The First American Righteous Gentile

The Fellowship  |  September 6, 2022

Varian Fry in France
(Photo: USHMM)

An Ardent Anti-Nazi American in Berlin

Growing up in the United States during World War I, Varian Fry began helping others while still young, raising funds for the Red Cross at the age of nine.

After attending Harvard University, Fry worked as a foreign correspondent in Berlin during the 1930s. The abuse of Jews he witnessed during this time turned the American into “an ardent anti-Nazi.” At this early stage in Hitler’s regime, Fry was one of the few who reported on Germany’s atrocities against the Jewish people.

An American Friend of France’s Jews

When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Fry went to Marseille to work for the new Emergency Rescue Committee. There he worked against the Vichy French authorities, who refused to issue visas to Jews and others the Nazis saw as enemies or undesirable.

Initially, Fry had $3,000 and a list of 200 names of those he could rescue. But once others heard of this American willing to risk his life to help Jews, many came calling for his assistance.

Despite the watchful eye of the Gestapo, Fry and his colleagues hid Jews and other refugees until they could escape. 2,200 people were smuggled across the border to Spain, then to Portugal, and finally to the United States. Many more were able to escape from France to Martinique, from where they were then able to reach the U.S.

An American Righteous Among the Nations

After a year of rescuing thousands, Fry was discovered and forced to leave France. During his year of running the rescue network from France, however, the American was able to save thousands of lives, including those of Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and Marcel Duchamp.

Varian Fry passed away in 1967, and was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem as the first American to be named Righteous Among the Nations.