As he helped guide hundreds of Jewish refugees over mountainous trails in Spain to flee Nazi-occupied France in World War II, Dr. Marcel Verzeano didn’t know he was making history.
He joined Varian Fry, an American sent to France by the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private group of American citizens and European expatriates working to aid refugees.
Fry died in obscurity in 1967 at age 59.
Now the Committee of Concerned Christians, a group of Christian and Jewish clergy founded in 1992 to fight anti-Semitism, are determined to keep Varian Fry’s name alive.
They honored Verzeano, 85, Wednesday in a ceremony at the Church on the Way in Van Nuys with the first Varian Fry Award.
Just out of medical school, Verzeano joined Fry and other members of the Emergency Rescue Committee sent to Marseille in 1940 to help 200 artists, writers and politicos targeted by the Nazis.
Funded by private donations the group paid off people in Spain to take refugees by car over the Portugal border. The group purchased false passports from the Romanian consul and gave the refugees new identities.
Verzeano worked with Fry for 1 1/2 years in an underground organization responsible for saving nearly 4,000 Jews.
“I knew I was doing something very useful,” Verzeano said. He said he feared for his life “all the time.”
The rescued Jews included artists Max Ernst and Marc Chagall and writers Hannah Arendt and Andre Breton.
Verzeano left in October 1941 with a phony passport, traveling to the United States on a Portuguese ship.
Fry also returned to the States. He published two books about his adventures in German-occupied France but they sold poorly. He and Verzeano, who is now a professor emeritus at UC Irvine, wrote and visited each other until Fry’s death.
“He has done something so important,” Verzeano said, “he deserves to be remembered for what he has done.”