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Helen and Sol Krawitz Holocaust Memorial Education Center

Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center

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Varian Fry (1907–1967) was an American journalist who helped anti-Nazi refugees escape from France.

Varian Fry in Marseilles. France, 1940–1941.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Annette Fry

After Germany invaded France in June 1940, the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private American relief organization, sent Fry to France to aid anti-Nazi refugees who were in danger of being arrested by the Gestapo (German secret state police). In Marseille, Fry’s network of accomplices forged documents and created clandestine escape routes. He offered aid to antifascist refugees, both Jews and non-Jews, threatened with extradition to Nazi Germany under Article 19 of the Franco-German armistice (the “Surrender on Demand” clause).

Fry stayed in France for 13 months. He was under constant surveillance and was, more than once, questioned and detained by authorities. He established a legal French relief organization, The American Relief Center, and worked behind its cover using illegal means—black-market funds, forged documents, secret mountain passages, and sea routes—to spirit endangered refugees from France.

Fry’s efforts resulted in the rescue of some 2,000 persons, including such distinguished artists and intellectuals as Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Franz Werfel, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Heinrich Mann. His covert activities angered officials of both the US State Department and Vichy France and in September 1941, he was expelled from France.

Shortly before Fry’s death, the French government awarded him the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. It was the only official recognition he received in his lifetime. Fry died unexpectedly in 1967 while revising his memoirs. He left behind a wealth of written and photographic materials that document his experiences in France. ASSIGNMENT: RESCUE, the version of his memoirs Fry rewrote for young readers, was published shortly after his death.

In 1991, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council awarded the Eisenhower Liberation Medal to Varian Fry. In 1994 he was also honored by Yad Vashem as a “Righteous Among the Nations” for his rescue activities.