An exhibition titled «Varian Fry and the salvaging American mission», is due to take place in the art gallery of the General Council of the Bouches du Rhône region from March 18th until June 30th 1999.
Varian Fry was sent to France in 1940 by the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) in order to help European artists and intellectuals flee Nazis persecutions.
Varian Fry thus saved some 2,000 people until June 2nd 1942 when French authorities decided to close his salvaging committee.
Among the people he saved where the surrealist artists André Breton, André Masson , Max Ernst, who was accompanied by Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Hélion.
Varian Fry was in Marseilles when Marshall Pétain visited that city on December 4th 1940. While thousands of citizens greeted the new French leader some 20, 000 people, most of them considered as suspects, had been rounded up and placed under arrest in many areas including boats. Fry himself was arrested and detained aboard the liner « Sinaia » with André Breton.
The exhibition is designed to show how Fry, then aged 32, acted in France during his two-year stay. When he arrived in Marseilles he had a sum of
$ 3,000 at his disposal, a letter of recommendation from Eleanor Roosevelt and a list of 200 names of people to save.
Fry who was working for a New York publishing company had been entrusted by the ERC to go to France in order to save as many people as he could. The ERC had been founded a few weeks earlier after Reinhold Niebuhr, Chairman of the American Friends for German Freedom, had called for a meeting to discuss the situation of many refugees who had fled Germany to seek refuge in France.
Meanwhile, the French government had issued a decree under which all German citizens wanted by the Nazis and living in France or in the French colonies were to be handed over to the German authorities.
The ERC won the approval of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the American president, for such salvaging mission and obtained guarantees that all the refugees would obtain entry to the U.S.
A list was then prepared with the help of Thomas Mann, the son of Alfred Barr, head of the New York Museum of Modern Art as well as several artists who had already found shelter in the U.S. Among the artists listed were Chagall, Ernst, Kandinsky, Arp, Matisse and Picasso.
When Fry arrived in France he discovered that tough repressive measures were under way while many refugees had gone to Marseilles in the hope of boarding liners to flee abroad.
Fry's mission was to help refugees financially and to get them the necessary papers prior to their departure. His first list contained 200 names but by 1941, his Salvaging Committee had already listed thousands of people. Some 2000 were saved thanks to his action which went against the Vichy authorities and even the American consulate which did not want to have any trouble with the French.
Several people from the French Administration helped him in his task while some members working in Foreign consulates managed to obtain exit visas for the refugees.
Peggy Guggenheim and Mary Jane Gold, another American millionnaire, who were still in France, worked closely with him while some French personalities gave shelter to many refugees. All the more, on leaving France several rich refugees accepted to lend money to those who were still trying to escape.
Marseilles was a rallying point for many people trying to escape from the Nazis such Victor Brauner, André Masson, Hans Bellmer, Tristan Tzara, Oscar Dominguez, Wilfredo Lam, Jacques Hérold or Max Ernst.
Every week, Varian Fry used to give money to some 500 refugees but his perilous entreprise soon became hampered by French authorities while many people, including Louis Straus, Ernst's first wife between 1919 and 1922 and Otto Freundlich were rounded up and sent to meet death in Nazi extermination camps.
In July 1941 Peggy Guggenheim and Ernst managed to leave Lisbon by plane and many other refugees could leave France before the entire country was occupied by the Germans after November 1942. Fry was expelled in September 1941 while the American Salvaging Committee survived until June 1942. After that Fry lived anonymously teaching latin in the U.S until his death in 1967. Several books were published in relation to his action while a film by David Kerr dedicated to his feats was released last year.