Varian Fry: The Artist’s Oskar Schindler

by Kate Lord Brown

Varian Fry and The House of Dreams

The House of Dreams has been maturing for twenty years. A book that took three to finally research and write. It is inspired by the story of Varian Fry, the American editor, classicist, relief worker and unlikely spy – the man they call ‘the artists’ Schindler’.

Varian Fry arrived in Marseilles in 1940 as the representative of the New York based Emergency Rescue Committee. He had a few thousand dollars strapped to his calf and had only packed a small suitcase, thinking he would be there a matter of weeks, helping the initial list of artists and intellectuals escape from war-torn Europe. The list was a virtual mirror of the Nazis infamous ‘Liste Noire’ of artists considered degenerate. In the end, Varian Fry stayed months, until he was forced to leave France by the authorities. They were extraordinary times – Varian Fry and his maverick band of immensely brave relief workers helped artists escape by legitimate and illegitimate means, by escape routes over the mountains into Spain, or by smuggling refugees onto boats, and forging exit visas.

Varian Fry

Daniel Benedicte and Varian Fry © Collection P-O Ungemach-Benedite. Image is in the public domain via Culture-13.fr

The rescue workers, refugee intellectuals and artists gathered in the old Villa Air Bel in Marseilles every weekend. Every artist sheltered in Air Bel, and over 2000 other refugees escaped from ‘the greatest man-trap in history’, thanks to Varian Fry and his remarkable team at the American Relief Center (the ARC or Centre Américan de Secours). With the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and funded by the ERC, in all they helped some 4000 people survive, working undercover and without official sanction from the US or France.

As I explained to a group of school children during a talk recently, this felt like a story which had to be written. But it’s good to have your values questioned – why do you write? What do your books say about what you believe in? There is nothing like doing a school workshop on writing historical fiction to keep you on your toes. I showed them a couple of snapshots of the research files and some of the reference books for ‘The House of Dreams’, and told them that a lot of this work and reading never makes it into the final story. I told them about late night Skype conversations with a 96 year old professor of literature in the US who had been not much older than them when he was Varian Fry’s office boy in Marseilles during WWII. I passed round photos of Aube Breton, Andre Breton and Jacqueline Lamba’s daughter, who was five years old when she found sanctuary at Villa Air Bel, and told them about our letters. I hope all this gave them some idea how books live and breathe as they come together, the frustration of blind alleys and red herrings, and the sheer joy of uncovering forgotten bits of history and remarkable characters.

Artists and writers such as Andre Breton decamped from Paris to Marseilles, and established themselves at cafes like the Bruleur de Loups, and created a remarkable Sunday salon at Air Bel. Life was not easy at the house – the winter of 1941 was freezing, and they were so hungry they even ate the goldfish in the ornamental pond. But there was great company, an illegal radio that could pick up the US Jazz programmes for dancing, and there was still wine – the house was a sanctuary, and there was joy, and creativity. It was a beacon of hope at a dark time, and people such as Antoine de St Exupery’s wife Consuelo (inspiration for the Rose in the Little Prince), Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim flocked there. It was in Marseilles that Guggenheim met Ernst. Max said ‘when where and why shall I meet you?’ Peggy said ‘Tomorrow, four, Café de la Paix, and you know why.’ They escaped to America together and married.

The lasting legacy of the artists who came together at Air Bel is the Jeu de Marseilles. Breton spent hours in the library in Marseilles, researching the history of the city’s original playing card deck. He proposed a new game – new suits: Love Dream Revolution Knowledge, symbolized by the flame, the wheel, the star, the key. Brauner, Breton, Lamba, Dominguez, Ernst, Herold, Lam and Masson designed the cards. It is a rare and beautiful thing, testament to their creativity and their defiance at the darkest time of their lives (and I was thrilled to discover a pack during my research, from a book dealer in France). It was this combination of creativity, idealism and courage that I found so irresistible as a writer.

Perhaps you have seen the meme wrongly attributed to Churchill that has been doing the rounds? When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favor of the war effort, he apparently said ‘then what are we fighting for’? I came across the real thing in the MOMA archives, penned by the then Director of the Museum, Alfred Barr. Varian Fry, like his friend Barr, believed in the importance of these artists, and in the sanctity of freedom and democracy. In the great game of life, I believe these are things worth fighting for, and this is why I wrote ‘The House of Dreams’ to tell the story of ‘the real Casablanca’.

Asked why he and his team risked their lives to help the artists, Varian Fry said that their art had brought great happiness to his life and he just wanted to help them in their hour of need. Varian Fry received little thanks for his remarkable work during his lifetime. Now, the US Consulate General in Marseilles sits on Place Varian Fry. But in 1971 when Varian Fry published the Flight portfolio of prints in aid of the International Rescue Committee, he struggled to convince artists to take part – though he was responsible for saving many of their lives.

Varian Fry; Holocaust

Hungarian Jews on the Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) after disembarking from the transport trains. To be sent rechts!—to the right—meant the person had been chosen as a laborer; links!—to the left—meant death in the gas chambers. Photo from the Auschwitz Album (May 1944). By Unknown. Several sources believe the photographer to have been Ernst Hoffmann or Bernhard Walter of the SS – Yad Vashem. The album was donated to Yad Vashem by Lili Jacob, a survivor, who found it in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in 1945. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

He was honored with the International Rescue Committee’s medal in 1963, and the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the French government in 1967. He died alone in his sleep later that year aged only 59. A manuscript lay at his side. Varian Fry died surrounded by his incomplete notes for a new account of those extraordinary months in Marseilles.

In 1991 the US Holocaust Memorial Council awarded him the Eisenhower Liberation Medal, and in 1996 he was named ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem – an honor bestowed on non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust. It was an honor shared with Schindler and Wallenberg. He was the first American to be honored in this way.

When Varian Fry wrote his memoir, ‘Surrender on Demand’, he said it was worse than War and Peace with its cast of thousands. Writing ‘The House of Dreams’ has felt like that at times, with editorial notes coming back time and again asking for yet more characters to be cut. I came to admire Varian Fry and his team immensely, to love the factual characters that form the backbone of my fiction. I hope the novel will eventually bring the little known story of ‘the artists’ Schindler’ to a wider audience. When you look at the restless world we live in now, it is more important than ever to treasure and defend the enlightened values of freedom, democracy and creativity that they fought for.


KATE LORD BROWN is the author of THE HOUSE OF DREAMS: A Novel and the internationally bestselling author of The Perfume Garden. She grew up in a wild and beautiful part of Devon, England, and was first published while at school. Kate won the BBC International Radio Playwriting Competition, Middle East region, in 2014; was a finalist in ITV’s The People’s Author competition 2009; and has an MA in creative writing. The Perfume Garden was shortlisted for the UK Romantic Novel of the Year 2014. She lives in the Middle East with her family.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Military History, Modern History