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Israelis Pay Homage to American ‘Schindler’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1967, an American freelance writer named Varian Fry died at age 59 in obscurity.

Two books about his adventures in German-occupied France sold poorly. Most of the people he knew during World War II never contacted him after he returned to the United States. And the U.S. government that had once reprimanded him never apologized.

But Monday, Israel belatedly honored the man who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was the keynote speaker at a ceremony acknowledging Fry’s heroism and humanity.

“Fry was an American Oskar Schindler, an American Raoul Wallenberg,” said an Israeli woman who attended the ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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Fry saved nearly 4,000 Jews--almost four times the number saved by Schindler, a German businessman made famous in the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List.” Like Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat, Fry used visas in his first effort to get Jews out of France. Then he turned to purloined or forged passports, false travel credentials and any other device he could think of to help get the Jews to safety.

Among the Jews he rescued were some of the world’s greatest cultural figures, from artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst to writer Hannah Arendt and sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.

“Regretfully, during his lifetime, his heroic actions never received the support they deserved from my government,” Christopher acknowledged at the ceremony, at which Fry was named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” an award given by Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. He is the first American-born recipient of the award.

“It is therefore with pride, but also with humility, that I come here today as America’s secretary of state to honor this extraordinary humanitarian,” Christopher said.

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Indeed, Fry’s efforts were actually hampered by Washington. When a three-week trip to assist 200 designated Jews turned into a 13-month mission to save any Jew he could find, Fry’s passport was seized by U.S. officials--leaving him without any identification behind enemy lines in France.

When he returned home, he was such an outspoken critic of U.S. policy on war refugees that the FBI opened a file on him--a move that later prevented him from getting work in defense industries. For the rest of his life, he had trouble finding jobs. He eventually became a teacher.

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Fry’s odyssey started in 1940, when he was among a group of concerned Americans who brought the plight of Jews and refugees in Vichy France to the attention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to authorize the 200 special visas.

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But immediately after Fry arrived in Marseilles, he realized he had to help more than the 200.

“The refugees began coming to my room the next day,” he wrote in 1945. “Many of them had been through hell; their nerves were shattered and their courage gone.”

The Harvard-educated classicist, who was described as eccentric and rather shy, found an out-of-work political cartoonist to create travel documents for the Jews. He bribed consuls for blank passports. And he dealt with smugglers of the Marseilles underworld to ship the human contraband as far as North Africa and the French West Indies, according to histories assembled here.

Fry’s adventure ended when he was arrested by French authorities acting with the approval of the U.S. Embassy. “We can’t support an American citizen who is helping people evade French law,” a U.S. diplomat told him.

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He was deported to Spain in 1941, and he returned to New York, where he wrote and lectured about the plight of Jews and other war refugees. He also accurately predicted that Jews would be massacred throughout Europe.

In 1960, Fry received a Medal of Honor from France. The Holocaust museum in Washington showed an exhibit about him in 1993.

His work, however, has yet to be honored formally by the United States.


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