Varian Fry, the man who rescued thousands from Vichy France, is the focus of a new series on Netflix.
The story of Varian Fry, a US journalist who helped some 2,000 of Europe’s imperiled artists, writers, and refugees escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, has inspired the new Netflix series “Transatlantic”.
takes a look at a hero who risked his life many times over before falling into relative anonymity.
The new Netflix series “Transatlantic” dramatizes the short but intense period of Fry’s life when he helped found the Emergency Rescue Committee and enabled hundreds of illustrious writers, artists, and refugees to flee Vichy France.
Varian Fry, enamored by European artists and writers, first travelled to Berlin in 1935 as a bookish and scholarly young journalist. But instead of finding high culture, he witnessed first-hand the violence meted out by fascist thugs in the streets of the German capital.
He saw the SS beating and bloodying Jewish women and men, later writing that the police didn’t make any effort to save the victims from the brutality, instead trying to clear the area for cars to get through.
In June 1940, Nazi forces marched into Paris, creating a massive exodus of refugees to the south of France.
Driven by his abhorrence for Nazism and all that it stood for, Fry helped found the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Its mission was to help anyone persecuted by the Nazis, including European writers, artists, or intellectuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
On August 4, Fry boarded a transatlantic flight from New York to German-occupied France with $3,000 strapped to one leg and a list of 200 European artists and intellectuals thought to be in danger compiled by the ERC.
The list included many of the most influential figures of the 20th century, including painter Marc Chagall, French surrealist André Breton, author Walter Mehring, German-born painter Max Ernst and musician Alma Mahler.
From Paris, Fry took a train to Marseille where he created an office at the Hôtel Splendide overlooking the Marseille’s Old Port. With the help of Mary-Jayne Gold, an American heiress who supplied funds and connections, and Albert O.
Hirschman, a German-Jewish intellectual, Fry began contacting the people on his list, telling them he could help them repatriate.
“Refugees were racing toward Marseille in the early 1940s because it was the only point of passage through which they could board a ship and escape France.
The only other route was through the Pyrenees leading into Spain,” said George Ayache, a French author and historian.
“In the very beginning, France was divided into two zones: the north, occupied by Nazis, and the south, administered by the French government of Marshal Philippe Pétain based in Vichy. There was more freedom in the south than in the north.”
It was this relative freedom that Fry and his colleagues seized upon when they started forging passports and securing passage on ships headed to the United States and other locations. The window of opportunity would soon close.
“By 1942, the Germans occupied the entire country, including the south. Leading up to the occupation, it was practical for the Germans to have a regime that governed in their place,” said Ayache.
The activities of Fry and his colleagues quickly earned the disapproval of US Consul General Hugh Fullerton (renamed Graham Patterson in the show and played by Corey Stoll). To the US authorities, Fry was a troublemaker who undermined official policy.
During the 13 months he spent in France, Fry helped some 2,000 refugees to leave. But his network of allies and their activities took on such significant proportions that it became impossible to keep them secret.
After months of spying on Fry and his colleagues, the French police decided to act and raided his offices. In December 1940, he was arrested and briefly held on a prison ship in the Marseille harbor.
Back in the United States, Fry struggled to adjust to civilian life after leading missions in occupied Europe. His wife divorced him, the army deemed him unfit for service and even the ERC severed ties with him after he publicly criticized the US State Department.
He would spend the rest of his life teaching and writing in relative obscurity. A brain hemorrhage at the age of 59 cut his life short.
Although highly fictionalized, “Transatlantic” shows how one individual had an impact on thousands of lives.
Filming of the show began in March 2022 and coincided with the outbreak of war in Europe, as Ukrainian refugees poured into Europe seeking safety after the Russian invasion.
With its themes of statelessness and the refugee experience, the story of Varian Fry still resonates today.