Transatlantic true story: the Emergency Rescue Committee

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One of the most popular TV series that landed on Netflix in April 2023 is definitely Transatlantic: a limited series telling the true story of the organization managed by the American journalist Varian Fry, who helped thousands of refugees chased by Nazi Germany during World War II. Fry was in Marseille between 1940 and 1941, where he founded the Emergency Rescue Committee, supporting people who wanted to leave France and find safety outside of Europe. Let’s discover the true story behind the Netflix series.

You can watch the official trailer for Transatlantic here on Youtube.

Transatlantic, the true story: Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee

Varian Fry was an American journalist who worked as an international reporter during the years of the Nazi rise. In 1935 he traveled from New York to Berlin and witnessed the abuses against the Jewish community. Shocked, he started writing many articles about the situation, raising awareness about what was happening in Europe.

His contribution against antisemitism started giving significant results already during his years in America. The true story of how he founded the Emergency Rescue Committee is explained in the Holocaust Encyclopedia: after Germany took political control of France in 1940, he founded the committee together with other notable American intellectuals, getting immediate support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped to issue new visas for the individuals targeted by Nazi Germany. The threat was the infamous “Article 19” of the French armistice with Germany, which allowed Nazi authorities to arbitrarily deport anyone living in French territory. Varian Fry and the other founders of the ERC were aware that this clause was a severe threat to those who left Germany in the past years: when the ERC needed a representative in France to help with the rescue activities, Fry volunteered to fly in Marseille.

With the help of other activists like the heiress Mary Jayne Gold, the young economist Albert Hirschman, and the American diplomat Hiram Bingham IV, Varian Fry helped more than 2000 refugees leave France through an escape route on the Pyrenees: the Emergency Rescue Committee was able to organize the relocation of those people to Lisbon, through Spain. In Lisbon, the refugees were helped to get the necessary papers and then allowed to move to the United States by sea.

The story explained in the TV show Transatlantic is a true act of heroism that became famous because of the personalities involved: many of the people helped by Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee were important artists and intellectuals who were in danger in Europe. Wikipedia offers a long list of famous people supported by Fry and the ERC between 1940 and 1941: among them were Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Heinrich Mann, Max Ophüls, and Hannah Arendt.

Varian Fry’s efforts during those months were seen as a dangerous form of resistance by German authorities. Fry was also targeted by the US authorities, who accused him of interfering with the neutral position the United States had in those years. In August 1941, Fry was arrested by the French police and forced to leave the country: he moved to Lisbon and returned to the United States in October.

In 1942, the Emergency Rescue Committee merged with the already existing International Relief Association founded in 1933, and the organization became active under the name International Rescue Committee. The International Rescue Committee is still active today in helping people affected by humanitarian crises worldwide. You can find the complete story of the organization on its official website.

Transatlantic on Netflix explains the effort of the independent intellectuals who gave their essential contribution against Nazism in the 40s, through organizations that operated out of the national political tissue. Varian Fry will publish several books after his return to America, but he will always feel his years in France were the peak of his life. He died in 1967, but he’s still remembered for the courage he showed in those years.

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