USC Upstate News

VARIAN FRY: ASSIGNMENT RESCUE 1940-1941: An American Who Saved The Lives Of More Than 2,000 Anti-Nazis and Jews

01- 28- 2009

Spartanburg, S.C. - A traveling exhibition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Varian Fry, ASSIGNMENT: RESCUE, 1940-1941, will be on display at the University of South Carolina Upstate from February 2 to March 5 in the Campus Life Center. Hours of the exhibition are Monday through Friday 12:00 to 4:00 p.m. and Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

The Varian Fry exhibition is sponsored by USC Upstate and Congregation B’nai Israel. Funding was provided by the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust. The exhibition and all events associated with it are free and open to the public.

Verian Fry balcony
Varian Fry poses on a balcony in Berlin, where he traveled in 1935 while serving as editor of "The Living Age." Photo Courtesy Annette Fry.

The exhibition chronicles Fry’s heroic efforts to help political and intellectual refugees escape Nazi-controlled Vichy France in 1940 and 1941. Fry is an unlikely hero, an American who saved the lives of more than 2,000 anti-Nazis and Jews. The exhibition tells the story of a man who showed profound courage to save some of Europe's greatest artists, writers and thinkers.

In addition to the exhibition, a film will be shown and a panel discussion hosted. The film The Children of Chabannes will be shown on Thursday, February 12 at 7:00 p.m. in the Campus Life Center Ballroom. A tale of courage, resilience and love set during WWII, The Children of Chabannes tells the story of how the people of a tiny village in unoccupied France, chose action over indifference and saved the lives of 400 Jewish refugee children. Filmmaker Lisa Gossels returns to Chabannes with her father and uncle, two of the 400 children who were saved. Through intimate interviews with her father and the other "children" of Chabannes, the filmmakers recreate the joys and fears of daily life in that village. Through accounts by the extraordinary teachers who taught and loved these children, this lyrical and moving film shows the remarkable efforts made by the citizens of Chabannes, who risked their lives and livelihoods to protect these children, simply because they felt it was the right thing to do.

A panel discussion entitled “Rescuers: The Altruistic Personality” will be held on Thursday, February 26 at 3:30 p.m. in the Campus Life Center Ballroom. Panelists include USC Upstate faculty members Dr. Mark Packer, adjunct professor of philosophy; Rev. Ron Leonard, adjunct instructor of religion and a Methodist minister; Dr. David Damrel, assistant professor of religion; and Dr. Warren Carson, professor of English and chair of the Department of Languages, Literature and Composition. Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel, will moderate the discussion.

“The Varian Fry exhibition is an incredible educational experience for our students and the community to realize the rescue attempts that were taking place during this dark time in history,” said Dr. Robert McCormick, associate professor of history at USC Upstate and co-organizer of the exhibition. “We often hear of the atrocities but Fry’s story reinforces the goodness of humanity.”

Dr. Catherine Canino, associate professor of English at USC Upstate and co-organizer of the exhibition, agrees with McCormick. “Our society is in crisis now and it is nice to look back at a far worse time and see that people acted in the best of ways during the worst of times. It is of particular timeliness to impart what compels people to act in such an altruistic fashion when in the midst of the gravity of a crisis.”

An urbane Harvard graduate working as an editor in New York, Fry volunteered for the Emergency Rescue Committee’s project, a New York-based organization of political activists who gathered after Germany’s defeat of France in 1940 to promote the emigration of refugee intellectuals, to bring 200 individuals from the French port city of Marseille to safety. Unable to gain cooperation from the French government or the American Consulate in Marseille, Fry established a clandestine operation by which artists, writers, philosophers, and their families — Jews and non-Jews alike — were spirited away to safety.

He gathered a small group of like-minded Americans, refugees with diplomatic or underworld connections, and those French citizens who were sympathetic to the refugees’ plight. Fry and his compatriots arranged escapes from French internment camps, forged passports, and orchestrated illegal border crossings, among other dangerous activities. Eventually, Fry and his group provided financial or travel assistance to approximately 4,000 refugees and enabled almost half of them to escape, all on limited resources and without the approval of the United States consulate in Marseille. By the time the French expelled Fry in September 1941, he and his colleagues had managed to save some 2,000 refugees, including Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt, and Andre Breton.

Fry returned home to New York to a less than warm reception from both the State Department, whose policies he had flouted, and surprisingly from the Emergency Rescue Committee itself, which disapproved of his extralegal methods. What recognition Fry has received has been for the most part posthumous.

The French government honored him with the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur for his rescue activities just prior to his untimely death in 1967. In 1991, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum awarded him its Eisenhower Liberation Medal. Fry became the first American to receive the "Righteous Among the Nations” from Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, in 1994.

When looking forward to the Varian Fry exhibit, Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz likes to reference Hillel the sage who said, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a human being!” (Pirke Avot 2:6).

“The strength of this Holocaust presentation is found in its ability to convey this great altruistic principle,” said Liebowitz. “Too often has oppression and injustice been met by silence. May this exhibit and the examples of many hundreds of others bring greater light to all humanity.”

For more information, contact Dr. Catherine Canino at (864) 503-5657 or Dr. Robert McCormick at (864) 503-5723. Details are also available at