Varian Mackey Fry (1907-1967)

Posthumous Special Recognition
Co-founder of the World War II Emergency Rescue Committee and Former Graduate Student, School of Education and Human Development

From an early age, Varian Mackey Fry was a helper, organizing a bazaar at age 9 to raise money for the Red Cross war effort in 1917. His kind nature, combined with a sharp intellect and an appreciation for emerging cultural and artistic talent, guided his formative years. He attended elite private schools, learned to read and write in six languages, and earned a spot at Harvard, where he studied the classics and founded a literary magazine that was home to progressive thinkers and authors, such as Gertrude Stein. Fry developed his editorial voice at the Atlantic Monthly and a number of other magazines, and by the mid-1930s was reporting on the anti-Jewish upswell in Nazi Germany for The New York Times. When Germany invaded France in 1940, Fry and a group of other American intellectuals formed the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) to help anti-Nazi artists and writers, both Jews and non-Jews, escape danger. His heroic acts over the next year helped save the lives of 2000 or more intellectuals and artists, including André Breton, Charles Chagall, Max Ernst, poet Walter Mehring, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and the physician and 1992 Nobel Prize winner Otto Meyerhof.

Years after World War II, Fry taught English at Barlow High School in Redding, Connecticut, and attended the Graduate School of Education at Fairfield University from 1962 to 1964. Robert Fishback, MA'65, who used to ride with Varian to and from Fairfield for classes, admired his sense of social justice. "Fry said nothing about his Word War II heroics to a single soul at Fairfield and almost nothing to me. He would talk much more about his admiration for the university." Fry particularly enjoyed the late Dr. Chester "Chet" Stuart.

Sometimes called "America's Schindler" or "the artist's Schindler," Fry earned the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, France's highest decoration of merit, in 1966, a year before his death. Posthumous awards included the Eisenhower Liberation Medal from the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in 1991, and in 1994, he was the first American to be singled out by Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, with a Righteous Among the Nations Award.

Fairfield University is honored to give Fry special posthumous recognition at the 2024 Fairfield Awards Dinner to celebrate his achievements. Rev. Gerald Blaszczak, S.J. (Fr. Gerry) said, "By awarding special recognition to Varian Fry, Fairfield University honors a man of clear moral vision, bravery in the face of imminent danger, and the acceptance of personal responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of those most vulnerable, those subject to violence and deadly, systematic discrimination."

Fry is the subject of a documentary film in development called And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille by Pierre Sauvage, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who is also a Holocaust survivor and president of the Varian Fry Institute, dedicated to exploring the American experience of the Holocaust. Showtime released a movie in 2001 about Fry called Varian's War, starring William Hurt. The 2023 Netflix series Transatlantic is inspired by Fry's rescue operation. Fry wrote two memoirs about his experiences: Surrender on Demand, his memoir about his work in France, and Assignment: Rescue, a rewritten version aimed at students. His papers are held in Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Fry's story is an important one that serves as a reminder for the Fairfield community and beyond to take action against the dangers of antisemitism, fascism, and racial and religious intolerance. Father Gerry said, "Honoring Varian Fry represents our own commitment to foster on our campus and in our community the values he modeled and so for us personifies."