The spark to write this book began when I was introduced to Varian Fry in the book Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille by Rosemary Sullivan, but it was Fry’s memoir Surrender on Demand that grabbed my heart and never let go.
Fry was a journalist in New York who represented the Emergency Rescue Committee that wanted to help writers, Jews, artists, and anti-Nazis whose lives were in danger when France fell. Fry arrived in Marseille with a list and three thousand dollars taped to his leg. The story of camps, thousands of people lost and desperate in Marseille, and the brutality of the collaborationist regime gripped me from the beginning, but it took several years to find my way to The Forger of Marseille.
A voice held me back: I’m a memoirist. What do I know of making things up? Besides, French history and the resistance are so complicated, it would be difficult to get them right. But I kept reading, and the history of that era haunted my dreams.
Piles of history books and memoirs stacked up in my living room as I dived into what a friend called “research rapture.” France in that era was complicated, and eighty years later the loyalties and betrayals hadn’t been resolved. Who was to blame for the fall of France? Or for the exodus in June of 1940 of millions who tried to escape the German blitz? Who was to blame for the fate of the immigrants and the Jews who had to try to escape the Vichy police and Gestapo in the unoccupied zone, also known as Vichy. Vichy was a collaborationist government set up by Pétain, a World War I hero, and his henchmen. Within three months after the war’s end, Vichy had created laws and traps for innocent people that perfectly mirrored Germany.
I’d been reading about WWII for the last sixty years. I grew up with a grandmother who was passionate about English history and the history of the war. When it came to Churchill and the Brits after the fall of France, she’d pace the room, crying, “England stood alone! We should have helped them!” Years later I discovered that she’d traveled by ship five times by herself to visit England and Scotland. Her love of England gave her a personal view of Great Britain, and her emotions fed my interest in the history of WWII.
My research about the war began in earnest when I found a Time magazine with Hitler’s picture on the cover as 1938 Man of the Year written in the “now” of 1938. I had to know how he had become the Führer and why people believed in him and did his bidding. William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany began to answer those questions and led me on a quest to read everything I could. So much background reading about the Reich, World War I, and the Spanish Civil War gave me a decent foundation from which to imagine and create characters who found their way to my story. Two characters were German Jews who lived in the shadowed, dangerous world of the Reich. A third character came to me on top of the Pyrenees and whispered in my ear. That story you will find on my website.
While most of my characters are fictional—yes, I’m a memoirist who had to learn how to make things up!—there were several significant people who risked their lives to save people besides Varian Fry. As I did with Varian Fry, I learned about them through their memoirs. Donald Caskie was a Scottish pastor who risked his life to set up a mission in Marseille to save soldiers—becoming part of the early resistance against Vichy and the Germans. And Lisa Fittko. As a Jew and anti-Nazi, she and her husband had fled for safety to Paris, but in 1939 when the war began, the French police rounded them up with other Germans, Czechs, and Austrians and sent them to an internment camp in the south. After escaping, she became one of the guides who led people over the Pyrenees into Spain.
Dina Vierny: I discovered her when I visited the village of Banyuls-sur-Mer where the French sculptor and painter Aristide Maillol’s safe house is now a museum. She was his favorite model and they both engaged in offering help to the refugees. Later she was arrested for her resistance activities, as was Donald Caskie.
I wanted to bring into real life the extreme courage and bravery it took for people to decide to resist the government, the police, and the Nazi rulers to save people’s lives. It was a death sentence if caught; a noose image posted on trees in Marseille warned of the likely fate for those who tried to help.
The theme of identity—who am I, how do I know who I am, even if my name is changed, is a thread in the book. Who am I without a home, a family, a country? These questions haunted millions of refugees during that era. George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” has always whispered in my ear. As a memoirist and therapist for forty years, I have seen transformation as the past is revealed and healed. Literature invites us to live through the experience of others and find in their story the wisdom that enlarges our own lives.
The story of war, refugees, and how to survive as normal life is upended is much larger and more complex than one novel can encompass. Each character in my book became a guide for me to imagine how it would be to find enough courage. They pressed their hearts toward compassion for others at great risk to themselves. My hope is that people will become curious about this history and want to read more.
Please visit my website: http://theforgerofmarseille.com. A bibliography and links to information about the era and the people offer more insights into the significant history that inspired this book. We welcome your comments and you can order the book here:https://www.amazon.com/Forger-Marseille-Linda-Joy-Myers/dp/1647422310/ref=sr_1_1?crid=JO9I5L7NG7GV&keywords=the+forger+of+marseille&qid=1687833692&sprefix=%2Caps%2C159&sr=8-1
Linda Joy Myers is the founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers, and the author of four books on memoir. Years of research about WWII stimulated by her grandmother’s memories of that era, led to an obsession with discovering the truth that’s not in the history books. Linda can be found on Facebook and Instagram & namw.org.