On June 14, 1940 – just weeks after the German army invaded France during the Second World War – the Nazis marched into Paris, claiming it as their own. Within days, a tenebrous shadow fell over the country: Germany assumed control of two-thirds of France, and the French government signed an armistice agreeing to “surrender on demand…all German nationals requested for extradition.” With French borders also closed, the message was clear: the Gestapo would hunt down refugees from conquered countries and other Nazi enemies – who would be summarily executed or transported to concentration camps.
U of T professor Rosemary Sullivan’s book Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille (HarperCollins Publishers) centres around the Emergency Rescue Committee, a group that officially helped refugees legally obtain visas so they could leave France. But the group’s sub rosa agenda was to spirit out of the country those on the Gestapo’s blacklist – specifically writers, artists and political activists – by any means possible. Headed by a young American named Varian Fry, the committee forged identity papers, exchanged money on the black market and arranged for high-risk clients to be shepherded over the Pyrenees along the Franco-Spanish border.
Villa Air-Bel, a rambling 19th-century stone house in Marseille, served as a way station for clients. (In fact, the villa was soon dubbed Villa Espervisa or “Hoping for a Visa.”) House guests included Max Ernst, a German artist and leading member of the dada and surrealist movements; Victor Serge, a writer who had been imprisoned in Russia for his criticism of Stalin; André Breton, a French poet and the founder of surrealism; and Mary Jayne Gold, an American heiress who bankrolled much of the operation.
Villa Air-Bel brings to the fore the question of why, in times of war, regimes immediately set out to scourge artists and writers. Indeed, Ernst’s lover Leonora Carrington asks: “Why are totalitarian minds afraid of art?” She answers herself: “Because it gets inside. It can terrify you or give you joy.” And during their months of repression, the Villa Air-Bel guests did indeed respond with the subversive acts of independent thought and imagination. Breton believed surrealists must defy the spirit of Fascism “by singing, playing and laughing with the greatest of joy.” He and other residents created a deck of cards antithetical to the Nazi philosophy: they replaced the conventional military figures of king, queen and jack with the suits of love, dream, revolution and knowledge, and their face card figures ranged from Baudelaire to Alice in Wonderland to Freud.
Another, perhaps unanswerable, question Sullivan raises is: why do some people become rescuers? Varian Fry, a Harvard grad and classics scholar, had participated in his share of political activism, but he certainly had no social work experience nor did he seem the most likely candidate to risk his life for those in France. His choice came at significant personal cost: he was harangued by U.S. and French officials, arrested in Marseilles and, upon return to New York, fired from the association. Yet the Emergency Rescue Committee succeeded in helping thousands of refugees escape France. In her book, Sullivan quotes one of Fry’s friends: “A part of him had remained in Marseille…. We got out of the trap like foxes that nevertheless leave a piece of leg behind.”