A Resource Guide for Teachers
Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee:
A Resource Guide for Teachers
Anita Kassof, M.A.
United States Holocaust
In 1940, as Nazi invaders occupied France, tens of thousands of refugees from all over Europe fled south toward Marseilles.
The materials presented here are with the permission of Walter Meyerhof of the Varian Fry Foundation.
These materials are designed for grades 7-12
Lesson plans for high school grades are accessed by selecting: Rescue, Lesson Plan
THE RESCUE ASSIGNMENT
Varian Fry, a 32-year-old American, traveled to France on August 3, 1940 as the representative of a private American relief organization. His assignment: to help rescue people who were in danger of persecution by Nazi Germany. He carried with him $3,000 in cash and a list of the refugees in France who were in the greatest danger. He expected to stay there for one month, distributing money, messages and advice to the people on his list.
As soon as he arrived in France, Fry realized that he had gravely underestimated his task. Fry’s stay stretched to thirteen months. During that time he called on all of his reserves of strength, bravery and cunning in order to help the desperate refugees leave France. By the time he left France, Fry had set up secret escape routes, changed money on the black-market, conspired with gangsters, forged documents, chartered ships that sailed illegally — and rescued more than 1,500 people.
Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, in 1933, as chancellor of the National Socialist Workers Party (Nazis). He moved quickly to rid Germany of opponents of the Nazi regime. Hitler’s powerful Secret State Police (the Gestapo) arrested socialists, communists and trade union leaders, as well as artists, writers and scholars who produced work he considered critical of the Nazi party. Hitler was also obsessed with ridding Germany of the Jewish people. Nazi leaders viewed Jews as enemies of the state whose inferiority threatened German ethnic purity. The Jews were terrorized and German laws systematically stripped them of their rights. Ultimately, the Nazis were responsible for murdering six million European Jews and thousands of Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and physically handicapped victims — all deemed “inferior.” The mass genocide came to be known as the Holocaust.
Hitler was not satisfied with consolidating power in Germany. He proudly proclaimed his grand vision of a Nazi-dominated Europe. In September 1939 Germany’s powerful army invaded and quickly overpowered Poland. In response, France and England declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. French generals did not expect the fighting to reach their own borders. But in May 1940 a German attack surprised and quickly overwhelmed the unprepared French forces. Within weeks, German troops occupied Paris, the French capital, and the government surrendered. Leaders of a new French government signed an armistice with Germany. France was divided into two zones. The Germans occupied the larger northern portion and the entire Atlantic coast. The French government retained control over the southern portion of the country. Its capital was the town of Vichy.
PERIL AND PANIC
When Hitler’s armies moved toward Paris thousands of citizens and refugees fled southward. France, with its liberal, democratic traditions, was a historic haven for people who left their own countries to escape danger or persecution. Throughout the 1930s people had fled there from Germany and the other countries Hitler dominated. Now that the Germans were in France, the refugees were panic stricken and tried desperately to find ways to escape. What alarmed them most was the pact that the French and Germans signed. Article 19 of the armistice , or the “surrender on demand” clause, required the French government in Vichy to surrender any German nationals that the Nazis demanded. That meant that the refugees fleeing Germany or any of the countries Hitler overran — including Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland — were threatened with return to Germany where they probably would almost certainly be interned in concentration camps.
In New York, the news from France alarmed Americans who were concerned about the fate of the refugees. The day after the armistice was signed, a group called the Emergency Rescue Committee met in New York to raise money to help the refugees caught in France. They raised $3,000 — a significant amount of money in those days. It was enough to bring about ten refugees to America.
The Nazis’ most wanted refugees were on a secret “blacklist.” Americans familiar with current events in Germany, and Germans who had already fled to America, gathered the names of the people in greatest danger. All of these people were well-known and most were critics of Hitler. The Emergency Rescue Committee’s members knew it would be hard for the people on the lists to hide. It would be almost impossible for them to avoid being captured in France.
Members of the Emergency Rescue Committee worked hard. They even approached First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for help in convincing the United States government to open America’s doors to the refugees on the lists. But the United States State Department placed strict limits on the number of refugees it would admit. The country was just emerging from severe economic depression. Many Americans worried that foreigners would compete for scarce jobs, or become dependent on public funds. Others feared that enemy spies posing as refugees would infiltrate our country.
The Emergency Rescue Committee and other groups that wanted to help the refugees convinced President Roosevelt to authorize a limited number of “emergency visas” that would enable several hundred refugees to come to the United States. Visas were, in fact, little more than an official looking United States stamp placed in a refugee’s passport, but they often meant the difference between life and death.
CHOOSING A “RESCUER”
Who would the Emergency Rescue Committee send to France to locate the refugees, distribute money and advice, and let them know that visas were available to them?
Varian Fry, a young editor and writer based in New York City, was an unlikely candidate for the mission. He had no training for relief work. But when no one else volunteered, he agreed to do the job. Even in his youth, Fry had been unafraid to stick his neck out to right the world’s wrongs. As a student, he had resigned from a prestigious prep school on a matter of principle: he opposed what he felt were unjust and abusive hazing practices inflicted on incoming freshmen. Now that he was in a position to help even a handful of the people threatened by the Nazis, he did not hesitate to act.
Fry’s fluency in several languages, his familiarity with contemporary politics, and his appreciation of European culture helped convince the Emergency Rescue Committee that he could do the job. As an editor at the Foreign Policy Association in New York, he studied and wrote about the situation in Europe after Hitler’s rise to power. Extremely well-read, he had received a degree in classics from Harvard University in 1931. Fry commented later on his decision to go to France: “Among the refugees caught in France were many writers and artists whose work I had enjoyed. . . . Now that they were in danger, I felt obliged to help them if I could; just as they, without knowing it, had often in the past helped me.”
Fry checked into the Hotel Splendide in the bustling, noisy, dirty Mediterranean seaport city of Marseilles, which was in the Vichy Zone of France. Many refugees had fled to Marseilles after the German invasion of Paris because of its port and busy railroad lines. The possibility of reaching the Spanish border also seemed to make escape attractive.
In fact, even those who were fortunate enough to secure visas for entry into other countries found that the French restricted their departure. Usually,French authorities refused to give them the exit visas that made departure legal Even if a refugee received a scarce French exit visa, he usually had to go to the Spanish and Portuguese consulates in or around Marseilles to secure transit visas allowing travel through those countries. This task was difficult because safe conduct passes were required just to travel around France. More often than not, by the time one set of papers was in order another expired. The likelihood of a full set of papers being updated to coordinate with transportation was almost nil.
As word spread that an American had come with visas to help them escape from France, the refugees flocked to Fry’s hotel room. Fry found himself inundated with desperate refugees begging for help. Although many of the refugees Fry helped were Jewish, the Emergency Rescue Committee did not offer aid specifically to Jews. The people it helped were mostly political refugees (socialists, and leaders of trade unions, who opposed Hitler), and artists, writers and scholars who refused to be silenced by the Nazis.
A BAND OF RESCUERS
Fry quickly realized that he needed assistance from people familiar with French procedures. So he assembled a small staff. He hired several idealistic young Americans who found themselves in France at the time of the German invasion. Europeans, some on the run themselves, who knew the refugees and their predicaments, also joined the staff.
Unexpectedly for Fry, secrecy and intrigue became a routine part of his job. When he boarded the plane in New York he had hardly anticipated doing clandestine work. But both American and French regulations made it almost impossible to rescue the refugees without sidestepping laws, creating escape routes, and resorting to underground operations.
Almost immediately upon his arrival in Marseilles, Fry visited the United States consulate. Since the American diplomats at the consulate were authorized to place the visa stamps in the refugees’ passports, Fry expected to introduce himself and enlist their help. In fact, the consular officers refused to meet with Fry that day. And he soon learned that they refused to issue visas — even those that had been authorized by Washington — unless the refugees could prove that they had visas giving them permission to leave France. Since the French were unwilling to grant those, most refugees found themselves trapped.
Together with his colleagues Fry scouted out escape routes over the Pyrenees,the mountains separating France and Spain. The older refugees found the long,steep climb nearly impossible. Even if they reached Spain there was no guarantee they could make it to safety outside of war torn Europe. But for many, it was the only alternative, so they steeled themselves to make the hot, dusty hike through the mountain vineyards. For other refugees Fry and his colleagues turned to the black market, buying passports or booking passage on ships sailing illegally from Marseilles.
Still others received falsified exit papers from the expert forger Fry hired. As the long work day finally ended Fry and his colleagues retired to his bathroom to discuss the day’s events. There, they turned on the taps full blast to muffle the sound of their voices in case the room was bugged.
SETTING UP A COVER OPERATION
Fry and his growing staff soon found that a hotel room was no place to conduct a complex rescue operation. They rented office space and established a legal French relief organization, the Centre Américain de Secours (American Relief Center), to serve as a cover for their illegal activities. By day Fry and his staff dispensed money to refugees, helped them find places to stay, and referred them to other relief organizations. At night Fry and the inner circle met to plan and discuss secret activities. It was clear, as Fry’s one month deadline came and went, that he was committed to stay on as long as the refugees needed him. As he wrote to his mother, “You can see that I am not staying on because it is fun, but because I don’t see how I can leave. Everybody agrees that my office would collapse without me.”
In addition to planning escapes, Fry and his colleagues investigated conditions in the internment camps in France. After the German invasion of France in May 1940, the French government imprisoned all German nationals as “enemy aliens.” Many of them were freed after the armistice was signed in June. Others remained in the camps, where conditions were harsh. Cold, hunger, disease and parasites were rampant. Fry’s tireless efforts to alert American diplomats in France to the conditions in the camps fell on deaf ears. They mockingly dubbed his meticulously researched reports, “Fryana.”
FRENCH AND AMERICAN OPPOSITION
Most of the American diplomats in France treated Fry with suspicion and disdain They claimed that Fry’s disregard for French regulations angered the French authorities with whom America maintained friendly diplomatic relations.
Many were also concerned that if they were not vigilant, European refugees would flood the United States. Although there were two vice consuls in Marseilles who were genuinely sympathetic to the refugees and cooperated with Fry in his efforts to help them, their attitudes were far from the norm among American consular authorities. The French authorities, too, urged Fry to leave. If they appeared to support him, they feared they would anger the Germans.
RESPITE AT THE VILLA AIR BEL
Despite resistance from all sides, Fry and his dedicated colleagues endured. Exhausted by the crush of refugees, Fry and some of his coworkers decided to rent a villa on the outskirts of Marseilles. Several artists of the surrealist group, together with their families who were waiting to leave France, completed the company. In Hitler’s mind, the surrealists and all other modern artists were subversive because their unconventional art challenged society’s established values. Many had fled to France because they feared arrest in Germany. From the Villa Air Bel, Fry wrote to his wife in New York, “I now live in a chateau about half a mile out, and none of my clients knows where . . . . it has an incredible Mediterranean view from the terrace. Besides four members of my staff, André Breton and Victor Serge and their wives live with us. Breton is particular fun: I like Surrealists. The first night, for instance, he had a bottle full of praying mantises, which he released at dinner like so many pets.”
Even at the Villa Air Bel refuge was illusory. In December 1940 French police searched the house, arrested Fry and his colleagues, and placed them on a prison ship in Marseilles harbor. Although he was released, disheveled but unharmed, several days later, Fry knew that his time in France was running out. In January Fry’s American passport expired. The State Department, which disapproved of his activities and wanted him to go back to America, refused to renew it. Fry carried on without the protection of an American passport. Soon after, Fry learned that due to his long absence, the Foreign Policy Association had decided not to hold his job for him any longer. But even without the safety of a passport or the security of a job on his return, Fry persevered. He had always played by his own moral standards, not by rules others imposed on him.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1941, the Centre Américain de Secours managed to smuggle people out of France. French authorities watched Fry’s activities closely, eager to uncover the misstep or indiscretion that would provide an excuse to expel him. The State Department in Washington, meanwhile, instructed its consuls in France to be even stricter about issuing visas to the refugees. In light of the new restrictions, every person Fry was able to rescue represented a significant victory.
Eventually, the French authorities lost their patience with Fry, who had stayed in France a year longer than intended. The chief of police ordered Fry expelled American diplomats did not protest, and they wasted no time inputting Fry’s papers in order to speed his departure.
All told, Fry and his colleagues spirited more than 1,500 people from France and offered about 2,500 others aid, advice and support. Among them were some of the foremost artists, writers, scholars and scientists of the time. Fry wrote that as he rode the train from France, he thought of “the faces of the thousand refugees I had sent out of France, and the faces of a thousand more I had to leave behind.”
Varian Fry reluctantly returned to New York in September 1941. He continued to speak and write about the impending massacre of the Jews in Europe, but few Americans wanted to listen. Surrender on Demand, Fry’s memoir of France, was published in 1945. It was well received but not widely read. People wanted to put the horrors of the war and the Holocaust behind them.
Fry worked as an editor, a businessman and a teacher and raised a family. He never held such an adventurous or dangerous job again. But he continued to fight injustice in his own ways and to stand up for what he believed was right.
Although the United States government did not accord Varian Fry any official recognition for his rescue work in France during his lifetime, in 1967 he received the Croix de Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, one of France’s highest civilian honors. Always dedicated to teaching the young, Fry was inspired by the award to rework Surrender on Demand for a young audience. He was editing the book, alone, in his house in Connecticut, when he had a heart attack. The police officer who found his body looked at the papers scattered around Fry and wrote in his police report that the fantastic account must have been a “work of fiction.”
Today, the International Rescue Committee, the successor organization to the Emergency Rescue Committee, continues to help refugees throughout the world.
Lesson plans for high school grades are accessed by selecting: Rescue, Lesson Plan
The complete set of classroom materials (grades 7-12) includes the following items:
- “Assignment: Rescue” An autobiography by Varian Fry
- Assignment: Rescue” A 27 minute video tape narrated by Meryl Streep
- A “Study Guide” to accompany the video. It includes topics for discussion and written assignments.
For more information on Varian Fry: