In 1940, a handful of Americans and Europeans established a safe house in a dilapidated château outside of Marseilles, in the South of France, where they housed artists, writers, and intellectuals who were under threat of internment and extermination by the Nazis. The safe house was called Villa Air-Bel, which is also the name of a fascinating and suspenseful book by Rosemary Sullivan, which was published in 2006 but feels especially urgent today. When a friend recommended it, I knew that it would fit perfectly with my newfound interest in readings related to the rise of Fascism, past and present.

The book studies the work of the Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization based in the United States that sent a high-school teacher named Varian Fry to France to facilitate the escape of artists who were trapped when the Nazis marched into Paris. Fry’s endeavors included obtaining false passports, arranging escorts to shepherd escapees through the Pyrenees into Spain, and securing passage on ships bound for New York, Martinique, and Morocco. Much of what he did, and the renting of the villa itself, was financed by the American heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who fled her stifling upper-class life in Chicago to search for adventure (which she more than found). Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and countless others were assisted by Fry and his group, often with additional funding from members of the artistic community in New York, such as Peggy Guggenheim.

These individuals did what governments could not. While much of this was unfolding, the United States was slow to acknowledge the horrors of the spreading war, and was often reluctant to issue visas to European refugees, in some cases citing their old connections to Communism. The efforts of Fry and his colleagues—their furious fight to save lives at great personal risk—is a thrilling model of citizen action in an era of tyranny and turmoil.