*** World War II campaigns -- refugees United States America American Emergency Rescue Committee

World War II: American Emergency Rescue Committee (1940-41)

Figure 1.--.

The 32- year old Varian Fry left for France soon after the NAZI victory. He was assigned to be the represebntative in France of the Emergency Rescue Committee, a privately organized relief group. Their goal was to recognize people being percecuted by NAZI officials. He arrived with $3,000 and a list of individuals that were thought to be most endangered. He expected that it would take about 1-month to complete his assignment. Fry like most Americans, however, did not comprehend the full dimensions of NAZI barbarity. Fry extended his stay and eventually worked there for 13 months until being driven out by the NAZIs asAmerica and Germany moved closer to war. He left behind hin in France a system of escape routes that would save many lives. Fry engaged in a wide range of illegal asctivities, including converting dollars on the black-market (where much higher exchange rates prevailed), conspired with the criminal underworld, forged documents, and chartered illegal voyages. Fry while in France is believed to have rescued about 1,500 people targeted by the NAZIs.

Refugee Haven (1930s)

France even under the absolute rule of the Bourbon monarchs was the center of the European Enlightenment. The French Revolutions introduced liberal ideals throughout Europe and at the same time fired nationalist resentment to French domination. After a series of republican, Bourbon, and Bonapartist regimes, the Third Republic emerged in France (1870). France became a haven for people supressed by various imperiasl regimes, primarily Russian and Austrian. The Third Republic with its democratic traditions and liberal values of free speech and open political discourse became a haven for foreign patriots exiled from their native countries for oposing depotic rule. There were many Polish and Rusian exiles in Paris in the years before World War I. With the NAZI seizure of power in Germany (1933), political opponents and Jews sought refuge in France. Hitler after being appointed Chancellor immediately began building a brutally efficent police state enforved by the Gestapo and a nedtwork of horific concentrations. The first was Dachau near Munich which serves as the model for the camps tht followed. Thousands of Germans fled their country during the 1930s. After the Ansschluss (March 1938) and Munich (September 1938), Austrians and Czechs also sought refuge. Many of these refugees were taken in by France. These refugees had every reason to expect arrest and confinment in the brutal NAZI concentration camps if the Gestapo could get hold of them.

Fall of France (June 1940)

The Germans launched the long awaited Western offensive (May 1940). The Germans proceeded to conquer virtually all of Western Europe. After a few months of the 'Phony War', France's turn came. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgiym, and Luxemburg. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rushed north to aid the Dutch. The Germans then struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobil style of Blitzkrieg warfare. The Panzers surrounded the Belgian Army which King Leopold III surrendered. The BEF was within Hitler's grasp. Paris soon fell and the French signed a NAZI imposed armistace. The collapse of France after only a few weeks was a disaster of emense proportions. It was the French Army that had provided the bulk of the Allied Western Front in World War I. The German victory was not accomplished with massively superior numbers or weaponry. In fact they had fewer men and tanks. What they had was a superior tactical doctrine. The Germans were amazed to find, for example, that French tanks were not even equipped with radios. The Germans also had a more disciplined fighting force. NAZI propaganda began to describe Hitler as ' Der gr�sste Feldherr Allerzeiten ' (the greatest field commander of all time). [Davidson, p. 483.] Much of the country was occupied and the French Army was intered in German POW camps.

Vichy (1940-44)

France under the Armistice (June 22) was divided into two zones. The Germans occupied the larger northern portion and the militarily important Atlantic coast. The French Vichy was allowed to govern the southern portion of the country. The P�tain Government set up a governmnt in Vichy for the sector of southern France that was not occupied by the Germans. The Vichy regime in many ways cooperated with the NAZIs. The most shameful single act was Vichy assistance in rounding up over 80,000 foreign and French Jews as part of the Holocaust so they could be shipped to the death camps in Poland. vichy even ran camps in France with apauling death rates. After the War some Vichy officials were executed and the Gaullists nurtured a myth that the great majority of the French people bravely resisted the Germans. Gaullist claimed that the French people never accepted the Vichy regime as a legitimate French Government. Gradually it has become increasingly clear that the bulk of the French people, shocked by the collapse of the French army and thinking that the War was lost, sought accompdation with the NAZI occcupiers and looked upon Marshal Philippe P�tain with reverence. [Curtis] For years, any questioning of that myth was highly controversial. The film by Marcel Ophuls "Le chagrin et la piti�" (1969) was commissioned by French Government-controlled television, but the documentary on French life during the occupation proved so embarassing that officials were afraid to broadcast it.

French Refugees

The German Western Offensive at first targeted the Lowlands and northern France. After Dunkirk the Germanbs moved south toward Paris. The Government declared Paris and open city. Parisians poured out of the city heading south. The French were terrified of the Germans. Foreign NAZI opponents had even more to fear. And the German succes and the colapse of the French Army occurred so rapidly that there was little chance to escape. Many of the foreign Jews and anti-NAZIs had good reason to fear. Many French Jews and other targets were mot at first fully aware of the NAZI plans. Even Petain and his associates were mnot aware of what they were dealing with.

Franco-German Armistice: Article 19 (June 22)

Most refugees and many Jews tried to reach the relative saftey of Vichy or the unoccupied zone. But even here they were not safe. The Franco-German Armistics (June 1940) included the dreaded Article 19. This article required Vichy authorities to "surrender on demand" any German nationals that the NAZIs wanted. Thus German refugees as well as refugees from NAZI-occupied countries (Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland) which the Germans annexed were not safe even in Vichy. Arrest of NAZI opponents meant confinement in the Third Reich's brutal concentration camps. Article 19 was demanded by the Germans because the Gestapo and SD had developed a standard procedure once a country was occupied of seeking out opponents and arresting them. NAZI officuals and local sympathisers helped to complile the lists of people to be arrested.


Jews after the NAZIs seized powerin Germany began fleeing abroad. Large numbers fled to France because it was near and reltively welcoming. No Jews were deported bck to the Reich for entering france illegally. Jews were also endanger because Vichy quickly enacted NAZI-style anti-Semetic laws. Petain and his associates blamed the fall of France on Socilists and 'cosmopolitans' meaning orimatily Jews. And their ire was particularly directed at foreign Jews. Some saw an obligation to orotect French Jews. This ultimately saved some from the the Holocaust, but no one in Vuhy felt an obligation for foreign Jews. Rather the attitude that the Germans were doing france a favir by taking these people off their hands. This the many foreign Jews that had fled to France for safety were now in mortal danger. French Fascists hated their own Jews, but for foreign Jews, many saw this as an opportunity to get rids of these unwelcomed people.

The Holocaust

France is unique among all the countries which experienced the Holocaust. France was the only defeated Allied country whose government actively assisted the NAZIs. After the French surrender. The Vichy authorities actively assisted the NAZIs track down and deport Jews. [Eizenstat] The first action taken against French Jews after the 1940 invasion was the expulsion from Alsace. To my knowlege, this was one of the very few non-lethal expulsions conducted by the NAZIs. Presumably the master plan for killing the Jews had not yet been fully worked out. Another early action involving German Jews was deporting Jews in Western Landen (Baden, the Saar, and the Palatinate), including some of the oldest German Jewish families, in October 1940 to camps in the French Pyrenees (Gurs, No�, R�c�b�dou, and Rivesaltes). Gurs was the largest. The death rate was very high because there were not even the most basic facilities. The camps were run by Vichy authorities. The killing of Dutch, Belgian and French Jews began in July 1942 when the death camps in Poland became operational. Vivian Fry, before American entered the War, worked tirelessy in Vichy to build up a rescue network working with the Emergency Resue Committee, a private relief organization. The NAZIs had inserted a "suuender on demand clause" in Article 5 of the Franco German Armistace of 1940. Fry succeeded in resucing more than 1,500 artists, musicians, politicams, scientists, and writers, many but not all Jewish. The Germans make life a nightmare for French Jew, both in Vichy as well as the occupied area. Many French people risked their lives to protect Jews, including French people that were anti-semitic. One French girl recalls a priest who helped save her and her family describe how he disliked Jews, but saving them from the Germans was the "Christian thing" to do. [Cohn] Others assisted the Germans.

Emergency Rescue Committee Formed (June 23)

Americans were astonished by the fall of France. Most Americans assumed that the French Army was the strongest in Europe and would again serve as the bulwark against German aggression. The collape of the French Army within only a few weeks shocked Americans. A group of concerned Americans, only days after the fall of France, met in New York to organize the American Emergency Rescue Committee to assist refugees escape the NAZIs This was not a U.S. Government effort. The United states Government and State Department made no special effort to assist NAZI targets. The AERC was a private organization to help endagered Jews and non-Jewish ant-NAZIs. The AERC was supported by influential members of New York's iconic cultural figures, especially literary community, including German refuge Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and Dorothy Thompson. Fortunately, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt actively supported the effort providing some informal, but importnt likks to the U.S. Government. The collapse of France meant that there was no way to save really large number of people. And Conress was not about to oen america's borders. The idea was to rescue noted intelectuals and artists that they believed the NAZIs would target. They initially raised $3,000 to finance the rescue effort. The Committe with the help of knowledgeable Americans and German refugeees who had reached America put together a list of individuals they believed to be in the greatest danger. Most were well-known NAZI opponents that the Gestapo would soon begin to hunt down. Without support most would not be able to evade arrest for long. And it soon became evudent that Vichy was not only not going to resist NAZI efforts to arrest Jews and anti-NAZIs, but was more than willing to assist the Germans.

Refugees and Isolationists

Refugees were a difficult issue for the Roosevelt Administration. Eleanor in particular pushed her husband to do more. There was, however, considerable opposition in Congress to allowing refugees to enter America. And Congressional approval was needed by the Roosevelt to aid the Allies and re-arm America. Isolationists were vigorously attacking the Roosevelt administration. Some of the most influential were charging that refugees, meaning Jews, were attempting to drag America into the War. Administration support for refugeees would seem to add creedence to these charges. Here President Roosevelt was stimied. To engage on the refugee issues would give amunition to the isolationists trying to block aid to Britain and military preparadness proograms like revising the Nutrality Acts, Selective Security, Lend Lease, and defense spending. Tody it is the military campaigns tht receive the most attention. Actually one of the crucial struggles determining the outcome of the war was Presient Rooseve;t's struggle with the Isolationits.

Emergency American Visas

America had strict immigration quitas, but there were exceptions in the law for learned individuals, artists and others. Members of the Committee attempted to obtain viseas from the State Department. Many Ameican diplomats at the time were more concerned with placating Hitler than resucing anti-NAZIs. The fact that many of the refugeees were Jewish worked against them in the eyes of many diplomats. The Committee approached First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who was known to be concerned about the growing refugee problem. The Committee with Elenor's support managed to convince President Roosevelt to authorized a few hundred "emergency visas" for notable artists and intellectuals. An American visa would not prevent arrest by NAZI and Vichy police, but they were important in helping the refugees escape France before the Gestapo found them.

Vivin Fry

After collecting the funds and obtaining authority for a few presious emergency visas, the Committee needed someone to go to France abd contact the individuals that needed assistance. The Committe chose journalist and scholar Vivian Fry to help the refugees. Fry had been one of the organizers of the AERC. His major qualification was that he spoke French. Neither the Committee or Fry had no real idea what would be required to accomplish the mission. In fact whas needed was an accomplished secret agent with the training and expertise to carry out clandestine operations to outwit the Gestapo. But the U.S. Government at the time did not have any trained secret agents, let alone an ad-hoc group like the Emergency Rescue Committee Varian Fry had no such experience. Fry was a scholarly 32-year old New York editor and writer. He earned a degree in classics from Harvard University (1931). He was an editor at the Foreign Policy Association where he had closely studied and written about Europe affairs after the NAZI seizure of power. He had no training for relief work, let along training in operations to evade a profesional security force like the Gestapo. Fry was chosen because no one else volunteered to do the job. While Fry had few security qualifications, he did in fact have a hekpful academic background. He was fluent in several languages, knowledgeable about European politics, and for an American an unusual appreciation of European culture. Fry was sympathetic toward oppressed people. As a young teenager, he had withdrawn from a prestigious prep school, objecting to brutal hazing. Taking on the Gestapo, however, was a very different matter. Lookin back, Fry explained why he decided to take on this difficult assignment. "Among the refugees caught in France were many writers and artists whose work I had enjoyed. .... Now that they were in danger, I felt obliged to help them if I could; just as they, without knowing it, had often in the past helped me."


The 32- year old Vivian Fry left for France soon after the NAZI victory. America at the time had diplomatic relations with Vichy. American officils from an early point warned to maintain formal relations, hoping that Vichy may be turned. Vichy for its part welcomed merican recognition as it helped to legitimize the Vichy regime. Fry's goal was to rescue people being percecuted by NAZI officials. He arrived with $3,000 and a list of individuals that the Committeee thought to be most endangered. He expected that it would take about 1-month to complete his assignment. Fry like most Americans, however, did not comprehend the full dimensions of NAZI barbarity. He had two advantages. The NAZIs were busy with other matters, primarily Britain. Vichy had no interest in the individuals Fry was trying to protect, but did want tomaintain diplomaric ties wirh America and was unaware of the precise nature of the AERC, believing it at first had Government toes.


Fry did not go to Paris which was occupied by the Germans. Many refugees had fled into the unoccupied Vichy zone. The Committee chose Marsilles as a base of operations. It was in the Vichy zone and it was an important rail center and port meaning that the vessel traffic provided a way of leaving France. For this reason many refugees had come to Marseilles. The city was located in southern France, relatively close to the Spanish border. While Spain was sympathetic to the NAZIs, General Franco refused to cooperate with the Holocaust. Spanish authorities allowed Jews who reached the country to pass through. Fry set up in the Hotel Splendide. He arrived in France alone, but immediately realized that he needed help/ He needed the assistance of individuals familiar with French Government procedures. Fry set about assembling a small staff od trustworthy individuals. Ir wouldbe an eclectic team. There were a few idealistic young Americans who found themselves in France at the time of the German invasion and wanted to help. Fry also recruited Europeans, some actually on the run themselves. They knew the refugees and the anbgerous situation in which they found themselves.

Clandestine Operations

Fry was shocked by what he dound in France. He thought it would be a simple matter of aiding the refugees while they got needed visas. He was not prepared for the lack of coopertion from the Vichy French officials nor their willingness to coopearte with the Germans. He was even more shockedby his reception at the U.S. Consulte. As soon as arrived in Marseilles, he clled at the U.S. Consulate. Diplomats at the Consulate issued visas, meaning a simple visa stamp in the refugees' passports. Fry expected this to be a simple matter. He would introduce himself and enlist their help. He was shocked whn the diplomats at the Consulate refused to even meet with Fry that firstday. And even worse, they refused to issue visas even the ones authorized by the Stte Departmnt in Washington, unless the refugees could prove that they had Vichy exit permits. And Vichy offucials were not issuing those to Jews and known anti-NAZIs. Thus the people Fry was sent to aid were trapped in Vichy. This was not what he expected. Nor anything for which he was prepared by experience or tempement. When he left New York, he did not have the sligtest intention of carrying out clandestine operations. He grasped immeditely that American and French regulations made it virtually impossible to get the endangered individuls out of Vichy and to safety. The two most accessible countries were Spain and Portugal. Spanish and Portuguese consulates would issue transit visas. All of these visas normally had short time peiods. Thus refugees often found that by the time that they managed to get all the needed visas, one had expired And of course the individuals the Germans were looking for were subject to arrest an any time. Fry saw immediately that just helping refugees obtain American visas, which was difficult enough by itself, did not solve the problem.


Fry set bout assisting both refugees and French citizens to acquire visas and other documents necessary for a quick escape. He was almost immeditely overwhelmed by the number of people anxious to leave France and needed assistance to do so. Fry response was imaginative and in the end saved everl thousnd lives. He set up a legal relief organization under the auspices of the French government. Given the massive American relief effort during and after World War I, this did not seem unusual or attract suspision. Fry used this legal relief office as a kind of fig leaf to orgnize the escape of endangered individuals, usually by thorougky illegal means. Fry's organizations help provide forged documents, and black market transactions. Fry also organized clandestine escape routes. Fry and his associates could not escape dectection by collaborationist elements in Vichy and eventually the Gestapo. The Vichy secret police soon began following him and monitoring his movements. He was detained for questioning on several occasions. Only Vichy's desire to avoid a diplomaric incident saved him. It soon became clear that Fry and the AERC was operating illegally. Vichy authorities contacted the U.S. Embassy and requested thst the U.S. Government recall him. The Embassy and State Department offered no support. Their primry concern was to avoid an incident as well as comply with American nutrality laws.

Refugee Requests

News of Fry's mission soon spread among the refugee community. Soon there were large number of increasingly desperate refugees coming to Fry's hotle room. Many of the refugees were Jewishm but the Committee was not established just to aid Jewish refugees. The Committee set out to assist the political opponents which often include leading cultural figures, The NAZIs from an early point had removed books of Jewish and other writers from schools and libraries. They had also denied the right of many artists and musicians to practice their craft. Many of these cultural figures had sought refuge in France. Some but not all were Jewish.

Activities in France

Fry extended his stay and eventually worked there for 13 months until being driven out by the NAZIs asAmerica and Germany moved closer to war. Fry before American entered the War worked tirelessy in Vichy to build up a rescue network which would save many lives. Fry engaged in a wide range of illegal activities, including converting dollars on the black-market (where much higher exchange rates prevailed), conspired with the criminal underworld, forged documents, and chartered illegal voyages. Te easiest way out of Marssilles as ship traffic to Martinique. Fry helped obtin the dicuments needed Some therfugeeshad. Other Fry heped obtin forgeries.

Hiram Bingham

Fortunately for the refugees, there was one American diplomat that was willing to help-Hiram Bingham. Degracefully, he was one of only two American diplomats that came to the aid of the refugees. Hiram 'Harry' Bingham, Jr., was the U.S. Vice-Consul in charge of the visas section. From the very beginningbof the NAZI/Vichy nightmate (June 1940) he had begun issuing both legal and illegal visas. Bingham is better known to history as the explorer who discovered Nachu Pich in the Peruvian Andes. Bingham proved crucial in theAERC's rescue efforts. And Bingham played a key role in rescuing Lion Feuchtwanger, a German nobekist that had fled to France an was near the top of the list of the refugees wanted by Hitler.


Vichy authorities complained to the State Department and American officials made no effort to help. The new offices at the Villa Air Bel refuge seem safter, but were in fact not really Vich authories continued to follow him closely. Vichy police searched the house and arrested Fry and his associates. They placed them on a fetid prison ship in Marseilles harbor. They were eventually released to avoid a diplomtic incudent. He was disheveled but unharmed. It was clear to him that the Vichy authorities would not allow him to continue his work indefinitely. Fry's American passport expired (January 1941). Fornunately the Vichy authorities were not immediately aware of that. Hetried to renew it, but the State Department which did not approve of his ctivities and wanted him to return to America anyway refused to renew it. Fry fecidef to continue wirking without the protection of an American passport. Fry then learned that because of his extended absence, the Foreign Policy Association had decided to fill his post. But frey without the protectiomn of an American passport or job security moved by the importance of the AERC's work stayed on and continued the wotk at great personal risk. Thus the Centre Am�ricain de Secours somehow continued to smuggle kindividuals out of France. French police monitored Fry's activities closely, attempting to uncover any clear violatiom of law that would provide an pretext to expel him. The State Department in Washington ordered its consuls in France to be even more strict about issuing visas to the refugees in Vichy (spring and summer 1941). Vichy authorities finally lost their patience and finally figuring out hat there were no official connections and no diplomatic incident would result, expelled Fry. He had stayed in France a year longer than anticipated. Fry was arrested and deported back to the United States. This ended the AERC's operations. Back home in america, The International Relief Association and the ERC joined firces. The result was the together the International Rescue Committee (IRC) that still exists and remains committed to refugee relief operations.


Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee succeeded in resucing more than 2,000 artists, musicians, politicans, scientists, and writers, many but not all Jewish. For 13 months Fry and the AERC operated in France, saving some 2,000 lives. During that time political, cultural, and labor leaders like Hannah Arendt, Pablo Casals, Marc Chagall, Wanda Landowska, and Alma Mahler were helped to escape from Vichy France.


Curtis, Michael. Verdict on Vichy: Power and Prejudice in the Vichy French Regime (Arcade, 2003), 419p.

Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.


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Created: 11:27 PM 1/31/2005
Last updated: 10:45 PM 7/21/2022