Susan Subak
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In Transatlantic’s Varian Fry story, Jews are not helping their own

The Netflix WWII drama leaves out Jewish organizations' vital support and paints religious Jews as too inept to survive
Hanno Koffler as Hans Fittko, Deleila Piasko as Lisa Fittko, Cory Michael Smith as Varian Fry and Amit Rahav as Thomas Lovegrove in "Transatlantic." (Courtesy of Anika Molnar/Netflix via JTA)
Hanno Koffler as Hans Fittko, Deleila Piasko as Lisa Fittko, Cory Michael Smith as Varian Fry and Amit Rahav as Thomas Lovegrove in "Transatlantic." (Courtesy of Anika Molnar/Netflix via JTA)

When the blonde American heiress Mary Jayne Gold, the female lead in the new Netflix mini-series Transatlantic, asks Albert Hirschmann, the blue-eyed male lead, “What do you do?” he replies that he has trained as an economist but “I guess you could say I am a professional refugee.” He goes on to say, “Being Jewish never meant anything to me, now it’s the most important thing about me.”

The series, a loose retelling of American rescuer Varian Fry’s work in France in 1940-41, has no shortage of colorful and talented refugees whose Jewish racial category is summarily noted. It also does justice to some of Fry’s American collaborators, including US Vice Consul Hiram Bingham. However, any reference to the vital support Varian Fry received from Jewish organizations is notably absent and the few religious Jews who make an appearance in the show quickly perish through their own ineptitude.

Soon after arriving in Marseille, Hirschmann meets an old man sitting by the shore who shares his Sabbath meal and blessings with him. When the young man asks why he did not leave Germany sooner, the older man replies “Dummheit” (stupidity) and “Stolz” (Pride). Later, Hirschmann invites the man onto a getaway boat, but it is quickly apprehended by the French police, and they jump into the water. Hirschmann rises to the surface despite his cumbersome clothing, but the pious man sinks like a stone, never to be seen again.

The courageous, multilingual Hirschmann joins Varian Fry’s team and becomes involved in many daring escapades culminating in an action scene in which his team extricates a rabbi and other prisoners from a heavily guarded deportation van.  Joining his liberators who are pointing their guns at the French guards lying prostrate beside the van, the rabbi is apparently more consumed by a sense of gratitude than a sense of safety. He stops to embrace his rescuers, “Sie sind stark” (You are strong) he says, and just then one of the prostrate guards wiggles in the dust and shoots the rabbi dead.

Better survival instincts are evident in the presence of two French Jews that Hirschmann encounters in a synagogue while seeking a hiding place for one of Varian Fry’s famous clients. Unlike Fry’s team members, however, they appear to have little interest in saving their brethren. “He can’t stay here,” explains one of the men while bundling ritual objects into a bag and hurrying away. This scene is all we see of a Jewish institution in the entire series. As such, many viewers are not likely to be aware that although Fry played a uniquely important role in rescue from his base in Marseille, Jewish organizations played a large and more sustained rescue effort in the region.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) raised far and away more resources for rescue than all of the gentile organizations put together and Fry’s operation relied on these funds to see their clients to safety.

A 1965 JDC history by Oscar Handlin recounts that when Varian Fry first arrived in Lisbon in August 1940, he met with Rabbi Joseph Schwartz, the European Director of the JDC every morning for his briefing on current conditions for refugees and the JDC’s rescue efforts.

Subsequently, the Jewish organizations kept an arm’s distance from Fry but supported his work through intermediaries, especially Fry’s main collaborator the Unitarian Service Committee. The Unitarian Committee was able to run a large-scale medical program for refugees in southern France thanks to the JDC’s largess. The program helped to provide the clean bill of health that refugees needed to board a shipping vessel. By the time Varian Fry left France in the summer of 1941, the Jewish umbrella organization HICEM reported a list of successful rescues from Vichy France comparable to the scale of Fry’s operation during the same period.

In Transatlantic, Varian Fry depends on the personal wealth of Mary Jayne Gold. In this telling, she upstages Fry with her superior dedication and risk-taking and remains in France despite her father’s demands to return home to Chicago. She gives away some of her dresses and all of her money until “daddy” cuts her off, but then agrees to work as a spy for British intelligence after a female agent flashes a briefcase full of money at her. In actuality, the real Mary Jayne Gold felt marginalized by the real Varian Fry. She provided the resources to rent the villa Air Bel that housed refugees and Fry’s staff, but she did not become a major financial backer of Fry’s program. Fry’s most important female colleagues in France were two Jewish women, Lena Fishman, his secretary, and Anna Gruss, who was a generation older than Fry and assumed many of Fry’s rescue activities when he returned to New York City.

The last and largest exodus in Transatlantic is the escape of some 200 refugees on a cargo boat heading to Martinique. The red-bearded ship captain has apparently offered this opportunity out of the goodness of his heart. It was the case, however, that throughout his year in France, Varian Fry could rely on free boat passage from Lisbon for his clients handled through the JDC’s collaborators. The certainty of a boat ticket meant that refugees would be permitted entry into the relatively safe country of Portugal.

The S.S. Nyassa steaming out of Lisbon harbor with 750 refugees, Lisbon, Portugal, March 1944.

As steamers were scarce, the JDC contracted with shipping lines, which reduced the waiting times to cross the Atlantic and increased the number of people Portugal was willing to admit. If it were not for the guaranteed boat passage, most of Fry’s clients would have met a different fate. The American characters in Transatlantic, however, seemingly power their own way back to America. In the last episode of the series, Mary Jayne Gold is finally in a hurry to leave France. Wearing a long fur coat, she steps on board her personal airplane, prepared to pilot her own way to Lisbon and America in a fittingly frothy exit.

About the Author
Susan Subak is an environmental researcher and the author of the book, The Five-Ton Life: Carbon, America, and the Culture that May Save Us (University of Nebraska Press, 2018).
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