From 1933 - 1945 thousands of European intellectuals, scientists, musicians, etc. found refuge in the United States; so many of them would have undoubtedly perished if they had remained in Nazi-occupied Europe. I just want to highlight the efforts of two Americans whose heroism and persistence helped to preserve the continuity of German literature.
Varian Fry (1907 - 1967) is sometimes referred to as the American Schindler, except unlike Oscar Schindler, Fry is virtually unknown - even though he saved many more lives. As a foreign correspondent in 1935 the young Harvard (yes!) graduate witnessed Nazi thugs assaulting Jews on the streets of Berlin; other people passing by on the street pretended not to notice. Disturbed by what he had seen, Varian Fry began raising money to support victims of Nazism. His efforts caught the attention of Thomas Mann and his daughter Erika, who presented Fry with a list of 200 prominent artists and intellectuals who were stranded in Europe and whose lives were endangered. Following the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, Fry went to Marseilles with no support other than $3,000 in his pocket to secure the release of a short list of refugees - mostly Jews (Fry was a Protestant) - to whom the Vichy regime refused to issue exit visas. The plan was to stay for two weeks, but immediately he was deluged with desperate requests for help from hundreds. Two weeks stretched to 13 months. In that period of time Varian Fry managed to bribe and cajole local authorities as well as forge documents or otherwise arrange for the escape of more than two thousand people - writers, musicians, academics, Jews and non-Jews, Germans, French, Austrians. Most secured passage to America. Among those rescued were Alfred Döblin, Heinrich and Golo Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Alma Mahler, Walter Mehring, Hannah Arendt as well as Marc Chagall , Max Ernst and André Breton. The list goes on and on.
Looking back on what he had done, Varian Fry recounted:
"I remembered what I had seen in Germany. I knew what would happen to the refugees if the Gestapo got hold of them ... It was my duty to help them ... Friends warned me of the danger. They said I was a fool to go. I, too, could be walking into the trap. I might never come back alive."
After leaving Europe, Fry lived mostly in obscurity as a school teacher. His heroic efforts were recognized only long after he died. In 1994 Fry became the first United States citizen to be listed in the Righteous among the Nations at Israel's national Holocaust Memorial , award by Yad Vashem. .
Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) was the first American journalist to be kicked out of Germany by Goebbels. Dorothy made her way as a freelance journalist to Germany in the 1920s; by 1925 she was heading up the Berlin bureau of the New York Post, writing biting commentary which made her so famous that she attracted the attention of Sinclair Lewis, who married her. Thompson became completely fluent in German. In 1931 she was invited to sit down for an interview with Hitler, whom she found comically preposterous. After this "Little Man" (Thompson) seized power in 1933, she wrote about her impressions in a book, I saw Hitler, introducing Hitler to American audiences for the first time. It was this book which so infuriated Goebbels and resulted in her expulsion.
Back in the States, Dorothy Thompson went on the lecture circuit warning a skeptical American audience about the dangers of Nazi Germany; she reached an even wider audience through her regular radio broadcasts. But because she knew the true nature of the Nazi regime, she understood the perils for anti-fascist Germans - particularly writers. It is not an exaggeration to say that Dorothy Thompson is a savior of 20th century German letters. She used her celebrity, her considerable organizational talents, and even her own money to bring as many writers to America as possible.
It was extremely difficult for any European to get into isolationist America in the 1930's: for one thing, emigrants needed an affidavit from an American "sponsor". These were extremely hard to come by, and not a few refugees from the Nazi terror perished in Europe for lack of a sponsor. Dorothy Thompson personally knew many of the key writers in Berlin and Vienna; she sponsored the expressionist playwright Ernst Toller and the Austrian literary salonist Eugenie Schwarzwald (who never made it). In one of the ironies of history, the lifelong Republican Thompson sponsored the Marxist Bertolt Brecht. In the case of Carl Zuckmayer, Thompson flew to Washington DC and stormed into the Oval Office unannounced (impossible today) to have President Roosevelt personally sign an affidavit. Zuckmayer and his family spent their first weeks in New York at Thompson's apartment on Central Park. When she couldn't help personally, she enlisted the aid of others. Peter Kurth, Thompson's biographer, wrote me this: " What she did was make sure that every damn person she knew in the United States sponsored at least one or two people while there was still time, her efforts to bring in hordes of refugees solely on the grounds of "racial persecution" having failed before Congress."
Those writers she couldn't help, such as the great Austrian writers Joseph Roth and Robert Musil, she introduced to American readers with her own translations. Thompson translated and secured American publication of Roth's The Radetzky March (on my list of the Ten Greatest German Novels) and Musil's notoriously difficult The Man without Qualities.
Dorothy Thompson's efforts on behalf of all refugees likely saved many lesser-known writers and intellectuals, such as the poet Mascha Kaléko.
The literary landscape of postwar Germany would have looked very bleak indeed had it not been for the intervention of these two brave Americans.
seen in Germany. I knew what wove."