Saturday, May 06, 2006

The quiet American - Varian Fry

Marseilles, 1940
In fact, even those who were fortunate enough to secure visas for entry into other countries found that the French restricted their departure. Usually,French authorities refused to give them the exit visas that made departure legal Even if a refugee received a scarce French exit visa, he usually had to go to the Spanish and Portuguese consulates in or around Marseilles to secure transit visas allowing travel through those countries. This task was difficult because safe conduct passes were required just to travel around France. More often than not, by the time one set of papers was in order another expired. The likelihood of a full set of papers being updated to coordinate with transportation was almost nil.
I had always thought that the burocratic entanglement that frames the plot of Casablanca was pure fantasy. Wrong again. You had to have a visa to leave the country!

However, that is secondary. The paragraph above is taken from a brief history of one Varian Fry, 32 years old in 1940, Harvard classics graduate, emmisary of a private American relief organization sent with $3,000 to rescue as many people as he could. He had been asked to go there for a month; he stayed over a year and 1,500 people, among them Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Hannah Arendt, lived to thank him.

No-one else did. He had to deal not only with the French, but also with the diplomatic staff the United States consulate, who obtructed him at every turn. Fry, who was obviously a determined sort of cove, merely acquired new skills; he "set up secret escape routes, changed money on the black-market, conspired with gangsters, forged documents, chartered ships that sailed illegally".

He never received any recognition from his own country for what he had done, though in 1967 he received the Croix de Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and is the only American honored at Yad Vashem. His book about his time in Marseilles is called Surrender on Demand, and there are several accounts of his adventures.

(via Rogue Classicism)

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