There are times in our past that are so horrific, and yet so monumental, that the story must be told again and again. The trick, of course is to find a way to tell the story in a new and engaging way, that captures the interest and holds the attention of an audience. The Flight Portfolio is one of those stories.
In The Flight Portfolio, Julie Orringer tells us the story of Varian Fry, a Harvard educated, sexually confused, New York Protestant. In 1940 Varian Fry is in Marseilles France working to help significant writers, artists and intellectuals (most of whom are Jewish) blacklisted by the Nazis, get out of France. Fry is working for the Emergency Rescue Committee, headquartered in New York City. The mission is simply a matter of life and death.
The job involves relationships, money and bribery. Fry assembles an eccentric group of refugees, displaced do gooders and others to help with the mission. They develop relationships with the not always helpful or friendly American Consulate, French police, Nazis, gangsters and profiteers—anyone who can help or be bribed to help in getting people to safety. During a good portion of the story, much of the staff and many of the refugees are living together in a villa known as Air Bel, where food is scarce and raids are frequent.
The story begins with Fry visiting the home of Marc and Bella Chagall in a village in France. Fry is trying to persuade the Chagalls that their lives are in danger and that they need to leave. At this time, the Chagalls, like other successful Jews, believe that they are somehow immune from the Nazi cruelties. Later in the story they come to realize that no one is exempt from the reach of the Nazis.
While in Marseilles, Fry seemingly coincidentally reunites with a close college friend, Elliot Schiffman Grant, whom he calls Skiff. Grant is a professor at Columbia University and has a friend, a German Jew, who is also a professor at Columbia, Gregor Katznelson. Katnelson’s son, Tobias, is a physics genius and the Nazis are looking for him. Grant has promised to find him and get him to safety. Fry agrees to help and later in the book has to choose between Tobias and a famous Jewish artist when there is the opportunity to save only one of them. That choice haunts him throughout the story.
Fry, who is married, and whose wife Eileen is in New York wishing him home, has a complicated relationship with Grant. A great deal of the book deals with this relationship.
In the meantime, while everyone is living together in Air Bel, the artists decide to create artistic representations of what they have experienced in France and Germany and take those pieces of work to the United States with them. In that way, the refugees hope to convince the American government, which has been resistant to engagement in the War and which is subtly described as implicitly anti-Semitic, of the atrocities being committed and the need to engage. This is the flight portfolio. But like everything else, things do not quite work out as intended.
This 500 plus page novel is gripping and although I was somewhat relieved when it ended I also wanted it to keep going. Of course Fry is ejected from France and returns to New York (this is not a spoiler—all you need to do is look him up on Wikipedia), where his relationships with Eileen and Grant are complex. Each of the characters struggles with what they are doing, whether the struggle involves the inability to save enough people, the right people or their own lives. A constant theme is whether it is morally appropriate to determine who should live and who should die based on perceived value. This moral question extends well beyond the precise story being told.
The book is well written, fast paced and thought provoking. And it tells a story that should never be forgotten from a different perspective. You can reserve this book from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.