Visiting Berlin as a journalist in 1935, Varian Fry was among the first to report for the American press on the Nazi government’s brutal anti-Semitic violence. Upon returning to the U.S., he founded the Emergency Rescue Committee, devoted primarily to getting Jewish artists and intellectuals out of Europe. He later went to Vichy France to help rescue refugees who had fled there from Germany. Ginia Bellafante writes:
In August 1940, Fry, a Protestant and thirty-two-year-old, went to Marseilles to begin a covert rescue operation that during his thirteen-month stay would result in the escape of more than 2,000 people, among them many artists and intellectuals, including Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, . . . Marcel Duchamp, . . . and Alma Mahler [Gustav’s widow]. . . .
In June 1940, he had sent a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt explaining that there was an urgent need for someone—“an adventurous daredevil”—to go to France and risk his life in an attempt to “save the intended victims of Hitler’s chopping block.” But Fry did not see himself in the role, in part because his own command of French and German was merely “halting,” he wrote, and because he had “no experience whatever in detective work.”
He hoped that either Mrs. Roosevelt or her husband could suggest someone, but when no such individual surfaced, he volunteered as if there were no other reasonable choice—strapping $3,000 to his leg as he left New York, holding meetings in bathrooms with the water running to evade the detection of German spies who had planted listening devices. Moral calling inserted him in a world of black-market money, forged passports, and visas and clandestine mountain routes. He stayed in France, having originally imagined it would only be for a few weeks, long past the point at which he understood it was dangerous.