Bill Freier (Willi Spira) embraces his fiancee, Mina.
Photograph | Photograph Number: 34486
1940 - 1941
- Marseilles, [Bouches-du-Rhone] France
- Variant Locale
- Photo Designation
RESCUE MISSIONS -- Diplomatic Rescue -- France: American Rescue Missions
- Photo Credit
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Donald Carroll
Bill Freier (Willi Spira) embraces his fiancee, Mina.
The caption on the verso of the photograph reads, "Bill Spira with his beloved Mina."
- Event History
- The Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) was established in New York in the summer of 1940 in the wake of the defeat of France and its acceptance of Hitler's terms for an armistice. Article 19 of the agreement committed the new French government under Marshal Philippe Petain to surrender on demand all refugees from the Greater German Reich. The impetus for the ERC came from some of the leaders and associates of the American Friends of German Freedom, an organization formed in the U.S. in 1936 to provide support for the socialist, anti-Nazi underground in Germany. Among these people were Karl B. Frank (an Austrian Jewish political activist, who had recently fled to the U.S.), Reinhold Niebuhr (Protestant theologian), Frank Kingdon (Methodist churchman) and Raymond Gram Swing (radio commentator). The members of the ERC feared for the lives of hundreds of anti-Nazi refugee intellectuals and artists, who had fled the Reich and were now trapped within the closed borders of Vichy France. Under the chairmanship of Kingdon, the committee set itself the mission to locate a group of approximately 200 prominent refugees and to arrange for their escape from France and transport to America. The mission was intended to last approximately three weeks. For their emissary to France, the ERC selected Varian Fry, an editor for the Foreign Policy Association with ties to the International YMCA. This connection allowed Fry to secure a visa to France at a time when they were difficult to obtain, as well as give him a cover for his rescue work. Soon after arriving in Marseilles on August 4, 1940, Fry assembled a staff and established a legal French relief organization, the Centre Americain de Secours (American Relief Center), to serve as a cover for their illegal activities. As word spread that an American had come with visas to help them escape, the refugees flocked to his office, and it quickly became clear that Fry could not complete his mission in the allotted time, nor limit his assistance to the names on the list. Fry and his staff did their utmost for the desperate refugees. They dispensed modest allowances, helped the refugees find places to stay, assisted them in securing legal and false documents, sought to obtain the release of those held in internment camps, and explored escape routes out of France. To find respite from the crush of their responsibilities, Fry and some of his staff rented a villa on the outskirts of Marseilles. They were soon joined at the Villa Air-Bel by surrealist writer Andre Breton and former Russian revolutionary Victor Serge, who were also waiting to leave France. In December 1940, the villa was raided by French police, who detained Fry and his colleagues on a ship in the harbor for several days during the visit of Marshal Petain. The following month Fry's American passport expired, and the State Department, which disapproved of his high-handed activities, refused to renew it. Fry decided to continue his mission, nonetheless, though he knew he faced ever-increasing hostility from both the American and French authorities. By the time he was expelled from France on August 27, 1941, Fry had spent thirteen months in the country. He and his colleagues had spirited more than 1,500 refugees from France and provided support to 2,500 others. Among the refugees he saved were the artists Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andre Masson and Jacques Lipchitz; the writers Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger and Franz Werfel; the scientists Otto Meyerhof and Jacques Hadamard; and the political scientist Hannah Arendt. Varian Fry was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1994.
[Greenberg, Karen J. Columbia University Library, New York: the Varian Fry papers: the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter papers. New York: Garland, 1990; Gold, Mary Jayne. Crossroads Marseilles 1940. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980.]
- Wilhelm Spira (Bill Freier, 1913-2000), a Viennese political cartoonist and caricaturist. Soon after the Anschluss in March 1938, Spira was arrested along with his father. Following his release, Spira fled to Paris in August 1938, where he assumed the more symbolic name of Bill Freier (meaning "more free"). Following the Nazi invasion of France, Spira was fearful of arrest because of an anti-Nazi cartoon of his that had run in the British journal, London Opinion. Soon after the French armistice, Spira was sent to the Vichy internment camp of Le Vernet. He managed to escape and fled to Marseilles. Spira was painting portraits on the Vieux Port in Marseille when he first met Varian Fry. The head of the Centre Americain de Secours became interested in Spira when he learned that he could produce a perfect forgery of the Vichy identity card. While identity card blanks were easy to obtain, it was Spira's special skill in reproducing the official "Commissaire de Police" stamp and the official signature, that made him an invaluable asset to Fry's rescue operation. Unfortunately, Spira was caught forging documents by the Vichy police and arrested. He was released a short time later, but later re-arrested, leaving a distraught and pregnant wife, Mina, who came to Fry for help. Spira was subsequently deported to Poland, where he was imprisoned in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, before being transferred to a series of other concentration camps, among them Buchenwald and Theresienstadt. After the liberation, Spira returned to France, where he found Mina and his four-year-old son, Francois. He resumed using his prewar name,"Bill Spira," dropping the alias "Freier." Tragically, shortly after the Spiras were reunited, Mina suffered a breakdown which left her mentally incapacitated. She died in an asylum in 1953. Spira remained in Paris, where he worked as a caricaturist and photographer until his death in 2000.
[Sources: Andy Marino, A Quiet American, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999;
Weiner Zeitung, "Zeichner und Falscher," Weiner Zeitung. n.d.,
- Photo Source
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumProvenance: Donald CarrollWilli Spira
Record last modified: 2005-05-02 00:00:00
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