Monday, January 23, 2012

The Exiles

Irving Penn

"If one lives in exile, the café becomes at once the family home, the nation, church and parliament, a desert and a place of pilgrimage, cradle of illusions and their cemetery... In exile, the café is the one place where life goes on."

Hermann Kesten

I have always loved this quote as it rings so true, especially in France. Hermann Kesten was referring to the many German and Austrian writers, artists, intellectuals, political opponents, etc. Who with the rise of Hitler in the early thirties, left Germany and settled in France.

When France declared war on Germany in September 1939 German exiles were considered enemy aliens and interned in hastily constructed camps and prisons whilst they waited to have their cases heard and hopefully be released, this process took some time, if it happened at all.  In the meantime they lived  in appalling conditions with disease running rife, a few of them did manage to escape. By June 1940 the Nazis had marched into France and occupied Paris.  An armistice was signed and France was divided into two, German occupied France and Vichy France under the rule of the elderly Marchal Petain. The truth is both were very dangerous places to be and many French found themselves exiles in their own country.

 As the Nazis were marching towards Paris, thousands were trying to flee the capital, by any means, trains were full to bursting, all roads out of Paris were clogged, vehicles were abandoned when they ran out of fuel, thousands of people slept rough in barns and fields, there was no news but many rumours which added to the sense of panic, it was chaos.  Many were heading to the south or to the coasts, to try and get boats out or simply to stay with family or friends as far away from the Nazis as they could get, some had no clue where they were going, they just knew they had to leave.

Hitler put pressure on the Vichy government to round up all the German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian exiles, these people were now in grave danger, if they fell into the hands of the Gestapo they were imprisoned, sent to concentration camps or murdered by firing squads. Now thousands of French nationals also found themselves in danger, French artists, poets, writers and intellectuals were at particular risk, many of them were no longer in possession of the correct identity papers, trying to obtain the correct papers could result in arrest, they were aware they were on Hitler's list, many of them headed South to Marseilles where they shrank into the shadows, stayed in shabby back street hotels and met up with each other at the cafés, always looking over their shoulders.  They were now people without a state or a homeland, they had become in effect refugees. They needed a way out.

 Film Still from Casablanca

A Real Rick, Varian Fry

 Meanwhile in New York 'The Emergency Rescue Committee' had been set up, they had compiled a list of around 200 artists, writers and intellectuals who they considered to be at risk in occupied Europe, the list included Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Andre Breton, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, the objective was to help them to escape. 

  Havard graduate and political activist Varian Fry was the man who was chosen to go to Vichy France to set up an organisation to help people escape, in fact he was the perfect choice, he was a man with a strong social conscience, he was an intellectual who had studied the classics and he spoke French and German.  He arrived in Marseilles on August 14th 1940 with a suitcase, sleeping bag and air mattress, $3000 taped to his leg and a list of around 200 names.  His return flight to New York had been booked for August 29th.  He had around two weeks to get the job done!

Varian Fry, Andre Breton, Andre Masson, Jacqueline Lamba and Max Ernst at the CAS office.

Fry set up his organisation which he named: CENTRE AMERICAN DE SECOURS, 'CAS'.  The Tom tom drums had been beating and word got out on the refugee grapevine, that a man had been sent from America to help, he soon had a long line of people queuing outside his hotel room, it was not long before he had to find an office and trustworthy staff. 

Eventually he cobbled together an excellent team including a young American art student who had formerly been studying at the Sorbonne, Miriam Davenport.  Varian desperately needed more funding, help soon came from the beautiful, thrill seeking American heiress, Mary Jayne Gold.  Mary Jayne rented Villa Air-Bel, just outside Marseille, it became a home to CAS staff and some of the refugees (CAS clients), artists and intellectuals came to visit, there were parties and auctions, which all helped fund the clients escapes and keep up morale.

Andre Breton and Jacqueline Lamba fooling around at the Villa Air-Bel, just outside Marseilles. Breton was convinced that all the surrealists must defy the spirit of Fascism "by singing and laughing with the greatest joy"

Even the Nazis could not stand in the way of creativity, whilst waiting at the Villa Air-Bel for various visas, Andre Breton had the idea of producing a collective work of art, they would invent a new deck of cards,  known as 'Le Jeu de Marseille'.  The original drawings were preserved and eventually came to Andre Breton's daughter Aube, she donated them to the Musee Cantini in Marseilles, where they are on display to this day.

 Max Ernst the Surrealist painter was one of the many artists imprisoned by the French in 1939 for being a German national, he was at this time living with his British lover, fellow surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, in a small French village in the south of France. With the help of Paul Eluard and the intervention of Varian Fry he was eventually released, only to be arrested again a few weeks later by the Gestapo, he managed to escape and once again helped by Varian Fry, escaped to America, with Peggy Guggenheim. 

Leonora Carrington, distraught at Max's initial arrest by the French was persuaded by friends to leave France. She escaped over the Pyrenees into Spain, where she suffered a breakdown at the British embassy in Madrid.  She was institutionalised in Santander where she received shock and drug therapy. Her wealthy parents intervened and sent someone to secure her release (Leonora claimed it was her old nanny) Leonora was convinced her parents would send her to a mental institution in South Africa or one of the colonies, one day she persuaded the nanny to take her shopping and managed to run away, she sought refuge at the Mexican embassy, eventually she managed to get to Lisbon, where she bumped into Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim who were waiting to leave for America.  Leonora and Max had both been through too much to rekindle their relationship.  Max went on to marry Peggy. Following the escape to Lisbon, Leonora arranged passage out of Europe with Renato Leduc, a Mexican diplomat and poet who was a friend of Picasso and who had agreed to marry Leonora as part of the travel arrangements to help her.  Leonora eventually found sanctuary in Mexico and went on to become one of Mexico's leading artists.

Max Ernst speaking to immigration authorities at Ellis Island, Peggy Guggenheim looks on, July 14th, 1941

A few of the people Varian Fry helped...
"Artists in Exile", Peggy Guggenheim's apartment, New York, 1942. Front row: Stanley William Hayter, Leonara Carrington, Frederick Kiesler, Kurt Seligmann. Second Row: Max Ernst, Amedee Ozenfant, Andre Breton, Fernand Leger, Berenice Abbott. Third Row: Jimmy Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, John Ferren, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian. Photograph: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  

 The situation was becoming increasingly risky for Fry and his clients.  Obtaining exit visas for people was becoming impossible legally, the only way to get things done was to go down the illegal route, much to the chagrin of the American consulate and the Vichy government.  Fry became a thorn in their sides and they conspired together to do something about him (America was still neutral at this point). He had his passport confiscated and was told it would only be returned on the condition that he left Vichy France and returned to America.  He now knew what it felt like to be a refugee, his hand was forced, on 6th September 1941, almost thirteen months after his arrival in Vichy France, Fry boarded the train in Cerbere and embarked on the long journey back to America following in the footsteps of all those he had helped to escape.

CAS continued to operate but went completely underground, it's staff were now part of the resistance.

Over a period of one and a half years twenty thousand refugees had approached CAS for help, stretching his mandate as much as he dared Fry had extended the protection of CAS to more than four thousand people.  Cas had given direct financial support to six hundred refugees.  It had helped fifteen hundred people to leave France both legally and illegally.  It had also assisted in one manner or another in the evacuation of about three hundred British officers and soldiers.  CAS had set up a dozen communities around Grasse as well as woodcutting and charcoal burning enterprises in the Var forest that gave refugees not only employment but also a place to hide.  From 1942 unbtil the end of the war, the clandestine CAS was able to facilitate the escape from France of another three hundred people.

Excert from Villa Air-Bel

Further reading...

(French Edition)

A Quiet American,  The Secret war of Varian Fry, Andy Marino


  1. Dash, what a story! The background is familiar, of course, WWII, Nazi Occupation, Petain and the Vichy government. I had heard stories about intellectuals being persecuted during the war years but did not know the details. I am glad you brought the work of CAS and Fry to light. They were brave people to operate the way they did under the Germans' and Vichy France's nose. Well done. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  2. Hello Dash

    What an incredible post and my heart was pumping as I read this. Thank you for the lead on the books.

    I will be checking these out.

    A fabulous piece of writing, thank you

    Helen xx

  3. Thank you so much for this absolutely amazing post, Dash. What an incredible story. It could make a wonderful film, don't you think?

  4. Heather a film has already been made called, Varians War:
    It was produced, I believe by Barbara Streisand and it went stright to DVD, not a good sign I have not seen it so I can't comment. However I think a new film should be made as authentically as possible as it is an extraordinary story.

  5. Very interesting, thanks for the post and great photos...will add some books to my reading list...

  6. Such bravery he had. I often wonder, were the circumstances of those times to occur in this day and age, whether our generation would show the same fortitude and selflessness as so many of them did then. To have helped so many people is extraordinary. Beautifully told story.

  7. Great reading, wonderful post, thanks for the book shout out! Can't wait to read it. Americans should be reading this post!

  8. Oh what wonderful wonderful photographs !
    I will have to read the book ... as soon as possible :)
    Merci, C

  9. Thank you so much for this post! Incredible, glued to the monitor! Amazing! thank you!

  10. Extraordinary story. As usual, interesting and supported by amazing visuals. Thank you!

  11. What a fabulous story. These books would be fascinating reading.


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