Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille, By Rosemary Sullivan, HarperCollins, 476 pp., $26.95
Between late October 1940 and the following September, Villa Air-Bel, a crumbling hilltop chateau on the outskirts of Marseille, served as a way station for an elite group of refugees from Nazi-occupied France and a dormitory for their equally well-positioned rescuers.
For all the eccentric activities -- a pair of copulating praying mantises provided one evening's dinner-table "entertainment" -- there was an atmosphere of jittery uncertainty and apprehension that Canadian writer Rosemary Sullivan captures to chilling effect in "Villa Air-Bel."
Marseille, which was under the control of the collaborationist Vichy government, had by then become a city of refugees -- "the spout of a horrifying human funnel" as Sullivan puts it -- "pouring into its clogged quarters," hoping not only to escape the fighting, but to secure the exit permits and entry visas needed to escape to more secure places in the United States and the Americas.
Sullivan, a poet and professor of English at the University of Toronto, centers her moving and richly detailed account of that time of anxiety at the villa, which was, she writes, like "a stone interrupting the stream," a fixed point in a dangerous world.
And it is there that her extraordinary cast of characters comes together. Among the refugees were the surrealist writer André Breton and the Soviet exile Victor Serge, and among their risk-taking rescuers, the Harvard graduate Varian Fry and the Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold. Sullivan first heard the story of the villa and its occupants from the English painter Leonora Carrington, whose lover, the surrealist painter Max Ernst, had stayed briefly at the villa.
Sullivan's story is also about the getting away from the villa and "the dark attics all over the Marseille region" where other refugees waited. In that story, Fry is the central figure.
He had been sent to France by a hastily organized American relief agency, the Emergency Rescue Committee, which had drafted a list of "people who needed to be rescued" -- artists as well as anti-fascist writers and politicians.
Arriving in Marseille, he learned of the escape routes that had been mapped across the Pyrenees toward Lisbon, and of the fraudulent visas that could be bought at a Chinese agency.
Luck played a large role in many escapes. While Sullivan opens her account with the failed escape of the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide at the Spanish border, there were other cases like that of the German poet Walter Mehring.
Fry had obtained passage to Martinique for Mehring, but when he arrived at the dock, a security officer told him that he was on a list of those "forbidden to leave France." As he "tried lamely to disguise his terror," Sullivan writes, the officer went into a back room. "Incredibly, when he returned, he handed the poet his stamped papers. 'Perhaps it's another Walter Mehring,' he said. 'Depart.' "
By the late summer of 1941, the villa had been emptied of its guests and Fry's operation had wound down. Fry estimated that it had aided some 4,000 people, either to escape, or, as Vichy tightened its controls, by locating safe houses in the surrounding countryside for those who could not get away.
There are powerful, wrenching stories here. One that may stay in many readers' minds is an account by the journalist Eric Sevareid of a police-escorted visit to an internment camp for political refugees outside Paris.
Among the "dirty and bearded men" who crowded around him, some crying, others "red with anxiety and rage," he found journalists who, as his colleagues, had covered the rise of Nazism. As he headed for the gate, one "slipped one arm over my shoulder, and I turned away from him and began to cry. I was filled with shame and self-loathing. But I could not help it; I stood still in the mud, dressed in my fake French uniform, before my officer hosts, and cried into my handkerchief" -- and as he reached the gate, handed the man his topcoat.