By HANNES STEIN
In August 1940, a young bespectacled American took a room in the Hotel Suisse in Marseilles. Later he changed to the more stately Hotel Splendide, and his name became famous among the refugees who were swarming the streets of Marseilles.
It was rumored that the young American had pockets full of money, that he could get anybody a passport or visa they needed. This was quite untrue. But the young man — his name was Varian Fry — was more than willing to help.
There was a reason for this: Fry had covered Germany in 1935 as a journalist, and unlike so many other visitors from Britain or the United States, he was not blinded by the shiny surface of things.
He knew Nazism was evil. Together, with friends, he organized the Emergency Rescue Committee, a group of private citizens dedicated to helping the victims of Nazism.
The Germans had just invaded France. One part of France was ruled by the Nazis directly, one part was left unoccupied but ruled by the Vichy regime, whose police gladly handed over any Jew — or member of the German underground who had fled Nazi persecution — to the Gestapo. The Soviet Union just had entered into a pact of non-aggression and friendship with Germany. Great Britain still held out against the Nazis as a lone fortress against fascism.
The United States, on the other hand, seemed determined to stay out of the war. A man named Breckinridge Long — a close personal friend of the president who worked in the State Department — saw to it that 90 percent of the quote for immigration from Germany and Italy were never fulfilled. He had public opinion on his side: Polls showed that most Americans at the time wanted immigrants from Nordic countries (say Norway), not Jews.
The attitude persisted until after World War II.
So Varian Fry did not have the backing of the U.S. government. He did, however, have an ally in the American consulate in Marseilles: Hiram Bingham IV. He issued visas — legal and illegal. Also, there were the illegal routes across the Pyrenees.
In September 1941, Varian Fry had to leave Marseilles — the authorities had caught on to him — but not before he helped save the lives of thousands of refugees. Among them: Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Lion Feuchtwanger, Arthur Koestler, Heinrich Mann (the unlucky brother of Thomas) and Franz Werfel. For anyone who wants to read a fictionalized account of these events, I recommend Julie Orringer’s highly entertaining novel “The Flight Portfolio,” which has just been published.
Varian Fry, the first American to be honored by Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile, was a New Yorker. He had a strong connection to Riverdale: Fry was one of the alumni of the Riverdale Country School. In Guyancourt, France, there is a “Place Varian Fry.” And I am happy to report that in Berlin — the city where I lived before emigrating to the United States — there is a “Varian Fry Strasse” (a small street, admittedly, close to Potsdamer Platz).
In New York City, there is nothing. A void. An absence where a proud memory should be. Most New Yorkers — even Jewish New Yorkers — have no idea who Varian Fry was.
How can that be? There is a Raoul Wallenberg Forest in Riverdale, which is a good thing — Wallenberg was a decent man who paid the ultimate price for his decency.
But couldn’t we name something after Fry as well? How about, just for example, the bit of West 253rd Street between Post and Fieldston roads? Whenever I walk up to this steep and windy and bumpy street (which happens to be adjacent to Riverdale Country School), I think of Heinrich Mann — already an elderly gentleman of 69 years at the time of his flight and not of very good health — and what it must have meant for him to climb the mountain path over the Pyrenees if he didn’t want to fall into the hands of his enemies who were on the verge of taking over Europe.