“Varian Fry, Assignment: Rescue, 19401941,” an exhibition documenting the extraordinary efforts of a young American relief worker to save thousands of anti-Nazi artists and intellectuals, is now on display in Holocaust Museum Houstons Central Gallery. The photographic exhibit, organized and circulated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is showing in conjunction with HMHs “How Modern Art Escaped Hitler: From the Holocaust to Houston” exhibition, which features the works of Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Josef Albers and other artists whom Fry rescued from German-occupied France.
In 1940, Varian Fry volunteered to work for the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private relief organization that sent him to Marseilles. He had $3,000 and instructions to find a select 200 individuals and help them escape the Nazis. Upon his arrival, however, Fry found there were many more antifascist refugees who were threatened with extradition to Nazi Germany, and probable death. Since officials of the Vichy France government were cooperating with the Gestapo, he hoped to enlist the help of the American Foreign Service. After visiting the United States Consul in Marseilles, it was clear to him that the AFS was working to keep people out of the United States, not get them in.
He realized he would have to work outside the law and immediately set up a clandestine operation to forge documents, deal with the black market and develop escape routes. Fry worked directly against the wishes and instructions of both the French and American governments and endured repeated arrests, interrogations and searches by suspicious authorities. By the time Vichy France finally expelled him in September 1941, he and his organization has saved more than 2,000 people, including many famous artists, musicians, writers, scientists and politicians.
The American intellectual community benefited significantly from the arrival of the individuals he had saved; yet, he was reprimanded by the United States government and put under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Back in New York, he wrote and spoke extensively of what he had witnessed in Europe and warned of Hitler’s impending massacre of Jews. Shortly before his death in 1967, France honored Fry with the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. It was the only official recognition he received in his lifetime.
Fry left a wealth of photographic and written materials documenting his experiences in France. “Varian Fry, Assignment: Rescue, 1940-1941” exhibits only a small portion of his memoirs, which have been published in the book “Surrender On Demand.”