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Netflix tells of Americans in Marseille who saved thousands from Nazis

Varian Fry and his team are celebrated for their efforts to save those fleeing persecution during World War II

Transatlantic centres on the story of Varian Fry, a journalist disgusted by the anti-Semitism he witnessed in pre-war Berlin Pic: Anika Molnar / Netflix

A new Netflix series has begun telling the story of an American group who smuggled persecuted people out of France after the occupation.

The seven-part Transatlantic - released to positive reviews - follows the story of several Americans who helped found the American rescue centre which operated from Marseille during 1940-41.

The story focuses on Varian Fry - a journalist disgusted by the anti-Semitism he witnessed in pre-war Berlin - and Mary Jayne Gold, a wealthy American who supplied funds and contacts to help with the operation. 

Fry and his team helped save up to 2,500 people – mostly Jews – by forging fake documents that allowed them to escape to other European countries - such as Spain and Portugal - or the US.

Read also: Varian Fry: The American who was a ‘Schindler in France’

Famous figures portrayed in series

Although a highly fictionalised series the story itself is based on Mr Fry’s real actions and dogged determination to save as many people as possible from the Nazi regime. 

Arriving in Marseille after the surrender of France in 1940, Mr Fry, representing what was then called the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) had a list of 200 intellectuals, artists, and people of interest he was tasked with trying to save, including Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Walter Benjamin and Marc Chagall. 

As word of the ERC spread, however, thousands of people seeking refuge from the Nazi regime came to Marseille seeking help, and Fry ended up going above and beyond the original remit he was given and ultimately being forced to leave, with the agreement of the US consular authorities. 

It is thought up to 4,000 probably escaped with assistance from Fry (either legally, via visas he helped them obtain officially, or otherwise) and those working with him during the Vichy France period when the south was officially ‘free’ and under a puppet regime, while the north was under direct German rule.

The show underlines the difficult relationship between the ERC and American foreign policymakers, who were hesitant to officially involve the country in anything opposed to the Vichy regime while the US was still neutral.

Read also: Five Netflix TV shows to help improve your French

Relatively unknown after the war, Mr Fry lived a difficult life, but the series only focuses on his time in Marseille. 

The series - filmed in March 2022 in the context of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine - looks to bring his story back to public attention, as a humanitarian determined to save as many lives as possible. 

Mr Fry is only one of five Americans to receive the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ award from Israel, given to non-Jewish people who risked their life during World War II to save Jews.

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