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

Rose­mary Sullivan
  • Review
By – May 25, 2012

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.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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