe all the emotions he must have been feeling.
- What happened to refugees of Jewish ancestry shortly after Fry’s departure? In what ways does Fry continue to help others after his return to the United States? How does the reality of Fry’s experience compare to that depicted in the movie Casablanca?
- Assign students to small groups and ask them to consider the following: In light of the fate of most of those he wasn’t able to help escape and those he was able to help, assess Fry’s mission. Was it a success or failure? On what basis? Refer to the Introduction, do you agree or disagree with “Beamish’s” assessment, “…he is now honored for what he was, ‘a hero for our time.'” How should we define heroism? Is the sports figure a hero in the same sense as Fry? What are the qualities heroes should engender? Who are modern heroes? How do they compare with heroes in time of war? Does war create situations in which heroism can flourish or can heroism exist in the every day world? Can altruism be learned? Taught? How? One person can make a difference. Has this happened in your life? How? Tell students that although Fry died in 1967, he received two posthumous awards: in 1991 the USHMM awarded him the Eisenhower Liberation Medal and in 1996 he became the first American to be honored as a “Righteous among the Nations” at Yad Vashem by the nation of Israel.
- Students should be reminded that they have a reaction paper due on the book Rescue.
Day Eight Objectives:
*to broaden one’s understanding of the role played by Fry
Wojcicki, E. Writing & Discussion Ideas: Human Nature Discussion Questions & Ideas for Project in Assignment: Rescue Study Guide.
- View the video, Assignment: Rescue.
- Discuss the added dimensions provided through the film.
Writing & Discussion Ideas…
- No one likes to be different. It is difficult to stand up to your peers and disagree with them. Varian Fry did just that—-it seemed like almost everyone was against him; yet he was committed to his ideals and continued trying to save lives. Think of a time in your life when you stood up for what you believed even in face of ridicule from your peers. Describe the situation either in writing or with a 2-3 other students in a group.
- One man/woman can make a difference. In America today, people sometimes feel like they can’t make a difference. Everything is so big, powerful, and difficult to change. But, it can be done. Varian Fry is an example of that. Think of other situations in your life or lives of your family or friends where one person’s help has made a difference. Write an essay about your experience.
- Can you think of situations in American history when leaders have taken an unpopular position and followed their ideals? (A couple of ideas: think about the Civil War, American civil rights movement). Can you think of any contemporary situations ? Write about your ideas.
- Varian Fry is an American hero. What is a hero? What qualities do heroes have? Think of other people you think of as heroes and explain why you feel the way you do. These people can be personal heroes in your life, heroes you have seen in movies or read about in books. Get into groups of four. Each group member should pick a hero and defend his/her choice.
- In the 1930’s many Americans feared that immigrants would compete for scarce jobs. What was the economic situation in the US in the 1930’s? Can you understand why American’s might have had a anti-immigration attitude? What is the economic situation today? How do Americans feel about immigrants today? Compare and discuss.
- What do you think was the most difficult part of Varian Fry’s work in France? What would you personally have found hard to do?
- Imagine you are Varian Fry and you are just arriving in France thinking you only had to rescue 200 people. What would you have done when you realized there were thousands to be rescued? Describe your strategy.
- Making the transition from Marseilles back to New York City was difficult for Fry. Think about what kind of life he was leading in France and compare it to his life as a writer in NY Imagine what kind of dangers he was exposed to on a daily basis in France and compare them with his life as a journalist in NY.
- In World War II, many courageous individuals helped protect the Jews. One of these people was Raoul Wallenberg from Sweden. Another was Oskar Schindler. Look up both of these on the Internet at these addresses:
- Breckinridge Long, State Dept. Assistant Secretary, said “Nobody, anywhere has a right to enter the US unless the US desires.” What do you think about his statement ? Why?
- There is a famous saying, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.” Share with the class some truths that you think are stranger than fiction.
Ideas for Projects
- Imagine you are Varian Fry. Make a map of France and plan an escape route. If you plan to go to North Africa, you need to be careful of the Germans patrolling the Mediterranean Sea. If you are planning an escape through Spain and Portugal, make maps to show how you would escape.
- Make a map of all the European countries involved in W.W.II. Indicate which countries are on the Allied side and which countries are on the Axis side. Find out the following: troop size, troop training, natural resources available, guns, planes, ammunition. Decide which side has a better chance of winning.
- Make a passport for yourself. You can pick any nationality you like, but if you pick a foreign passport, make sure you have at least some of the words in that foreign language. Include a picture of yourself, your birthplace. birthdate, occupation, date and place of issuance of the passport, and your complete name.
- Create a visa for yourself. Investigate what kinds of information are needed for the visa by looking up the country you want to go to on the Internet. Search Yahoo or Alta Vista with key words country+visa.
- Make a poster to show the contributions of Jewish refugees to America and to the world.
- What do immigrants need today to enter the US Find out by accessing the Internet.
- Find out more about the International Rescue Committee on the Web at http://www.theIRC.org.
WRITING AND DISCUSSION IDEAS AND IDEAS FOR PROJECTS
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