Varian Fry, an American journalist who helped more than 1,500 people escape Nazi-occupied France, has been honored posthumously on a Berlin bus shelter. The permanent informational display, including a photo of Fry in Berlin and text in German and English, was designed by Berlin artist Ronnie Golz, whose parents fled Nazi Germany for England. It’s located on a street named for Fry in Berlin’s newly redeveloped Potsdamer Platz.
Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, said at a news conference that Fry’s life is the story “of a nebishy classical scholar who was fired by an incredible passion to fight the Nazis and make a difference.”
Fry was honored for showing “what the human spirit can do in the face of adversity,” she added.
The project was supported in part by the AJCommittee office in Berlin and by Wall AG, a bus-shelter manufacturer.
As a journalist, Fry witnessed Nazi brutality ag! ainst Jews in prewar Berlin. In 1940, he was asked by the Emergency Rescue Committee, started by exiled German writer Thomas Mann, to help rescue some 200 prominent intellectuals caught in occupied France.
Armed with special visas, Fry ended up helping hundreds more, including the artists Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, the philosopher Hannah Arendt and the writer Hans Sahl.
Before his death, Sahl expressed the wish “that my hometown of Berlin find some worthy way of remembering Varian Fry,” said Edzard Reuter, whose late father, Ernst, was the first postwar mayor of West Berlin.
Reuter, who spoke at the news conference, said he tried “to move God and the world” to bring Sahl’s wish to fruition. Thanks largely to Reuter’s efforts, Berlin in 1997 renamed a street in Potsdamer Platz after Fry. A bus stop soon followed.
For Golz, the idea to add an informational panel to the bus shelter was a natural one. Several years ago, Golz convinced the bus-she! lter company to create an informational bus stop on Adolf Eichmann nea r the site where the Nazi in charge of deporting the Jews had his office.
Golz, who takes visiting American Jews on tours of Berlin, said he’s surprised at how few of them know the story of Fry, who was born in 1907 in New York and studied classics at Harvard University.
“I’m willing to bet there is no Varian Fry Street in the USA,” he said.
Hans Wall, president of the board of the bus-shelter company, said he didn’t know who Fry was until Golz told him. “He was a hero, an example to us all,” Wall said.
But Fry “never saw himself as a hero,” said John Cloud, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.
Fry risked his life to save others, organizing some hair-raising escapes. Among the stories that moved Berger was the rescue of composer Franz Werfel and his wife, Alma Mahler, as well as Heinrich Mann — Thomas Mann’s brother — and his wife Nellie.
Nervous that the group’s luggage for the trip to Spain was too conspicuous, Fry had his charges ! leave the train and cross the border on foot with a trusted mountain guide.
Fry pretended their luggage was his, and the passengers rejoined the train in Spain.
Fry was thrown out of occupied France in 1941, and he received few honors before his death in 1967. In 1996, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, planted an olive tree in his memory.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.