(JTA) — While the United States swung its door shut to most refugees during World War II, a young American in France saved thousands, including some of the 20th century’s defining artists and thinkers — such as Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt — from the Nazis.
The rescue mission of Varian Fry, which went largely unrecognized during his life, is the subject of Netflix’s new drama “Transatlantic,” launching Friday from “Unorthodox” creator Anna Winger.
Starring Cory Michael Smith as Fry, the seven-episode “Transatlantic” aims to recreate his operation in Marseille after the Nazis defeated France and before the United States entered the war. Winger has injected several imagined romances, war efforts and characters into the fictionalized series, including one posed as Fry’s lover, named Thomas Lovegrove (played by Israeli Amit Rahav). Although Fry’s son has said that he was a “closeted homosexual,” no such person is known to have existed.
Winger believes these inventions will invite Netflix viewers to learn more about the true story.
“The people who lived through these stories are dying out,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “My job is to bring this to a wide audience, to people who don’t know anything about it.”
The story behind the series
The real Varian Fry, a 32-year-old journalist and suit-clad Harvard graduate, showed up in Marseille with $3,000 taped to his leg and a list of 200 names in August 1940.
After France surrendered to Germany, Fry was among 200 Americans — including journalists, artists, museum curators, university presidents and Jewish refugees — to create the Emergency Rescue Committee at the Hotel Commodore in New York. This group was concerned with Article 19 in France’s armistice with Germany, which required French authorities to surrender any individuals demanded by the Germans.
The private relief organization drew up frenzied lists of anti-Nazi intellectuals who were trapped in France. With the help of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the ERC obtained some emergency visas and sent Fry to lead the rescue efforts in Marseille, a port city in the southern, unoccupied part of France.
What he found there was impossible to manage alone. His mission began in his room at the Hotel Splendide, where long lines of refugees waited in the morning before he woke up and at night after he went to bed. They sometimes walked straight into his bedroom without knocking, Fry wrote in a letter to his wife shortly after he arrived.
Gathering a small devoted staff, including Frenchmen, refugees and American expatriates, Fry moved his office to Rue Grignan and later Boulevard Garibaldi. Outside of Marseille he rented the Villa Air-Bel — colorfully recreated in “Transatlantic” — to house eminent writers and eccentric Surrealist artists waiting for visas.
The group developed legal and illegal branches, with the cover organization offering humanitarian relief while a behind-the-scenes operation flouted the law to help refugees escape. Using Marseille’s lively black market, the staff found hiding places, forged documents and bribed officials. Bil Spira, a Jewish Austrian-born cartoonist, forged passports for the ERC. (He was caught and deported to Auschwitz, but survived.) Resistance fighters Hans and Lisa Fittko devised an escape route to Spain, guiding refugees across the Pyrenees mountains on foot.
By the time he was forced out in October 1941, Fry’s shoestring operation had enabled 2,000 Jewish and other anti-Nazi refugees to flee Europe, including such towering artists as Chagall, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, and intellects such as Arendt, Heinrich Mann and André Breton. It has been estimated that 20,000 refugees made contact with the rescue center in Marseille.
Fry’s illegal efforts made him plenty of enemies from his own country, who accused him of interfering with American neutrality in the war. He angered the state department, officials at the American consulate in Marseille and ERC members in New York. In August 1941, he was arrested by Vichy police and sent back to New York.
Fry died in 1967 at the age of 59. Only a few months earlier, he had received the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration of merit — and the only official recognition in his lifetime. In 1994, he became the first American honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and history authority, as Righteous Among the Nations.
The Emergency Rescue Committee merged with another relief organization and became the International Rescue Committee in 1942. It is still in operation today and currently led by a Jewish CEO, former British politician David Miliband.
What’s in the show, and why some are against it
Some of Fry’s colleagues are fictionalized in “Transatlantic,” including the Jewish Berliner Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander), who would become an economist in the United States; the Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs); and the Jewish Austro-Hungarian activist Lisa Fittko (Deleila Piasko). American diplomat Hiram Bigham, who gave Fry crucial help and even hid writer Lion Feuchtwanger in his home, is also a character in the show.
Throughout the seven episodes, rescue missions swirl around a series of fictional love affairs. In addition to Fry’s relationship, a triangle unfolds between Hirschman, Gold and the fictional American Consul Graham Patterson. (There is no evidence that Gold romanced either with her comrade or with any American consul in Marseille.) Lisa Fittko has an affair with the fictional character Paul Kandjo, who organizes armed resistance to Vichy.
Several wartime plot points are also invented, including a prison break at Camp de Mille and Gold’s collaboration with British intelligence.
The degree of fictionalization has angered some people close to the real history. Pierre Sauvage, president of the Varian Fry Institute, called the show’s trailer “shocking.” Born in 1944, Sauvage survived the end of the Holocaust in the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, although his Jewish parents were turned down by Fry’s overwhelmed committee. He became close friends with some of Fry’s fellow rescuers in their later years, including the late Gold, Hirschman and Fittko.
“Are there any red lines?” he said. “Can one fictionalize at will, with no concern for the reality of the story, for the false impression that people will get — and for the way it affects the private lives of the families of people portrayed?”
Sheila Isenberg, who documented Fry’s operation in her book “A Hero of Our Own,” has described the series as a “travesty.” Thomas Fischer Weiss, a child survivor who attempted Fry’s escape route through the Pyrenees at 5 years old, also said the historical events needed no embellishment.
“I think you should tell it straight,” he told the JTA.
The legacy of the ‘troublemakers’
Sauvage believes that if Fry and his associates were alive today, they would like to be remembered for their convictions.
“These were people who were sort of in your face,” he said. “People who knew clearly what they felt and expressed it. They would often describe themselves as troublemakers. Mary Jayne [Gold] said about Varian that he was an ‘ornery cuss’ — it took orneriness to stick to your guns.”
That orneriness was critical at a time when many Americans were apathetic to the plight of European Jews — a 1938 poll in Fortune magazine found that fewer than 5% believed the United States should raise its immigration quotas for refugees. By the summer of 1941, it was too late to open the doors. The German policy of expelling Jews had changed into extermination.
According to Sauvage, America’s refusal to accept more refugees had something to do with that shift.
“The Nazis could legitimately come to the conclusion that the world wouldn’t do anything about the murders and wouldn’t really care all that much,” he said. “What the Varian Fry mission symbolizes is people who cared.”
After their year in Marseille, the rescuers settled into more ordinary lives. Hirschman became an economist with appointments at Yale, Columbia and Harvard. Lisa Fittko ended up in Chicago, where she worked hard in import-export, translation and clerical jobs to earn money, eventually joining protests against the Vietnam War. Gold divided her time between New York City and a villa on the French Riviera.
They all remembered the rescue mission as their finest hour. Speaking with Sauvage, Gold called that year “the only one in her life that really mattered.”
A refugee story for troubled times
Fry’s rescue mission inspired Julie Orringer to write “The Flight Portfolio,” a 2019 novel that became the basis for “Transatlantic.” Orringer was captivated by the image of a young man arriving in Marseille, idealistic and unprepared for the depth of anguish he would find.
“The task was way too big,” she told the JTA. “He realized quite early on that he was going to ask for help, that he was going to have to turn to others who had deeper experience. And in collecting this group of incredible individuals around him, he assembled a kind of collective mind that really could make a difference under the very difficult circumstances that he faced.”
She believed that Fry left an example for the inexperienced. “If you‘re the kind of person who wants to take action on behalf of refugees, but doesn’t know how to do it, ask for help,” she said.
Winger, a Jewish Massachusetts native who has lived in Berlin for two decades, conceived of making a series about Fry in 2015. Germany saw an influx of more than a million migrants that year, most of them fleeing Syria’s horrific civil war. She optioned Orringer’s book in 2020.
“I thought a lot about the fact that people like us — artists, Jews, both — had to leave Berlin as refugees, but now there were so many people coming to Berlin as refugees,” said Winger.
Then, just as she started filming “Transatlantic” on location in Marseille, a new war broke out in Europe.
“The war in Ukraine started three days into the production and there was a whole other wave of refugees coming to Berlin,” she said. “Suddenly we were making it in another refugee crisis.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hit close to the show, whose cast and crew hail from across the continent. Winger’s cinematographer is married to a Ukrainian woman. In Berlin, she saw thousands of refugees crowding into the central train station, some without shoes, food or plans for shelter.
“I think it gave us all a strong sense of purpose,” said Winger.
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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