Two area members of Congress, Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J., 9th Dist.) and Sen. Robert Mendendez, are formally calling for a commemorative stamp to honor Varian Fry, a hero of the Holocaust who grew up in Ridgewood.
Rothman introduced a congressional resolution calling for the stamp last week, and Menendez will introduce a companion bill in the Senate after the Fourth of July recess.
Fry, Rothman said in his resolution, which has already attracted six cosponsors, "embodied the spirit of American heroism and demonstrated personal bravery of the highest order during the Holocaust."
A volunteer representative of the ad hoc Emergency Rescue Committee in 1940 and 1941, before the United States entered World War II, Fry helped an estimated ‘,000 people, many of them famous and accomplished artists and thinkers, escape from Vichy France.
The congressional effort grew out of a stamp campaign launched June 9 by this newspaper and the Pennsylvania-based David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Fry, who died in 1967, was honored by France and by the State of Israel, where he was the first American named a righteous gentile by Yad Vashem, but not by his own government. (Fry has been honored by Ridgewood, which dedicated a street to him in response to a campaign by resident Catherine Taub.)
The Jewish Standard initiated the stamp campaign which The Record endorsed in a June 19 editorial when it learned that the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring former U.S. Vice-Consul Horace Bingham, whom Fry called his "partner in the ‘crime’ of saving lives," on May 30.
Rothman’s June ” resolution enumerated Fry’s "heroic but sometimes unlawful actions on behalf of the refugees, including securing false visas, planning daring escape routes through the mountains of southern France, illegally chartering ships to transport refugees out of the country, and exchanging funding for these operations on the black market."
It went on to note that Fry "risked his personal safety, forfeited his employment as a writer with the Foreign Policy Association, and was ultimately expelled from France because his actions contravened the policies of the Vichy French government."
Among those he saved were artists Marc Chagall and Jacques Lipchitz, writers Franz Werfel and Arthur Koestler, the philosopher Hannah Arendt and Isi Canner of Teaneck and Jeanette Berman of Saddle River.
Allyn Brooks-Lasure, press secretary to Mendendez, told the Standard that "joining Congressman Rothman in properly honoring Varian Fry is especially significant to Senator Menendez. As the son of immigrants who came to America in search of a better life, Senator Menendez understands the impact of Varian’s actions and how he touched so many lives. Senator Menendez looks forward to introducing the Senate version of this bill."
Bob Decheine, Rothman’s chief of staff, said in a telephone interview from Washington on Tuesday that five members of Congress had already signed on as cosponsors of the resolution and then he was interrupted by a phone call announcing a sixth cosponsor, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif., 1’th Dist.). Lantos, a Holocaust survivor who is on the advisory board of the Varian Fry Foundation Project of the International Rescue Committee, which aims to teach about Fry’s actions, was present at the 1996 Yad Vashem ceremony honoring him.
The other cosponsors Decheine stressed that more are expected are Bill Pascrell (D-N.J., 8th Dist.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla., ‘3rd Dist.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass., 3rd Dist.), Brian Higgins (D-N.Y., ‘7th Dist.), and Major Owens (D-N.Y., 11th Dist.)
Decheine explained that Rothman’s office had sent out "a broadcast e-mail" about the resolution and planned to send more. Responses come in as "people work through their systems."
"More cosponsors are better than less," Decheine said, "and bipartisan is better than partisan."
After a group of cosponsors is assembled, "we ask the leadership to schedule the bill for consideration on the floor . We’ll have a debate," he added, "but there won’t be anyone speaking against it."
"My guess is that it will pass overwhelmingly," Decheine said, "and hopefully it will have some influence on the [postal] commission," which is the final arbiter on who gets a commemorative stamp and who does not.
To learn more about Varian Fry, go to jstandard.com and search for his name. To sign the stamp petition, go to www.wymaninstitute.org.