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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Honors American Who Saved Jews

JERUSALEM -- Most Americans have never heard of their countryman, Varian Fry. This week, Israel named him a hero.


Fry, who died 27 years ago, became the first U.S. citizen awarded the title "Righteous among the Nations" on Wednesday for his work saving Jews during World War II, according to Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial.


Working in southern France from 1940 to 1941, he helped save 4,000 people from the Nazis before being forced home by U.S. and French officials, said Mordecai Paldiel, director of Yad Vashem's Department of the Righteous.


Fry volunteered at the Emergency Rescue Committee to help Jews about to be turned over to the Nazis by French collaborationist authorities. The U.S. State Department gave the Harvard-trained classicist 200 visas and a letter of support, said Elizabeth Berman, a researcher with the Holocaust Museum.


Fry eventually helped thousands, mostly Jews, sneak out of southern France to safety. Some of his rescues were well known, with philosopher Hannah Arendt, painter Marc Chagall and writer Lion Feuchtwanger among them.


Fry acted with daring, Berman said, and could not help getting noticed. French authorities, with some encouragement from U.S. diplomats embarrassed by his high profile, frequently searched his house and arrested him. They finally expelled him.


Back in the United States, Fry condemned U.S. immigration policy for being too restrictive. The FBI opened a file on him. Years later, his criticism came back to haunt him when he tried and failed to get work in the defense industry.


He had difficulty holding down a job, and felt ignored by Americans during his lifetime. In the 1960s, the French government awarded him its Legion of Honor. Fry died alone in 1967 in Ridgefield, Connecticut, at age 59.