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A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry by Sheila Isenberg (120,000 words and 31 illustrations)

“Varian Fry was the American Schindler. He even had a list. He arrived in Vichy-controlled Marseille on Aug. 15, 1940, with $3,000 taped to his leg and a charge from the organization he worked for, the Emergency Rescue Committee, to help save some 200 endangered refugees, mainly artists, writers and intellectuals, from the Nazis. He expected to stay a month, but quickly realized that the job was much larger and more complicated than he or his sponsors had imagined... He stayed for 13 months, until he was thrown out of the country, and assisted approximately 2,000 people, among them an all-star lineup that included Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, André Breton, Arthur Koestler, Alma Mahler Werfel and Max Ophuls...

A Hero of Our Own helps rescue Fry from obscurity. And with its stories of desperate exiles, menacing Nazis, forged documents and midnight escapes through the mountains, it reads at times like the script for some old Hollywood movie. Think Warner Brothers in the 1940’s. Think ‘Casablanca’ (even down to the transit visas for Portugal). All that’s missing is Peter Lorre...

Throughout his months in France, no issue haunted Fry more than the question of selection. Human needs seemed limitless; resources were not. He could not help everyone. Word quickly spread through the refugee community that an American had arrived who could offer hope, and within weeks Fry was receiving 25 letters a day, a dozen telephone calls an hour. He and his staff conducted between 100 and 120 interviews each day. Altogether, around 15,000 refugees, about half the total number residing in Vichy France, got in touch with Fry — and, in effect, it was up to him to determine who among them would live and who would die... Impossible choices, spies and counterspies, the ominous knock on the door — it was all heady stuff, and after Fry was forced to return to the United States in late 1941 he, like so many who peak early, went into decline. Nothing could ever match his glory days in France. ‘The experiences of 10, 15 and even 20 years have been pressed into one,’ he wrote. ‘Sometimes I feel as if I had lived my whole life.’ Fry drifted from job to job, from journalism to magazine editing to film production to corporate writing to high school and college teaching.” — Barry Gewen,
The New York Times

“The story of Varian Fry is important on many levels, historical and personal. Skillfully evoking a crucial moment in recent history, Sheila Isenberg tells the compelling and dramatic story of how an ordinary person, thrust into a situation of extreme danger, did extraordinary things for one year in wartime France, then drifted almost lost through the rest of his own life. It is also a story of institutionalized bureaucratic stupidity that must never be forgotten so that it is never repeated.” —
Richard Holbrooke, U.S. diplomat

“The only American to be honored at Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Memorial), Fry saved the lives of thousands of refugees from the Nazis. Isenberg... delivers a moving, workmanlike account of Fry’s heroics... [She] ably renders prewar and war-time public ignorance and apathy in America and the extraordinary heroism of the sole volunteer for a dangerous rescue mission.” —
Publishers Weekly (see also this Publishers Weekly interview with Sheila Isenberg)

“One of the BEST BOOKS of 2001. [Fry] comes across as a genuine saint; this little book is a life of a saint equal to any medieval tome.” —
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A Hero of Our Own is significant for its implicit investigation into the combination of heroism, pure goodness and personal need that made Fry undertake the rescue of strangers at considerable personal risk and with no promise of reward. It also provides an unpleasant reminder that nations and their bureaucrats have both private concerns and a tremendous tropism toward indifference.” — David Margolis, The Jerusalem Report

“Using Fry’s own words and the testimony of refugees and compatriots, Isenberg skillfully evokes the tense atmosphere of wartime Marseille, where a hoard of desperate refugees found precarious asylum. She describes the extreme measures Fry took to save as many endangered souls as he could, far more than the 200 intellectuals, scientists, writers, and artists he had been sent to aid, gathering others to help him arrange escapes from internment camps, forge documents, bribe officials, and spirit refugees across the border into Spain. Skirting danger and side-stepping the law, Fry and his group ultimately provided financial or travel assistance to approximately 4,000 refugees and enabled almost half of them to escape, all on limited resources and with little or no assistance from the United States consulate in Marseille.” —
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Featured Book

“This highly readable biography tells the exciting escape stories of the underground railroad [Fry] organized to lead refugees from southern France across the Pyrenees to freedom. Isenberg sets the rescue stories against the background of American isolationism and anti-Semitism at the time, documenting her dramatic narrative with more than 70 pages of fascinating notes, including references to letters, interviews, personal papers, and government reports. The drama here is in the thrill of rescue, the realistic portrait of a complex leader, and the decidedly nonheroic truths about WWII at home.” — Hazel Rochman,
Booklist

“Now that America has been shocked into a new appreciation of heroism, the story of the late Varian Fry is especially timely... Sheila Isenberg devotes most of the book to the specifics of Fry’s action-packed months in Marseilles, when he ferried numerous Jews (Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few) out of occupied France... Isenberg builds a convincing case against America’s refugee policy, and recognizes that the State Department’s resistance to Fry’s efforts was often a matter of plain old anti-Semitism.” — Jonathan Mahler,
Washington Post

“Sheila Isenberg has written a masterful biography of this most enigmatic man. She pulls no punches in exhibiting his flaws, but shows no restraint in praising his virtues... [Fry’s life] is truly unique and compelling, and Isenberg tells it with considerable compassion. The book is well worth the attention of anyone interested in reading about a most unlikely 20th-century hero.” —
The Roanoke Times

A Hero of Our Own comes at a time when we need to remind ourselves of the high price of sticking one’s neck out for others. Isenberg’s work is a painstakingly documented book that presents human nature at its best and worst. In this dark work, she portrays Fry as a flawed but dedicated idealist.” — The Free-Lance Star (Fredericksburg, VA)

“You’ll want to read Sheila Isenberg’s riveting biography of Varian Fry... It is the flashback to Fry’s early life that gave this reader the clearest insight not only into the man but into the times he lived in. He was a man who ‘chafed at the world,’ a rebel against authority [and] a hero abroad. He died in 1967, an ordinary person who had done extraordinary things just once in his life.” —
Taconic Times