Emergency Rescue Committee
Relief committee dedicated to the rescue of artists and intellectuals from Vichy France
The Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) was one of the most well-known transnational civil society organizations of the 1930s and 1940s to manage the flight of threatened artists, writers, and musicians from Europe to the United States. The ERC was founded in New York a few days after the defeat of France and the ceasefire agreement between the National Socialist regime and the French government under Marshall Pétain in June 1940. Though the ERC only provided an active escape route from Southern France via Spain and Portugal to destinations overseas for a short time—between September 1940 and summer 1942—its activities are well documented because of the prominent personalities it evacuated from Europe. The writers Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, Heinrich Mann, and Walter Mehring, as well as artists such as André Breton, Marc Chagall, and Max Ernst represent what contemporaries have called the exodus of the intellectual and artistic elites of Central and Eastern Europe. These individuals were persecuted because of their Jewish descent, public opposition to the National Socialists, or political activities in socialist and communist organizations since 1933. Through its efforts to rescue these prominent artists, writers, musicians, and performers, the ERC was at the heart of the relocation of the European avant-garde into a transatlantic setting—a shift that led to the strengthening American intellectual life and the emergence of particular trends in popular culture that influenced cinema, design, art, and music starting in the 1940s.
The armistice between the National Socialist regime and the Vichy government—signed on June 22, 1940—included an extradition agreement that obliged the French government to extradite refugees to German authorities on demand. Even though the Vichy government delayed and, in some cases, resisted handing refugees over during the first months after the agreement, it effectively meant the end of political asylum in France and the beginning of the internment, persecution, and deportation of refugees stranded in the so-called free zone in Southern France. Between 1933 and 1940, France had been the favored destination for exiled Germans and Austrians due to its liberal immigration laws and the reputation of being particularly dedicated to civil and human rights in the tradition of the French Revolution. For this reason, the armistice affected many of these refugees who then faced the very real threat of being handed over to the Gestapo. At the same time, being stranded in port cities like Marseille could also be a dead end because of the French and Spanish authorities’ restrictive and sometimes arbitrary procedures for allocating the exit and entry permits and transit visas necessary to reach Lisbon, where the refugees could board ships to the Americas.
In this context, the rescue efforts of the ERC between September 1940 and the dissolution of its bureau in Marseille by the French authorities in the summer of 1942 were essential for the survival of most of the refugees who managed to reach Portugal. The ERC emerged from a joint initiative of the Austrian emigrant Paul Hagen, the journalist Varian Fry, the German Jewish immigrant Ingrid Warburg and renowned presidents of American universities including Alvin Johnson, Charles Seymour, and Frank Kingdon. The ERC was funded by private donors, with American art collector Peggy Guggenheim and heiress Mary Jane Gold—the latter of which worked with Fry in Marseille—among its major supporters. The Committee also benefitted from the exchange of foreign currency on the black market in Marseille which strengthened its funds. Provided with a list of persons to be evacuated from France immediately, Varian Fry travelled to Marseille with the task of offering practical support in the emigration process. Initially, the list comprised 200 names of renowned artists and writers. It was compiled by Paul Hagen and other refugees who, having recently reached the United States, knew the situation in Europe and could offer advice on who was still on the run and how they could be reached. In the end, Fry and his team registered about 2,000 refugees all of whom had a background in science, literature, art, music, or socialist movements and were stranded in Marseille.
The story of the Centre Américain de Secours (CAS) is well known and has been told most notably in the literary accounts and autobiographical sketches of the refugees who were able to flee from Marseille thanks to the funds and practical assistance provided by Fry and his team. The CAS worked on two different levels: On the one hand, it profited from the Emergency Visitor’s Visa Program which was launched with the backing of President Roosevelt whose wife had been approached by the ERC and the International Relief Association (IRA) with an urgent request to support their rescue missions. In this framework, the members of the ERC in Marseille collected the names of prominent refugees, then located and convinced them to travel to America, helped them to find discrete accommodation in Marseille, and gave them money to survive until travel arrangements could be made. The ERC also applied for exit and entry permits, travel visa, ship passages, and affidavits for emigration to the United States.
At the same time, under the guise of the CAS, its members used illegal means to help intellectuals and artists escape France; these included the forging of documents, the discovery of illegal escape routes via the Pyrenees, and the accompaniment of refugees through Spain to Portugal. A prominent example is the escape of Heinrich Mann, his wife, his nephew Golo Mann, and Franz and Alma Werfel. While Varian Fry crossed the French-Spanish border by train, transporting the luggage, another CAS member crossed the Pyrenees with the group. The climb was arduous for both the 70 year old Heinrich Mann and the less fit Franz Werfel. Mann and his wife crossed the French-Spanish border easily due to their forged Czechoslovakian passports, but their nephew was recognized as the son of Thomas Mann by the Spanish border guard. Nevertheless, the group received the entry stamp needed to travel by train through Spain to Lisbon (Franz and Alma Werfel took the plane from Madrid to Lisbon) where ship passages to New York had been booked.Variations on this story were replayed hundreds of times as the ERC assisted a diverse group of intellectuals across borders and to safety overseas.
The ERC is significant for the history of transatlantic networks and cultural transfers in two respects. First, it provided a practical means by which leading artists, writers, and musicians could continue their professional careers in America and thus actively promote transcultural exchange. Bringing persecuted intellectuals from Marseille to the United States led to the circulation of knowledge, cultural practices, and written and artistic works across the Atlantic. In this regard, the CAS was a vital node of exchange despite its rather short period of existence. Even though Fry and his collaborators faced severe criticism after returning to the United States, the ERC continued its work. In 1942, it joined forces with the IRA to form the International Relief and Rescue Committee, later renamed the International Relief Committee. This organization engaged in Cold War relief efforts during the Hungarian refugee crisis and in Cuba, Angola, and East Pakistan. The ERC and its local partners in Marseille and Lisbon—the Quakers, Unitarians, and HICEM—campaigned for a notion of humanitarianism and humanitarian intervention that differed from the one espoused by most governments at the time; The relief organizations concentrated on the mobility of refugees—something they gave precedence over national skepticism towards migrants and isolationist efforts to conceptualize the nation as a homogeneous sphere free from transcultural influences.