In Memory of a Hero

Varian Fry (1907- 1967), a 32-year –old American, was sent to France in August 1940, on a mission: to save the anti-Fascists and Jews from persecution by Hitler.

He went to France as a representative of the Emergency Rescue Committee, Armed with $ 3,000 in cash and a list of refugees most wanted by the Nazis, he soon realized the urgency of the situation and immediately set out to organize a rescue network, using illegal means including Black Market funds, forged documents, and secret escape routes over the Pyrenees. Fry managed to convince President Roosevelt to authorize a limited number of emergency visas that would enable refugees to come to the United States.

After the German invasion of France in May 1940, the French Government was forced by the Germans to imprison all foreing nationals as enemy aliens. In June many were freed, but others were kept in the camps. Fry’s efforts to tell the Americans in France about the conditions in the camps were ignored.

Fry continued his mission, but in December 1940, he was arrested and put on a prison ship in Marseilles. He was released but realized his time in France was coming to an end.

In January 1941, his passport expired and the U. S. Government refused to renew it, since they disapproved of his activities. Even without a passport he continued his work with the refugees smuggling them out safety through the spring and summer of 1941.The French Government, angered also by Fry’s rescue work expelled him in September 1941. American diplomats in France did not protest.

Fry had managed to stay in France a year longer than intended. In that time, through his courage, ingenuity and cunning, Fry and his colleagues had helped more than 1,500 people escape from France.

Fry reluctantly returned to New York. He continued to speak and write about the impending massacre of the Jews, but no one wanted to listen. The F.B.I. opened a file on him and kept him under surveillance. He was barred from working for the U.S. Government forever. He had become an outcast in his own Government.

Fry wrote a memoir of his experiences in France; ”Surrender on Demand” was published in 1945. In his memoir, Fry wrote that as he rode the train from France he thought of the ”faces of the thousand of refugees I had sent out of France, and faces of the thousand more I had to leave behind”.

Shortly before his death, the French Government awarded him the Croix de la Legion d’ Honneur. It was the only official recognition Fry received in his lifetime. He died alone in 1967 while revising his memoirs.


Varian Fry, The Jewish Virtual Library

An American Hero, Varian Fry Foundation

Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee, by Anita Kassof, M.A.