Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille

HarperCollins Publishers  2006


Although the official policy of the United States government during World War II, at least until 1944, was not to give priority to refugees escaping the Nazi onslaught and the restrictive immigration quota laws were not modified in response to the developing human tragedy, a handful of private, volunteer- staffed organizations launched rescue operations from America. The New York City-based Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) was hastily put together in 1940 by European exiles and New York humanitarians who realized that the Nazis were hunting down artists, writers, and intellectuals who were stranded in France. Varian Fry, the ERC representative in Marseilles, France, arrived in August 1940 intending to stay several months. He came with letters of recommendation, $3000 taped to his leg, a list of 200 people he was meant to save, and a passionate desire to do some good. He knew little about relief work or clandestine activity. In fact, he was a classical scholar, a man fluent in French and German, and a devotee of the arts. The idea of saving intellectuals in danger, however, appealed to his sense of adventure and justice. The list included Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipschitz, Andre’ Gide, Hannah Arendt, Heinrich Mann, Andre’ Breton, as well as musicians, scientists, philosophers and political leaders. In the end, Fry stayed 13 months and, assisted by two other unlikely heroes, a striking young heiress, Mary Jayne Gold, and a fearless graduate student, Miriam Davenport, saved 2,000 intellectuals. The ERC provided refugees with food, clothing, lodging, medical care, funds, and expedited their escape from France. Fry and his colleagues set up clandestine operations complete with encrypted codes, forged papers, and secret escape routes.

Beautifully written in a style that is novelistic, Villa Air-Bel brings to life the story of this rescue through the experiences of a community of artists who spent time in the Villa Air-Bel chateau in the suburbs of Marseille, rented by committee members. There the refugees waited, some for many months, for their opportunity to escape France. Using memoirs, diaries, letters and literary imagination, Sullivan recreates the conditions of uncertainty, anticipation and fear experienced by the victims, as well as their attempts to maintain normalcy during most trying times. She also provides insights into the motivation and thinking of the rescuers who provided shelter and sanity in a world turning murderous and cold.

The book is interesting and evocative and provides nuance and texture to one of the untold stories of rescue during the Holocaust.

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