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The crime of saving lives.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to hear a renowned speaker on looted Nazi art. It is estimated that 600,000 pieces of art were stolen by the Germans, and 100,000 of those have not been seen since 1945! But the Nazis also had strong feelings about what they considered “degenerative” art, and high on their list of offenders was Marc Chagall. So I thought we might make a quick visit to his world, circa 1940.

Marc Chagall was already a famous artist when the Nazis marched into France in May of 1940. He was a 53-year-old Russian Jew, who had emigrated to France in 1923. He was renowned for his bold, imaginative, and poetic paintings and banned by the Nazis in Germany for exactly these qualities. He quickly claimed a spot high on the list of Jews who were destroying Western culture and needed to be eliminated. Avoiding this fate, of course, was no small task.

And here enter the two heroes of our story, Varian Fry and Harry Bingham. Fry was a 32-year-old American journalist, who was heading a daring mission to smuggle hundreds of eminent European artists, writers, and intellectuals out of Europe. He arrived in Marseille in 1940, under the auspices of the Emergency Rescue Committee, with $3,000 and a list of 200 names. He would be expelled from France 13 months later for “helping Jews,” but by then he would have helped 1,500 refugees to escape through Spain and given aid to thousands more with the help of the U.S. Vice Consul in Marseille, Harry Bingham. This dynamic duo considered themselves partners in the “crime of saving human lives.”

And what of Marc Chagall? He was initially reluctant to leave, but by December of 1940, he began to see the dire necessity. The Museum of Modern Art in New York had requested an emergency visa for Chagall and his wife, but when it was held up, Varian bought them tickets and secured visas directly from Harry. None of this was quite “by the book,” but as they say, needs must. The Chagalls were scheduled to leave in early May, but the artist was alarmingly caught up in a massive roundup in Marseille in April. Fry and Bingham brought every pressure of the American government to bear and miraculously managed to secure his release!

When all was said and done, the Chagalls escaped through Spain and on to New York, where they lived in safety until the end of the war. The story of how Marc Chagall’s artwork was saved is amazing in and of itself, but we’ll save that for another day. Things did not turn out so well for our heroes, however. Both men trumpeted the dangers of the Holocaust upon their return to the U.S. and were quickly labeled an embarrassment. Their professional lives suffered and ultimately neither received recognition for many, many years for having saved thousands of lives. Varian Fry was posthumously recognized as Righteous Among the Nations 29 years after his death.

If these two heroes had known how it would all turn out, I don’t believe they’d have done anything differently. Do you?


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