How Varian Fry Helped My Family Escape the Nazis

October 04, 2019

Anya Schiffrin, Director of the Technology, Media and Communications specialization at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, tells the story of how Varian Fry, an American journalist and co-founder of the Emergency Rescue Committee, helped her family flee occupied France in 1941.


How Varian Fry Helped My Family Escape the Nazis

I never knew my grandfather, the book publisher Jacques Schiffrin. He got emphysema during the war and then died of lung cancer in 1957. He was a committed smoker, and I still have the cigarette case his friends gave him when he left Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1918, a heavy metal box with their signatures embossed on it—I always imagined a carefree group of old-fashioned men, perhaps in big fur coats with twirling mustaches like my Baku relatives in the photo album I inherited from my great aunt Bella Brodsky.

Living first in Italy, my grandfather worked with the great American art historian Bernard Berenson. Later, after Jacques moved to France, in 1919 or 1920, Peggy Guggenheim gave him some money when he started Éditions de la Pléiade in 1923 in order to make beautifully bound classics on fine paper. He subsequently sold the imprint, still one of the most prestigious in France, to Gallimard because my grandfather needed capital to develop the business. He had retained control of Pléiade at Gallimard but was fired within days of the anti-Jewish laws going into effect in occupied France in 1940.

That year was a terribly difficult one. Jacques had taken French citizenship in 1927 and was drafted in 1939. Serving in the military delayed his departure from France and ruined his health. Eventually, in 1941, he fled occupied France, taking with him his wife, Simone, and son, André—my grandmother and father. After a harrowing wait in hopes of boarding a ship out of Marseille, he received help from an American journalist named Varian Fry. With the visas Fry helped to obtain for them, the Schiffrin family finally made its way to New York—an escape reminiscent of the plot of Casablanca.

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