Varian Fry, the first American to be designated as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, is at the core of Transatlantic, a seven-part Netflix series.
A Harvard University graduate and a journalist, Fry was one of the founders of the Emergency Rescue Committee. It was founded in New York City in 1940 with the aim of facilitating the escape of mostly European Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals to the United States.
The committee was established after Vichy France agreed to abide by Article 19 of its armistice agreement with Germany to surrender persons in its jurisdiction demanded by the Nazis. Concerned they might be imprisoned or killed, Fry and his associates compiled a list of Europeans trapped in France who required U.S. visas.
These were obtained due to the intervention of President Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor. Thanks to her help, individuals like the painter Marc Chagall, the philosopher Walter Benjamin and the social scientist Hannah Arendt were saved from the clutches of the Nazis.
Fry, then 32, was dispatched to the southern French port of Marseille, in unoccupied France, to set up the shoestring rescue organization. He arrived in August 1940, when World War II was almost in its second year and the United States was still a neutral power.
Working initially out of the Hotel Splendide, he later transferred his base to Villa Air-Bel, a mansion outside Marseille. Fry’s staff consisted of anti-Vichy French citizens, two African war veterans, refugees and American expatriates like Mary Jayne Gold, a Chicago heiress who helped fund the committee, even after her father froze her generous allowance. Gold’s wealthier friend, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim, pitched in as well.
By all accounts, the committee enabled 2,000 Jewish and non-Jewish refugees to flee Europe. Fry’s herculean efforts were opposed by the French government, the Germans and the United States, which sought to preserve its neutrality.
Such was American policy that the U.S. consul in Marseille attempted to sabotage Fry’s operation. Arrested by the Vichy police a year after his arrival, Fry was forced to return to the United States, where he died in 1967 at the age of 59.
Transatlantic, written by Anna Winger, incorporates virtually all these elements into its narrative and adds fictionalized characters and situations.
At its core is Fry (Cory Michael Smith), a married man and a closet homosexual totally dedicated to his mission. “I’m doing something truly important here,” he says at one point.
His assistant and lover, Thomas Lovegrove (incongruously portrayed by the Israeli actor Amit Rahav), turns over Air-Bel, his palatial property, to Fry to use as he sees fit. Gold (Gillian Jacobs) comes across as a driven person who devotes body and soul to the committee.
Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander), a German-Jewish refugee who laments the Nazi destruction of the Berlin he knew before the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, joins Fry after he and his sister are stopped from leaving Marseille by boat.
Marc Chagall (Gera Sandler) is seen as an artist who will not leave France, his second homeland after Russia, unless he can take his paintings with him. Walter Benjamin (Moritz Bleibtreu) is among a group of German refugees who attempt to cross into neutral Spain by trekking over the Pyrenees mountains. Hannah Arendt (Alexa Karolinski), another German Jew rendered stateless by the Nazi regime, is bold enough to ask Fry for a U.S. visa.
The two villains in Transatlantic, apart from a few members of the Gestapo who abruptly show up in Marseille, are Graham Patterson (Corey Stoll), the American consul, and Philippe Frot (Gregory Montel), the city’s Vichy police chief.
Patterson, a conventional antisemite and an isolationist, thinks the new world order will consist of Germany and the United States and believes the U.S. should stay out of the war. His deputy, Hiram Bingham (Luke Thompson), is cut from different cloth and clandestinely assists Fry obtain visas.
Frot is an equal opportunity opportunist. He accepts a cash bribe from Gold, but in a conversation with a Gestapo officer, he mentions the “Jewish problem” and expresses a willingness to cooperate with Germany.
Transatlantic unfolds against the backdrop of the German bombing of Coventry and the reelection of Roosevelt as president of the United States. It lacks the tension of a first-class drama, but successfully recreates a little-known but important footnote in the war.