JULY 15, 1935. BERLIN, GERMANY
Varian Fry saw the mob. They gathered in front of the neat shops and cafés that lined Kurfürstendamm, one of Berlin’s main streets. He heard singing in the distance. The melody was that of a German military song, but the words were chanted like a cheer at a ball game as more and more of the crowd joined in. A leader sang a line of the song, then the crowd repeated it. Varian understood German well enough to realize the words meant:
When Jewish blood spurts from the knife,
Then everything will be fine again.
Somewhere in the crowd, someone yelled out "Jew." A pack of people surrounded the man who had been pointed out. They spit on the nameless "Jew," insulted him, and knocked him down onto the sidewalk. Once he was on the ground, the mob kicked him repeatedly, with sickening thuds. Then, from all directions, like a disease that spread, Varian heard "Jew," "Jew," "Jew." Each time a Jewish man or woman was pointed out, he or she was immediately set upon and beaten. The sound of sobbing women added to the chaos of shuffling feet and the repeating chorus of the military song. Then a new anti-Semitic chant rang out: "The best Jew is a dead Jew."
The mass of people on the street forced passing cars and buses to stop. If the occupants looked as if they might be Jewish, the crowd pulled them out and beat them. They pulled Jewish customers from cafés and attacked them. Everywhere Varian looked, Jewish people covered with blood ran down the street. Their pursuers were right behind them, hitting them with clubs and calling them names.
Members of the S.A., short for Sturmabteilung, the private Nazi army known as storm troopers, picked up tables and chairs from outside cafés and threw them through the windows of Jewish-owned shops.
Varian was horrified at what he was seeing.
"This is a holiday for us," a German youth said to Varian. Varian was shocked when he realized that the people in the crowd were actually enjoying their brutal behavior. He looked at the people
who made up the mob. They were German boys and girls, men and women, policemen and S.A. men, young and old, rich and poor. All sang and participated in the riot.
The scene Varian witnessed was seared into his memory.
The next morning, Varian walked down the once-charming street to survey the damage from the previous night. Shards of glass from broken shop windows littered the sidewalks and crunched beneath his feet. He passed several people who were bound with bandages.
Varian Fry had gone to Berlin to find out if the Germans were mistreating their own Jewish citizens. Ever since Adolf Hitler took over the government, rumors of abuse had spread throughout the world. As editor at The Living Age, a political journal, Varian wanted to see the situation for himself. Now he had no doubt. Germany had begun a reign of violence against Jews.
Hitler rose to power within the Nazi political party and was named Chancellor—the head of government—of Germany in 1933. The next year he added the title of der Führer, which means "the leader." As the supreme leader of Germany, Hitler became a dictator with unlimited power. Nothing happened in that country without his consent and approval.
Varian made an appointment with Ernst Hanfstaengl, who was chief of the Foreign Press Division of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry and a personal friend of Hitler’s. Hanfstaengl—son of a German father and American mother—often entertained Hitler by playing classical music on the piano. Varian had never met Hanfstaengl, but they had one thing in common: they were both Harvard graduates.
Though their meeting took place in Berlin, Germany’s capital, Hanfstaengl spoke to Varian in English. In his cultured accent, he calmly explained that the goal of the Nazi Party was to get rid of all the Jews in Europe and that there were two opinions about what to do with them. One group suggested that all Jews be rounded up and shipped out of Europe, maybe to Palestine or Madagascar. The other group, including Hitler, wanted to solve the "Jewish problem" by killing the Jews.
As Varian listened to Hanfstaengl, he was stunned. How could one group of people discuss the possibility of annihilating another group of people? It was such a horrible thought that Varian couldn’t quite believe it. Yet he had witnessed the brutality of average Germans toward average Jews the day before. Right away, Varian wrote an article detailing this violence; it appeared in The New York Times the next day, July 17, 1935.
At the time, few people outside Germany understood the lengths to which Hitler was willing to go. Ever since he had come to power, Hitler had been steadily working toward taking away the rights of Jews in Germany.
Hitler believed in a racist theory that Germans belonged to a so-called Aryan race. In ancient times, Aryans were people who settled in northern India and spoke a language that became known as Indo- European. In the mid-1800s, Joseph-Arthur, comte de Gobineau, a wealthy Frenchman, wrote a book called Essay on the Inequality of Human Races. In it Gobineau suggested that the white race, which he referred to as the Aryan race, was superior to all others. Gobineau’s ideas later influenced Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an Englishman with great admiration for Germany. In 1899 Chamberlain’s book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century was published. He wrote that all positive influences in Europe came from "Aryans," all negative ones from other races, especially the Jews. Many people believe that Adolf Hitler was inspired by Chamberlain’s views. Hitler was convinced that Germans were Aryans, making up a "master race" of Caucasian, non-Jewish people.
When Varian went back home to New York City, he and his wife, Eileen, closely followed the news from Nazi Germany. In September 1935, only a few weeks after Varian returned from Berlin, Germany passed the Nuremberg Laws. These laws took away the civil rights of Jewish people who lived in Germany. It didn’t matter to Hitler that the families of these Jewish German citizens had lived there for centuries, or that many Jewish men were war veterans who’d fought for Germany during World War I. What mattered to Hitler was that they were Jews.
The Nuremberg Laws dictated that a "Jew" was anyone who had three or four Jewish grandparents. Suddenly all people considered Jewish were stripped of their German citizenship and segregated from other German citizens. From that point on, it was illegal for a Jew to marry a non-Jewish German. Jews were not permitted to display the German flag, own land, use the legal system, have national health insurance, serve in the military, or own a radio. Jews were forced out of their jobs as newspaper editors, doctors, and lawyers. Jewish teachers could not teach non-Jewish children. Jewish students could not attend a non-Jewish school. Jewish stores were boycotted by Germans. Books written by Jewish authors were publicly burned.
Taking away their rights was only the first phase of Hitler’s plan to destroy Jews everywhere. Yet the Jews weren’t the only group of people Hitler considered inferior. He intended to wipe out Gypsies, homosexuals, Freemasons (members of a secret society frequently opposed by organized religion), Jehovah’s Witnesses (a religious sect who refused to vote, salute, or join the army), and disabled people as well. With Germany’s army and air force trained to carry out his orders without hesitation, Hitler had the power to destroy countless people.
Hitler also wanted military domination over as much of Europe as possible. In 1938 Germany took over Austria and seized Czechoslovakia. The next year, with Germany’s invasion of Poland, World War II began. In 1940 the Nazis invaded Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. All countries that came under Hitler’s control were bound by Germany’s anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. As each country fell to Hitler, its Jewish citizens went from being a free and important part of society to having no rights at all. Nazi brutality was displayed again and again as German soldiers humiliated Jews on the streets of Europe.
Those who opposed Hitler and his Nazi Party became known as anti-Nazis. As Hitler’s army took over a new country, the secret state police, the Geheime Staatspolizei, known as the Gestapo, moved in. The Gestapo would hunt down and kill every anti-Nazi they could find, including former government leaders, writers, artists, and scientists, as well as average citizens.
When the German army occupied a country, many Jews and anti-Nazis ran for their lives. They became refugees, people who flee to another country for safety. The refugees took with them only what they could carry in their hands, leaving behind all the material possessions they had accumulated in a lifetime.
Before France fell to the Germans, refugees from other countries headed there. In the past, France had always welcomed and protected refugees. The capital city, Paris, located in the northern part of the country, overflowed with them.
Varian Fry and all the rest of America listened to news reports as Nazi Germany methodically vanquished the European continent. At this time the United States was not involved in the war. America wouldn’t enter the war until the empire of Japan, an ally of Germany, bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
In June 1940 the German army defeated the French. While the Nazis made their way toward Paris, the refugees who had gathered there had to run for their lives again. They were joined by Frenchcitizens who also wanted to get away before the Germans arrived. Many of the refugees headed for Marseilles, a busy port city on the Mediterranean Sea. It was as far from the German army as they could get. Countless people jammed the roads, traveling south through the French countryside in cars and wagons, on bicycles and on foot. Occasionally Nazi airplanes would fly over and shoot at the crowds.
When the victorious Germans arrived in the capital of France, their soldiers marched down the famous street the Champs-Elysées toward the Arc de Triomphe, a monument built to honor the victories of France under Emperor Napoleon I. Hitler posed for photographs with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
Now that they controlled France, the Germans set up a center of government in the city of Vichy (VEE-SHEE). This new system was known as the Vichy government, a network of Frenchmen who collaborated with the Germans and did exactly as they were told. The official leader of the Vichy administration was eighty-four-year-old Philippe Pétain. On June 22, 1940, on behalf of the new Vichy government, Pétain signed an armistice agreement, a truce with the Germans.
Varian had then been working for three years as an author and editor of political books at the Foreign Policy Association’s Headline Books in New York. He was alarmed when he read Article 19 of the armistice agreement, which said:
The French Government is obliged to surrender upon demand all Germans named by the German Government in France, as well as in French possessions, Colonies, Protectorate Territories and Mandates.
The French Government binds itself to prevent removal of German war and civil prisoners from France into French possessions or into foreign countries.
Article 19 was phrased politely, but Varian understood what the "surrender upon demand" section meant. The Vichy government agreed to turn over to the Germans anyone in France for whom the Nazis asked. Vichy also agreed to prevent prisoners from leaving France. By prisoners, the Germans meant anyone they wanted to arrest, including Jews and political enemies of Hitler. In effect, Article 19 empowered the Vichy government to keep all of Germany’s enemies in France until it was convenient for the Nazis to have them arrested by the Vichy police and delivered to the Germans.
When Varian read the details of Article 19, he remembered what Ernst Hanfstaengl had said five years before. Hanfstaengl had spoken about a Nazi plan to kill Jews. Back then it had been hard for Varian to believe such a plan could be real. But now he had no doubt that Hitler intended to kill every Jew he could get his hands on. Article 19 trapped refugees in France between the German army and the Mediterranean Sea.
And the Germans were coming for them.
Excerpted from IN DEFIANCE OF HITLER by Carla Killough McClafferty.
Copyright © 2008 by Carla Killough McClafferty.
Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.