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Review of Dara Horn's Excellent book The Rescuer About The American Who Saved 2000 Artists, Scientists and Intellectuals From the Nazis

by Rhonda Spivak, Janaury 13, 2018

[Editor's note:  Award Winning Author and Acclaimed Lecturer Dara Horn will be speaking at Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Synagogue on May 6, 2018. Dara Horn's The Rescuer was published by Tablet magazine and is a Kindle bestseller]

Dara Horn's The Rescuer is an excellent  relatively short non-fiction book about the efforts of an Harvard educated American, Varian Fry who arrived in Nazi occupied France in 1941 on a daring mission to save over 2000 of Europe's finest writers, artists , musicians, philosophers, scientists and intellectuals. Fry, who was hounded by the Gestapo,  smuggled Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt ,Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Claude Levi-Strauss,  and many other 20th century cultural  luminaries,  out of France, bringing them to America, by distributing emergency American visas to them. Fry volunteered to go on this mission on behalf of a group of American intellectuals who were trying to save  European culture.

Although he was named a righteous gentile by Yad Vashem in 1997, Fry is still relatively unknown. (For example, although Fry’s deeds were no less heroic to those of Oskar Schindler, Fry never achieved Schindler’s renown. I had never heard of Fry prior to reading Horn's  online book . 

In The Rescuer, Horn gives a fascinating psychological profile of Fry, examining not only why he is relatively unknown but also why the celebrities he saved generally later ignored or avoided him. She discusses Fry's personality, his motivation in taking on the mission, as well as the morality of the mission in terms of deciding who should be rescued.

Fry, a journalist, was passionate about the creative arts and went on his mission  since he felt grateful to all the artists whose art he had enjoyed.Also, in 1935, Fry witnessed a pogrom along the Kurfuerstendamm in Berlin, which, in the view of  one of his co-rescuers, contributed to his decision to go to France years later.

Near the outset of  The Rescuer Horn notes that Hannah Arendt in her Holocaust related writings never once acknowledged she was saved by Fry's organization. 

As Horn writes, there was a "peculiar lack of gratefulness" on the part of the celebrities Fry saved towards him. Horn suggests that some of this is due to the fact that "jaded" celebrities are accustomed to using other people "for their own needs", as "a means to an end."  She notes that in a sense Fry was treated as their hired help.

But additionally, Horn opines that there is something inherently shameful in the rescuer-rescued relationship.There is humiliation on the part of the person rescued since he or she is reduced to being totally dependent on the rescuer. This humiliation and shame brings out resentment towards the rescuer.  As Horn explores the chasm between the rescuer and the rescued, she notes that when Fry saved the luminaries he was "living an adventure" but for the luminaries, they were living a nightmare, one they they would have liked to forget.

One example given in Horn's book which shows how much the elites saved by Fry did not show gratitude to him occurred in 1966, when Fry was putting together a fundraising project  to raise money for the International Rescue Commission, a philanthropic group that evolved from Fry's earlier refugee committee. As Horn details,many refugee artists  wouldn't support the group that rescued their lives. Marc Chagall  did donate a lithograph but he didn't sign it. Fry himself had really helped Chagall in that when the Vichy police arrested Chagall, Fry yelled at them for arresting one of the world's greatest living artists. Fry claimed that the world would be shocked by his arrest, and his protestations were sufficient to get Chagall released a half hour later.

Horn explores how  Fry  as a rescuer accepted the limits of his mission, knowing that he was leaving the rest of European Jewry to be destroyed. She finds that he was "genuinely anguished" by all those who were left behind to be murdered in Europe.

After Fry was forced to leave France, he tried to enlist in the US army but couldn't be accepted because he had an ulcer. He then tried to draw the world's attention to the plight of European Jews by writing a cover story  for The New Republic, entitled "The Massacre of the Jews" about what was then the killing of 2 million Jews. In the article Fry pleaded for offering Jews asylum in the US, but his plea was ignored. Horn suggests one of the reasons that Fry has remained relatively unknown is that Americans at the time wanted to hear about their own heroism, not about their failures in doing anything to stop the Holocaust. 

Also, in his article in The New Republic, Fry wrote of a 1935 meeting he had with Ernst Hanfstaengl, the Nazis' chief foreign press officer. Hanfstaengl told Fry, quite openly, that he and the 'moderate' Nazis wanted to expel the Jews, while Hitler's 'radical' wing was set on mass murder. Fry's experience  shows  that the implementation of the Final Solution was not a secret.

In her very well written narrative, Horn also indicates that in general Fry, who was highly intelligent,  had a difficult time getting along with other people.When he returned from France he could barely keep a job, due to his inability to get along with his bosses. Nothing matched the glory of his days in France where he thrived, and Fry drifted between jobs,from journalism to to film production to high school and college teaching.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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