Little-known American rescuer Varian Fry gets his due

But several years ago, Meyerhof — a professor emeritus of physics at Stanford University — finally found himself contemplating his wartime past. At that point, his thoughts returned again and again to a man named Varian Fry.

This little-known American newspaper editor saved Meyerhof, along with thousands of others, in Nazi-occupied France.

"He helped me in many little ways, each of which seems trivial now, but at the time were the difference between surviving and falling into the abyss," Meyerhof says.

Starting Sunday, the San Francisco Public Library will present "Varian Fry: Assignment Rescue, 1940-41," a traveling exhibit highlighting Fry's efforts. It is on loan from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

At an opening reception for the exhibition, which is being co-sponsored here by the office of Congressman Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), Meyerhof will share recollections of his late rescuer, who died virtually unrecognized in 1967.

In 1996, Fry became the first American to be honored by Jerusalem's Yad Vashem as one of its "Righteous Among Gentiles."

"He was a man who was convinced about what is right and wrong," says Meyerhof, who is project director of the Varian Fry Foundation Project/International Rescue Committee, an organization dedicated to disseminating Fry's story.

After graduating from Harvard and establishing himself as a writer specializing in foreign affairs, Fry traveled to Germany in 1935. There, he saw Nazis harassing Jews and forcing intellectuals to flee for their lives.

Fry was a New York newspaper editor when France came under Nazi rule in 1940. That year, he learned that some refugees had become trapped on the Mediterranean coast near Marseilles, an area Hitler had consigned to the collaborationist Vichy regime.

Deeply concerned by this development, Fry volunteered for a private American relief organization. After arriving in France, he went on to set up yet another relief organization under whose cover he devised an elaborate escape network that ended up aiding thousands of desperate Jews and others.

The rescues were achieved mainly through illegal means and Fry and other rescuers were under constant threat of arrest for forging documents, exchanging money on the black market and arranging safe routes to Spain.

Fry "persisted in doing what he felt was right in the face of opposition from authority," Meyerhof says.

Among those whom Fry's network saved were some of this century's most renowned cultural icons: philosopher Hannah Arendt, writers Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel and artists André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst.

Born in Germany to Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Otto Meyerhof and his wife Hedwig, Walter Meyerhof and his family fled to France in 1938 as it became increasingly clear that Germany was unsafe for Jews.

Once France came under Nazi rule, Fry helped Meyerhof's parents get in touch with a forger who created fake documents to secure their son's release from a detainment camp. After the Meyerhofs' appeals for French exit visas proved futile, Fry was helpful in trying to make arrangements for them to escape across the Pyrenees.

Before leaving France, Meyerhof's parents managed to secure American visas, then had to depart quickly before the visas expired. They had to leave their then 18-year-old son behind; it took them six more months to arrange his visa.

During the time he remained behind in France, Meyerhof maintained a "lively correspondence" with Fry, who helped the young man in many ways including locating lodgings and replacing his lost French identity card. Meyerhof still has many of Fry's letters.

"He was very kind to me," Meyerhof recalls. "He was sort of a father figure for me."

Known as a dapper intellectual, Fry once invited the young Meyerhof to spend the night in a villa he had rented for his staff outside Marseilles.

"There were all these crazy artists flirting with their girlfriends and I felt completely out of place," Meyerhof recalls. "After dinner I went to my room. I was kind of intimidated. I was a young innocent 18-year-old at that time."

Originally, Fry's work abroad was supposed to last three weeks. But he remained in France for 13 months.

"I stayed because the refugees needed me," he later wrote. "But it took courage, and courage is a quality that I hadn't previously been sure I possessed."

Because of his activities, Fry was pursued by the Vichy authorities, arrested and detained. Soon after, the American consul in Marseilles confiscated his passport, putting Fry in grave personal danger.

He was expelled from France in 1941 as an undesirable alien.

Back in the United States, he was placed under FBI surveillance. He died alone at the age of 59 in Redding, Conn. while teaching high-school Latin and condensing his memoirs for a student edition. He never received any official recognition here while alive, though in 1991 he received the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council's Eisenhower Liberation Medal.

Several years later, at an exhibit honoring Fry on Capitol Hill, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher lamented the treatment Fry received here following the war.

"During his lifetime, Varian Fry did not receive the support that he deserved from his government, including, I regret to say, the State Department," Christopher said. "Frankly, the conduct of our department was not our finest hour."

Christopher went on to speak of the importance of remembering Fry and his accomplishments.

"His heroism reminds us of what it is to…follow our most cherished ideals of freedom, respect for human rights and a concern for the persecuted."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.