Varian Fry had visited pre-war Germany and was appalled by what he witnessed. Beginning in 1940, in Marseille, France, despite the watchful eye of the collaborationist Vichy regime, he and a small group of volunteers hid people at the Villa Air-Bel until they could be smuggled out. More than 2,200 people were taken across the border to the safety of neutral Portugal from where they made their way to the United States. Others he helped escape on ships leaving Marseille for the French colony of Martinique from where they could go to America. Among Fry's closest associates was the beautiful American heiress, Mary Jayne Gold, a lover of the arts and the "good life" who had come to Paris in the early nineteen thirties. When the Nazis seized France in 1940, the formerly spoiled little rich WASP girl went to Marseille where she worked with Fry and helped finance his operation. In 1980, Mary Jayne Gold publishe her book about those times called Crossroads Marseilles 1940.
Amongst those Varian Fry aided were painters Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Marc Chagall and Wilfredo Lam, musician Wanda Landowska and the pianist Heinz Jolles, the sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz, writers Hannah Arendt, Lion Feuchtwanger, the poet Franz Werfel and his wife, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel.
Back home in America, in 1945 Fry's book about his time in France was published under the title, Surrender on Demand. He wrote and spoke critically against American immigration policies particularly relating to the issue of the fate of Jews in Europe. In a December 1942 issue of the New Republic he wrote a scathing article titled: "The massacre of Jews in Europe."
In 1967, the government of France recognized his heroic contribution to freedom with the Legion of Honor. Beyond that, he was basically forgotten in life and death until recent years when his deeds began to be recognized. Now being called the "American Shindler," in 1995 Varian Fry became the first United States citizen to join Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler among the gentiles designated as "Righteous Among the Nations" at Israel's national Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. He was awarded the additional honor of "Commemorative Citizenship of the State of Israel" on January 1, 1998.