Lessons from World War II on a Refugee Crisis

You might say there are three kinds of people. The first, a tiny group, are born activists. From a young age, they burn with often a furious passion for change. The second group is most of us who will never be activists, who see our lives as a continuous accommodation to reality. The third group consists of people who never thought they would be activists but who find themselves in the demands of a moment. In that moment they find a voice louder than they ever expected.

That’s how I picture Varian Fry, an American journalist who set out for France in the summer of 1940, as it fell to Hitler. Now we think of that time as the brink of World War II. At the time, Americans thought of it as a period when America was recovering from the Depression, and avoiding getting ensnared in Europe’s wars and refugee problems. There was little political will to help refugees and a popular isolationist movement urged America First.

Varian Fry, memorialized in the U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Making that Atlantic passage a year ago to write about Portugal and World War II, I found many parallels with the present refugee crisis, and discovered how many journalists now are forced to consider where they stand on activism.

The parallels came home a month ago when I attended an Oxfam America event at a Washington hotel. Titled “Refugee Road,” the evening led attendees through an exhibit of photographs of the Syrian refugee crisis. We received “identity cards” as we entered, like in a roleplay game, and sorted ourselves into groups — families still in Syria, people lingering in the Middle East, and others emigrating for a new life. I was Ahmad, trying to leave. I took a seat near a pile of orange life vests. We heard real stories from the current crisis and from survivors of past crises including Vietnamese “boat people” four decades ago.

Fry was a founding inspiration of the International Rescue Committee, a global relief organization that started after the war. During a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum two months ago, I came across a placard memorializing his work of that time. Under his photo, it reads:

In August 1940, the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private American relief organization, sent journalist Varian Fry to France to aid anti-Nazi refugees in danger of being arrested by the Gestapo. In Marseilles, Fry’s network of accomplices forged documents and created clandestine escape routes. His efforts resulted in the rescue of some 2,000 persons, including such distinguished artists and intellectuals as Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Franz Werfel, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Heinrich Mann. Fry’s covert activities angered officials of both the U.S. State Department and Vichy France, who kept him under surveillance. In September 1941, he was expelled from France.

Fry was a foreign policy writer who felt compelled to do something tangible. He was still shaken by his visit to Berlin several years before, where he witnessed how Nazi Germany treated Jews in that city. He comes alive to me most when I imagine him stumbling into the U.S. consulate on his arrival in Marseille. There he finds out he’s in the wrong place, the visa section is outside town. He has to take a trolley. And when he gets to the visa office, he refuses to wait in the long line with visa applicants. He marches in the front door, impatient to get something done. He’s not sure what he’s doing but he wants to get started.

Fry wrote newspaper articles that he sent home, trying to challenge American attitudes, believing the public would see the need to join the fight against Hitler.

In Sheila Eisenberg’s book about Fry, she wrote he had a blindspot around the public’s attitudes: “He did not realize that it would be nearly impossible to mobilize Americans to support both refugee rescue and the liberalization of U.S. immigration policy.”

Thrown out of Vichy France, Fry spent months in Lisbon continuing his work to get refugees to safety. Even in neutral Portugal, Hitler’s secret police kidnapped refugees off the streets and hauled them back to prison.

Other Americans did their own small parts. Americans in Portugal saw thousands of refugees pouring into Lisbon and the camps where they waited for paperwork to emigrate. Melchor Marsa was no activist, he was an American businessman. But he knew the ropes in Spain and Portugal, and helped at least one family find safety after France fell to Hitler.

Today the International Rescue Committee helps to settle the few Syrian refugees that the U.S. has accepted. And now we have another crisis on our southern border. This June 20, World Refugee Day, let’s be grateful for our personal situation and consider our options. Maybe we can mentor an arriving family. Maybe we can call our representative in Congress. Maybe we contribute to the legal struggle. And ask ourselves, what kind of person am I?

Author & filmmaker on history, culture, food & travel. https://linktr.ee/dataylor1 Blog: https://davidataylor.org/blog/

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