Rescued from the Holocaust
“Rescued from the Holocaust”
by Sean Price
When Hitler’s army conquered France in 1940, Jews and other people came under attack. One American, Varian Fry, saved hundreds of lives.
From JUNIOR SCHOLASTIC April 27, 1998, Teacher’s and Student’s Editions.
Copyright © 1998 by Scholastic Inc. Used by permission of the publisher.
These materials are designed for Junior High school.
In 1940, as Nazi invaders occupied France, tens of thousands of refugees from all over Europe fled south toward Marseilles. (Courtesy of International Rescue Committee)
Varian Fry, a U.S journalist and refugee rescue worker
Frank Bohn, a U.S. refugee rescue worker
Albert O. Hirschman, a German refugee and assistant to Fry
Lisa Fittko, refugee smuggler
Walter Meyerhof, 18, a Jewish refugee and the son of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist
French border guard
Major Torr, a British army officer
Walter Mehring, a poet and Jewish refugee
U.S. embassy official
*All characters are real people.
About this play: In 1935, a young American journalist named Varian Fry visited Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had been in power for only two years. But Fry found that Hitler had already molded Germany into his own cruel image.
Hitler believed that Jewish people were inferior, and Fry saw, firsthand, how they were treated. “I saw young Nazi [thugs] smash up Jewish-owned shops” Fry later wrote, “and I watched in horror as they dragged people out into the streets and beat and kicked them.”
In 1939 and 1940, Hitler’s armies stunned the world by taking over most of Europe, including France. The Germans occupied the northern two thirds of France (see map). In south-eastern France, the Nazis set up a puppet government with a capital in the town of Vichy (VEE-shee).
In August 1940, some of the world’s greatest artists and intellectuals were trapped in Vichy France. They were political opponents of the Nazis; many of them were also Jewish. Vichy France was forced to “surrender on demand” almost anyone the Nazis requested.
In the U.S.— which was still neutral in the war — a private group called the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) formed. Its goal was to help many of Hitler’s most famous enemies to escape from France.
To carry out its work, the ERC sent 32-year-old Varian Fry to Vichy France. His original assignment was to spend three weeks there to help 200 intellectuals and artists escape. But Fry’s adventure lasted much longer. At great risk to himself, he helped far more than 200 people to escape.
Narrator A: Fry arrives in the French city of Marseilles [mahr-SAY] in August 1940. He is not sure what to do. So he turns for guidance to another American who is helping refugees.
Frank Bohn: You should operate openly as someone here to help refugees.
Varian Fry: But the French police are stooges of the Gestapo (German secret police). They check everybody who enters and leaves France. You want me to tell them that I’m here to sneak wanted men and women out of the country?
Bohn: Don’t operate that openly. Tell the French that you’re simply giving money to refugees and helping them get proper travel documents. That is true and perfectly legal. But don’t tell them that you’re giving out false passports and helping fugitives to escape from the Nazis.
Fry: How do I get people out of the country?
Bohn: We’re in luck. The German invasion has caused a lot of confusion. Most people can still slip past the French border guards and get into Spain. From there, they can go to Portugal, and from Portugal they can hopefully get to the U.S.
Fry: So why haven’t more people left?
Bohn: Many are still waiting for the right paperwork. They must obtain an entry and an exit visa [permission to travel] from each country before they pass through it. That is difficult and takes time. Also, many people have already been put in internment camps.
Narrator B: Fry sets up the American Relief Center, and is overwhelmed by all the people who need help. He puts together a small staff to help him.
Fry: Let me get this straight. You’re a German Jew who joined the French army to fight the Nazis. But now you have a false identity card that says you are a Frenchman born in Philadelphia?
Albert O. Hirschman: That’s right.
Fry: Why Philadelphia?
Hirschman: It is a small town. I thought it would be harder for the Gestapo to check birth records there.
Fry: A small town? Philadelphia is one of the biggest cities in the U.S.! It probably has excellent birth records.
Hirschman: You’re kidding.
Fry: No, I’m afraid not. Anyway, welcome to the team.
Narrator B: Hirschman becomes an expert on finding false identity cards and false travel papers for others.
Fry: That’s an impressive looking document, Albert. What is it?
Hirschman: I think it’s a Chinese visa.
Fry: What does it say?
Hirschman: Your guess is as good as mine. But I’ll bet that the diplomats we’re trying to fool won’t know, either. We can use it to get the Spanish and Portuguese visas that people need.
Narrator B: The gamble pays off. People carrying the Chinese visa are able to get the necessary documents.
Narrator C: Fry hires people to help refugees cross the border into Spain. But smuggling people out of France is unpredictable. One day, refugees cross the border easily. The next day, they are turned back or arrested.
Lisa Fittko (to a group of refugees): Once we reach the bottom of that hill, we should be at the Spanish border.
Walter Meyerhof: Oh, no – a French border guard! We’ve been caught.
French border guard: What are you doing here?
Meyerhof: We’re just taking a walk.
French border guard: Come with me.
Narrator C: The group is jailed for three days, then released. For several frustrating months, though, Meyerhof is stuck in France. At one point, he stays at the country home that Fry is renting.
Meyerhof: Who are all these people staying here?
Fry: They are some of the most famous modern artists in Europe. Do you want to meet them?
Meyerhof: No, thanks! They look pretty weird. I’ll just stay in my room.
Narrator D: Eventually, Meyerhof escapes and reaches the U.S. Meanwhile, Fry explores every means of getting people out of France. On a trip to Spain, he meets a British officer…
Major Torr: We’d love to loan you boats to help with the refugees. But we’re at war with Germany, and the British navy has no boats to spare. We still might be able to help, though.
Torr: We can give you $10,000—if you will use some of the money to help British soldiers who are trapped in France to escape. The rest you can use to rent boats for your refugees.
Fry: I’ll take it.
Torr: You should realize that by taking this money you have just become a British agent. If the Germans find out, they could shoot you or put you in a concentration camp.
Narrator D: Fry is able to help many British soldiers escape. But his plan to rent boats for smuggling refugees falls apart.
Fry: What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be sailing to British Gibraltar right now.
Walter Mehring: The boat never came.
Fry: What happened?
Mehring: The boat’s captain took the money and told us he’d be right back. Then he disappeared.
Narrator E: By April 1941, Fry finds it harder and harder to smuggle people out of France. But he is still able to do some good.
Fry: Do you realize that you have just arrested Marc Chagall [shah-GALL]?
Police officer: So? Who’s that?
Fry: He’s one of the word’s greatest living artists.
Police officer: He was arrested because he is a Jew.
Fry: If the news of his arrest leaks out, the whole world will be shocked. Vichy France will be gravely embarrassed. You will be in trouble.
Police officer: I shall look into his case at once.
Narrator E: Chagall is quickly released. Some time later, Fry is able to sneak Chagall and his wife out of the country. But such boldness is noticed by the Germans. They put pressure on the U.S. government to get Fry out of Vichy France.
Fry: I need to renew my passport.
U.S. embassy official: We have orders from Washington to renew it only if you agree to return to the U.S.
… Scene Six…
Narrator F: Eventually, the French police find an excuse to throw Fry out of the country.
Police captain: Your assistant was found trading goods on the black market [illegal trading]. This presents serious problems for you.
Fry: There is no proof that I was involved in any way.
Police captain: In today’s France, we need no proof. Before the invasion, we believed that it was better to let a hundred criminals escape than to arrest one innocent man. Now we believe just the opposite.
Fry: We are very far apart on how we view human rights.
Police captain: In time, you Americans will come around to our point of view. Now, when are you leaving France?
Fry: I have no definite plans.
Police captain: Unless you leave soon, I will have to put you under house arrest in some remote area where you can do no harm.
Fry: Tell me frankly: Why are you so opposed to me?
Police captain: Because you have helped and protected Jews and anti-Nazis.
In September 1941, Fry was kicked out of Vichy France. In the 13 months before that, however, he had helped 1,200 to 1,800 people to escape from the Nazis and gave other types of aid to more than 2,000 others.
In December 1941, the U.S. entered World War II. Fry spent the war writing and lecturing about the Nazis. He predicted that Hitler’s cruelty toward Jewish people would get worse. He was right. By the end of the war in 1945, the Nazis had murdered more than 6 million Jews and many other people.
Fry was not the only American who helped refugees escape from Vichy France. But he took the biggest risks and got some of the best results. Still, his heroic work was largely forgotten after the war. By the time he died in 1967. only France had honored him.
Since his death, Fry has become better known. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has honored him with its highest award and made him the subject of an exhibition that is now traveling the U.S. (see box below).
In 1996, Israel recognized Varian Fry as a “Righteous Among the Nations.” That award is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish people during the Holocaust. Fry is the only American to hold that honor.
Think About It
- 1. Why was it important to help people targeted by the Nazis to escape?
- 2. Do you think it was okay for Fry to use false passports and other illegal means to help people escape? Explain.
Taking It Further:
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has prepared an exhibit on Fry that is traveling the U.S.
Check out this site: www.almondseed.com/vfry