Varian Fry and Alma Mahler-Werfel

Varian Fry was an American journalist who rescued more than 1,000 people from Nazi persecution in France and Germany during 1940-41. Sometimes known as the American Schindler, Fry was one of the first people to report Nazi atrocities in America. After the war he was treated suspiciously by the FBI and American government, but his efforts have been posthumously celebrated. Many of Fry’s refugees were musicians, artists and writers: one was Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma Mahler-Werfel, who crossed the Pyrenees to Spain carrying a number of manuscript scores.

After graduating from Harvard Fry worked in Europe as a foreign correspondent for the American journal The Living Age. On a work trip to Berlin in 1935, Fry witnessed German anti-Semitism, and wrote about what he saw in the New York Times. When the Second World War broke out he began raising money to support anti-Nazi movements, and shortly after the defeat of France travelled to Marseilles in the Unoccupied Zone to try to help people under threat of persecution. He carried $3,000 and a list of 200 Jewish and anti-Communist artists and intellectuals, as well as visas and travel documents. Though they had only intended to stay for a month, Fry and his group of American volunteers (including heiress Mary Jane Gold, artist Miriam Davenport and economist Albert O. Hirschman) interviewed and assessed more than 15,000 people in thirteen months at the now-famous Villa Bel-Air. Fry wrote to his wife in America:

Among the people who have come into my office, or with whom I am in constant correspondence, are not only some of the greatest living authors, painters, and sculptors of Europe… but also former cabinet ministers and even prime ministers of half a dozen countries. What a strange place Europe is when men like this are reduced to waiting patiently in the anteroom of a young American of no importance whatever.

The team disguised themselves as a charity working for poverty relief, and after the original 200 visas had been used, Fry began to obtain visas for other countries. He secretly liaised with the French Resistance and Corsican mob, hired a team of forgers, and bribed border guards and officials. American Vice Consul Hiram Bingham IV personally produced legal and illegal documents to enable people to get to the US. Most of the people were smuggled across the border to Spain and then on to Portugal where they were able to get on a boat to America. Others were able to escape via Martinique, a French colony. Fry appealed to Cordell Hull, the US Secretary of State, to ask for refugees to be granted diplomatic protection, but did not receive an answer.

The many refugees aided by Fry include philosopher Hannah Arendt, mathematician Jacques Hadamard, Nobel laureate physiologist Otto Meyerhof, Hebraic scholar Oscar Goldberg, artists Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, André Breton, Max Ernst, writers Claude Lévi-Strauss, and composer Bohuslav Martinů. Alma Mahler-Werfel, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, was travelling with her husband, Jewish writer Franz Werfel, and writers Heinrich Mann and Walter Mehring to Marseilles via Lourdes to try and escape to Spain. Among her twelve items of luggage were manuscript scores including Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and the first three movements of Bruckner’s Third Symphony; Hitler had known that the Bruckner manuscript was in Mahler-Werfel’s possession and wished to buy it.

The group travelled with Fry, who needed to visit Lisbon anyway, but were unable to board a train to cross the French border into Spain: they had been made stateless by the Nazis and didn’t have passports, so couldn’t acquire exit visas. Fry had an exit visa and travelled by train into Spain with the luggage, whilst Mahler-Werfel, Werfel, Mann and Mehring walked across the Pyrenees and met him on the other side. They were helped during their journey by the French police, who could have turned them over to German authorities. Alma Mahler-Werfel carried the Bruckner manuscript across the mountains in her handbag. The group reunited briefly with Fry in Spain, and eventually travelled by boat to New York.

During his time in France Fry was threatened numerous times by the French police. The US State Department and Vichy France were suspicious of his activities and the US Embassy in Vichy did not intervene when Fry was eventually deported to Spain in September 1941. After he returned from France, Fry tried to spread the word about the Nazi regime, penning an article in The New Republic in December 1942, ‘The Massacre of Jews in Europe,’ in which he appealed to the American government to allow unrestricted entry to those being persecuted by the Nazis in Europe. In 1945 Fry described his motivations during the war as stemming from his experience witnessing anti-Semitism in Berlin in 1935: ‘I could not remain idle as long as I had any chance at all of saving even a few of its intended victims.’

Despite saving more than 1,000 people, Fry’s actions during the war went largely unacknowledged for the rest of his life. The FBI retained their file on him, he was dismissed by the Emergency Rescue Committee and refused entry to the army. His memoirs, Surrender on Demand, were published in 1945, and he worked as a journalist and teacher. Shortly before he died in 1967 Fry was awarded the French Legion of Honour, and has posthumously been awarded the Eisenhower Liberation Medal by the US Holocaust Memorial Council (1991). In 1994 Fry was listed by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations at the National Holocaust Museum in Israel, one of five listed American non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust. At the ceremony, Secretary of State Warren Christopher apologised for Fry’s treatment during the war and his lack of recognition: ‘even today, Varian Fry’s tale of courage and compassion is too little-known in the United States.’

By Abaigh McKee


Davenport Ebel, M. (1999) ‘An Unsentimental Education: A Memoir’ published by the Chambon Foundation’s Varian Fry Project at and

Giroud, F. (1991) Alma Mahler, or the Art of Being Loved, R. M. Stock (trans) (USA: Oxford University Press)

Marino, A. (1999) American Pimpernel: the man who saved the artists on Hitler’s death list (London: Hutchinson)

Sauvage, P. (2001) ‘Varian Fry in Marseilles,’ in Remembering for the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide John K. Roth, Elisabeth Maxwell and Margot Levy (eds) (Hampshire: Palgrave)

[Anon] ‘Righteous Among the Nations: Varian Fry,’ published by Yad Vashem at