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Assignment: Rescue

Assignment: Rescue (1997)

An inexperienced American journalist, Varian Fry, rescues thousands of refugees from Vichy France. An inexperienced American journalist, Varian Fry, rescues thousands of refugees from Vichy France. An inexperienced American journalist, Varian Fry, rescues thousands of refugees from Vichy France.

Assignment: Rescue (1997)

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Trailer for "Assignment Rescue", the dramatic account of Varian Fry, a New York journalist sent to Marseilles in 1940 by the Emergency Rescue Committee.

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Assignment: Rescue

The story of American Varian Fry, who helped more than 2000 political dissidents elude prosecution from the Nazis and escape from France during World War II. Included: interviews with former refugees. Narrated by Meryl Streep.

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Varian Fry in Marseille.

Varian Fry in Marseille. —Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library


Background information, his life and rescue activities, related works, film and video, museum web resources, additional resources.

Varian Fry (1907-1967) led rescue efforts in wartime France that enabled approximately 2,000 anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees to flee Nazi-dominated Europe. In recognition of his efforts, Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust remembrance authority, honored Fry as a “Righteous Among the Nations,” making him the first American to have received that distinction.

Fry’s concern for refugees arose from his shock at witnessing Nazi violence against Jews on a 1935 trip to Berlin and from his later involvement with the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), a New York-based organization of political activists who gathered after Germany’s defeat of France in 1940 to promote the emigration of refugee intellectuals. In August 1940, under the auspices of the ERC, Fry traveled to Marseille with $3,000 and a short list of refugees under imminent threat of arrest by the police or agents of the Gestapo. Once there, Fry found clamoring at his door a tumultuous horde of anti-Nazi writers, avant-garde artists and German socialists. All were desperately seeking any chance to escape France.

The situation forced Fry to look for assistance and in time he gathered around himself a small group of like-minded Americans, refugees with diplomatic or underworld connections, and those French citizens who were sympathetic to the refugees’ plight. Fry and his compatriots arranged escapes from French internment camps, forged passports, and orchestrated illegal border crossings, among other dangerous activities. Eventually, Fry and his compatriots provided financial or travel assistance to approximately 4,000 refugees and enabled almost half of them to escape, all on limited resources and without the approval of the United States consulate in Marseille.

Fry’s activities put him in conflict with the Vichy police, who put him under surveillance and eventually expelled him from France in September 1941. Fry returned home to New York to a less than warm reception from both the State Department, whose policies he had flouted, and surprisingly from the Emergency Rescue Committee itself, which disapproved of his extralegal methods. What recognition Fry has received has been for the most part posthumous, though the French government did honor him with the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur for his rescue activities, just prior to his untimely death in 1967.

The following bibliography was compiled to guide readers to selected materials on Varian Fry that are in the Library’s collection. It is not meant to be exhaustive. Annotations are provided to help the user determine the item’s focus, and call numbers for the Museum’s Library are given in parentheses following each citation. Those unable to visit might be able to find these works in a nearby public library or acquire them through interlibrary loan. Follow the "Find in a library near you" link in each citation and enter your zip code at the Open WorldCat search screen. The results of that search indicate all libraries in your area that own that particular title. Talk to your local librarian for assistance.

McCabe, Cynthia Jaffee. “‘Wanted by the Gestapo: Saved by America’ - Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee.” In The Muses Flee Hitler: Cultural Transfer and Adaptation, 1930-1945 , edited by Jarrell C. Jackman and Carla M. Borden, 79-91. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983. (E 184 .A1 M874 1983) [ Find in a library near you ]

Recounts the efforts of Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee on behalf of many notable refugees trapped in Vichy France. Draws on the postwar memoirs published by some of the refugees for recollections about Fry and the wartime situation in Marseilles. Part of the proceedings of two colloquia held at the Smithsonian in 1980 to celebrate Albert Einstein’s 100th birthday.

Paldiel, Mordecai. “Varian Fry - The American Who Saved Thousands in France.” In Saving the Jews: Amazing Stories of Men and Women Who Defied the “Final Solution ,” 61-73. Rockville, MD: Schreiber, 2000. (D 804.65 .P35 2000) [ Find in a library near you ]

Reviews the grim situation faced by refugees in Vichy France and some of the obstacles they faced in emigrating from Europe while also providing an overview of Fry’s activities on their part. Based largely on correspondence submitted to Yad Vashem in preparing the case for Fry’s designation as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

“Varian M. Fry.” In The Holocaust and World War II Almanac , edited by Peggy Saari and Aaron Maurice Saari, 166-170. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 2001. (Ref D 804.17 .H65 2001 v.3) [ Find in a library near you ]

Briefly recounts Fry’s life, rescue efforts, and posthumous recognition as a hero. Includes a sidebar on the life of the expatriate American heiress, Mary Jayne Gold, who assisted Fry while he was in Marseille. Provides a list of sources of further information.

Berman, Elizabeth Kessin. “Moral Triage or Cultural Salvage? The Agendas of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee.” In Exiles+Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler , 99-112. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997. (Oversize N 6512 .E887 1997) [ Find in a library near you ]

Analyzes the formidable risks and extraordinary lengths that Fry took in helping Europe’s refugees. Examines in particular the relationships between Fry, the Emergency Rescue Committee, and arts organizations, such as the Museum of Modern Art, and their mutual concern for promoting emigration by refugee artists. From a catalogue published in conjunction with a 1997 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Includes photographs of many artists Fry helped.

Fry, Varian. Assignment, Rescue: An Autobiography . New York: Scholastic, 1992. (D 809 .F7 F79 1992) [ Find in a library near you ]

A version of the author’s memoir, Surrender on Demand , recounting his rescue efforts for a younger audience. Includes a foreword by Albert Hirschman, who worked closely with Fry in Marseille under the alias “Beamish.”

Fry, Varian. Surrender on Demand . Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, 1997. (D 809 .F7 F79 1997) [ Find in a library near you ]

A memoir centering on the author’s time as a leader of refugee rescue efforts in Vichy France. Includes a new afterword that provides further context for Fry’s mission by drawing on correspondence from his personal papers held at the Columbia University Library. Opens with a preface by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Greenberg, Karen J., editor. Columbia University Library, New York: The Varian Fry Papers: The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter Papers . New York: Garland, 1990. (Reference D 810 .J4 A735 1989) [ Find in a library near you ]

Selected reproductions of documents from the Columbia University Library’s Varian Fry Papers. Details chronologically Fry’s work for the Emergency Rescue Committee in Vichy France, his correspondence with those refugees he had helped, and the postwar struggle for recognition of his rescue efforts. Part of a multivolume set of archival materials compiled to reflect the history of the Holocaust. Volume 5 of the series Archives of the Holocaust: An International Collection of Selected Documents .

Isenberg, Sheila. A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry . New York: Random House, 2001. (D 804.66 .F79 I84 2001) [ Find in a library near you ]

Chronicles Fry’s life story from his boisterous youth to his untimely death. Concentrates on the thirteen month period from 1940 to 1941 he spent shepherding refugees out of Vichy France to safety. Also, presents the personal stories of many of those rescued. Based in part on Fry’s personal papers. Includes forty-nine pages of notes, a bibliography and an index.

Marino, Andy. A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry . New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. (D 809 .U5 M37 1999) [ Find in a library near you ]

Describes Fry’s 1940-1941 rescue operations, emphasizing the frequently secretive, deceptive, and daring methods by which Fry and his co-workers were able to channel refugees across France’s borders. Includes a bibliography, numerous photographic plates and a map of Vichy France. Published in Great Britain under the title American Pimpernel .

Sullivan, Rosemary. Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille . New York: HarperCollins, 2006. (D 802 .F82 M3775 2006) [ Find in a library near you ]

Narrative history of Varian Fry’s work on behalf of the American Rescue Committee to assist thousands of artists and intellectuals attempting to flee France after the onset of World War II.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A Book of Tribute to Varian Fry: Wednesday, April 10, 1991 . Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1991. (D 804.66 .F79 B66 1991) [ Find in a library near you ]

Collects personal reminiscences about Varian Fry from many of the refugees he helped escape Europe. Commemorates the United States Holocaust Memorial Council’s posthumous award of the Eisenhower Liberation Medal to Fry. Includes statements by Lisa Fittko, Mary Jayne Gold and Jean Gemahling, among others.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Assignment, Rescue: The Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee . Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994. (D 809 .F7 F792 1994) [ Find in a library near you ]

A brief guide to the exhibition by the same name held at the Museum from June 1993 to January 1995. Relates the refugee situation in Vichy France, the nature of Fry’s rescue efforts, and the intellectual milieu that surrounded him in Marseille. Includes an exhibition floor plan, many illustrations and a list of books for further reading.

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Holocaust Encyclopedia

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Abzug, Robert H. America Views the Holocaust, 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. (D 804.19 .A29 1999) [ Find in a library near you ]

Reproduces primary sources concerning press coverage of the Holocaust, including Varian Fry’s essay “The Massacre of the Jews” which appeared in The New Republic on December 21, 1942.

Fittko, Lisa. Escape Through the Pyrenees . Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991. (D 802 .F8 F5313 1991) [ Find in a library near you ]

A memoir written by a German-Jewish refugee who guided some of Fry’s refugees across the mountainous French-Spanish border. Recounts the author’s harrowing stay and eventual escape from the French internment camp at Gurs and the failed attempt of the noted German critic, Walter Benjamin, to escape France. Includes numerous photographs.

Fry, Varian. The Peace that Failed: How Europe Sowed the Seeds of War . New York: Foreign Policy Association, 1939. (D 727 .F79 1939) [ Find in a library near you ]

Describes the tense diplomatic atmosphere of interwar Europe, events surrounding the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the eventual start of the Second World War. Includes fifteen illustrations and a list of books for further reading. Part of a series of foreign policy themed books edited by Fry.

Galerie d’art du Conseil général des Bouches-du-Rhône. Varian Fry: sur les quais, Marseille 1940-1941 et les candidats à l’exil Arp, Bellmer, Brauner, Breton, Bryen, Chagall, Delanglade, Dominguez, Duchamp, Ernst, Frances, Gomès, Hérold, Lam, Lamba, Lipchitz, Magnelli, Masson, Matta, Springer, Wols . Arles: Actes Sud, 1999. (D 809 .F7 V37 1999) [ Find in a library near you ]

A catalogue for a 1999 exhibition in Aix-en-Provence that gathered art from a variety of avant-garde artists that Fry had helped to escape Vichy France. Provides reproductions of artworks created in the 1940-1941 period, some of which were produced by artists like Andre Breton and Jacques Hérold at Villa Air-Bel, the country estate that Fry shared with many refugee artists. Includes many illustrations, twenty-five pages of color plates, and a bibliography. [French]

Gold, Mary Jayne. Crossroads Marseilles, 1940 . Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980. (D 809 .F7 G57 1980) [ Find in a library near you ]

A memoir that relates the author’s role in assisting refugee rescue efforts through the Centre Americain de Secours, the Marseille-based relief agency set up by Varian Fry in 1940. Includes numerous black and white photographs and an index.

A catalogue for a 1999 exhibition in Aix-en-Provence that gathered art from a variety of avant-garde artists that Fry had helped to escape Vichy France. Provides reproductions of artworks created in the 1940-1941 period, some of which were produced by artists like Andre Breton and Jacques Hérold at Villa Air-Bel, the country estate that Fry shared with many refugee artists. Includes many illustrations, twenty-five pages of color plates, and a bibliography.

Bundschuh, Jörg. Villa Air Bel: Varian Fry in Marseille 1940-41 [videorecording]. Munich: Kick Film, 1988. (Video Collection) [ Find in a library near you ]

Recounts how Varian Fry organized the illegal escape of many of Germany’s leading intellectuals and artists imprisoned in France. Describes the cerebral atmosphere at Villa Air Bel, the country house just outside Marseille that Fry shared with a group of refugee artists. Based in part on interviews with some of the artists and writers Fry helped save.

Chetwynd, Lionel. Varian’s War [videorecording]. CA: Showtime Entertainment, 2002. (DVD Collection) [ Find in a library near you ]

Movie based on the life of Varian Fry. Describes his rescue efforts during World War II.

Kaplan, Richard, and Christina Lazardi. Assignment, Rescue: The Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee [videorecording]. New York: Richard Kaplan Productions, 1997. (Video Collection) [ Find in a library near you ]

Documents Varian Fry’s rescue efforts in Vichy France. Chronicles the events in Europe that lead to the founding of the Emergency Rescue Committee and the horrid conditions faced by refugees in Vichy’s internment camps. Made in conjunction with the Varian Fry Foundation Project of the International Rescue Committee.

Kaplan, Richard and Catherine Tarbini. Varian and Putzi: A 20th Century Tale [videorecording]. New York, NY: Richard Kaplan Productions, 2002. (Video Collection) [ Find in a library near you ]

Examines the lives of two men, Varian Fry and Ernst Hanfstaengl, who responded differently to the cataclysmic events of the Second World War.

Kerr, David. Varian Fry: The Artist’s Schindler [videorecording]. Chicago: Home Vision, 1997. (Video Collection) [ Find in a library near you ]

A documentary film that focuses on Fry’s efforts on behalf of the many European artists and intellectuals, who found themselves unable to escape wartime France. Uses Fry’s memoirs, archival film, and interviews with both former refugees and Fry’s associates to tell the story of Fry’s courageous actions in saving those threatened by Nazi persecution.

The Chambon Foundation (external link)

Nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting and honoring the rescue efforts of the residents in and around Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, who risked their lives to shelter 5,000 Jews, many of them children, from the Nazis. Describes the film projects undertaken by the Foundation’s founder and president, documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, particularly highlighting the award-winning documentary Weapons of the Spirit about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, and the upcoming documentary, And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille , slated for release in 2002. Also provides information about forthcoming film projects based on the books Crossroads Marseille by Mary Jayne Gold and Resistance of the Heart by Nathan Stoltzfus. Includes photographs, biographies, book excerpts, and links to related Web sites and online articles.

Holocaust Encyclopedia: Martha and Waitstill Sharp

Details the activities of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, an American couple who worked alongside Varian Fry to help Jews escape Nazi-occupied France. They were the second and third Americans to receive the title Righteous Among the Nations.

Holocaust Encyclopedia: Varian Fry

Summarizes Fry’s involvement with the Emergency Rescue Committee and the steps he took to save nearly 2,000 refugees in Vichy France from 1940 to 1941. Also provides links to a few related resources.

Web site created by The Varian Fry Foundation Project/IRC chronicling the rescue mission of Varian Fry, who helped save thousands of Jews in Vichy France, among them many of the important writers and artists of the 20th century. Includes a comprehensive links page, bibliography, and national calendar of events related to Varian Fry.

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Varian Fry (1907–1967) was an American journalist who helped anti-Nazi refugees escape from France between 1940 and 1941.

After France surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940, the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private American relief organization, sent Fry to Marseille to aid anti-Nazi refugees who were in danger of being arrested and turned over to authorities in Nazi Germany.

Fry used legal and illegal techniques to help some 2,000 people, including a number of prominent writers and artists, escape France and emigrate to the United States.

Varian Fry was the first American to be named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims) for risking his life to rescue Jews.

Righteous Among the Nations

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Varian Fry in Marseilles. France, 1940–1941.

Varian Fry was born in New York City on October 15, 1907. He graduated in 1931 with a degree in  classics from Harvard University, moved back to New York City, and married Eileen Hughes, an editor at Atlantic Monthly . Fry worked as a researcher and editor at a number of magazines in the early 1930s, during which time he traveled to Nazi Germany to report on the country under Hitler’s rule. Upon witnessing an anti-Jewish riot in Berlin on July 15, 1935, Fry wrote several dispatches for the New York Times , describing what he had observed.

“I saw one [Jewish] man brutally kicked and spat upon as he lay on the sidewalk, a woman bleeding, a man whose head was covered with blood, hysterical women crying. . . . Nowhere did the police seem to make any effort whatever to save the victims from this brutality.” —Varian Fry

After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War , Fry resigned as editor of the foreign policy magazine The Living Age to work for the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. Despite its name, the committee supported the Republican side of the war, which included communists, and Fry, a fervent anti-Communist, resigned in June 1937. With wars breaking out all over the world, Fry began writing books for the Foreign Policy Association, including War in China, The Good Neighbors (about US relations with Latin America), Bricks Without Mortar (about international diplomacy), War Atlas , and The Peace that Failed (about the Nazi seizure of Czechoslovakia).

The Emergency Rescue Committee

After Germany invaded France , Fry helped gather more than 200 notable Americans, including journalists, museum curators, university presidents, and artists—as well as a number of Jewish refugees—at the Hotel Commodore in New York on June 25, 1940. During that meeting, the group founded the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), a private American relief organization, with the goal of rescuing endangered intellectuals in France. The armistice agreement detailing France’s surrender to Germany, signed a few days before the ERC founding meeting, included “Article 19,” nicknamed the “Surrender on Demand” clause. Authorities in Vichy France, the southern half of the country which was not occupied by Germany, agreed to arrest and “surrender” any individuals the Germans “demanded.” The Emergency Rescue Committee vowed to aid anti-Nazi writers and artists, Jews and non-Jews, who were likely to be targeted by Nazi Germany .

A few days after the founding meeting, several members of the newly created ERC met with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt , who used her influence to obtain “emergency” non-quota visas for a number of endangered intellectuals. The ERC decided they needed a representative in France to guide their rescue efforts. Varian Fry volunteered, and flew to Europe on August 4, 1940. He planned to be in southern France for three weeks.

Establishing the Centre Americain

Fry landed in Lisbon, Portugal, where he met Waitstill Sharp , a Unitarian minister who had been active in rescue efforts both in Prague and southern France. Sharp gave Fry advice and lists of sympathetic contacts in Marseilles. Fry realized upon arriving in France that the plight of anti-Nazi refugees was far greater than the ERC had imagined. He advertised his presence in the city, meeting with refugees in his room at the Hotel Splendide, and quickly befriended American vice consul Harry Bingham Jr. Using his position as an American diplomat, Bingham extended aid to refugees and even hid endangered author Lion Feuchtwanger in his home.

Needing a more formal space, Fry leased an office on rue Grignan (and later on boulevard Garibaldi) and gathered a staff, a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees including artist Bill Spira, future Bard College professor Justus Rosenberg, and future economist Albert Hirschmann, as well as American expatriates Miriam Davenport, Mary Jayne Gold, and Charlie Fawcett.  

Rescue Efforts

Almost immediately after arriving in Marseilles, Fry met German Jewish writer Franz Werfel , who, with his wife Alma Mahler Werfel, needed to escape France to avoid arrest. In early September 1940, Fry purchased train tickets for himself, the Werfels, and family members of novelist Thomas Mann (who had already made it to the United States). The group took the train to Cerbère , on the border of Spain. While Fry traveled by train with the luggage to Port Bou, the refugees, who did not have Spanish entrance visas, crossed the Pyrenees on foot to avoid border guards. They were successful, and reunited with Fry before traveling on to Lisbon, where they boarded a ship for the United States. Once he was in the United States, Werfel explained his escape to a reporter. This ultimately alerted US State Department officials to the fact that Fry was breaking international laws to aid refugees .

Fry continued his efforts in France for the next thirteen months. Fry rented the “Villa Air Bel” outside of Marseilles, to provide a home for prominent refugees who needed a safe residence. He and his colleagues used legal and illegal means to assist these refugees with their immigration efforts, even utilizing an escape route across the mountains with the assistance of French resistance workers Hans and Lisa Fittko. He assisted artists Marc Chagall , André Breton, André Masson, Max Ernst, and Jacques Lipchitz, poet Walter Mehring, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, writer Lion Feuchtwanger, and nearly 2,000 others. Fry and some of his American collaborators were arrested by French police in December 1940 and briefly interned on a ship in Marseilles harbor during a visit to the city by French leader Marshal Petain. Authorities feared they were planning acts of terrorism.

Fry was specifically trying to aid refugees endangered by Nazi Germany, and his efforts angered Vichy French officials. Moreover, US State Department representatives complained that Fry’s illegal work interfered with American efforts to stay neutral in World War II.   

Fry was under constant surveillance and was, more than once, questioned and detained by French authorities. On August 29, 1941, Fry was arrested by the French police and given two hours to pack his belongings before being escorted to the Spanish border. He spent more than a month in Lisbon before returning to the United States in October 1941.

World War II

Less than two months after his return to the United States, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought the country into World War II. The Emergency Rescue Committee (which in 1942 became the International Rescue Committee) severed ties with Fry due to his outspoken criticism of the State Department. Fry began a new job as the assistant editor of The Nation magazine.

In December 1942, after information about the mass murder of Jews reached the United States, Fry wrote an article for The New Republic magazine titled “The Massacre of the Jews.”  After describing events he had witnessed, and information he had received from European correspondents,  Fry exhorted readers that all the evidence adds up to “the most appalling picture of mass murder in all human history.”

Fry was deemed unfit for military service, and spent most of the war preparing his memoirs. Eileen Fry passed away in 1948, and a year later, Varian Fry married Annette Riley, with whom he had three children. By the 1960s, Fry was teaching Latin, Greek, and French in secondary schools in Connecticut.


An advertisement for a series of lectures by Varian Fry, who worked in France to help anti-Nazi artists and intellectuals escape ...

Shortly before Fry’s death, the French government awarded him the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur , France’s highest decoration of merit. It was the only official recognition he received in his lifetime.

Fry died in 1967 while revising his memoirs. He left behind a wealth of written and photographic materials that document his experiences in France. Surrender on Demand , his memoir about his experiences in France, had been published in 1945, and Assignment: Rescue , a rewritten version of his first memoir aimed at students, was published shortly after his death.

In 1991, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council awarded the Eisenhower Liberation Medal to Varian Fry. Three years later, Fry became the first American to be honored by Yad Vashem as a " Righteous Among the Nations . "  In 2000, the square in front of the US consulate in Marseilles was renamed “Place Varian Fry.”

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