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Varian Fry’s Mission of Mercy

Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille
By Rosemary Sullivan
HarperCollins, 544 pages $26.95.

Varian Fry arrived in France in 1940 with $3,000 taped to his leg and a list containing the names of 200 European intellectuals believed to be wanted by the Nazis. He planned on staying three weeks. He left 13 months later, having tested his own resourcefulness, befriending like-minded activists and saving the lives of thousands in the process.

The interval between Fry’s arrival and when he departed is the focus of Rosemary Sullivan’s new historical account, “Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille.” The 31-year-old American had been sent by the Emergency Rescue Committee, “an American committee hastily put together by European exiles and New York liberals who suddenly understood that the Nazis were hunting down artists and intellectuals in France.” Leaving behind his wife, the Harvard-educated Fry — a classics scholar known for his intense thirst for justice but otherwise relatively unequipped for activism — went to France to pitch in.

Aligning himself with a team of activists (among them, Russian writer Victor Serge; American heiress Mary Jayne Gold; surrealist André Breton, and Miriam Davenport, an American grad student), Fry set up shop. This was risky business, as Fry and his team worked to spirit out as many of the potentially persecuted as possible. Some were given visas, which were scarce, while others escaped over a treacherous, mountainous path into Spain. What was clear was that those viewed as threats by the Nazis (including long-term Jewish residents of France) had to get out.

Just a year earlier, few could have imagined what was to happen — even as they watched the Nazis increase their stranglehold on Europe. Many doubted that the Germans would ever cross the French border, or assumed that, at the very least, they’d easily find a way out if the Nazis came to power. Surrealist artist Max Ernst, for one, “was sure there would be somebody he could talk to, somebody who could make special arrangements if anything went wrong.” Yet Ernst eventually found himself imprisoned. He was not without company, and the list of his fellow prisoners was a veritable who’s who of European intellectuals. His jailed peers include poets, novelists, playwrights and professors, and both a previous Nobel Prize winner (Dr. Otto Meyerhof, who won for medicine in 1922) and a future winner (Dr. Tadeus Reichstein, who was granted the same prize in 1950 for his discovery of cortisone).

The situation was becoming dire, and, as the Nazis poured into Paris in June 1940, Parisian intellectual luminaries — artists, writers, poets and activists — fled to the South of France. Many of them landed in Marseille, where Fry and his crew set up shop in a ramshackle villa they named Villa Air-Bel. The house became the headquarters of their operation, but it also served as an oasis in a sea of trouble. The intermingling of these bright minds could have been the stuff of fiction, and, in the high point of the book, Sullivan vividly portrays life in the countryside.

Though they struggled to put food on the table, nourishment for the mind was plentiful. They played surrealist parlor games, and many of the artists continued to create, finding art “a way of asserting self-control when the self was totally violated.” They also continued their work on behalf of refugees, with the ever-present threat of searches by the Gestapo (and the ensuing imprisonment) looming in the background. Fry’s resignation was called for numerous times by the committee back in New York as he antagonized German officials, but he refused to give up. By the time of his departure, he had assisted in the escape of 2,000 people.

Fry’s comrades are the meat of Sullivan’s story, and short chapters facilitate deft handling of a twisted plot with a large number of characters. The ultimate result, however, feels like a series of encyclopedic entries (interrupted with extended history lessons on the Spanish Civil War and the development of fascism), as Sullivan trades the depth of few for biographical sketches of many. What’s missing is insight into what made these people tick, and just why the young Varian Fry was compelled to leave his wife an ocean away and take such risks.

Indeed, so many facets of Fry remain unexplored, though a letter to his wife shows that for all Fry did to change the fates of others, he returned to the United States forever altered himself: “I have had adventures… of which I never dreamed,” he wrote. “I have learned to live with people and work with them. I have developed, or discovered within me, powers of resourcefulness, of imagination and of courage which I never before knew I possessed. And I have fought a fight, against enormous odds, of which… I think I can always be proud.”

Iris Blasi is a writer in New York.

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