The Genesis of the Emergency Rescue Committee,

1933 – 1942





Terence Renaud

Boston University

Copyright 2005




            Rarely are so few in a position to help so many.  The situation in Europe following the rise of Hitler provided an unlikely context for individual heroism—the rapid spread of totalitarianism seemed to rend any individual opposition useless—but nevertheless, such destructive power prompted the formation of the Emergency Rescue Committee in June of 1940, shortly after the fall of France.  It would not be proper to call the members of this committee heroes because such would be an uncritical apotheosis; but, when discussing an organization which engineered the rescue of nearly two thousand refugees from the throes of Nazism against all conceivable odds, one must inevitably describe it as heroic.  The historiography relating to the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) is almost exclusively told from the perspective of its primary agent working in Marseilles, the until-recently unknown soldier of humanitarianism, Varian Fry.  Only through Fry is the existence of the ERC known or even relevant. 

After his return from France, Fry wrote an account of his daring cloak-and-dagger rescue experiences in the book Surrender on Demand.[1]  The book did not have a wide circulation at the time, but it did preserve his exploits for a later generation.  In 1996, Fry was posthumously honored and named “Righteous Among Nations” by Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, largely due to the work of documentary filmmaker Pierre Sauvage and his Chambon Foundation.  Sauvage established the Foundation to commemorate the French town of Chambon which sheltered some 5,000 refugees from Nazi pogroms during the occupation.  In addition, the Chambon Foundation worked to resurrect the memory of Varian Fry, eventually causing the U.S. Holocaust Museum to create an exhibit on the man in 1991.  Walter E. Meyerhof created the Varian Fry Foundation Project[2] as an arm of the current International Rescue Committee in 1997, the same year the Holocaust Museum republished Surrender on Demand.  As coverage of Fry’s story continued to mount, two dubious biographies emerged, one by Andy Marino and the other by Sheila Isenberg.[3]  Marino’s book is the product of uncertain research (she picked up the project midway from the London-based art editor Donald Carroll), and her portrayal of Fry is unrealistically glamorous, an obvious aggrandizement.  Isenberg, on the other hand, uses more thorough research but fails to consider alternate perspectives to Fry’s; she falls victim to the same “indispensability complex” of which ERC Secretary Mildred Adams allegedly accused Fry in 1941.[4]  More coverage of Fry’s story came when the television network Showtime produced a movie in 2001 called “Varian’s War,” written and directed by Lionel Chetwynd, that supposedly tells the “true” story of Fry.[5]  A whirlwind of media has attempted to monopolize the story of the American Schindler during the past two decades, but Fry’s is not the whole story.  As of yet, no specialized study has been undertaken into the organization which gave birth to the now much-lauded hero Fry—that is, the Emergency Rescue Committee.  The group itself was one of many relief agencies in pre-war New York City, but it stands out due to the fame and cultural significance of those it helped to save from the Nazis.  The ERC serves as a sample of those in America who cared enough to help a dying Europe.  The object of this study is to investigate the genesis of the Emergency Rescue Committee, those who brought it into being and the forces acting against it, and to hopefully shed light on a neglected facet of refugee research.


Der Widerstand in America

The year 1933 marked an important coincidence in international politics: Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States, and Adolf Hitler assumed dictatorial control over Germany.  Both leaders came into a situation which demanded a new course of action; for Roosevelt, this meant pulling America out of the Depression with the socioeconomic New Deal; for Hitler, it meant eliminating remnants of the ineffective Weimar Republic and initiating a form of totalitarian rule and persecution never before experienced by humankind.  As the rapid tide of Nazism spread over Europe, leaving destruction and fear in its wake, many Jews, intellectuals, liberals, and morally-conscious individuals fled for their lives.  Massive numbers of refugees flooded into France, their last safe haven.  Some tried to settle down and start new lives, but the more perceptive ones realized that it was only a matter of time before the Nazi menace would be upon them once again.  Despite the radical changes in the European balance of power, America spent most of the 1930s in a self-imposed isolation.  The concerns of the average American revolved around employment and economic recovery, not international politics.  What made the refugee crisis in Europe so acute was that apparently no one in America cared to help.

            As Hitler consolidated his power throughout the mid-1930s, a steady stream of displaced intellectuals and politicos arrived in the United States.  Among these arrivals was a number of émigré resistance fighters, some of whom would play integral roles in the formation of the Emergency Rescue Committee.  The most important among them was the Austrian-Jewish socialist Karl B. Frank (a.k.a. Paul Hagen; Wilhelm [Willi] Mueller; Maria).  Frank, who likely adopted the pseudonym Paul Hagen partly because he did not wish to be associated with the notorious Nazi leader Karl Hermann Frank,[6] was an active member of both Austrian and German Social Democratic splinter groups.  From 1935 to the start of the war in 1939, he traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States raising funds and support for the elite German labor group Neu Beginnen, which was formed in 1929 by Walter Löwenheim (a.k.a. Miles).  Neu Beginnen, initially called the “Leninist Organization,”[7] began its operation in Berlin with the aim of infiltrating and eventually uniting the German labor movement against the rise of national socialism.  This close-knit group of socialists and communists rejected both sides of the labor divide—the Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands (SPD) and the Kommunist Partei Deutschlands (KPD).  When Hitler took control in 1933, the organization went underground and commenced covert anti-Nazi operations.  Later that year Löwenheim made contact with the Prague-based Sozialistische Arbeitsinternationale (SAI), and installed a foreign secretariat there under the leadership of Karl Frank.[8]  Hans J. Reichhardt describes that Frank’s task was “to obtain funds for the operations in Germany and to influence foreign opinion [against Hitler].”[9]  During the 1930s Neu Beginnen successfully evaded the Gestapo due to its small elite membership and its secret semi-legal methods; it was very careful in recruiting new members, and it is for this reason that the group was never big enough to be noticed by the authorities—but it was also because of this that the group was never able have any large impact on German politics.  It is unclear when Frank permanently emigrated to New York,[10] but it is probably not 1935 as Isenberg implies[11] (although he did make a fundraising trip to America around this time[12]).  While the Neu Beginnen leader Löwenheim emigrated in 1935 to New York, declaring his group defunct because of a Gestapo raid in Berlin—but mostly because of his frustration with the group’s inefficacy—Frank likely remained at his post in Prague.  Frank was part of the faction of Neu Beginnener which opposed Löwenheim’s defeatism and which sought to continue the group after the founder’s departure.  The new organization, headed by Kurt Schmidt and Fritz Erler, allied with the Volksfront-Gruppe in 1937 and sought to enact a German “Popular Front” movement in the manner of France and Spain.  According to Reichhardt, Volksfront-Gruppe leader Otto Brass visited Prague in 1937 and was there introduced by Frank to the Neu Beginnen leaders Schmidt and Erler.[13]  Frank emigrated to the United States sometime before the outbreak of war, perhaps in the autumn of 1938, when a devastating Gestapo raid led to the arrests of all the remaining leaders of Neu Beginnen in Germany,[14] effectively ending the group. 

Frank’s continued efforts from America in support of the German underground coincided with the anti-Nazi diplomatic program of Adam von Trott zu Solz and Dr. Heinrich Brüning, the Catholic pre-Nazi German Chancellor.  Trott, a Rhodes scholar and German diplomat, traveled to both England and the United States in 1939 with a secret personal mission to garner support for the underground resistance groups inside Germany.  A dissident member of the Nazi Foreign Service, he advocated international peace and believed that the moral support of the English and Americans would be sufficient to strengthen the German resistance to the point at which it could overthrow Hitler’s regime.  According to Warburg biographer Ron Chernow, Trott believed that if Britain, France, and the United States “openly repudiated” the moral atrocities of the Third Reich, “this would undercut Hitler’s paranoid ranting and erode his support.”[15]  Many activists outside Germany agreed with Trott that “the Allied policy of unconditional surrender only stifled opposition in Germany and reawakened fears of another Versailles, whereas publication of generous peace terms might actually [forment] resistance to Hitler.”[16]  Both Trott and Brüning met with members of the State Department during the winter of 1939 to discuss the capabilities of the German underground, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.  Alexander B. Maley describes the results of these meetings:[17]

President Roosevelt at first showed interest in the appeal to support the German underground but soon, apparently on the advice of men close to him, discouraged further contacts.  Von Trott was even denounced as a Nazi agent, which is bitterly ironical in view of the sequel.


Despite the negative official reaction to Trott and Brüning, émigré resistors continued to believe in the strength of the underground.  As Frank writes in his 1944 work, Germany After Hitler, “there are enough proven and reliable anti-Nazis in every town and in every district, who will be known locally and recognized quickly enough”[18] to facilitate a quick transition into a German democracy after the war. 

Frank believed that the elements of social democratic resistance still existing within Nazi Germany were strong enough to instigate a mass revolution that would establish a new democratic government after the Allied military victory.  A group of like-minded activists, including Frank’s wife Anna Caples, the Austrian Socialists leader Joseph Buttinger (a.k.a Gustav Richter),[19] and Ingrid Warburg, gathered in New York around Frank in the years 1937-39.  Warburg was a part of one of the leading Jewish families in Europe.  Her rich and influential parents, Fritz and Anna Beata, provided her with the best possible education a Jew could hope for in the mid 1930s—Salem College, the University of Heidelberg, Sommerville College at Oxford, and Hamburg University.  While in England she struck up an affair with Adam von Trott, who was studying at Balliol College on his Rhodes scholarship, and she was thus introduced to German underground movement.  After graduating from Hamburg University in 1936, being one of the last Jews to receive a degree, she took a six-week vacation in New York in the care of her American cousins.  She briefly returned that summer to her native Kösterberg in Hamburg, but found that the Germany of her youth had changed into an unrecognizable monster.  Warburg decided to return to New York in the winter of 1936 and was recruited by her father’s American Jewish Joint Agricultural Corporation to do a speaking tour through America.  From the end of that year into 1937, Warburg spoke in 220 cities about the Nazi atrocities in the Third Reich.  The trip led to her acquaintance with Eleanor Roosevelt, and more importantly served to radicalize her politics.[20]  When she returned to New York, she immediately became involved with a number of socialist circles, most prominent of which was the American Friends of German Freedom.

The eminent American theologian Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr set up the informal American Friends of German Freedom in 1936 to provide funds for the mysterious drifter of the resistance, Karl Frank.  Niebuhr apparently heard of Frank through the American socialist leader Norman Thomas, and through the British socialist and supporter of the Volksfront-Gruppe, Stafford Cripps.[21]  On the advice of Thomas and Cripps, Niebuhr went to Europe seeking Frank in 1935, and the resulting meeting convinced him that Frank’s was a worthy cause.[22]  Niebuhr founded the American Friends of German Freedom (AFGF) in the following year, funding Frank’s activities through a number of New York philanthropists, many of whom would support any group Niebuhr endorsed.  Throughout most of the 1930s, Niebuhr had been involved in the Socialist party and agreed with its policy of pacifist nonintervention, but he radically changed his position to a more militaristic activism following the 1937 World Conference on Church, State, and Community held at Oxford.[23]  After his ideological shift, he became what could be characterized as a “left-wing, anti-Communist Democrat.”[24]  By the time Frank finally emigrated to America, his and Niebuhr’s political views were in near direct correspondence, and the two decided to formalize the AFGF with a mission of preparing “the way for a peace which will give German democracy a new opportunity.”[25]  In 1940, the group’s committee was organized as follows: Reinhold Niebuhr, Chairman; Karl Frank, Research Director; members Lewis Mumford, James Loeb, Robert Bendiner, Mary Fox, John Herling, and Joseph Lash.  The committee was a mixture of Niebuhr’s colleagues in the Union for Democratic Action (Mumford, Loeb, Bendiner), and his former associates in the Socialist Party (Fox, Herling, Lash).[26]  Others associated with the new AFGF were Anna Caples, Joseph Buttinger, Ingrid Warburg, Dr. John Lovejoy Elliott, Maurice Goldbloom, Reinhard Bendix, and Norman Thomas.  In his capacity as Research Director, Frank “organized short-wave radio broadcasts to Germany, oversaw two periodicals about German affairs, helped refugees arriving in New York, and kept up his ties in Europe.”[27]  Niebuhr’s biographer Richard W. Fox notes how Frank “regarded the American Friends as his personal instrument” for continuing the resistance against the Third Reich.[28]  According to Fox, a few of the committee members became irritated with Frank’s “one-man-show” and felt that he acted irresponsibly by not seeking the consent of the committee.  This assessment fits well with Frank’s character as an elite radical activist.  Despite some mild factioning within the committee, Frank’s employment by the AFGF along with that of Caples, Buttinger and Warburg centralized a group of experienced activists which would provide the driving force behind the formation of the Emergency Rescue Committee.


A Jungle of Committees

            The United States government and the general American populace may have been apathetic to the plight of the refugees, but located in New York City was an intertwining network of relief agencies, rescue committees, and refugee associations.  By the end of the war the list of organizations devoted to helping European refugees was extensive.  A partial listing of some of the more prominent groups is as follows:

American Association for a Democratic Germany

American Christian Committee for Refugees

American Friends Service Committee

American Guild for German Cultural Freedom

Catholic Committee for Refugees

Council for a Democratic Germany

Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars

Exiled Writers Committee

Jewish Labor Committee

Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee

National Refugee Service, Inc.


Another New York organization concerned with the plight of Europe was the American branch of the International Relief Association (IRA).  The group was founded in 1933 as per the directive of the international committee leader Albert Einstein, with the support of Graf G. von Arco, Eduard Fuchs, Helene Stoecker, and Carl von Ossietzky.[29]  Throughout the 1930s the group would provide steady aid to the refugees of Europe and, according to The New Republic, would care for some 3000 people.[30]  Charles A. Beard, historian and cofounder of the New School for Social Research, was chosen as Honorary Chairman of the new IRA branch.  Raised a Quaker, Beard was devoted to the cause of peace.  He was of the same generation of pacifists as Oswald Garrison Villard, owner of The New York Evening Post and The Nation, and L. Hollingsworth Wood, founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union.  Freda Kirchwey, elected Treasurer of the IRA, was a former student of Beard’s at Barnard College, and she succeeded Villard as editor of The Nation in 1933 (eventually buying it in 1937).[31]  Kirchwey was an avid socialist, campaigning for Norman Thomas on several of his presidential bids, but she also supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.  In an odd paradoxical mixture of ideology, she even lent her support to Stalin’s Soviet Union and called for the implementation of various communist programs in the United States, such as universal military training.[32]  Apparently the only group she opposed was the fascists.  An ardent anti-Nazi, Kirchwey would be involved in a number of committees besides the IRA all devoted to undermining Hitler’s regime.

            The defining moment for the formation of the Emergency Rescue Committee finally came shortly after the fall of France when the Nazis announced terms for the armistice.  Under Article 19 of the June 22, 1940 peace agreement, France was required to “surrender on demand” any German refugee to Nazi authorities.[33]  This news came as a shocking blow to the refugee agencies in New York.  The sense of urgency suddenly skyrocketed—all agreed that there was very little time left to rescue the émigrés stranded in France, many of whom were high on Hitler’s hit list.  On June 25, just days after Karl Frank and Joseph Buttinger had written to Eleanor Roosevelt for approval, the AFGF, calling on the fundraising expertise of Harold Oram, held a large fundraising luncheon at the Hotel Commodore.[34]  Among the guests were such personages as Erika Mann, Frank Kingdon, radio commentator Raymond Gram Swing, author and foreign correspondent Louis Fischer, Yale president Charles Seymour, University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, Smith College president William Allen Neilson, Hunter College president George Schuster, New School for Social Research president Alvin Johnson, radio commentator Elmer Davis, philanthropist Mrs. Emmons Blaine, Dorothy Thompson, and various representatives of the IRA.  John Dos Passos and Upton Sinclair did not attend the luncheon but they lent their support.  Kingdon, a prominent New Jersey clergyman and first president of Newark University, presided over the luncheon and other speakers included Frank, Niebuhr, and Swing.  Mary Jayne Gold describes the proceedings:[35]

Reinhold Niebuhr, for the only recorded time in his life, made the appeal for money.  Blank checks had been set beside every place.  As the young women began to circulate around the tables to collect the checks a sort of ground swell occurred.  Hands were raised to pledge money and services.  People rose from the floor to speak.


Calls for the creation of a new committee which would draw on the resources of both the AFGF and the IRA flooded the meeting hall.  The Emergency Rescue Committee was more or less formed on that same day, but it would take three weeks to formalize the organization and to move into an independent office.  Frank Kingdon was nominated Chairman, and Karl Frank lent his services by making available the staff of the AFGF.  For the position of Secretary, Kingdon chose the author and translator Mildred Adams.  Adams had been involved along with Harold Oram in the American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, and thus brought with her much experience in social work.  Oram himself was retained as a fundraiser to draw on his extensive philanthropic connections.  In 1939 he founded the firm Consultants in Fund Raising, soon to be called Harold L. Oram, Inc., and two of his earliest employees were Eileen Fry (wife of Varian) and Anna Caples-Frank.[36]  Denver investment banker James H. Causey was chosen to be the ERC Treasurer, although he was quickly replaced by David F. Seiferheld,[37] and the Quaker pacifist L. Hollingsworth Wood was nominated Vice Chairman.  Ingrid Warburg volunteered to be the Executive Assistant to the Chairman, and many important committee meetings took place at her apartment on West 54th Street, overlooking the Museum of Modern Art garden.[38]

            The location for the ERC offices was finally decided to be the Chanin Building across from Grand Central Terminal at 122 East 42nd Street, two blocks down from the IRA headquarters.[39]  Members from both the IRA and AFGF collaborated with the new Emergency Rescue Committee.  Reinhold Niebuhr and Freda Kirchwey became ERC Directors, but Niebuhr probably delegated his task to Karl Frank (whose name or pseudonyms never appear on any official ledger for any relief group).  The problem with all of New York’s agencies was that their primary bases of operation were on the wrong side of the Atlantic—the first course of action for the ERC was to send a representative to France to personally carry out its delicate rescue mission from within the Nazi puppet regime.  Before the committee decided on its agent, however, it needed a specific list of refugees to rescue; the sheer number of displaced persons fleeing the Nazis was overwhelming, and if the ERC did not discriminate it would not be able to effectively carry out any operation.  Those who spoke at the Commodore luncheon had implied that the most pressing concern was for the many artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals in danger.  Whether or not the ERC leadership held a more egalitarian concern for the common refugee, the only way the group could raise any kind of funding would be to focus on rescuing Europe’s elite.

            Names of refugee intellectuals in danger were solicited from a number of different sources.  Thomas Mann compiled a list of writers and poets, likely delivered by his daughter Erika, who was quite active on the New York scene.  Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art submitted a list of artists; émigré journalist Max Ascoli provided names of Italian anti-Fascists; Jan Masaryk covered the Czech refugees; Alvarez del Vayo and Buttinger covered the Spanish anti-Fascists; Alvin Johnson listed intellectuals, scientists and composers; Jacques Maritain and Jules Romains contributed more names in the field of literature;[40] and, of course, Karl Frank knew a number of underground resistance members who had been forced to flee.  With a list compiled, the ERC had a starting point from which it could expand or contract depending on its amount of funding; the original luncheon raised nearly $3,500, but the committee directors were uncertain as to how much the actual operation would cost.  If only for the sake of reconnaissance, the committee needed to send an agent to France immediately.  Sometime in mid-July of 1940, Warburg held a joint staff meeting of the ERC and AFGF at her apartment for the purpose of choosing an agent.[41]  In attendance was a number of professors, foreign correspondents, and union leaders, all candidates for the position.  Also there was Varian Fry, who was attending as a friend of the AFGF circle and as an editor of Common Sense, The Living Age, The New Republic, and the Foreign Policy Association.  Of the candidates present, none were acceptable.  But, according to Mary Jayne Gold, Fry was “deeply impressed by what he heard that night and after talking it over with his wife, Eileen, he called up the secretary of Emergency Rescue and let them know that he was available in case nobody else turned up.”[42]  Karl Frank, probably still holding strong reservations about sending a naïve Harvard boy off to Vichy France, returned Varian’s call a few days later and invited him to an interview that evening.  After briefly outlining the dangers of refugee work, Frank gave Fry the job.[43]  The ERC arranged for Fry to travel to Lisbon via Dixie Clipper, then by train to his destination Marseilles, the refugee epicenter.  Fry’s subsequent work over the next thirteen months through the offices of his Centre Américain de Secours is well documented.[44]


Fundraising and the State Department

            The staff of the ERC set up case files for each of the hundreds of refugees on its list.  Each file card contained brief fields of identification (Name, Occupation, Age, Place of Origin), and more importantly for Fry’s purpose in Marseilles, the last known addresses of the given refugee.  The names of the refugee’s sponsors in America were listed in a “Specially interested” field, and further remarks on the case’s progress—visa acquisition, transit fees, layovers, etc.—were listed appropriately under “Remarks.”[45]  The main qualifications for acceptance were that the client have fought in some way for the cause of democracy, and that he or she have no affiliation with the communists.  The former stipulation was very flexible, but the latter was rigid.  Not only were the ranks of the ERC, the IRA, and the AFGF thoroughly social democratic, but Varian Fry, who probably had the greatest power in accepting or rejecting clients, was also a dedicated pro-democrat—not to mention the fact that the U.S. government would not condone any group with communist sympathies.  Once a refugee’s political affiliation was verified, it was decided that an allotment of $300 per capita (later $350) would be sufficient to fund the rescue.  Almost immediately after the ERC settled into its new offices, Oram set about organizing a series of fundraising dinners and luncheons at various hotels and reception halls.  The group’s first official luncheon was held at the Hotel Ambassador on August 14.  Speakers included L’Oeuvre editor Genevieve Tabouis, Mussolini opponent Count Carlo Sforza, author Edmond Taylor, Elmer Davis, Polish Princess Paul Sapieha (Virgilia Peterson Ross), and Frank Kingdon.  According to the New York Times, the event raised $4,526, enough to rescue about 15 refugees on the $300 plan.[46]  Tabouis dubbed contributions a “liberty tax.”  Kingdon also announced the members of the ERC national committee: Mrs. Emmons Blaine, Elmer Davis, Robert Hutchins, Alvin Johnson, Mrs. Henry Goddard Leach, William Alan Neilson, Charles Seymour, George Schuster, Raymond Gram Swing, and Dorothy Thompson.  Among those attending were John Dewey and the former Russian Premier Alexander Kerensky.  The August 14 luncheon was the first of many similar events over the course of the next year, and in March of 1941 the ERC put on a large benefit concert with performers Lotte Lehmann, Karin Branzell, Emanuel Feuermann, Mack Harrell, Moritz Rosenthal, and Armand Tokatyan.[47]  The ERC, through the services of Harold Oram, made a tour of New York’s elite philanthropic circles and booked some of the most prestigious acts of the time in order to raise as much money as possible for the refugees in Europe.  By December of 1941, the ERC had raised over $215,000 and of that used only 15 percent for administrative purposes.[48]  If the revised $350 per capita plan for each individual refugee is applied to the adjusted total, the ERC had the ability to rescue over 500 individuals over the course of a year and a half.  That the organization actually rescued nearly twice that number by the end of 1941 is a testament to the superb work of Fry in Marseilles.

The money was flowing steadily through the ERC offices and out to Marseilles, but the real problem was the acquisition of visas for the many desperate refugees in need.  While Buttinger and Frank kept in contact with Eleanor Roosevelt, having won her support, the actual visa distribution was wholly under the control of the State Department.  Assistant Secretary Breckinridge Long, who was appointed head of the Special War Problems Division—i.e. refugees—had almost total power over the Visa Division.  Long was an uncompromising conservative who, while he served as Ambassador to Rome, had greatly admired Mussolini’s fascist regime.  An anti-Semite, paranoid and xenophobic, he treated the immigration issue as his ‘own personal war to keep out foreign spies.’[49]  Long led the prevailing contingent of immigration restrictionists within the State Department.  His colleague, Assistant Secretary Wilbur J. Carr, who wielded considerable control over the Consular Service, practiced a “policy of exclusion” and was the “epitome of the bureaucrat.”[50] Carr himself was not anti-Semitic, but he was deeply skeptical of Roosevelt’s ability as President, and his first loyalty was to the bureaucracy.  The most damaging policy retained by the restrictionists was the maintenance of quotas set by the Immigration Act of 1924, and the strict enforcement of Hoover’s ‘likely to become a public charge’ (LPC) edict in 1930.  Hoover emphasized the already existing LPC clause in order to ease the burden of the Great Depression; any immigrant who was deemed unlikely to find employment or be able to support himself was denied entry.  Now the restrictionists used the clause to keep out the Jews and the ‘foreign spies.’[51]  The 1924 quotas, according to historian David Wyman, “formed by far the most significant bulwark against large-scale American rescue of refugees.”[52]  The refugee cause would require either a morally charged political campaign against the State Department in order to rouse public opinion, or more probably would need some manipulation of the system and exploitation of government contacts in order to wrangle the limited visas.

Of those involved with the ERC, Reinhold Niebuhr had the greatest political clout.  Not only did he have connections with the Socialist Party, but he also was vice chairman of the New York State Liberal Party, founder of the Union for Democratic Action (later Americans for Democratic Action), was selected to a three-man advisory committee for President Roosevelt in 1941, and was actually employed by the State Department as an advisor on the German domestic situation in 1942.[53]  It was imperative that the ERC wield his influence in the State Department and its Visa Division in order to procure the necessary visas for the refugee clients.  If the restrictionist policy did not pose enough of an obstacle on its own, then the illegal exploits of renegade Varian Fry and his belligerent attitude toward the Consular Service would certainly reinforce the difficulties for the ERC.  To compound problems, the presence of Karl Frank in New York was starting to jeopardize the efficacy of certain political and philanthropic appeals.  While he has been characterized as “a Niebuhrian model for the 1940s: heroic action tied to the realistic, responsible goal of defeating Hitler,”[54] Frank had many enemies among SPD exiles still bitter about the subversive group Neu Beginnen—der Widerstand was by no means a unified movement.  As Paul Merkley notes,[55]

the campaign to discredit Paul Hagen [Frank] threatened again and again to jeopardize Niebuhr’s vital work of rescue; and many hours went into the writing of letters to sponsors of his work who were being unsettled by the whispering campaign against Hagen.


Factioning within the ERC and AFGF came to the surface when the exploits of Varian Fry demanded some action by the committee.  When former foreign correspondent Jay Allen started pressuring chairman Frank Kingdon to recall Fry, the divisions became apparent.  Some elements of the committee felt that Fry was justified in thwarting Vichy law, but others took the more practical stance that Fry’s actions prejudiced the State Department against the ERC and made it too difficult to obtain visas—they were willing to sacrifice their agent-extraordinaire in order to appease the government.  Contrary to what Fry might have thought, the issue was not a matter of ‘toughing out’ the pressure of the State Department:[56] he actually was compromising the entire mission of the ERC.  Many heated letters flew back and forth between Fry and Kingdon, the former arguing that he was the only man for the job, and the latter directly ordering Fry to return because his contract had been terminated.[57]  Fry may have had a sort of “indispensability complex” as Adams contended,[58] but he also loved what he was doing; he realized that playing host and savior to the cultural elite of Europe constituted his glory days.  His life would never be the same after his experiences in Marseilles, he thought, and thus he sought to stay on at the Centre for as long as possible.[59]



Fry’s return to New York on November 2, 1941 marked the effective end of the Emergency Rescue Committee.  The operation in Marseilles continued through the end of 1941 under the intermittent direction of Jay Allen, but it was not nearly as successful.  Allen was actually arrested by Nazi authorities in occupied France and was held for four months on charges of illegal border crossing, so apart from periodic news correspondence he was incommunicado with the ERC offices.[60]  The United States’ entry into World War II made any American in France a potential spy or enemy combatant, so any kind of relief work would have to be done under the guise of some international group.  The International Relief Agency continued to function, and its agent Karel Sternberg remained in France through 1942 until his arrest by the Gestapo.  On February 5 of that year Kingdon, much to Fry’s dismay,  announced that the Emergency Rescue Committee would merge with the IRA to form the International Rescue and Relief Committee, Inc. (eventually named the International Rescue Committee [IRC]).[61]  The merger actually took place months later, and the new group retained the staffs of the previous two organizations, with Charles A. Beard as Honorary Chairman, and L. Hollingsworth Wood as Chairman; Freda Kirchwey, Sterling D. Spero and Ingrid Warburg served as Vice Chairmen, David F. Seiferheld as Treasurer, Sheba Strunsky as Executive Secretary, and Eva Lewinsky worked in the Case Department.[62]  Reinhold Niebuhr remained on the IRC national committee, but the troublesome elements of the former ERC were eliminated—Fry, Frank, and Kingdon no longer had any association with the group.

In the end, the ERC accomplished a great feat.  Rescuing nearly 2,000 of Europe’s leading cultural figures, the group proved that even in the face of totalitarian persecution and bigoted restrictionism, the power of humanitarian initiative could still survive.  However, despite the accomplishments of the ERC, the American policy toward refugees was appalling apathetic.  As Dorothy Thompson wrote in 1938, “It is a fantastic commentary on the inhumanity of our times that for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.”[63]   The elusive visas were seemingly hoarded by the United States government, the State Department in particular, in an effort to deny entry, and in some cases, to deny life to the many thousands in desperate need.  The yearly quota for German-Austrian immigration, as set in 1924, was 27,370; from 1933 to 1945, the actual number allowed into the country averaged about 36 percent of that number.  Wyman, in a detailed study of the refugee crisis, estimates that some 20,000 - 25,000 lives were lost due to these quota restrictions.[64]  “Even in the absence of anti-Semitism, humanitarian considerations are not easily translated into government policy,”[65] note Breitman and Kraut.  Granted, some government officials did not share Long’s xenophobia and anti-Semitism, but many nonetheless agreed with Robert B. Reams who considered the extraction of Jewish refugees as ‘contrary to the Allied war effort.’[66]

The blame has been laid on many different sides, from Roosevelt to Pope Pius XII, from the State Department bureaucracy to the general apathy of foreign powers, but the most disheartening source was the American people themselves.  A poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation in March of 1938 found that only 17 percent of Americans supported “a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany.”[67]  The poll was repeated after the shocking Kristallnacht later that year, but the support barely increased, moving to 21 percent.  Wyman also points to perhaps a more important poll by Roper which indicated that only 8.7 percent of Americans favored the entry of “a larger number of European refugees than now admitted under our immigration quotas.”[68]  The members of the Emergency Rescue Committee faced extraordinary opposition to their task, as did many similar groups working out of New York.  What is intended by its example is not a lesson on how to begrudgingly take up charitable causes—apathy in the government and in the populace will always be an inextinguishable factor.  The ERC instead shows that a few individuals, if truly inspired by charity, can wade through the bureaucratic morass of inhumanity to effect a lasting impact on world society; the ERC represents a lesson in human decency, a lesson in hope.


[1] Surrender on Demand was first published by Random House in 1945.  The later edition I reference was published by Johnson Books in 1997 in conjunction with the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

[2] The Project originated with Meyerhof at Stanford University, but its official college initiative has been transferred to Bard College under the directorship of Professor Justus Rosenberg.  Visit the Varian Fry Foundation Project/IRC website at <http://www.almondseed.com/vfry/fryfoun.htm>.

[3] A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry by Andy Marino (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), and A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry by Sheila Isenberg (New York: Random House, 2001).

[4] Letter, Varian Fry to Eileen Fry (January 5, 1941), Varian Fry Papers.  Quoted in Isenberg, p. 157.  Another fault of Isenberg’s book is her horribly inaccurate conclusions about the shift in Fry’s political affiliations after the war.  “When, after the war, two schools of liberals emerged, one antifascist and the other anti-Soviet, Fry allied himself with the anti-Soviets. . . . he became more and more conservative in his rigid opposition to the Soviet Union and the communist party. . . . Fry was now squarely on the side of fanatic communist haters such as the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy. [!] But never supported, or even tolerated, these extremists and was furious at the McCarthy hearings.” p. 247.  Cf. a review of A Hero of Our Own by Barry Gewen: “Writers and Artists First,” New York Times (November 25, 2001), p. BR12.  

[5] Chetwynd states in an interview by Alan Waldman, “The vision [of the film] was the correct vision.  I directed it properly. . . . There was a lot of sexual ambiguity to him [Fry]. He was married to a much older woman.  His behavior in Marseilles is a little opaque, but he was probably bisexual. [!] William Hurt and I spent hours talking about whether he was gay.  We decided when he got to Marseilles he was for the first time liberated from all kinds of strictures that inhibit the Harvard intelligentsia and started experiencing life, experimenting with bisexuality in the process.” Writers Guild of America, <http://www.wga.org/craft/interviews/chetwynd.html>.  For a full list of charges brought against the validity of this film from Pierre Sauvage and a number of surviving refugees, visit the Chambon website at  <http://www.chambon.org/varians_war_en.htm>.

[6] Connection between the Franks courtesy of a false search result on Encyclopædia Britannica Online.  The Nazi leader Karl H. Frank had almost unchecked power in Bohemia and Moravia, and in 1942, after hearing that SS General Reinhardt Heydrich was assassinated by Czechoslovakian patriots, he ordered the execution of the entire male population of the Czech village of Lidice.  “Frank, Karl Hermann,” Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[7] Mommsen, p. 279n6.

[8] Reichhardt, pp. 180-92.  Cf. Balfour, pp. 51-2.  Also cf. Mommsen, p. 279n6.

[9] Reichhardt, p. 182.

[10] Research of the Karl B. Frank Papers, 1937-1961 would likely clarify the exact dates and manner of his emigration.  My speculation is based on Reichhardt’s description of the Neu Beginnen which makes multiple references to Frank in Europe in the late 1930s. Reichhardt, pp. 180-92.

[11] “When Frank first arrived in New York in 1935, he had read Fry’s New York Times article about the Nazis beating the Jews in Berlin and sought out the young journalist.” Isenberg, p. 5, based on Laurent Jeanpierre interview (March 19, 1999).  I suspect Isenberg fabricated this convenient connection between the two.  Cf. Fry’s article “Editor Describes Rioting in Berlin,” New York Times (July 17, 1935), p. 4.  Also cf. note 12.

[12] According to an alleged interview of Anna Caples-Frank by Donald Carroll, the man behind Andy Marino’s research, in the mid-1970s.  Marino, pp. 36, 354n.  While the possibility of Frank’s 1935 fundraising trip is feasible, I trust very little of Marino’s research.  Cf. note 11.

[13] Reichhardt, p. 187-8.

[14] Amazingly, the arrested leaders were spared the death sentence.  “The judges impressed on the chief accused that they would have been sentenced to death had the group been of greater consequence at the time of their arrest by the Gestapo.” Ibid., p. 189.  The extent of Neu Beginnen’s covert activities must not have been realized by the Gestapo even after it had captured the leaders—quite a testament to the group’s solid organization and loyal membership.

[15] Chernow, p. 496.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Qtd. in Rothfels, pp. 138-9.  Trott returned to Germany in 1940 and shortly thereafter enrolled in the Nazi Party as a means of gaining inside information for the use of the German underground.  He had a firm belief that the only way to overthrow Hitler was from the inside.  Trott was a member of Moltke’s Kreisau Circle, and the ‘bitter irony’ refers to his eventual arrest and execution for his alleged role in the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Hitler.  The ‘men close to Roosevelt’ who swayed the President against Trott were likely J. Edgar Hoover and Felix Frankfurter.  Chernow, p. 496.

[18] Hagen, Germany After Hitler, p. 130.  Cf. a review by James K. Pollock of the book in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Aug., 1944), pp. 800-1.  Also cf. Hagen’s earlier book, Will Germany Crack?.

[19] In a review of Buttinger’s book, In the Twilight of Socialism: A History of the Revolutionary Socialists of Austria, George W. Domke makes the convincing claim that the author is in fact Gustav Richter, former chairman of the Austrian Socialist Party: “The name Buttinger is not mentioned once throughout the book.  Yet the author writes in the greatest detail about matters which could have known only to the party leadership.  He describes dozens of meetings and even private conversations, including most sessions of the party’s central committee. . . . [These are] Richter’s memoirs.” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Jun., 1954), pp. 274-5.  I will continue to use the name Joseph Buttinger only because of the uncertainty regarding his identity as Richter.

[20] Chernow, pp. 426-8, 493-6.

[21] Fox, p. 201.

[22] Merkley, p. 156.

[23] The Protestant conference was highly self-critical in nature and the prevailing consensus afterwards among attendees was that the church was as much to blame as the people for the worldwide deterioration of Christian morals.  Niebuhr’s new political activism corresponded with this self-avowal.  Charles W. Hurd, “Bids Church Serves as Economic Guide,” New York Times (July 14, 1937), p. 12.  Cf. Niebuhr’s earlier isolationist statements as quoted in “Nation is Warned on Danger of War, Strict Neutrality Urged,” New York Times (April 23, 1935), p. 5.

[24] “Niebuhr, Reinhold,” Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[25] Brown, p. 110.

[26] Fox, p. 201.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.  Frank reminds me a bit of the Soviet communist Karl Radek—charasmatic, a true revolutionary, resented by the authorities (i.e. Stalin) who felt threatened by his independence, and eventually banished to Siberia.  I suppose the Siberia-New York connection may stretch the comparison too far, but if Los Angeles could be “Hell” (à la Brecht), then I suppose nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

[29] IRA letterhead (July 25, 1941), Emergency Rescue Committee Records, File “Miscellaneous,” Box 2.

[30] “Friend of the Refugee,” The New Republic (December 8, 1941), p. 749.

[31] “Kirchwey, Freda,” Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[32] “Freda Kirchwey,” Spartacus Educational.

[33] Fry, pp. xi-ii.

[34] Gold, pp. xi-iii.

[35] Ibid., pp. xi-ii.

[36] “Background Note,” The Harold L Oram Papers.  James Loeb would later marry Anna Caples-Frank in 1971 after Karl’s 1969 death. <http://www.ulib.iupui.edu/special/philcoll/coll/oram2.html>.

[37] I have been unable to find any information on Seiferheld, or on why Causey was replaced  He might have been a member of the AFGF, and could possibly have been using a pseudonym.

[38] Gold, pp. xvi-xv.  Cf. Chernow, p. 497.

[39] ERC and IRA letterheads (nd), Emergency Rescue Committee Records, File “Miscellaneous,” Box 2.

[40] Berman, Elizabeth Kessin, Morgenstein and Kassof, “ASSIGNMENT: RESCUE, The Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee,” reprinted in Fry, p. 260.

[41] This and the following account of the meeting, Gold, p. xv.  M.J. Gold bases her descriptions of the committee’s early days on her personal interviews with Anna Frank-Loeb (the former Anna Caples-Frank) sometime in the 1970s.  In 1940, Anna was active in the AFGF, the Oram Group, and the ERC.

[42] Gold, p. xv.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Cf. Fry, Isenberg, Marino, and Gold.

[45] Emergency Rescue Committee Records, various files.

[46] “Group Acts to Save Leaders in Exile,” New York Times (August 15, 1940), p. 8.

[47] “Concert to Aid Relief,” New York Times (March 2, 1941), p. 41.

[48] “Sing It and Mean It,” The New Republic (December 1, 1941), pp. 717-8.

[49] Feingold, np.

[50] Qtd. in Breitman and Kraut, p. 28.

[51] Breitman and Kraut, np.

[52] Wyman, p. 210.

[53] Merkley, p. 156.

[54] Fox, p. 201.

[55] Merkley, p. 157.

[56] “I hope that if the State Department again attempts to bring pressure on me with a view to obtaining my immediate return to the United States, you will resist the Department’s pressure to the utmost.” Letter Varian Fry to Frank Kingdon (June 24, 1941), Varian Fry Papers, MN# 2000-2024.

[57] Varian Fry Papers, various files.

[58] See note 4.

[59] He was right about Marseilles being the best time of his life.  When he returned to New York at the end of 1941, Eileen divorced him and the ERC disowned him.  He was ostracized by the social activist community he had so enjoyed in the 1930s, and he proceeded to cycle through a number of ungratifying editing jobs.  Fry did eventually remarry and he settled down into a comfortable life, but his glory days in Marseilles forever haunted him, belittling any further experiences—perhaps for this he deserves even more respect; though he managed to save thousands, he paid the price by forever sacrificing his happiness.  He died in 1967 at the age of 60.

[60] Cf. “U.S. Writer Seized By Nazis in France,” New York Times (March 18, 1941), p. 6.  Also cf. “Defeat of Germany Viewed as U.S. Task,” New York Times (November 20, 1941), p. 8.

[61] “Anti-Nazi Relief Groups Merge,” New York Times (February 6, 1942), p. 4.

[62] International Rescue and Relief Committee, Inc. letterhead (August 1, 1945), Emergency Rescue Committee Records, File “Miscellaneous,” Box 2.

[63] Qtd. in Wyman, frontispiece.

[64] Wyman, pp. 211, 221.

[65] Breitman and Kraut, p. 10.

[66] Morse, p. 32ff.

[67] Qtd. in Wyman, p. 210.