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HONOR JEWS' KILLERS OR RESCUERS? A DILEMMA FOR SOME EUROPEANS

by Rafael Medoff , August 9, 2015


 

 
(Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust. He recently won the American Jewish Press Association's Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.)
 
 
 
 
Two towns in France recently honored prominent killers of Jews, while a town in Spain has been honoring rescuers of Jews. Quite a contrast!
 
Last year, the French city of Aubervilliers, near Paris, awarded honorary residency to Marwan Barghouti. He's a Palestinian terrorist now serving five terms of life imprisonment in Israel for multiple murders. More recently, the southern French town of La Seyne-sur-Mer named a street after the most famous Arab terrorist of all, Yasir Arafat. 
 
The Spanish town of Lleida, on the other hand, has just marked off and commemorated a path in the Pyrenees Mountains over which Jewish refugees were smuggled out of Vichy France during 1940-1941.
 
This week happens to be the 75th anniversary of the launching of that remarkable rescue mission. On August 14, 1940, a young American named Varian Fry arrived in Marseille with $3,000 taped to his leg and a list of refugees he intended to rescue. It was the start of what would be one of the few shining moments in the otherwise bleak record of America's response to the Holocaust.
 
A Harvard-trained classics scholar and foreign affairs commentator who enjoyed bird watching and fine wines, Fry was not the kind of person one would expect to become a refugee-smuggler. “Certainly my manner and appearance did not suggest the daredevil,” he later acknowledged. But when history beckoned, he answered the call.
 
Earlier that summer, the Germans invaded France, occupying the northern part of the country and placing the south in the control of their Vichy allies. Thousands of refugees, many of them prominent political dissidents, intellectuals, writers, and artists, fled to southern France to avoid capture by the Nazis. Refugee activists in New York City persuaded the Roosevelt administration to authorize emergency visas to several hundred hundred of them. President Roosevelt was willing to make this small exception to his strict anti-immigration policy because he regarded these particular refugees as "the cream of European civilization."
 
Fry and his hastily-assembled team of local humanitarian workers held their “staff meetings” in the bathroom of a Marseille hotel with the faucets turned on full, so the noise would prevent their discussions from being overheard by any eavesdropping German police. 
 
One of Fry's comrades was Charles Fawcett, a former professional wrestler from South Carolina, who "married" at least six different women in order to get them released from French concentration camps and qualify them for visas to the United States. Another key figure was Hiram "Harry" Bingham IV, an American  vice-consul in Marseille. Bingham helped break the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger out of a detention camp by dressing him in women's clothes and having him pose as Bingham's mother in law. Also part of Fry's effort were the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts, and his wife Martha. They had recently rescued an anti-Nazi member of the Czech parliament by sneaking him out of a hospital morgue in a body bag. 
 
 
Fry outfitted many of the refugees in field laborers’ clothing, and then marched with them to vineyards in the Pyrenees Mountains along the French-Spanish border, as if headed for a day of harvesting grapes. Once they reached Spain, they were able to continue on to Portugal, and from there they boarded ships bound for the United States. Among the rescued were the artists Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Jacques Lipschitz, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Otto Meyerhof, author Franz Werfel, architect Walter Gropius, philosopher Hannah Arendt, and Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism. 
 
 
When the painter Marc Chagall was arrested, Fry threatened a senior Vichy police official that he would call the New York Times and tell them of the arrest unless Chagall was set free within half an hour. Chagall was quickly released. At one point, Fry himself was arrested and held on a boat for a number of days before being released as a result of Harry Bingham’s protests. 
 
 
Catching wind of the Fry operation, furious German and French officials complained to Washington. The United States was not yet in the war, and the Roosevelt administration was still trying to maintain cordial relations with Nazi Germany. Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent a telegram to  the American ambassador in Paris, instructing him to warn Fry to halt all "activities evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintains friendly relations.” When Fry persisted in his rescue efforts, the administration revoked Fry's passport and transferred Bingham out of France.
 
The work of Fry and his comrades was a brief shining light in a dark era. The Spanish town that is recognizing their heroism is doing the right thing. One hopes there will be similar recognition on the other side of the border. Surely there must be more French towns interested in honoring rescuers of Jews than the two that have honored killers of Jews.

 
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