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France's swift collapse before Hitler's armies came as a shocking blow to the United States and Great Britain, but it also alarmed activists who were concerned about refugees in Europe. In 1940, a group of these concerned activists met in New York and organized the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) to help refugees displaced by the war. The committee felt strongly that the Immigration Act of 1924 and its restrictive quotas would prevent needy refugees from coming to the United States, and they were particularly concerned about the status of refugees in Vichy France, who could be surrendered to Nazi authorities at any time. With the government refusing to open its borders to increasing numbers of immigrants, private organizations like the ERC took on the job of helping Jews and non-Jews gain safe passage to secure locations.

From the outset, the ERC enjoyed strong support from influential members of New York's literary community, including John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and Dorothy Thompson. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also actively provided help, linking the ERC to the power corridors of Washington.

Varian Fry, an editor and writer, was a founding member of the ERC and traveled to France on the committee's behalf. He assisted refugees in acquiring visas and other documents necessary for a quick escape, but was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people who needed assistance. Fry responded by establishing a legal relief organization under the auspices of the French government, using it as a fig leaf in order to evacuate endangered refugees through illegal means. These included falsified documents, black market transactions and clandestine escape routes. Fry and his team of young assistants, however, could not escape detection by collaborationist forces forever. Working without a valid passport, Fry naturally attracted the attention of the secret police, who put him under surveillance and detained him for questioning on several occasions. As evidence mounted that Fry was operating illegally, the Vichy French administration sought his removal from the country. In this effort they were assisted by the U.S. State Department, which was seeking to prevent American entry into the war for as long as possible. Not long after Vichy France obtained American cooperation in 1941, Fry was arrested and deported back to the United States; consequently, the ERC's activities were halted indefinitely. Nonetheless, during the thirteen months that Fry had actively aided refugees, he succeeded in helping over 2,000 people leave Vichy France. They included political, cultural, and labor leaders like Hannah Arendt, Pablo Casals, Marc Chagall, Wanda Landowska, and Alma Mahler.

In 1942 the International Relief Association and the ERC joined together, forming the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that remains committed to refugee relief operations to this day.


Boyer, Paul S., ed. Oxford Companion to United States History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, 675.

Lash, Joseph. Eleanor and Franklin. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971, 635-637.

Weinberg, Sheila. A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry. New York: Random House, 2001, passim.

For more information on the Emergency Rescue Committee, visit the following web sites: