Ridgewood marks centennial of 'homegrown hero’

Ridgewood marks centennial of 'homegrown hero’

More than 100 people turned out for Sunday’s birthday party for Varian Fry. Held at the Ridgewood Library, it celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of the village’s homegrown Holocaust hero.

Fry’s widow, Annette Riley Fry, attended the gathering, as did Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9th dist.), who introduced a resolution in Congress last month in honor of the centennial and an earlier one, at The Jewish Standard’s request, urging the U.S. Postal Service to issue a Varian Fry commemorative stamp. (On Oct. 9, the Postal Service and Ridgewood’s Acting Postmaster Mary Ellen Murray unveiled what’s called a "pictorial cancellation" in his honor. It’s a special postmark that reads: "Varian Fry — Celebrating 100 years of his birth, October 15, 1907 to ‘007, Ridgewood Holocaust Hero, Ridgewood Station New Jersey 07450." Murray personally canceled mail with the postmark at Sunday’s event.)

Jeanette Berman, left, and Isi Canner unveil a plaque in honor of Varian Fry, as Catherine Taub looks on. PHOTOS BY Johanna Resnick Rosen/Candid Eye

Two very grateful people, Jeanette Berman of Saddle River and Isi Canner of Teaneck, spoke at the gathering about the man to whom they — and some ‘,000 other refugees, many world-famous artists and intellectuals — owed their safe passage from Nazi-occupied France. It was they who unveiled a bronze commemorative plaque installed on the library’s patio. The plaque was donated by Catherine Taub, founder of the Committee to Honor Varian Fry. Taub and Peggy Norris, the library’s historian, have curated an exhibit in the library dedicated to Fry.

Annette Riley Fry holds an envelope bearing the Ridgewood Post Office’s special postmark in her late husband’s honor. She is flanked by author Rosemary Sullivan and Catherine Taub.

Stephen Draisin attended as a representative of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, which has created a five-volume curriculum guide from kindergarten through 1’th grade. Fry’s autobiography, "Assignment: Rescue," is in the unit "Hiding, Escape, and Rescue."

In an address, Taub noted that the American government, still seeking to maintain ties with Vichy France, forced Fry to cut short his rescue mission and return to the United States in September 1941. He had acquired an FBI file, Taub noted, for "protecting Jews and anti-Nazis."

Rep. Steve Rothman, sponsor of two congressional resolutions honoring Fry, speaks at Sunday’s gathering.

Also at the gathering, Rosemary Sullivan, author of "Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille," about the house where Fry and a number of the artists he helped rescue lived, read from her book and showed a short video of the escape route over the Pyrenees into Spain produced by her husband, Chilean actor-musician Juan Opitz. The video will be duplicated for the library and available to borrowers.

Opitz, Taub noted in an e-mail, had been a political prisoner in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. "He had been tortured and is missing several fingers on a disfigured right hand. He has a personal connection to political injustice."

Annette Riley Fry holds an envelope bearing the Ridgewood Post Office’s special postmark in her late husband’s honor. She is flanked by author Rosemary Sullivan and Catherine Taub.

A program distributed at the event contained a chronology of local attempts to commemorate a man who was the first American to be named one of the "righteous among the nations" by Yad Vashem. It included a summary of Fry’s life and exploits and quoted from a letter he wrote to his mother of his time in France: "I have to admit," he wrote, "that I am proud to have stayed. I stayed because the refugees needed me. But it took courage, and courage is a quality I hadn’t previously been sure I possessed."

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