Monday, November 22, 2010

In Defiance of Hitler: the Secret Mission of Varian Fry by Carla Killough McClafferty

Most people have heard of Oskar Schindler, the ethnic German who saved 1,200 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis by employing them in his enamelware/ammunition factory, thanks to Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s List and Steven Spielberg’s movie based on the book. But not many have heard of Varian Fry, the 32 year old American who went to Marseilles, France in August 1940 to help rescue refugees stranded there after France fell to the Nazis. Many of these refugees had fled to France from Hitler’s Germany during the 1930s.

McClafferty details Fry’s mission beginning with a mob attack on Jews that he had witnessed on 15 July 1935 in Berlin, Germany. This left a deeply disturbing impression of Fry, and in 1940, three days after the armistice was signed between Germany and France, he attended a luncheon in NY about the situation of refugees. A collection was made at the luncheon that raised $3,000 and a private organization called the Emergency Rescue Committee or ERC was formed. Its purpose was to rescue Jews and non-Jews who were enemies of the German state and who were also well-known artists, scientists, musicians, and politicians. The list of almost 200 names included people like Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Lion Feuchtwanger. Feuchtwanger was a German writer who had written the first book about the life of a Jewish family in Berlin under the Nazis in 1933 called The Oppermanns (Die Geschwister Oppermann).

Taking the list of names and the $3000 donation money, Fry volunteered to go see what he could do about getting these renowned refugees out of occupied France. The job proved to be more than anyone had thought it would be. First, there was the problem of finding the people on the list, who were more than likely living scattered around the south of France under assumed names or, like Feuchtwanger, were in a French concentration camp awaiting deportation. And there was the problem of everyone having the right papers at the same time. Each family member had to have exit and entrance visas with the same dates, as well as travel visas to go through other countries. A valid passport was required everywhere and since all German Jews had become stateless with the passage of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935, they did not have and could not obtain a valid passport.

McClafferty describes in a very clear easy to understand way the complex problems Fry faced when he arrived in Marseilles and his trials and errors as he learned how to work around all the difficulties, done mostly with the help of very clever people and a lot of deception. And she chronicles the deterioration of Fry’s marriage as he became more involved with what he was doing. Fry began to believe that he was indispensable to the rescue operation, and this led not only to more problems with his wife, but also with the ERC. Fry’s original mission was to last only for a month, but by the end of that time he was too involved with what he was doing, and delayed his departure. Eventually, word go around Marseilles that he was there to help rescue people, and other refugees, ordinary people not on the list, began to show up outside his hotel. These people could only be helped with day to day expenses, not gotten out of France. So many refugees came to Fry that he had to hire some help and ultimately set up a relief organization called the American Relief Center or ARC.

It is unfortunate but in the end Fry was fired by the ERC and finally escorted out of France by the police in 1941. Yet he had accomplished much, getting at least 2,000 people out of France and away from the Nazis. In 1967, Fry was awarded the Cross of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by France and was the first American named “Righteous among the Nations” in Israel in 1996, an honor give to non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

This is an excellent look at a very courageous man, and McClafferty has done a commendable job detailing what is probably unfamiliar information to young readers. The story of Varian Fry and his refugees almost reads like a novel because of all the deceptions and clandestine exploits they were involved in to accomplish their job. McClafferty has included a detailed appendix and bibliography at the end for further exploration of this interesting man. She doesn’t say it, but her description of Fry when he returned home sounded very much like a man suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, understandably given some the things he witnessed and the fear and tension he lived with for so many months, as did everyone under Nazi domination.

This book is recommended for readers age 9-14.
This book was borrowed from the 67th Street Branch of the New York Public Library.

In Defiance of Hitler: the Secret Mission of Varian Fry received the following well deserved honors:
2008 Society of School Librarians International Book Award Honor Book
2009 Orbis Pictus Recommended Title
2009 CCBC Choice (University of Wisconsin)

More information about Varian Fry may be found at the following websites:

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted this week by Practically Paradise

1 comment:

  1. I have this book on my shelf and hope to read it one of these days soon. Met Carla at an IRA awards banquet a few years ago and then again at an IRA conference in Missouri.

    Awesome lady and non-fiction researcher/writer!