The Flight Portfolio

Orringer, Julie

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Field, Steven
  • Date of entry: Jan-29-2021
  • Last revised: Jan-29-2021


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.  


Historical fiction—especially when the history is relatively recent—can be complicated, because the reader is often familiar with the general facts and the major (and often minor) players, and it may be hard to sort fact from the fictional story line.  Much of The Flight Portfolio is historical fact; Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee were real, the ERC really did arrange safe transit for between two and three thousand people out of France, Fry’s associates in the novel were almost all historical personages, as were most of the fugitives named in the novel.  Elliot Grant, the Katznelsons, and the artist Lev Zilbermann (and of course, the entire story line associated with them) were invented, as was Fry’s homosexual love affair; but Fry’s homosexuality was real, according to his son James Fry, responding to letters in the New York Times.  This was not well-known, even up to the present, and in the forties and fifties of course this would have been considered highly compromising.

As much as Fry and the ERC have been honored for their work, some have considered the nature of the ERC’s work to be a bit ethically problematic.  Medical ethics has a lot to say about the allocation of scarce resources, and there is a general consensus that social worth should not be a consideration in prioritization.  Securing refuge for people from a totalitarian and murderous government is not a medical intervention, but it was life-saving, and it was scarce.  Is someone’s life worth more because he or she is culturally important?  How did the non-culturally important feel about this?  Or was this a decision that the ERC—and by extension, the American government—was entitled to make however it saw fit?  Fry is lauded as a hero—and he deserves to be—but the somewhat elitist nature of the process has left some people feeling uneasy.

The Flight Portfolio is, however, a novel and not an ethics text.  Orringer tells a fast-paced story and creates the scenario of the choice between those to be saved with subtlety and feeling, and then compounds it with a plot event which brings it into high relief.  She also paints a picture of a complicated man—a Protestant journalist who has gone to Nazi-occupied Europe to save (mostly) Jews, a married patrician of complicated sexuality, a man working in France, contrary to French law, and with only the intermittent and grudging support of his own government—and sets her story within a world of legal and moral ambiguity.  The novel is well-researched, well-written, and illuminates the choices people must make in the direst of situations.  



Place Published

New York



Page Count