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Bits of History and Historical Fiction

An Unlikely Hero

To look at him, you might not think that this literary scholar and journalist could get around the French police, the Gestapo, or even the American consul in Marseille. But you'd be wrong — just as they were. (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As I said in discussing Julie Orringer's biographical novel about Varian Fry, that unusual historical figure has long been a hero of mine. There's an exhibit about him at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., because he saved several thousand Jewish refugees from southern France in 1940 and 1941. They weren't just any refugees, however, for they included such artists and intellectuals as Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel ,and André Breton, as well as a sprinkling of Nobelists whose names have faded into history. Fry originally thought that when he landed in Marseille with $3,000 strapped to his legs, he could save two hundred people during the month's vacation due him. But the dapper, Harvard-educated literary scholar and journalist quickly realized that he needed much more time and more money.


How he managed while learning on the job, faced with hostility from the Vichy government to paid informers working for them to Gestapo agents to the American consulate to the U.S. State Department, is the stuff of legend. One colleague attributed his success in part to wit, a formal sort of playfulness, a poker face, and elegant dress — striped dark suit with bow tie.


Source: Alan Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris (2010), pp. 72-77.

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