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Varian Fry letter to Jean Gemähling

Document | Digitized | Accession Number: 1993.12.1

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    Varian Fry letter to Jean Gemähling

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    Jean Gemähling (1912-2003) was a French Catholic educated at an English boarding school and worked as one of Varian Fry's assistants in Marseilles. In his January 9, 1945 letter to Gemähling, Fry asks for news of Gemähling’s survival and arrests in Vichy France and describes his 1945 memoir Surrender on Demand, his work at the New Republic and establishing the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, and his personal life as well as those of common friends and acquaintances. Among others, he mentions Jay Allen, Heinz Behrendt, Daniel Benedite, Georg Bernhardt, Victor Brauner, Andre, Jacqueline, and Aube Breton, Miriam Davenport, Antoine and Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, Max Ernst, Lena Fischman, Mary Jayne Gold, Peggy Guggenheim, Stephen Hessel, Lucie Heymann, Franzi von Hildebrand, Albert Otto Hirschman, Erich Lewinski, Dyno Loewenstein, Emilio Lussu, Nelly Mann, Walter Mehring, Amedeo Modigliani, Hans Namuth, Heinz Ernst Oppenheimer, Margaret Palmer, Hans Sahl, Marcel Verzeano, Aurthur Wolff, Charles Wolf, and Ylla (Camilla Koffler). The letter has three double-sided pages.
    creation:  1945 January 09
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Jean Gemähling
    Collection Creator
    Varian M. Fry
    Varian Fry (1907-1967) was born in New York City, obtained a degree in classics from Harvard University, and married Eileen Hughes, an editor at Atlantic Monthly. Fry worked as a researcher and editor at several magazines in the early 1930s, traveling to and reporting on Nazi Germany. After Germany invaded France, Fry helped found the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) in June 1940. The private American relief organization’s goal was the rescue of anti-Nazi writers and artists, Jews and non-Jews, in Vichy France who were likely to be targeted by Nazi Germany. Several members of the newly created ERC met with Eleanor Roosevelt, who used her influence to obtain “emergency” non-quota visas for a number of endangered intellectuals. Varian Fry volunteered to serve as the ERC’s representative in France and flew to Europe in August 1940.

    Fry landed in Lisbon, and met Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister who had been active in rescue efforts in Prague and southern France and who gave Fry advice and lists of sympathetic contacts in Marseilles. Fry met with refugees in his room at the Hotel Splendide, and befriended American vice consul Harry Bingham Jr., who extended aid to refugees and hid endangered author Lion Feuchtwanger in his home. Needing a more formal space, Fry leased an office on rue Grignan (and later on boulevard Garibaldi) and gathered a staff, a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees including Bill Spira, Justus Rosenberg, and Albert Hirschmann, as well as American expatriates Marion Davenport, Mary Jayne Gold, and Charlie Fawcett.

    In early September 1940 Fry helped German Jewish writer Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler Werfel, along with relatives of Thomas Mann, escape France through Spain to Lisbon and on to America to avoid arrest. Fry continued his efforts in France for the next thirteen months, renting the “Villa Air Bel” outside of Marseilles as a home for prominent refugees who needed a safe residence. He and his colleagues used legal and illegal means to assist refugees with their immigration efforts, even utilizing an escape route across the mountains with the assistance of French resistance workers Hans and Lisa Fittko. He assisted Marc Chagall, André Breton, André Masson, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz, Walter Mehring, Wanda Landowska, Lion Feuchtwanger, and nearly 2,000 others.

    Fry’s activities angered Vichy French officials as well as US State Department representatives who complained that Fry’s illegal work interfered with American efforts to stay neutral in World War II. Fry was under constant surveillance and was, more than once, questioned and detained by French authorities. Fry and some of his American collaborators were arrested by French police in December 1940 and briefly interned on a ship in Marseilles harbor because they were suspected of planning acts of terrorism during Marshal Pétain’s visit to the city. In August 1941, Fry was arrested by the French police and given two hours to pack his belongings before being escorted to the Spanish border. He spent more than a month in Lisbon before returning to the United States in October 1941.

    Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought the country into World War II in December 1941. The Emergency Rescue Committee (which in 1942 became the International Rescue Committee) severed ties with Fry due to his outspoken criticism of the State Department. Fry began a new job as the assistant editor of The Nation magazine. He was deemed unfit for military service and spent most of the war preparing his memoirs. Eileen Fry passed away in 1948, and a year later, Varian Fry married Annette Riley, with whom he had three children. Shortly before Fry’s death in 1967, the French government awarded him the Croix de Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, France’s highest decoration of merit. In 1991, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council awarded him the Eisenhower Liberation Medal, and in 1994, Fry became the first American to be honored by Yad Vashem as "Righteous Among the Nations." In 2000, the square in front of the US consulate in Marseilles was renamed “Place Varian Fry.”

    (see more in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia article on Varian Fry)

    Physical Details

    1 folder
    System of Arrangement
    The Varian Fry letter to Jean Gemähling is arranged as a single series.

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    There are no known restrictions on access to this material.
    Conditions on Use
    Material(s) in this collection may be protected by copyright and/or related rights. You do not require further permission from the Museum to use this material. The user is solely responsible for making a determination as to if and how the material may be used.

    Keywords & Subjects

    Geographic Name
    Marseille (France)
    Personal Name
    Fry, Varian, 1907-1967.

    Administrative Notes

    Varian Fry sent the letter to Jean Gemähling, in January 1945, New York, New York. Jean Gemähling, in turn, donated the letter to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993 as part of the collecting efforts for the inaugural temporary exhibition "Assignment Rescue.."
    Record last modified:
    2023-08-24 15:16:04
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