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Visiting teacher learns about the Holocaust – and the life of Varian Fry

By Cindy Mindell

 

Rita Frost, Jeanette Berman and Xiafeng “Fosfor” Wang at Berman’s
home in Saddle River, N.J.

Rita Frost, Jeanette Berman and
Xiafeng “Fosfor” Wang at Berman’s
home in Saddle River, N.J.

NEWTOWN – Xiafeng “Fosfor” Wang, 39, has been teaching Mandarin Chinese at Newtown High School since August 2012, as part of the international guest teacher program sponsored by the College Board, the Asia Society, and Hanban, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

A native of Liaoning Province in northeastern China, Wang has been hosted during his Newtown stay by local families. Last semester, he lived with Miri and Boris Goldman, who took him to services at Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown, his first visit to a synagogue. This semester, he is hosted by artist Rita Frost.

In 2010, Frost visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibition, “Varian Fry, Assignment: Rescue, 1940-1941,” hosted by Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J. There, she met Jeanette Berman, who was rescued by Fry, along with her parents, from Nazi-occupied Marseille in Vichy France when she was 19. Now 92, Berman lives in Saddle River, N.J.

Frost invited Wang to visit Berman with her.

“He told me that he wanted to meet Jeanette because there are no Jews living in his province,” Frost says. “He had heard of Oskar Schindler, but he was amazed when I told him that Fry had saved far more people.”

Fry, who spent much of his life in Connecticut, is known as the “American Schindler.” Born in New York City and raised in Ridgewood, N.J., he came to Connecticut for his education, at Hotchkiss School in Lakeville and Taft School in Watertown. After graduating from Harvard, he worked as a foreign correspondent for the American journal, The Living Age, visiting Berlin in 1935 and witnessing Nazi brutality against Jews.

As a journalist based in Marseille during the war, Fry was a founding member of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), the largest private rescue operation that enjoyed the support of then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as the New York literary community. Over a period of 13 months, through legal and illegal channels, the committee helped some 2,000 Jewish intellectuals escape the Nazis, including artist Marc Chagall, writers Franz Werfel and Leon Feuchtwanger, philosopher Hannah Arendt, and physicist Dr. Otto Meyerhoff, as well as non-Jewish opponents of the Nazi regime. Fry was expelled by French authorities in September 1941; the following year, the ERC joined with the International Relief Association to form the still-active International Rescue Committee, home of the Varian Fry Foundation.

Back in New York, Fry told his story and warned of the impending Holocaust. His memoir, Surrender on Demand, was published by Random House in 1945.

Fry settled in Ridgefield, pursuing a teaching degree at Fairfield University while teaching classical languages in the schools of Ridgefield, Wilton, and West Redding.

In 1967, while living in Easton and working on a revision of his memoir, he died in his sleep, at age 59. Shortly before his death, Fry was awarded the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the French government, the only official recognition he received during his lifetime. In 1991, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council awarded him with the Eisenhower Liberation Medal. Assignment: Rescue, a version of his memoir that Fry had written for young readers, was published posthumously. In 1996, Fry was the first American honored as a “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. At the ceremony, then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, “We owe Varian Fry our deepest gratitude, but we also owe him a promise – a promise never to forget the horrors that he struggled against so heroically, a promise to do whatever is necessary to ensure that such horrors never happen again.”

In September, Wang and Frost met with Berman in Saddle River. Berman told the story of her family’s rescue, how Fry had her parents dress as vineyard workers before crossing the Pyrenees from France into Spain. The family made their way to Quito, Ecuador, where they lived for six years while securing visas to the U.S.

“Jeanette’s humor, energy, and beautiful smiling face disguised her difficult early years of survival,” Wang says. “I felt fortunate and humble to meet her.”

Fry is memorialized in his hometown of Ridgewood, N.J., where the Committee to Honor Varian Fry sponsors educational events and the annual Varian Fry Humanitarian Scholarship for local high-school students. A commemorative plaque and permanent exhibit are housed at the Ridgewood Library, and in 2005, the town dedicated a portion of South Monroe Street as “Varian Fry Way.”

Frost, a member of the Varian Fry Foundation, is working to get a monument honoring Fry built in Connecticut.

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