From the original Unpublished Foreword of Surrender on Demand—Varian Fry
Written in 1942. Published with permission from James Fry.
This is the story of the most intense experience of my life. I have been told that I can’t tell it now, that I can never tell it. But I think I can tell it now and what’s more I think I must. That is what I am going to do. I am going to tell it as honestly and as completely as I can, Changing names and details only when to give the true names and details might compromise someone still in Nazi Europe and get him arrested and imprisoned—or worse.
I think I can tell the story if I do it that way. And I think I must tell it. Not only because it is difficult for me to keep it to myself any longer. Not only because it is struggling in me to be told. Also, because if, by telling it, I can make even a few other American understand, then I shall have fulfilled a duty to my friends in Europe which nothing can make me forget or shirk.
I have tried—God knows I have tried—to get back again into the mood of American life since I left France for the last time. But it doesn’t work. There is only one way left to try and that is the way I am going to try now.
If I can get it all out, put it all down just as it happened, if I can make others see it an feel it as I did, then maybe I can sleep soundly again at night, the way I used to before I took the Clipper to Lisbon. Maybe I can become a normal human being again, exorcise the ghosts which haunt me, stop living in another world, come back to the world of America. But I know now that I can’t do that until I have told the story—all of it.
Those ghosts won’t stop haunting me until I have done their bidding. They are the ghosts of the living who do not want to die. Go, they said, go back and make America understand, make American understand and help before it is too late.
I have tried to do their bidding in other and easier ways. By lecturing, writing articles, talking to friends. But it doesn’t work. People don’t understand. Because they don’t see the whole thing, or because what they see they see distantly, impersonally. It doesn’t touch them any more than a table of statistics touches them—even when the statistics represent the strangling death of children by diphtheria or the violent deaths of women and children under stuka dive bombers. They haven’t seen it, heart it, smelt it, so it doesn’t move them.
But if I put it all down, the little things with the big, the joys as well as the pains and sorrows, the successes and the failure, the country, the people, the things they ate and what they couldn’t find to eat, the fear…then maybe others will understand and be moved and want to do something to help. That is really why I have decided I must tell the story now.
It is a story of horror. Not the horror of sudden death on the battlefields, but a slow horror which is none the less terrible for being protracted and invisible. The horror of men, women and children shut up in concentration camps. Of a manhunt by the Gestapo. Of arrests, extraditions, kidnapping. Of suicide, murder, death in a Gestapo prison.
It is a story of gangsters, smugglers, and spies. Of baseness and heroism, treachery and devotion. Of escapes which succeeded, and some which didn’t. Of bureaucracy and indifference which cost men their lives. Of human solidarity and the warmth of human sympathy. Of the anguish of human suffering. Of hope and despair.
When I think about it, and I think about it all the time, there emerges from the confused jumble of images in my mind the look on Helen’s face when I left France for the last time, left leaving behind me so many refugees who had come to identify me with their only hope of being rescued from the hell Hitler has made of Europe. Helen, standing there on the platform of the railway station at Cerbere, and waving her handkerchief as my train drew out of the station, bore on her face the sadness of all the refugees who have been left behind.
I wish I could forget that look. If only for five minutes. I deserve that much respite from the strain. But I can’t. I wonder if I ever shall be able to. For I left her, knowing that she would go back to Sanary and her crippled son and realize slowly—only slowly—that for her there is no hope.
I think of Bill Freier, the cheerful little cartoonist, in the prison camp at Vernet, and his friend Mina, already expecting a baby when he was taken away. They gave him 24 hours leave to marry her just before the baby was born. Then they took him back to camp, probably to spend the rest of the war there.
I think of Franz Boegler, also in Vernet. His wife and son are here. I tried to get him out of France. I put him on a sailboat bound for Gibraltar. But the boat sprang a leak in a storm and had to turn back, and Boegler was arrested and taken back to the camp. He never hopes to see his baby again. He is on the Gestapo’s blacklist.
I think of Limot, the photographer, living, with his wife, his two children and his aged mother, in a one-room housekeeping apartment in Marseille, still hoping—vainly, I am afraid—that their visas will come before the Germans come, or they all die of hunger or Limot kills himself because he can’t stand seeing his children growing up to be slaves.
I think of Vladimir the boy with the tumor on the brain with will kill him some day if it isn’t operated, and who can’t go to Paris to have it removed there because he is Jewish and can’t come to New York to have it operated here because he has no friends in the United States who will fill out the yards and yards of State Department visa forms.
I think of Rudolph Breitscheid and Rudolph Hilferding as they were the last time I saw them, just before the French police arrested them and handed them over to the Gestapo, and Hilferding was found dead in his Gestapo cell a few days later.
I think of the ash-grey color of Alfred Apfel’s face as he lay dying of a heart attack in my office, after I had told him what had happened to Breitscheid and Hilferding.
I think of a certain German anti-Nazi novelist when fear got the better of him and he came to my room in the Hotel Splendide at Marseille and refused to go out again unless I went with him—believing, pathetically, that the mere presence of an American beside him would protect him from Hitler’s hangmen.
I think of Berthold Jacob, who managed to get to Lisbon, with the help of a false passport, only to be kidnapped by the Gestapo there before he could get a visa to go on.
I think of Hermann Richard Wagner, who also got to Lisbon and was also kidnapped there, for the same reason.
Of those two young men who were brought through Marseilles from a concentration camp in Africa and handed over to the Gestapo to be shot because they had had the courage to defy Hitler when they were members of the seamen’s union at Hamburg, years ago.
Of all the other men who have been dragged out of the French concentration camps and handed over to the Nazis to be tortured, hanged, beheaded or shot.
When I think of all this, it seems incredible, macabre, even, that I should have spent some of my last few hours in New York worrying about not having a new dress shirt, and actually going over the Brookes Brothers and buying one.
But that only shows, I guess, what a novice I was at the sort of work I was setting out to do, and how little I really understood what it means to a country like France to be defeated by the Nazis. Or what it means to the refugees in France to have no place to flee to.
Now I know, and I want others to know before it is too late. That is why I have decided to write a book.
James Fry, son of Varian Fry, has kindly given permission to include this Foreword to his father’s memoir Surrender on Demand. This Foreword was unpublished in the 1945 publication of his memoir, but added to the most recent printing.