By Dara Horn
Remember Varian Fry?
The man who between 1940 and 1941 rescued 2,000 people, “including a hand-picked list of the brightest stars of European culture — Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and André Breton, to name a few” from the Nazis in Vichy France?
The man who in 1997 (30 years after his death) became the first American to be named by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations?
No? You aren’t alone.
Why he was so forgotten, even among the people he rescued, is one of many questions author Dara Horn raises in this book.
One who knows in detail what Fry achieved is filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, who has spent much of the past 14 years working on a documentary about Fry.
Sauvage has a personal interest in rescuers: he was born in 1944 in Le Chambon, France, a Huguenot village in south central France. Led by its clergy, the entire town sheltered Jews from Nazis, including Sauvage and his parents. He documented the actions of the town in his 1989 film “Weapons of the Spirit.” (He later discovered that his parents had been turned away by Fry before going to Le Chambon.)
Sauvage believes that such rescuers should be studied and learned from as role models.
“I’ve never met an unhappy rescuer. These are people who are rooted in a clear sense of identity — who they are, what they love, what they hate, what they value — that gives them a footing to assess a situation,” Sauvage tells Horn.
While it’s lovely to think of rescuers as self-actualized people, Horn learns from her own research that Fry wasn’t a happy man. His difficult personality made it hard for him to hold on to marriages or jobs. His son, Jim, a biologist, believes he suffered from bipolar disorder.
Even the U.S. government turned against the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) that Fry worked for and arranged for his arrest and deportation from France in 1941 when he refused to leave as requested to.
One of the key questions Horn asks is why did Fry expose himself to the dangers and difficulties of rescuing Jews in Vichy France? In Le Chambon, the townspeople said they acted as they did because they wanted to live lives worthy of Christ.
By contrast, the ERC was formed “out of the fear that European culture itself was about to be lost forever.” An ad hoc group of American intellectuals formed in 1940 after France fell to the Nazis, their goal was to distribute emergency American visas to endangered European artists and thinkers.
Fry, then 32, had no experience or qualifications for the job. He was a Harvard graduate and had been a journalist, but he could rarely hold a job for more than a year or two. As no one else stepped up, the committee brought him on.
“It did not appear to occur to anyone at that time, as premier American minds argued over which premier European minds to include on the list, that there was a sort of eugenics to this anti-Nazi exercise as well — though later it would very much occur to Varian Fry,” Horn notes.
On a larger level, Horn notes, opening U.S. borders and offering asylum to Jews would have allowed many more to be saved. After France fell to the Nazis, U.S. Envoy to Portugal Herbert Pell said, “There is a fire sale on brains here, and we are not taking full advantage of it.”
Indeed, those whom Fry saved made a huge impact on American art, culture and sciences. “Artists like Marc Chagall redefined urban spaces with public art around the world; works by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, André Masson, and others entered the permanent exhibits of major museums. Their students had names like Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock,” Horn writes.
Fry was acutely conscious of the people left behind. He tried to volunteer as a soldier and with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and was rejected. He wrote and argued for offering the Jews of Europe asylum — and was not heard.
There was a surprising lack of recognition or gratitude among the people Fry saved for what he had done for them. Philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote about righteous gentiles, never mentioned that she had been rescued by Fry, according to Horn. When Fry asked artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst to donate some of their works for a fund-raising project he was planning, neither were initially responsive.
Fry had personally sprung Chagall from jail as the French were about to hand him over to the Gestapo. Yet when he asked Chagall to donate a lithograph, Chagall drug his heels and then refused to sign it, making the donation much less valuable. Fry went to Europe to personally appeal to Ernst – and had a heart-attack not long after he convinced Ernst to participate.
One of the most troubling questions that Horn asks is: “As long as we are questioning the choices that were made, shouldn’t we be considering the possibility of the Holocaust not happening at all? If someone was in a position to choose whether to save person A or person B, shouldn’t whole societies have been in the position to reject the notion of genocide altogether? . . . In this sense, rescuer stories are the opposite of inspirational. They are stories that make painfully clear everything that might have been.”
Sauvage, on the other hand, suggests to Horn that “you judge a mission by what it accomplished, not by what it didn’t accomplish.”
Horn asks deep and complex questions in this short book. Those questions reach far beyond Fry’s life and accomplishments. Her book does ask us to think beyond the appearances and myths of history.
Fry’s rescue efforts were the focus of the Netflix series, “Transatlantic,” which aired in 2023. The series was based on Julie Orringer’s novel about Fry, THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO.
The Author: Dara Horn (1977 – )
Dara Horn is a novelist, essayist and professor of literature.
When she was 14, she won a trip to Poland and Israel when she finished first in a competition about Israeli history. When she returned, she wrote an essay about her trip for Hadassah Magazine that was nominated for a 1993 National Magazine Award.
She received a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature summa cum laude in 1999 and a doctorate degree comparative literature in Hebrew and Yiddish in 2006. Both were from Harvard University. She earned a master’s degree in Hebrew literature at Cambridge University.
She taught classes in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Sarah Lawrence College and the City University of New York. She held the Weinstock visiting professorship in Jewish Studies at Harvard, teaching Yiddish and Hebrew literature. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times and The Atlantic.
She has written six books, the latest of which is PEOPLE LOVE DEAD JEWS (2021).