Varian Fry and many of the thousands of anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees he helped save from Nazi persecution during the Second World War have been revealed in historical records on Ancestry.com.au.
August 2010 marks 70 years since Fry first arrived in Marseille to help Jewish refugees and others escape the Nazis following Germany’s occupation of the French city in August 1940.
In a similar vein to Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jewish refugees during the Holocaust and whose story was made into a film, Varian Fry was wholly committed to saving Jewish men, women and children from Nazi persecution.
Fry was the driving force behind a rescue operation which ultimately saved as many as 4000 people, many of whom can subsequently be found in the New York Passenger Lists 1820-1957, which detail more than 82 million people travelling mainly from European ports to New York.
In 1935, Fry was a correspondent for an American newspaper and was sent to Berlin where he bore witness to the stabbing by two Nazis of a Jewish gentleman who was innocently sitting outside a cafe.
This barbaric scene fuelled his subsequent decision to dedicate himself to the cause, helping raise funds to support anti-Nazi movements through an independent body called the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), which helped those under threat of arrest by the Gestapo flee the country by ship to the US.
Fry spent years educating the American public about the plight of the Jews in Europe, raising funds and trying to sensitize people to the horrifying persecution being endured.
Finally sent by the ERC to Marseille, during his time there Fry was approached by those desperately seeking an escape route, including members of the French intelligentsia, such as:
- Marc Chagall – this Jewish French-Russian artist was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century
- Claude Levi-Strauss – a French anthropologist considered by many as the founder of structuralism
- Marcel Duchamp – a French-American artist largely associated with the Surrealist and Dadaist movements and renowned for his influence on post-World War art
In all, it is estimated that Fry helped anywhere from 2000 to 4,000 Jews and political refugees to escape the Nazis.
In 1945 he wrote a book called Surrender on Demand, a compilation of memoirs based on his time spent in France. The preface was initially censored as it denounced America’s policy on visas but was finally published in the French version in 1999.
In 1995, Fry became the first American to be recognized as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ – an honorary title used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis during their extermination during the Holocaust.