A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry

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“One of the BEST BOOKS of 2001. This little book is a life of a saint equal to any medieval tome.”

– St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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“The story of Varian Fry is important on many levels, historical and personal. Skillfully evoking a crucial moment in recent history, Sheila Isenberg tells the compelling and dramatic story of how an ordinary person, thrust into a situation of extreme danger, did extraordinary things for one year in wartime France, then drifted almost lost through the rest of his own life. It is also a story of institutionalized bureaucratic stupidity that must never be forgotten so that it is never repeated.”
– The late Richard Holbrooke, U.S. diplomat

“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.”
– United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Featured Book

“The story of Varian Fry is perhaps less well known than that of Oscar Schindler, but to some he became known as the ‘American Schindler’ or ‘The Artist’s Schindler’… This book can assist the teacher to introduce to students, historical content, and religious and moral values, while personalizing events of the Holocaust.”
– Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, Featured Book

“Varian Fry, the only American honored at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, played a crucial role in rescuing more than 1,000 European refugees from the Nazis in the early 1940s. With his Emergency Rescue Committee, Fry rescued Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Hannah Arendt, Heinrich Mann, and other intellectuals, political activists, and what the Nazis called ‘degenerate’ artists, many of them Jews. Yet, up until the late 1990s, few in this country had heard of Fry. This highly readable biography tells the exciting escape stories of the underground railroad he organized to lead refugees from southern France across the Pyrenees to freedom. Isenberg sets the rescue stories against the background of American isolationism and anti-Semitism at the time, documenting her dramatic narrative with more than 70 pages of fascinating notes, including references to letters, interviews, personal papers, and government reports. The drama here is in the thrill of rescue, the realistic portrait of a complex leader, and the decidedly nonheroic truths about WWII at home… A must for WWII collections…”
– Booklist, by Hazel Rochman

“Now that America has been shocked into a new appreciation of heroism, the story of the late Varian Fry is especially timely. Sheila Isenberg devotes most of the book to the specifics of Fry’s action-packed months in Marseilles, when he ferried numerous Jews (Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few) out of occupied France. This is where Isenberg starts to explore new terrain: Tales of survivors and saviors are familiar to us, but Fry was both. And he was American.”
– Washington Post Book World

“Sheila Isenberg has written a masterful biography of this most enigmatic man. She pulls no punches in exhibiting his flaws, but shows no restraint in praising his virtues … [Fry's life] is truly unique and compelling, and Isenberg tells it with considerable compassion. The book is well worth the attention of anyone interested in reading about a most unlikely 20th-century hero.”
– The Roanoke Times

“A HERO OF OUR OWN comes at a time when we need to remind ourselves of the high price of sticking one’s neck out for others. Isenberg’s work is a painstakingly documented book that presents human nature at its best and worst. In this dark work, she portrays Fry as a flawed but dedicated idealist.”
– The Free-Lance Star, Fredericksburg, VA

“This is one more time when you have to say: ‘Read the book!’[A Hero of Our Own] records one adventure after another. From almost the moment that Varian Fry landed in Marseilles, in occupied Vichy, France, with basically no prior training or experience in emigration matters, he engineered the work of a dedicated staff that not only directly assisted the escape and emigration efforts of many survivors, but also documented the nefarious activities of Nazis and their sympathizers. Some day soon, another Hollywood scriptwriter may prepare this story once more for a movie or theatrical presentation, but as I said, one can obtain quite a thrill by reading this book.”
– JewishPress.com

“Given the new gravity of public discourse, it may be a propitious time for the book. Isenberg finds an analogy between the isolationist spirit during Fry’s days ‘and the insular period we went through’ before September 11. Beyond that, Fry’s heroism has its own power. Some call him the ‘American Schindler’ and, indeed, Isenberg finds an explanation proffered by Oskar Schindler’s surprising heroism applicable to Fry: only a ‘divine inspiration’ could explain how such a man could draw so deeply on his principles, creativity, courage and tenacity to stem the tide of history.”
– Publisher’s Weekly Interview

“You’ll want to read Sheila Isenberg’s riveting biography of Varian Fry, A Hero of Our Own. It is the flashback to Fry’s early life that gave this reader the clearest insight not only into the man but into the times he lived in. He was a man who ‘chafed at the world,’ a rebel against authority [and] a hero abroad. He died in 1967, an ordinary person who had done extraordinary things just once in his life. There are 16 pages of photos [and] interviews with survivors, letters and records.”
– Taconic Times 

About A Hero of Our Own

Varian Fry was a World War II hero and Holocaust rescuer. In 1940, this young American went on a secret mission to Marseille to save Jewish refugees and others who had fled Nazi Germany and were now trapped in southern France. Thanks to this American Schindler, the men and women smuggled out of France became survivors of World War II instead of victims.

Sheila Isenberg’s biography of Fry, A HERO OF OUR OWN, tells the story of this WW II rescuer. The only American “Righteous Gentile” honored by Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Fry is also known as the “artists’ Schindler.” Among the 1,500 World War II refugees that he saved from the Holocaust were renowned artists such as Max Ernst, Marc Chagall and Jacques Lipchitz, as well as philosopher Hannah Arendt and Surrealist Andre Breton.

In 1940, a young Harvard-educated American named Varian Fry, inexperienced and not at all certain that he possessed any courage, went on a secret mission to Marseille. There, with only three thousand dollars and a list of names, he was to help those who had fled Nazi Germany and were now trapped in southern France.

The list he took with him had been prepared by, among others, the Museum of Modern Art and Eleanor Roosevelt. It included most of the premier writers, painters, and scientists of Europe, many of them Jews – people like Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel, Andr Breton, Andr Masson, and other Surrealists, and hundreds more. When Fry witnessed their plight, he became determined not just to give them immediate aid but to find ways for them to escape. Slowly he built up a group of people who could help, forging passports and finding secret paths across the Pyrenees into Spain and then to Lisbon.

Fry himself was constantly in great danger, but he seemed to experience a divine inspiration, achieving greatness and glimpsing immortality by acting as the hero he never thought he could be. His own government tried again and again to stop him and send him home, but he managed to continue his rescue operations for more than a year.

Only recently has the world begun to honor Fry, who died in 1967. He was for many years the only American honored at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Today there are three Americans honored there, out of some 17,000 non-Jews who saved the lives of Jews in the Holocaust.

Using letters and records unavailable to anyone else, as well as interviews with numerous survivors, Sheila Isenberg has given us an inspiring story of how the brave and determined actions of one individual can help change the world.


Excerpt from the book


Dear Eileen, We have left the Azores far behind and are now nearing Lisbon . . . there are some Don Quixote windmills on the brow of the hill be- hind the town, turning just as they must have been when he tilted at them. The Azores would be a delightful place to have a villa-at the end of one’s days.
- Varian

Early in the afternoon of August 4, 1940, Varian Fry crossed the ramp at La Guardia Airport to board a Pan American Airways Boeing B-314 to Europe for what would turn out to be the greatest adventure of his life. His wife and a small group of friends were there to see him off. As he walked toward the water where the seaplane was docked, sunlight danced off Fry’s glasses, mirroring the delight in his eyes. A slender man, above-average height, with dark brown hair and green eyes, he sparkled, pressed and immaculate, eager to be on his way. Over the gangplank, onto the Clipper, and belted in, Fry sank back finally to wave farewell to his wife and friends through the tiny window.

His destination was Marseille, a large, dirty port city near the southernmost tip of France that had become the last stop for many thousands of refugees from Hitler. From there, they hoped to embark to the United States, Britain, Canada, Mexico, Cuba-any country without a Nazi presence. By the time of Fry’s trip, Marseille was jammed with penniless, bedraggled exiles from all over Europe struggling to emigrate. Long before he left New York, he was aware that most were failing at these attempts, that some were already interned in French concentration camps under primitive and inhumane conditions. His mission, once he arrived, was to assist in any way he could, a handful of people, the intellectual elite of Europe, whose names had been given him by various leaders in American arts and sciences.

Fry left behind his wife of nine years, Eileen Hughes Fry, who had expressed a hope that he would return with a French child for them to adopt. He had taken a four-week leave of absence from his job as an editor at the Foreign Policy Association’s Headline Books. Naively thinking his mission to save the refugees could be accomplished in that short time, he had purchased a return Clipper ticket for August 29. Just before he left New York, worried whether he had the correct clothing, Fry went on a last-minute shopping spree, buying items that he imagined necessary for a month on the Continent.

Taped to his leg were a list of two hundred names, the most endangered refugees, and three thousand dollars in cash. As European representative for the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), an ad hoc group organized days after the fall of France, his mandate was to help German and Eastern European refugees obtain the visas and other documents they needed to escape from France.

Just before he left, Fry’s conversations with his wife revealed how little he understood public opinion in America regarding the European war and its refugees. He did not realize that it would be nearly impossible to mobilize Americans to support both refugee rescue and the liberalization of U.S. immigration policy. Eileen tried to explain the state of mind of the American people, but he never got it. Fry, who cared deeply about the well-being of all people, could not comprehend the narrow, selfish isolationist viewpoint of a majority of Americans who wanted neither to fight in the war nor to help its victims. This inability to understand American attitudes would hurt and hinder him during his year in Marseille as he came up against them repeatedly while he was dealing with American officials.

In some ways, Varian Fry was a likely candidate for the job he had undertaken. He spoke good French and some German, was Harvard-educated, and had a liberal Protestant background with a strong family emphasis on helping others. His paternal grandfather, Charles Reuben Fry, had been a prominent social worker and “child saver.”

Varian Fry was also a passionate antifascist who would now be able to act on his beliefs. Despite his political predilection for this work, however, his personality did not lend itself to his becoming a foreign emissary. He was outspoken and undiplomatic, and often anxious and moody. In addition, the leadership of the ERC, and Fry himself, had doubts about sending him to Europe because of his lack of experience in this type of political work. In the end, however, he was the only volunteer, and therefore the one to go.

His antifascism had been reinforced on a visit to Europe five years earlier, during the summer of 1935, when he witnessed Nazi storm troopers beating Jews on the streets of Berlin. His memory of this incident, of a victim’s “hand nailed to the table beside the beer mug,” influenced his decision to volunteer for the mission to Marseille. Haunted by what he had seen in Berlin, Fry wrote about it. Working at a series of editorial positions from 1935 on, he tried desperately but unsuccessfully to bring public attention to the coming Holocaust. Even front-page articles he wrote for The New York Times about the storm troopers’ brutality and its aftermath did not bring condemnation of Nazi actions. The majority of Americans were not interested. With isolationists dominant in American society, Fry and others with like views were generally ignored.

Since September 1939, Germany had vanquished the nations of Europe, including, during the April, May, and June 1940 “Blitzkrieg,” Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Luxembourg. “The enemy is aiming for the heart of France,” wrote Russian émigré Victor Serge, “and Paris is threatened.” In New York, as they waited for the inevitable invasion of France, Fry and other politically concerned people were frantically trying to figure out how to help their European friends.

Fry became involved in a number of different groups that were forming. He lunched often at Child’s restaurant on Fortieth Street in Manhattan with the dashing and mysterious Karl Frank (aka Paul Hagen) and his second wife, activist-heiress Anna Caples. (It was at these meetings that the groundwork was laid for the formation of the Emergency Rescue Committee.) He joined the American Friends of German Freedom, which Frank had created along with the progressive theologian Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr. When Frank first arrived in New York in 1935, he had read Fry’s New York Times article about the Nazis beating Jews in Berlin and sought out the young journalist. A psychoanalyst and “professional revolutionary,” Frank had been a communist militant in Austria during the twenties, then head of the German Socialist Party in Prague. Niebuhr, formerly a pacifist, was now urging “Christians to support the war against Hitler.” Fry also met the daring and glamorous Buttingers. From 1934 to 1938, Joseph Buttinger led the underground Austrian Socialist Movement, then emigrated to the United States with his wife, Muriel Gardiner, the scion of a wealthy American family.* As other bright politically concerned young people gathered around the locus of the Franks and the Buttingers-including Ingrid Warburg, of the influential banking family, and Eileen Hughes Fry-Fry became involved in yet a third group, the International Relief Association (IRA). Founded in 1934 by Albert Einstein to aid refugees from Hitler, this group operated independently in Europe for a time.

On June 14, 1940, German forces, which had been bombing on the outskirts of Paris, entered the city and marched triumphantly down the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe. As French citizens cried tears of “heartbroken rage,” Fry and his circle across the Atlantic were also grief-stricken. France fell days later, on June 22 Article Nineteen of the Franco-German Armistice called for France to “surrender on demand” to the Nazis all Germans who sought asylum “in France as well as in French possessions, colonies, protectorate territories, and mandates.” ” ‘Germans’ included Austrians, Czechs, and, in practice, any others whom the Nazis chose to terrorize . . . no one doubted that the Gestapo would soon start tracking down these old enemies.” At that time, how the French would respond to Article Nineteen was unclear, and as a result all refugees in France felt at risk because the Nazis could demand they be surrendered.

When Germany conquered France, the country was divided into “unoccupied” and “occupied” zones, with the unoccupied sector under a nominal French government headquartered in Vichy. This government, led by Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, immediately forbade expressions of French nationalism, such as the national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” and substituted “Work, Family, Fatherland” for the French motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

In New York, Fry and his friends, horrified that refugees in France might have to be handed over to the Germans, were appalled by Vichy’s plans to rid France of its foreigners, particularly Jews. Germans and other European exiles who had fled Hitler were now outcasts in the country where they had sought refuge. They had chosen France for asylum over Belgium and Switzerland. Refugees in Belgium were often pushed back and forth over the French-Belgian border, nor was the Swiss government much better; it was stingy with permits allowing refugees to remain. Although it was difficult for refugees to gain entry into France, once inside, it was easier for them to remain.

Unfortunately, after the fall of France, the Vichy government passed legislation preventing refugees from leaving the country. Vichy, if it so decided, could then surrender them on demand to the Germans. As a result, antifascists, writers, “degenerate” artists, scientists, labor leaders-most of them Jewish-were trapped in France, waiting for the Germans to pounce.

Since, from the spring of 1940 on, there were fewer and fewer passenger ships sailing from Europe until “points of departure . . . narrowed almost to Lisbon and the British ports,” the refugees’ dilemma was how to get from France to Lisbon, and then to a free nation. This was one of the chief questions considered by Fry and his friends in New York as they held meeting after meeting. But there was no resolution, no plan of action. On June 24, the American Friends of German Freedom wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for her support, which she gave. A day later, the group held a fund-raising luncheon at the Hotel Commodore in Manhattan. Radio commentator Raymond Gram Swing spoke on the plight of the European refugees. Fry, an organizer of the luncheon, was moved by Swing’s eloquence. Reinhold Niebuhr asked the two hundred guests to donate money, then led a discussion about resolving the problems of the refugees. Many spoke out, including Erika Mann, Thomas Mann’s daughter. Everyone agreed that a new organization was needed, an amalgam of Einstein’s IRA and the American Friends of German Freedom, whose sole purpose would be to help the European refugees. Finally, Fry thought, some action. The Emergency Rescue Committee was born that day. Although most of its members were journalists, religious leaders, and activists from the traditional American left, Fry’s background was more intellectual and humanitarian. His instincts were the same as the other founders of the ERC, but his political agenda was always second to his strong desire to help people.

The leaders of the ERC, including Fry, met again a few days after the luncheon, at Ingrid Warburg’s apartment on West Fifty-fourth Street, to discuss the desperate need to send someone to France to see what was actually going on. Fry said he would consider volunteering if no one else could be found.

The ERC took shape with an office at 122 East Forty-second Street and several new members: Methodist minister and University of Newark president Dr. Frank Kingdon; New School for Social Research president Dr. Alvin Johnson; perennial presidential candidate and socialist Norman Thomas; and other leaders in the arts, education, religion, labor, and the media. Kingdon became the committee’s chairman, David F. Seiferheld was its treasurer, and Mildred Adams its secretary. Harold Oram, a socialist militant who had raised funds for Spanish Civil War refugees in the thirties, would oversee fund-raising, and Ingrid Warburg volunteered to be Kingdon’s assistant. A national committee to boost the fledgling organization’s profile included writers John Dos Passos and Upton Sinclair; the presidents of Yale University, Smith College, and the University of Chicago; and journalist Dorothy Thompson.

In late June, Fry wrote to the president and received an answer from Eleanor Roosevelt: “The President has seen your letter of June 27,” she wrote. “He will try to get the cooperation of the South American countries in giving asylum to the political refugees.” By early July, lists were being compiled of endangered refugees, including not only Jews but communists, leftist political activists, religious war objectors, and other outsiders.

The ERC was still seeking a representative to send to France. “In the end,” Fry wrote, “I volunteered myself.” He had no “experience in the underground” and made his offer “out of impatience at delay,” as well as his real desire to do some good. “I believed in freedom,” he wrote later. “I remembered what I had seen in Germany. I knew what would happen to the refugees if the Gestapo got hold of them. . . . It was my duty to help them. . . .” Despite Kingdon’s conservative tendency toward safety first, action later, the ERC moved ahead and appointed Fry, an unknown quantity, as its European representative. He would travel to France and meet with as many endangered refugees as possible, helping them acquire visas and other necessary documents so they could escape Europe before they were arrested and turned over to the Nazis.

*Gardiner has claimed to be the model for the underground hero “Julia,” described by Lillian Hellman in her memoir Pentimento.