Showing 1 - 2 of 2 annotations tagged with the keyword "Holocaust"

The Flight Portfolio

Orringer, Julie

Last Updated: Jan-29-2021
Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

It’s 1940, and France has fallen to the Nazis, leaving the country divided between occupied France in the north, and so-called “Free France,” with its government at the spa town of Vichy, in the south.  The Vichy government is headed by Marshall Phillippe Petain, a collaborationist puppet of the Germans running a collaborationist puppet state.  But unlike the north, the south is still technically unoccupied, and people fleeing the Nazis from all over Europe make their way there in the hope of finding a way off the European continent, and so a kind of black market in emigration develops, centered in the port city of Marseille.

Among the groups working out of Marseille is the Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization set up by the journalist and editor Varian Fry and his friends, and with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt.  The ERC has sent Fry to Marseille with a list of names of people to be assisted to emigrate, and the list is a Who’s Who of the European cultural elite:  artists, writers, philosophers, and the like, many of whom are Jewish and/or have opposed the Nazis and are thus wanted by the Gestapo.  It is Fry’s job to shelter them, get them fake transit visas, and ultimately smuggle them out, usually to neutral Spain or Portugal, or even directly to the States.   The Vichy government, which has an agreement with Germany to surrender any identified fugitives, knows this is going on, and together with their German allies, is always hot on the trail of these now stateless refugees, and thus hot on Fry’s trail also. 

The Flight Portfolio is based on several of the thirteen months Fry spent in Marseille as the representative of the ERC.  Along with his staff, he “brings in” (and successfully gets out) Marc Chagall and his wife, Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, Max Ernst, Lion Feuchtwanger, a young Hannah Arendt (“Name?”  “Johanna Arendt.  My friends know me as Hannah”), and others.  All the while, he and his staff are but one step ahead of the agents of Vichy and the Gestapo. And during this time, Chagall has been compiling the flight portfolio, a collection of artworks which testify to the humanitarian crisis in Europe, to be smuggled out as a warning to the free world. 

Complicating the issue—and a major part of the story line—is the fact that Fry, whose wife Eileen had stayed behind in New York City, has reconnected with a Harvard classmate named Elliot Grant with whom he had been romantically involved as an undergraduate.  Grant has come to Marseille to be with Gregor Katznelson, a fellow Columbia University professor who has returned to Europe to find his son Tobias who has disappeared.  Tobias is a brilliant young Berlin physicist and is wanted at all costs by the Gestapo for his scientific acumen and his value to weapons development. Gregor is desperate to secure his safe passage to New York.  Fry promises Grant that he will get Katznelson’s son to safety.  When the elder Katznelson returns to the United States, Fry and Grant resume their relationship, and Varian finds himself becoming increasingly emotionally involved with Grant and distanced from Eileen, although he still loves her.  Ultimately Tobias shows up in Marseille; but there is another fugitive, a world-renowned and respected artist, who has been waiting, is in immediate danger, and needs to get out of Europe.  And only one can leave on the waiting ship.  

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The Flight Portfolio

Orringer, Julie

Last Updated: May-21-2020
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction — Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Historical fiction, the artistic space that exists between actual persons and events and a writer’s imaginative ability to create a new story, is an established genre. The narrative usually is told by someone whose name does not appear in history books but who was a firsthand witness to events as they unfolded and the people who influenced their course. A variant are novels that are written from the perspective of someone who is in fact part of the historical record but is either unappreciated or overlooked. The extraordinary success of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of Elizabethan novels written in the voice of Thomas Cromwell, a chief minister to King Henry VIII, attests to the appeal of this format. Julie Orringer’s wonderful book “The Flight Portrait,” falls nicely into this category.

The novel is written through the eyes of Varian Fry. His name is not well known today. But he was a well-regarded journalist who wrote from Berlin in The Living Age and the New York Times about Hitler’s savage treatment of the Jews in Germany in the mid-1930s, well before most of the world came to realize the existential threat posed by the Nazi regime. After a brief period in the United States, he returned to Europe in 1940 and formed the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Over the next year, with money that he helped raise, Fry was able to help over 2,000 embattled artists, scientists, philosophers, and writers to escape Europe and find safe haven in the US. Among those Fry saved were Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Hannah Arendt, Max Ophuls, Arthur Koester and Claude Levi-Strauss. It is hard to imagine the counterfactual, a world deprived of the contribution of these people because they perished in Europe. The novel details the complications, emotional and physical, that Fry, a non-Jew from a wealthy family, endured as he arranged for safe passage across the Pyrenees or by boat out of Marseilles for his anxious petitioners. The fraught negotiations with Vichy officials and the against the grain support he received from some heroic individuals in the US consulate, specifically Hiram Bingham IV, are played across the taut chapters. The title refers to a collection of unique artworks that the artists created to call attention to their plight and help raise funds for the ERC. The tension is palpable, the threat is real, and outcome uncertain until the end. It is an intelligent and engrossing read.

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