In its seven-part series Transatlantic, Netflix dramatizes the story of Varian Fry, an American patrician who spent the years from 1940 to 1942 trying to get artists and intellectuals—most but not all Jewish—out of Europe before they fell into the hands of the Nazis. Despite the efforts of the U.S. State Department to thwart his activities, Fry and his collaborators rescued roughly 2,000 people, among them Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, and Arthur Koestler. Phyllis Chesler finds the series riveting, and a cinematic treatment of the subject matter “long overdue.” She nonetheless takes the show to task for molding the story to faddish ideas:
Varian Fry, a twice heterosexually married man and father of three, is presented by Netflix as a closeted and tortured gay man. The real Fry was a Protestant who risked his life to save Jews and others due to his ethical revulsion against the Nazi regime; the series adds, as a fictional motivation, his affection for a Jewish male lover who grew up on a kibbutz in Palestine and who has been working with the British underground in order to get Jews into the Holy Land. This rescue mission is romance enough for me.
But we unfortunately live in an age ruled by identity politics. And still, I must ask: is Fry’s sexuality or the identity of his lovers anywhere near as important as what he accomplished? The thousands of European geniuses he saved came to America, changing both American and world culture.
People want their protagonists to resemble the latest victim-hero, especially if they are members of a demonized or marginalized group. But really, who most deserves to claim Fry as one of their own? The increasingly vilified white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a group to which Fry surely belonged?
The real Fry was likely gay—or at least bisexual. [But as Dara] Horn puts it, “Varian Fry’s oddness was not that of Marcel Duchamp. It was that of an Ezekiel. The real reason no one today has heard of Varian Fry is because the gift he had is not one that we value.”