The Other Schindlers
Steven Spielberg's epic film focuses on only one of many unsung heroes
Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold descended on Paris in 1930 with a hefty trust fund, a pilot's license and a private plane for holidaying in the Alps and on the Riviera. Europe was a playground. But when German troops occupied the French capital in 1940, the glamorous Gold--and tens of thousands of others--headed south for unoccupied Marseilles. There she met Varian Fry.
Fry too was an American (a "Harvard man and a bona fide WASP just like me," recalls Gold, now 84). He was also a reporter and had witnessed Nazi brutality early on. When Vichy France signed an armistice obligating it to turn over any non-French citizen the Nazis requested, Fry knew what that meant: Thousands of German, Austrian and other European exiles--many of them Jews--would be shipped back to their deaths.
As war raged around them, the dapper Fry organized Marseilles's "Emergency Rescue Committee," enlisting friends like Gold to help him. Operating out of rooms at the Hotel Splendide, then eventually from a villa called Air Bel, they procured phony passports and real visas, sheltered refugees and organized escape routes to Spain and Portugal. "Women weren't taken too seriously in those days," says Gold, who helped bankroll the operation. But when someone had to charm the commander of a French prison camp into freeing four German members of the anti-Hitler underground, Gold was sent to do the job.
Hounded by the French police and harassed by the American State Department, which feared the committee's activities would damage relations with the Vichy government, Gold finally left in 1941. Fry was deported soon afterand returned to America, where he died in 1967 at 59. Through their work in Paris, these Americans helped some 2,000 people escape the Nazis. Among them: painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, authors Franz Werfel, Hannah Arendt and Hans Habe, and Nobel prize-winning biochemist Otto Meyerhof. HUNGARY GIORGIO PERLASCA, SALES REP An Italian fascist used Spanish consular credentials to help the Jews of Budapest.
Italian Giorgio Perlasca was a good fascist. So good that he volunteered in 1937 to go fight on Francisco Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War.
His Madrid connection helped him become an intermediary for Spanish and Italian companies and, eventually, Budapest representative of a corporation supplying canned meat to the Italian Navy. When Mussolini fell, Perlasca remained in Hungary, acquiring a Spanish passport in 1944--by then a safer bet than his Italian one.
It was the last full year of the war. Germany was in retreat on all fronts save one--the liquidation of the Jews. A relentless Nazi official named Adolph Eichmann demanded Hungary start shipping its more than 800,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Spain, sensing the coming allied victory, withdrew its diplomatic representatives from Budapest--but not, however, before the head of mission gave businessman Perlasca a card identifying him as a Spanish consular official.
Jews were frantically begging to be placed under the protection Franco had offered Sephardic Jews who could trace their roots back to 15th-century Spain. Moved by their plight, Perlasca found a set of consular stamps and without asking anyone in Madrid began issuing his own "Spanish refugee cards" to Jews Sephardic or not. He also took steps to personally protect the more than 3,000 already sheltered in Spanish-owned "safe houses" around the city. "The Nazis would come to take them away, and I would say, 'You must leave this place. I am here. Here is the Spanish flag.' "