Set during the Holocaust and World War II, Julie Orringer’s novel The Flight Portfolio
(2019) retells the true story of Varian Fry, an editor and journalist who moved to Marseilles, France to join the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). The ERC embarked on a multinational rescue mission, finding Jewish and political dissident artists and intellectuals all over Europe and moving them outside Hitler’s grasp. Notable individuals saved under Fry’s brave leadership included Jewish political scientist Hannah Arendt, Jewish artist Marc Chagall, Surrealist pioneers Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst. To add realistic dialogue and intrigue to the limited records that exist of Fry’s life, Orringer focuses on his friendship with a fictional college friend Elliott Grant, who appears in Marseille in the midst of Fry’s valiant attempt to stave off the artistic destruction of Hitler’s regime. The novel has been praised for its compelling mixture of fiction and fact, illuminating their dual role in transmitting historical truth.
The novel begins in 1940, just as many Europeans, including Fry, are becoming aware of the mounting atrocities committed by the Nazis. Unable to stand by to watch Europe’s cultural and humanities institutions erode with the extermination of artists Hitler deems enemies of his new order, most of them Jewish, Fry and his staff set up a covert office in Marseilles in occupied France. The Emergency Rescue Committee finds ways to circumvent normal French bureaucratic structures now operated by the Nazis to help artists in peril escape. These offices would not otherwise issue exit visas, hoping to contain what Hitler calls “The Jewish Problem.” Fry starts the ERC with the 3,000 he has to his name and a list of writers and artists for whom he hopes to secure freedom. At first, he expects his mission to take a few weeks; however, the endeavor takes more than a year. He and his allies systematically forge and procure fake documents, raise emergency resources, and craft escape strategies from France through Spain to Portugal and then to the docks where the refugees, mostly Jews, might escape for safer lands. He garners the support of many notable figures, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Under the watch of Fry and his allies, more than 2,200 people are successfully smuggled through Spain into Portugal. Most of them depart from there to the United States. Fry also helps a separate set of refugees escape Marseille via ship for Martinique, a French colony that also permits travel to the United States. His closest friends at the time are Miriam Davenport, a Sorbonne student, and Mary Jayne Gold, a rich heir and patron of the arts who had moved to Paris a decade prior. Fry proceeds with the help of several bureaucrats working inside the American and French systems. These include American Vice Consul to Marseille Hiram Bingham IV, who famously issues thousands of visas, many of them illegal, to help combat anti-Semitism. Prominent figures from arts institutions, such as Alfred Barr, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, also lend helping hands. When his refugees leave his grasp and make it to Lisbon, they are placed in the good hands of the Unitarian Service Committee, led by Robert Dexter. Dexter shelters the refugees in secret until they receive ship passage to the United States.
In September 1941, both the French government and the United States State Department put pressure on the ERC to disband. They compromise by joining with the American branch of the International Relief Association to form the International Relief and Rescue Committee—an institution that still exists today. Fry is the first person to be recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” for his service protecting the Jews during the Holocaust, one of the highest humanitarian honors ever created.