Donnerstag, 25.07.2024 09:36 Uhr

Book review: Surrender on Demand by Varian Fry

Verantwortlicher Autor: Kurt Lehberger Frankfurt am Main, 09.05.2024, 18:39 Uhr
Presse-Ressort von: Kurt Lehberger Bericht 5864x gelesen
Extract from book cover: Surrender on Demand
Extract from book cover: Surrender on Demand   Bild: Kurt Lehberger

Frankfurt am Main [ENA] It is about civil courage with prudence for rescue of emigrants. An exciting report about the tireless efforts of Varian Fry in France under Pétain's Vichy regime for the persecuted people from Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy who wanted to escape to USA from death in the concentration camps.

With the Franco-German armistice, the clause Article 19 came into force, which ordered the French to extradite the persons desired by the Nazis. Varian Fry was the representative of the American Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) and established relations with all persons who could help him to get the necessary papers. Exit visas, transit visas, entry visas to USA. Again and again, he had to change tactical means, find new ways, as a reaction to the changed political situation and the new regulations that were put into effect. Together with his team, he was constantly testing new escape routes, looking for new tactical allies. In addition to document forgers, he also linked up with gangsters for a short time.

He found many supporters who gave him money so that he could fulfil his mission to save the persecuted emigrants. He met German Nazis, Gestapo people, and French people who, under the Vichy government, mercilessly executed the orders to extradite the emigrants. He had great success because he built up a courageous, reliable team around him and constantly discussed tactical options with his friends, improved them, tried out new ways and held unyieldingly to his goal of rescuing as many persecuted people as possible. Lawyers, politicians and other intellectuals helped him in his work. He worked hard, daily from morning to evening, sometimes until late at night. The routes were constantly changed.

Lists of names were hidden in toothpaste tubes and smuggled. Conversations in hotel rooms were not conducted until the telephone cables were put out of order to prevent eavesdropping. Money was collected and hidden so that it could be spent on bribes, overpriced boat trips, forged visas and brothel visits if necessary. The center of attention was the city of Marseille. The port city in the south of France in the unoccupied zone. From here, many could leave by ship for the USA. The emigrants, who were without papers, were provided with forged identity cards and, if necessary, with transit and exit papers. Many were sent to Lisbon via Spain. From Lisbon then to the USA or to Algeria, Gibraltar and Casablanca.

The journey to Spain and Portugal was sometimes organized in the company of resistance fighters or volunteers who knew the country well and wanted to help. It led over secret paths, e.g. the F Route to Spain through the Pyrenees. It led from “Banyuls-sur-mer” near Cerbère to Portbou in Spain. From there it went on to Portugal. The destination was the port of Lisbon, from where the last stage led across the sea to freedom. He also reports about many Germans who were held in camps, e.g. in "Les Milles" or who were on the run and were captured and took their own lives. These stories are quickly forgotten, but there were many individual fates, including well-known writers, artists and intellectuals.

Varian Fry got to know the bureaucracy of the authorities. It was slow, unreliable and paradoxical. Fortunately, there were also supporters in the authorities who deliberately disobeyed the rules, or let inaccuracies and forgeries slide, thus helping the persecuted to escape the Nazis and be saved. But there were also French people who, hard and sober, without mercy, implemented the provisions of Vichy under Pétain with conviction, since they themselves were Nazis or anti-Semites. Varian Frey was also disappointed by the US State Department. It often takes a very long time, and only after further argumentation, for entry visas from the USA to arrive in the city of Marseille.

Finally, he was called back in order not to burden the diplomatic relations with France. Only late in the 60s his work was recognized. He was awarded the "Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur" by Charles de Gaulle (1967) and thus honored for his work in France. He helped 4000 people to escape and saved 1200 to 1800 people, many famous names among them Lion Feuchtwanger, Heinrich and Golo Mann, Franz Werfel, Walter Mehring, Hitler expert Konrad Heiden and the painter and sculptor Max Ernst. Varian Fry spent very nice days in France, he loved Provence, good food, red wine, cognac, encounters with writers, artists and intellectuals. But he also experienced the persecution, the humiliation, the brutality of the Nazis.

He suffered from the poor supply after 1941 and hungered for several days. The hunger was so great that they ate the goldfish from the pond. Coffee was just water with roasted grains. After a long stressful time, he also allowed himself a longer stay in the cities of the Cote d'Azur to recover so that he could soon return to work. Escape was rarely easy. He describes precisely how the individual projects were planned and carried out. Risk management, business games, decision trees, all these methods we know and use today, they had used in a similar way.

The key to success were the people, their relationships with each other, the "being able to rely on each other", the honesty, the willingness to give, to take risks, to make decisions. Not everything was going well. There were also traitors and spies. Failure meant human tragedy. Suffering was inevitable. Arrests, torture, transportation to concentration camps and death. I read the book with sincere sympathy. Courage and prudence are the two virtues we can learn from Fry. The book is very well written, entertaining and informative. Fry was also a journalist and therefore a talented and skilled writer.

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