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The Flight Portfolio – An Incredible WW2 Story

Julie Orringer writes a wonderful WW2 historical fiction book called “The Flight Portfolio”.

The book: Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer
Historical Fiction WW2 Book – Saving Marc Chagall & Others from the Nazis
The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

“The Flight Portfolio” is about a real life, hardly-known hero called Varian Fry.  Fry is a young American journalist who comes from a privileged American background. While working as a foreign correspondent for an American paper, Fry visits Berlin in 1935. During his time there, he witnesses Nazi abuse against innocent Jewish people. He feels strongly that he must do something to help these people.

A Mission for Saving Jewish Artists & Intellectuals from the Nazis

When the Nazis take over France in 1940, Varian Fry together with a small and devoted team create an Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Their mission is to save European Jewish artists & intellectuals from the Nazis. Their plan is to find ways of helping them escape the continent and go to the United States.

Varian Fry is the man in charge of this mission. He and his dedicated group are based in Marseilles which under the control of the Vichy government. Southern France was not yet officially under Nazi regime during this period. However the Vichy government fully cooperated with the Nazis. Life in Southern France was very dangerous, in particularly for Jews.

The Flight Portfolio – Who should you save? Is it wrong to save one person & not another?

Because of limited resources, the Emergency Rescue Commission decided to concentrate their efforts into saving artists and intellectuals only. This raised moral issues! Why save artists when so many other ordinary people are being murdered? However, this was a decision that the committee made. The committee interviewed the people wanting to escape to determine whether they met the mission’s criteria for saving.

As time goes by, Fry and his group become more skilled in organizing false papers and finding escape routes for getting the artists & intellectuals safely off the continent. However, the list of artists needing to get out is endless & the ERC becomes frantically more desperate to save as many lives as possible. 

Varian Fry Letter to His Wife Ellen Written in 1941
From Varian Fry’s Letter to His Wife, Ellen, Written in 1941

The US Government Had No Interest In Saving Jews

Orringer details in her book how the US consul general, Hugh Fullerton, tried thwarting the mission’s efforts from saving Jews. Fortunately, Hiram Bingham, the vice consul, ignored his boss and the US administration. Bingham secretly issued hundreds of visas to the United States, saving hundreds of Jewish artists & intellectuals.

Eleanor Roosevelt & Her Involvement with the Emergency Rescue Commission

Another significant person in the US administration who was sympathetic to the Jewish plight in Europe was the First lady of the United States, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.  

The first lady agreed to help procure emergency visas for Jewish refugees trapped inside Nazi occupied Europe.  Mrs. Roosevelt convinced her husband to force the US State Department to provide emergency visas & bypass the restrictive US immigration system. These visas enabled Fry’s team to rescue hundreds of Jews on their lists. 

What was the Flight Portfolio?

The Flight Portfolio was in fact a collection of paintings, drawings, and lithographs compiled by a group of fleeing Jewish artists and authors in 1940. They wanted this compilation of artworks to reach the United States & give Americans an awareness of what is happening to Jews in Europe. They also hoped that their art would sell and bring more funds to the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) .

Painting from the Flight Portfolio
Painting from the Flight Portfolio

An Impossible Mission with Incredible Success

Varian Fry and his group encountered many difficulties along the way. They constantly dealt with corrupt bureaucracies, the intolerant Vichy government, a looming threat of the Gestapo and the impossible task of obtaining visas.

The rescue team needed to pay forgers to make counterfeit travel documents stamped with exit visas. In addition, they needed to find people who could smuggle these people out of France, either by foot or by boat. Incredibly, Fry and his devoted team succeed in saving more than 2,500 people.  

If Not for Varian Fry – The Nazis would have killed Marc Chagall

The American painter and sculptor Miriam Davenport and the wealthy socialite Mary Jayne Gold were part of Fry’s small rescue team.  Among the people they helped smuggle out of Europe and save from the Nazis include the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, the artist Marc Chagall, artist & poet Max Ernst, writer Hannah Arendt and Nobel Prize winner, Otto Meyerhof.

After 13 months, the Vichy Government forced Varian Fry to leave France.

In 1994, 27 years after Fry’s death, the State of Israel recognized & honored Varian Fry as a Righteous Among the Nations.  The Righteous are defined as non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The Flight Portfolio Explores Homosexuality

In addition to telling the story of how Fry & his team managed to save so many Jewish artists, the book also delves into Fry’s personal life. Fry was in fact a closet homosexual. In the book, you will read about Fry’s love affair with another man. Fry was in fact ‘happily’ married to a woman in the States.

The book provides insight into what it was like to be a homosexual in the 1940s. During this period, the Nazis were sending homosexuals to concentration camps! In America, it was also totally unacceptable to be a homosexual. Most lived as hetrosexuals to cover up their real sexual preference.

This love story between two men does not take away from Fry’s mission but makes us realize how far we have come in terms of homosexual rights and acceptance.

The Flight Portfolio Shows us the Magnificent Human Spirit

There are many wonderful aspects to this book. Despite the looming danger and frantic emergency, there is so much fun and laughter from Fry’s group of artists. The book shows the strength of the human spirit. The books also points out the moral, personal and dangerous dilemmas that Fry & his team constantly face. The book is also about how war forces innocent people to become refugees. Do we open our borders? Do we help them? These themes are so relevant today!

Varian Fly’s story is incredible & The Flight Portfolio is a MUST read!

For more wonderful art-related historical fiction about the artists of France & Europe, see the recommendations below: