It was a privilege to write a book for this age group,” says Carla Killough McClafferty, author of “In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), a book for young adults. “I am honored to introduce Varian Fry to thousands of people who probably have never heard of him.”
McClafferty will be speaking about Fry and her book at the Ridgewood Public Library on Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 7 p.m.; there is no charge for the event. She says her aim is to help people understand the context of Fry’s actions when he saved 2,000 people, most of them Jews, from Nazi-controlled France.
Fry, who grew up in Ridgewood, was a journalist with no previous humanitarian experience when he volunteered for a mission sponsored by the Emergency Rescue Committee to save 200 prominent Jews, many of them writers, artists, scientists, and intellectuals, who were trapped under the Vichy regime.
The man who has been called the “Artists’ Schindler” arrived in Marseilles with a list of names and $3,000 taped to his leg and spent 13 months arranging for forged papers, making deals, and devising underground routes out of the country. He was ultimately deported by the government of Vichy France as an “undesirable alien.”
Although he was honored by France, Germany, and Israel (he was the first American to be named a “righteous gentile” by Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem), he has never received widespread recognition in the United States for his work. The Jewish Standard spearheaded a campaign in 2006 to have him honored with a commemorative stamp.
Among the people Fry is credited with saving are artists Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Jacques Lipchitz, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska.
A resident of North Little Rock, Ark., McClafferty had never heard of Fry, who died in 1967, before she began searching for a topic for her new book. The author of two previous books for young people, on science, she was interested in writing about a historical topic, particularly one centered around World War II and the Holocaust.
“I started looking on Websites and came across the name ‘Varian Fry.’ I remember thinking that it was a strange name,” she told The Jewish Standard. “Then I ran across another reference to him and I had to find out who he was. So I looked him up and found this incredible story.”
The author believes it is especially important that young people know there was an American who risked his life to save Jews during the Holocaust. “He stepped up and did an extraordinary thing, even though there was a cost to him personally. It’s a timeless story, because there will always be oppression.”
McClafferty’s talk at the Ridgewood Library will be aimed at both teenagers and adults. She hopes that people will come away understanding the magnitude of Fry’s accomplishments. She feels that many Americans’ knowledge of World War II starts at Dec. 7, 1941, the date that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, when in reality the Nazis had begun their systematic annihilation of the Jews years earlier.
“Fry went to Berlin in 1935 to see if the rumors coming out of Germany were true,” she says. “He witnessed a mob scene, with Jews being hunted down and beaten, and it was a turning point for him. After that, he knew clearly and in a very personal way what the Nazis were doing. He understood the situation before most of the rest of the world did. He knew that if no one did anything, the Nazis would succeed.”
What led Fry to volunteer for such a dangerous and uncertain mission? McClafferty feels he had the perfect mix of character traits for the job: a willingness to take a stand, stubbornness when he felt he was right, and admiration for the people he was being asked to help. “He knew and valued the work of many of the people who were trapped,” she says. “At some point he said that they had given him pleasure and now they were in danger. He felt it was his obligation to help.”
While McClafferty is in Ridgewood, she expects to visit the section of South Monroe Street that is named for him, talk with area residents Catherine Taub and Mark Smith, who have helped revive Fry’s reputation, and meet Isi Canner of Teaneck and Jeanette Berman of Upper Saddle River, who were among those saved by Fry. “To meet people who actually knew Fry – how extraordinary that will be for me,” she marvels.
McClafferty hopes that her talk in Ridgewood will not only encourage people to read her book but rekindle pride in a local hero. “I hope to preserve his memory through this book,” she says. “He proved that one person can make a big difference.”