restricted access A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry (review)
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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 136-138



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A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry. By Andy Marino. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. xi + 403 pp.

The story of Varian Fry's remarkable rescue operations is not new. Fry himself recorded it, as did several survivors. 1 Yet, despite these publications, Fry remains little known. Andy Marino's A Quiet American thus is a welcome contribution to the subject.

This well-written book reads like a spy thriller. 2 Marino discusses Fry's activities in Vichy France and analyzes his life and times. Using interviews and unpublished sources, including the Fry papers, he skillfully describes Fry from his Harvard student days to his death, including his problematic relations with others, among them his wives. Marino's book also deals with the artists and intellectuals and their wives whom Fry rescued. It traces their pasts in their homelands, depicts their lives as refugees in France, follows their routes of escape through Madrid and Lisbon to the United States, and describes their eventual absorption into America. Thus, A Quiet American is more comprehensive and penetrates more deeply into Fry's soul than previous books.

Varian Fry (1907-1967), a journalist, had visited Nazi Germany in 1935 and witnessed anti-Semitic riots in Berlin. After the occupation of Western Europe in 1940, Fry participated in establishing the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), founded to save artists, writers, and prominent political figures whose lives were endangered because of their opposition to Nazism. The Committee engaged in helping refugees escape from prison, hide from the police and the Gestapo, and sneak across the border to neutral countries. "Rescue by all means" became Fry's catchword. Although experienced neither in refugee work nor in underground activities, he became the Committee's agent in France out of deep political conviction and for the sentimental reasons of wanting to save artists whom he greatly admired. In August 1940 Fry left America for what he thought would be less than a month and stayed in France for more than a year.

In Marseille Fry opened the Centre Américain de Secours (The American Relief Center) which provided legal cover for his underground operations. From his hotel room, assisted by a small but devoted staff, [End Page 136] Fry was involved in illegal activities like forged papers, illicit black-market money exchanges, and organized escapes over the mountains and by sea.

Fry came to France with a list of the names of 200 intellectuals to rescue, but soon extended help to less prominent people on the Gestapo list. In addition to aiding unrecognized artists and poets, Fry also wanted to help ordinary refugees in danger. The ERC, however, insisted on rescuing only prominent intellectuals and active anti-Nazi leaders. Disregarding the Committee's instructions, Fry's office provided money for food and accommodations and found hiding places for 4,000 refugees for whom he was unable to secure visas. He also smuggled out British soldiers trapped in France. Thus he became a British agent.

The French police knew about Fry's illegal activities but, sometimes deliberately disregarded them. As time passed, the Vichy authorities surrendered to German demands and turned in refugee leaders. The police raided Fry's offices, arrested several of his workers, and eventually demanded his departure.

State Department and American officials in Vichy France were embarrassed by Fry's illegal activities. In fact, the consuls were so annoyed that they refused to help Fry's clients. They also asked Fry, and later demanded of him, that he leave France immediately, which he flatly refused to do. Marino extensively records Fry's encounters with American consuls and their animosity--with the exception of Hiram Bingham, the visa consul in Marseille, who was later punished by his superiors for helping Fry.

More painful for Fry was the disagreement with the Emergency Rescue Committee, which became an open rivalry. This subject, less well known, probably constitutes the most original part of the book. Fry frequently demanded money and other assistance from the ERC, but its response...


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