The Emergency Rescue Committee – Review of “Transatlantic”

We are back with another review of a series related to our research project. Like The London Moment, the series is about a very specific group of refugees – not heads of state, politicians, and monarchs on the run [1], but artists, writers and musicians.[2] Both the series and our project are set in the microcosm of a single city, in the series it is Marseille, and in our research, it is London. And both groups of refugees had a profound long-term impact in the aftermath of the war, the diplomats in London on the international political order and the artists and intellectuals from Marseille on culture and art in the United States.

Have you guessed it yet? – Yes, we are talking about the series Transatlantic, up on Netflix since April 2023. Written by Unorthodox-creator Anna Winger and inspired by Julie Orringer’s book The Flight Portfolio, Transatlantic is set in Vichy France in the years 1940-41. It tells the true story of the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), which allowed around 2000 people to escape Nazi persecution. Most of the characters in the series actually existed. The rescue network was co-founded and run by American journalist Varian Fry, who plays a major role in the series. The main character, however, is the wealthy Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who largely financed the rescue operation. [3]

Group portrait of European refugees assisted by the Emergency Rescue Committee on board the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, a converted cargo ship sailing from Marseilles to Martinique. March 25, 1941.
Among those pictured are: Ernst Rossmann, Karl Heidenreich, Dyno Lowenstein, Katrin Kirschmann, Emil Kirschmann, and Peter Grassmann.
Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Dyno Lowenstein. 

The Emergency Rescue Committee was an American civil society organization that managed the flight of artists and intellectuals from Europe to the United States. The ERC was formed in June 1940, after the defeat of France and the armistice between the Nazi regime and the French government under Marshal Pétain, which became known as Vichy France, after its seat of government in the city of Vichy. The French were obliged to hand over refugees to the German authorities on request. This marked the end of political asylum in France, which had been a favored refuge for German exiles. Marseille became a dead end for the refugees. [4]

Initially, Varian Fry travelled to France with a list of 200 prominent artists and intellectuals to be evacuated. In the end, he was able to evacuate ten times that number – which, of course, was still nowhere near the who wanted to leave Europe for the United States. Immigration quotas to the US were strict, allowing exceptions only for those deemed beneficial to the American economy and society. [5] Thus, the ERC focused on evacuating such prominent figures as Walter Benjamin, Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, Walter Mehring and Hannah Arendt, all of whom are featured in the series. Most of them were persecuted because of their Jewish descent and public opposition to the Nazis. 

View from above of refugees lined up outside the American consulate in Marseilles. Circa 1940 – 1941.
Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Hiram Bingham. 
Hiram (Harry) Bingham, who is also featured in the series, served as Vice Consul at the US Consulate in Marseilles from 1939 to 1941. He worked together with the Emergency Rescue Committee, issuing visas beyond US quotas and even forging visas to save refugees from Nazi persecution. 

The ERC organized exit permits, visas to the US, and ship passage for the refugees and hid them and paid for their accommodation until they could leave. Faced with the dire situation of the refugees in Marseille, the members of the ERC soon resorted to illegal means. They evacuated refugees via an illegal route through the Pyrenees to Spain and forged documents and visas. [6]

Even though the series deals with this dark and sad period in history, it does not allow the extreme violence of National Socialism to come close enough to push the narrative completely into darkness. It remains a rather light and cheerful series. Two love stories, friendships and rather comical dialogues sweeten the tragedy of the story. There is even dancing and partying in the midst of the terrible situation. The life of the refugees takes place mainly in and around the villa Air-Bel on the outskirts of Marseille, where they are housed. It is there that the refugees meet and continue to make art. The residence became a “cultural hub for artists and intellectuals endangered by the Nazis.” [7]

A group of artists poses on the grounds of the Villa Air-Bel near Marseilles. 1941. 
Among those pictured are Jacques Herold, Oscar Dominguez, Andre Breton, Jacqueline Lamba Breton, Jacques Herold, and Wifredo and Helene Lam. Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Cynthia Jaffee McCabe. 

Transatlantic is a captivating and visually stunning series. However, for those already interested and familiar with the (refugee) history of the Second World War, it remains rather superficial and spends much time telling love stories. In summary, the series tells a complex, tragic story and yet conveys a sense of lightness. Whether this is praise or criticism, we invite you to watch the series and make up your own mind. 

Postcard showing a view of a major intersection in Marseilles, France. Circa 1940 – 1941.
Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Hiram Bingham. 

[1] Eichenberg, Julia. “Macht auf der Flucht. Europäische Regierungen in London (1940–1944).” Zeithistorische Forschungen – Studies in Contemporary History, 2018. https://doi.org/10.14765/ZZF.DOK.4.1291.

[2] “Transatlantic | Netflix – offizielle Webseite.” Accessed October 11, 2023. https://www.netflix.com/de/title/81473474.

[3] Priesching, Doris. “‘Unglaublicher Kreislauf der Geschichte’: Anna Winger über Serie ‘Transatlantic.’” DER STANDARD, April 7, 2023. https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000145266945/unglaublicher-kreislauf-der-geschichte-anna-winger-ueber-serie-transatlantic.

[4], [6] Isabella Löhr. “Emergency Rescue Committee.” Transatlantic Perspectives (blog). Accessed October 5, 2023. https://www.transatlanticperspectives.org/entries/emergency-rescue-committee/.

[5] Krohn, Claus-Dieter. “Emigration 1933–1945/1950.” Europäische Geschichte Online. IEG(http://www.ieg-mainz.de). Accessed October 6, 2023. http://ieg-ego.eu/de/threads/europa-unterwegs/politische-migration/claus-dieter-krohn-emigration-1933-1945-1950?set_language=http://ieg-ego.eu/de/threads/europa-unterwegs/politische-migration/claus-dieter-krohn-emigration-1933-1945-1950.

[7] “The True Story behind Transatlantic and the IRC | International Rescue Committee (IRC),” April 4, 2023. https://www.rescue.org/eu/article/true-story-behind-transatlantic-and-irc.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
sarahschaller (December 12, 2023). The Emergency Rescue Committee – Review of “Transatlantic” The London Moment. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/onnm


sarahschaller

I am a History & Economics M.A. student at the University of Bayreuth, and affiliated with the research project “The London Moment”. My own research focuses on refugee history after World War I. Currently, I am writing my Master's thesis about employment of refugees after WWI and the role of the International Labour Organisation in this endeavour.

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