An unsung American journalist is Righteous Among the Nations


Originally this article was due to appear in May at the time of Yom Ha-Shoah. The press of important news necessitated using the space for current events and delaying the article for a month. During May, the front page of the New York Times Book Section carried a review by Cynthia Ozick of Julie Orringer’s novel “The Flight Portfolio.” It a work of historical fiction. A major character was Varian Frye, the subject of my article. Here, was Cynthia Ozick telling a good part of his amazing life story, and it sounded very similar to what I had written.

Lest there be any thought of plagiarism, I put the article away, but then I changed my mind. Varian Frye was a hero, a part of our history that must not be forgotten.

The articles in Remember the Past have always had some link to the history of the Jews in Rhode Island. This article does not, nor does the person about whom I am writing. Yet, because he acted with such moral courage in the face of depravity, he deserves to be remembered, especially in these perilous days when heroes are in short supply.  

It was Berlin 1935. While on vacation in the city, a young American journalist, Varian Fry, witnessed a brutal attack on a group of Jews by Nazis. Deeply affected by what he saw, he became, as he said, “an ardent anti-Nazi.”

With written and spoken words, Fry tried to awaken the free world to the threat posed by Hitler’s regime. He also began raising money to support anti-Nazi organizations in Europe.

When France fell in June 1940, the Germans demanded, as a part of the armistice agreement, that the French government in Vichy turn over all the people on the Gestapo’s wanted list – artists, intellectuals, outspoken anti-Nazis, both Jews and non-Jews – who had sought safety in France.

A few days after the fall of France, the Emergency Relief Committee (ERC) was organized in New York with the mission of aiding the desperate refugees. It was founded on the initiative of Paul Hagen, Ingrid Warburg, Varian Fry and the presidents of several American universities. Among its major financial supporters were the art collector Peggy Guggenheim and the heiress Mary Jane Gold, who lived in France. Another supporter was Eleanor Roosevelt, who persuaded her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to pressure the reluctant State Department to issue 200 visas.

The ERC sent Fry to Marseilles, France, to act as its agent. Marseilles was the port city where many refugees had arrived in hopes of finding some way to a safer haven. 

Fry had studied the classics in college, which did little to prepare him for the kind of situation he would face.

With $3,000 hidden on his person and a list of 200 names, he arrived in Marseilles and set about trying to establish contact with those on his list and arrange for their travel to the U.S.

As word of his mission spread, hundreds of people lined up at his hotel to beg for his help.

Fry soon realized that the American consulate was not going to assist in any way – and certainly not in providing additional visas once the original 200 were exhausted. 

Faced with the overwhelming need, he sought alternate ways to help those in the most immediate danger. He rented an office and, with a group of associates – American expatriates, including Gold, French citizens and refugees – he founded the American Rescue Center.

Each day, the office was filled with desperate people.

Fry appealed to other consulates for visas. He learned how to trade American money on the black market for a better rate of exchange. He developed an underground operation. A refugee cartoonist was hired to forge documents.

Many refugees were smuggled over the Pyrenees Mountains through Spain to Portugal, often with Fry himself as their guide. Others, disguised as demobilized soldiers, traveled on French warships bound for North Africa.

Despite a police raid on his office and a brief imprisonment to serve as a warning, Fry remained in France and continued his work, even after his passport had expired.

Arrested once again, in August 1941, he was given one hour to pack and leave for Spain under guard. The American embassy had agreed to the expulsion order.

Upon his return to the U.S., Fry found himself the target of surveillance by the FBI. Former colleagues and friends avoided him.

Although Fry was responsible for rescuing 4,000 people, he was haunted by the thousands he could not save. He died alone in 1967 at age 59. A simple gravestone marks his burial site in Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York.

On July 21, 1994, Varian Fry was recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust victims, as Righteous Among the Nations, the first American so named. In his home country, his single acts of moral courage are unmarked.

If you’ve been moved by Marc Chagall’s art, puzzled by the cubist sculptures of Jacques Lipchitz, aggravated by the writings of Hannah Arendt, or healed as a result of knowledge gained through Otto Meyerhoff’s research, thank Varian Fry. 

Four other Americans have since been honored as Righteous Among the Nations: Lois Gunden Clements, Waitstill Sharp and Martha Dickie Sharp Cogan, and Master Sgt. Frederick “Roddie” Edmonds.

Martha Sharp Cogan was born in Providence, she and Waitstill Sharp were married in Providence, and their daughter, Martha Sharp Jukowsky, was a professor of archaeology at Brown University.

Documentary films are available on the lifesaving work of the Sharps in Czechoslovakia and France during World War II, and Roddie Edmonds’ courage and defiance while a prisoner of war in Germany.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at or 401-331-1360.