An American Hero. . .

Varian Fry found his courage when called upon to act in a moment of extraordinary historical and personal challenge, saving thousands of lives during the Second World War.

  • After Germany's invasion and partition of France in June 1940, Varian Fry, a young editor from New York, went to Marseilles, France, as the representative of a newly formed, private American relief committee.

  • In Marseilles, Fry offered aid and advice to anti-Fascist refugees who found themselves threatened with extradition to Nazi Germany under Article 19 of the Franco-German Armistice-- the "Surrender on Demand" clause.

  • Working day and night, in opposition to French and even obstructionist American authorities, Fry assembled a band of associates and built an elaborate rescue network.
  • Convinced that he could not abandon the operation while desperate refugees needed him, Fry extended his stay into a 13 month odyssey carrying on without his passport, under constant surveillance and, more than once, questioned and detained by the authorities.
  • Establishing a legal French relief organization, The American Relief Center, Fry worked behind its cover using illegal means -- black-market funds, forged documents, secret mountain and sea routes-- to spirit some 2000 endangered people from France.
  • Among the refugees were notable European intellectuals, writers, artists, scientists, philosophers and musicians. Their arrival in the United States significantly changed the character of American culture.
  • Fry was recalled by the American government and ignored repeated entreaties. He was finally ousted by the Vichy French government under an "ordre de refoulement" as an "undesirable alien" for protecting Jews and anti-Nazis, in September 1941.
  • When Fry returned to New York, he recounted his story and tried to warn of Hitler's impending massacre of the Jews.
  • His activities in France prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open a file on him and to keep him under surveillance which prevented him from ever working for the United States government.
  • Shortly before his death, Mr. Fry was awarded the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur by the French government, which was the only official recognition he received before his death.
  • Fry died unexpectedly and alone in 1967 while revising his memoirs. He left behind a wealth of written and photographic materials that document his experiences in France.
  • Varian Fry was posthumously honored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Council with the Eisenhower Liberation Medal in 1991. His work in France, in 1940-41, to assist and rescue endangered refugees was the subject of an exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993-94.
  • Varian Fry was posthumously honored by Yad VaShem, The Holocaust Heros and Martyrs Remembrance Authority, Jerusalem as the first American "Righteous Among the Nations" in a ceremony attended by Secretary of State Warren Christopher in February 1996. The additional honor of "Commemorative Citizenship of the State of Israel," awarded to selected Righteous Among the Nations "who rekindled the light of humanity during the Nazi era in Europe" was given to Fry on January 1, 1998.

    -- from the "Memo to Congressmen" by Susan Morgenstein, curator of the Varian Fry special exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Updated by Walter Meyerhof.
Varian Fry Before and After Marseilles

Some biographical notes by Annette Riley Fry

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
                                         - Henry David Thoreau, Walden, XVIII.

Varian Fry was born in New York City on October 15, 1907, and was brought up in suburban Ridgewood, New Jersey. His father worked in Wall Street; his mother had been a public school teacher. He was an only child, and his boyhood was somewhat lonely. He did well in school but, because he had to wear glasses, he had trouble with sports. He hated the name "Varian." He felt it sounded like a girl's name and he asked the other kids, without much success, to call him "Tommy." He was a great reader of books. He liked to work with his father in their flower garden. As a result of saving a wounded cedar waxwing from the claws of the family cat, he became a lifelong bird watcher. The experience is described, along with a picture of the eleven-year-old Varian with his rescued bird perched on the back of his hand, in the New York Zoological Society Bulletin, May 1919.

Varian's happiest days were those spent at the Children's Summer Home where his grandfather, Charles Fry, was the Superintendent. The Home, run by the Children's Aid Society, was in a part of Brooklyn that was then almost rural, Bath Beach. Its spacious grounds abutted the boardwalk and beach of Graveshead Bay. Grandfather Fry had spent many years as the western agent of the Society, shepherding abandoned and orphaned New York children to new homes in the west on the "Orphan Trains."[1] In those days dedicated social workers were called "child rescuers." Unquestionably, Charles Fry's love of his work was an inspiration to the grandson who would one day also be a rescuer.

"An excellent student with character above reproach," was the recommendation from the local Ridgewood school when Varian Fry set off for Hotchkiss, a prestigious boys' preparatory school in New England. He did well there, made a few friends, but never felt he really belonged. Then, in his third year, he was subjected to a form of hazing by the seniors that he felt was insufferably unfair. He was told he must hang from a boiling hot steam pipe on the ceiling and cross a large room hand over hand. He refused.

"Varian came to me last night and stated that he found himself unalterably opposed to some features of the traditions and customs of the school and he wished to resign," the headmaster reported to his parents. "His mind was so fixed that advice did not avail to change his attitude." The next day his father drove up to take him home. It was to be the first of many times when Varian Fry defied authority in defense of a cause he believed in.

Varian finished high school at Riverdale Country School which was within driving distance of his New Jersey home. He made quite an impression there with the four-door convertible Cadillac his then wealthy father had given him. And he had the immense satisfaction of learning that an English College Board Exam he had taken at Hotchkiss, had received the highest mark ever given in the nation: a 99 percentile. The essay question he had answered at length was on the subject of a book then banned in the United States: Ulysses by the great Irish writer, James Joyce.

Fry's college years at Harvard were eventful, full of ups and downs. With a fellow freshman, Lincoln Kirstein,[2] he founded a literary magazine, Hound & Horn, filled with original works by some of the most celebrated writers and poets of the day.[3] His range of studies was wide, with particular emphasis on the classics of Greece and Rome. However, he also enjoyed the collegiate party life, got into trouble as a result, and at one point was almost expelled.

When he finally emerged from college, it was the depth of the depression of the 1930s. By this time he was married, and both he and Eileen, his Bostonian wife, had trouble finding jobs. Eventually they settled in New York City where Eileen taught school and Varian, who had become a scholar of foreign affairs, worked as a magazine writer and editor. In the summer of 1935 he visited Germany on assignment. There he was horrified by the sight of Jews being bullied and beaten by storm troopers on the streets of Berlin.

At the time he undertook his mission to France, he was editor of the Foreign Policy Association's Headline Books - publications that were distributed to schools all over the country and were receiving high praise from the critics. Of one of the books that Fry himself wrote at the Foreign Policy Association, The Peace that Failed: How Europe Sowed the Seeds of War, the New York Herald Tribune said: "The best brief diagnosis of European developments from the First World War to the Second, which has yet appeared."[4]

On his return from Marseilles in 1941, Fry tried to alert America to the grim situation in Europe. He was now an editor of The New Republic where he wrote an extraordinary piece predicting the storm ahead. Called The Massacre of the Jews, it was the lead article in the December 21, 1942 issue of the magazine.

Unable to serve in the armed forces because of an ulcer, Fry set to work writing the story of his experiences in France in a book published shortly before VE Day.[5] It received enthusiastic reviews but sold only moderately well, for this time Americans were longing for escape from the war and for a return to civilian life. For a time he continued editing and writing on foreign affairs. He also sought other kinds of writing jobs - ones that paid better - and soon was turning out scripts and other materials for Fortune 500 companies. And he returned to an old love: the Greek and Roman classics, becoming a part-time teacher in New York City and Connecticut.

His first wife had died shortly after the war and in 1950 Fry married Annette Riley. He was the adoring parent of three children, two boys and a girl. His later years were filled with a variety of activities in addition to his writing and teaching: wine tasting for friends, gardening, bird watching, and - two interests particularly meaningful to him - service on the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union and the International League for the Rights of Man.

Fry died in his sleep in Connecticut at the age of 59. Only a few months before, a grateful France had presented him with the Legion of Honor for his work in Marseilles in 1940-41.

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies.
                                                        -Emily Dickinson


[1] Fry, Annette, "The Children's Migration," , December 1974, p. 4- 10. Fry, Varian, "Grandpa and the Street Kids," in Orphan Train Riders, Their Own Stories, Vol. 2. Orphan Train Society of America, Springdale, AZ 72762, 1993. ISBN 0-9635902-2-7. Published posthumously.

[2] Lincoln Kirstein writes about his experiences with Varian Fry in his memoir Mosaic, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.

[3] See The Hound & Horn Letters, edited by Mitzi Hamovitch, University of Georgia Press, 1982.

[4] The Foreign Policy Association is still distributing its publications on foreign affairs to schools, clubs, and libraries.

[5] Fry's Surrender on Demand was published in 1945 and republished in 1997 by Johnson Books, Boulder, CO, ISBN 1-55566- 209-9. Assignment: Rescue, a shorter version of his experiences written for high school students, was published in 1968 by Scholastic, Inc., New York, ISBN 0-590-46970-3. (See below under RESOURCES, Books, Memoirs.)


[ history | recognition | resources | foundation | contact ]

©1997 The Varian Fry Foundation


For Information on this site contact Created by AlmondSeed Software Inc.