Varian Fry led rescue efforts in wartime France that enabled approximately 2,000 anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees to flee Nazi-dominated Europe. In recognition of his efforts, Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust remembrance authority, honored Fry as a “Righteous Among the Nations,” making him the only American to have received that distinction. Fry’s life story, centering on the thirteen months in 1940 and 1941 he spent aiding refugees in Vichy France, is the subject of Sheila Isenberg’s A Hero of Our Own.
In the book, Isenberg, a professor of English at Marist College, chronicles Fry’s life from his privileged but troubled youth and his early career as a journalist to his death in 1967 at age fifty-nine. His rescue activities, however, take center stage, as Isenberg traces Fry’s work on behalf of refugees, work sparked by his witness to storm troopers violently beating Jews on the streets of Berlin in 1935.
Appalled and horrified by what he had seen, Fry wrote about the worsening situation in Europe, but his articles about the brutality he witnessed and the dangers of Nazism did not get the response he had hoped for. Motivated to act and deeply unsettled by the fall of France in 1940, Fry joined the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Supported by artists, writers, politicians, and other members of the intellectual elite, the ERC sought to save as many refugees as possible, but they needed someone to go to Europe to do the work. Fry stepped forward. Armed with $3,000 and a list of 200 prominent refugees, he flew to Marseille in August 1940 to assist these refugees in any way he could. Once there, however, moved by the fear and suffering around him, he expanded his mission dramatically.
Using Fry’s own words and the testimony of refugees and compatriots, Isenberg skillfully evokes the tense atmosphere of wartime Marseille, where a hoard of desperate refugees found precarious asylum. She describes the extreme measures Fry took to save as many endangered souls as he could, far more than the 200 intellectuals, scientists, writers, and artists he had been sent to aid, gathering others to help him arrange escapes from internment camps, forge documents, bribe officials, and spirit refugees across the border into Spain. Skirting danger and side-stepping the law, Fry and his group ultimately provided financial or travel assistance to approximately 4,000 refugees and enabled almost half of them to escape, all on limited resources and with little or no assistance from the United States consulate in Marseille.
Expelled from France by the Vichy police in September 1941, Fry returned to New York. Though Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipschitz, Heinrich Mann, and many others are counted among those Fry saved, he was received back home with little enthusiasm. Some recognition for Fry’s efforts did come within his lifetime, however, when the French government bestowed on him the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur just prior to his death in 1967. Further honors, including Yad Vashem’s “Righteous” designation, followed posthumously, and Isenberg herself found another way to pay tribute to Fry’s heroism. She concludes each chapter in the book with the personal story of a refugee or group Fry assisted, their lives, one could argue, the highest laurels Fry can claim.
A Hero of Our Own includes thirty black and white photographs, many of them personal, family photos, along with a bibliography and index.
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|TABLE OF CONTENTS|
|PART ONE: NEW YORK TO MARSEILLE|
|Chapter 1: The Dixie Clipper||3|
|Two Deserted People: The Ullmanns||21|
|Chapter 2: August Arrival||24|
|From Marseille to Hoboken: Bruno and Klara||42|
|Chapter 3: Early Days||46|
|All is Okay: Paul and Elena Krantz||66|
|Chapter 4: Over the Mountains||68|
|When I Was Baggage: Michael Kaufman||88|
|Chapter 5: The Doors Close||91|
|The Nobleman's Son: Walter Meyerhof||107|
|Chapter Six: Respite at Air-Bel||112|
|Not Degenerate Enough: Charlotte Brand||124|
|Chapter 7: Exquisite Corpse: The Surrealists||126|
|Saving Ernst, Losing Straus||134|
|Chapter 8: Troublemaker: Winter ‘40-‘41||140|
|Martyrs: Breitscheid and Hilferding||165|
|Chapter 9: Spring Renewal||170|
|Toward World Peace: Berthold Jacob||194|
|Chapter 10: The End of the Adventure||124|
|There Is No Way Out: Ylla||205|
|Chapter 11: Expulsion||208|
|Flight and Arrival: Jacques Lipchitz||219|
|PART TWO: AFTER MARSEILLE|
|Chapter 12: Going Home||227|
|Chapter 13: Surrender on Demand||240|
|Chapter 14: The Final Years||252|