American Portraits

Varian Fry’s Grave Responsibility

In this lesson, students will learn about Varian Fry and his role in helping refugees escape the dangers posed by Nazi Germany. Through his example, they will learn how they can be more responsible in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.


Varian Fry was born in New York City in 1910. From an early age, Varian had a desire to help his fellow man. At the age of 9, he and his friends conducted their own fundraiser for the American Red Cross to raise money for their efforts in Europe at the outbreak of the First World War….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Varian Fry’s actions inspire you to be more responsible toward society?

Virtue Defined

Responsibility is accountability to myself and others.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about Varian Fry and his role in helping refugees escape the dangers posed by Nazi Germany. Through his example, they will learn how they can be more responsible in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze Varian Fry’s performance during the opening years of World War II.
  • Students will understand how a sense of responsibility guided Varian Fry’s actions.
  • Students will apply this knowledge to better understand responsibilities in their own lives and how they can act upon them.


The “fog of war” is a common expression during a conflict. It alludes to the unknown actions of the enemy, hidden deep within his own territory and confused and obfuscated by rumor and gossip. As the Nazi regime rose to power, Jews in German society became increasingly marginalized. However, the situation for the Jewish population in German was unclear to many, particularly in the United States. However, there was one American who saw the danger clearly and acted. His name was Varian Fry, and he knew he had a responsibility to help his fellow man.


  • Obfuscate
  • Marginalize
  • Correspondent
  • Persecute
  • Aryan
  • Leveled
  • Progressively
  • Irrational
  • Regulations
  • Synagogues
  • Barbarity
  • Oppression
  • Refugee
  • Anteroom

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Varian Fry?
  • What did Varian Fry do during the opening years of World War II?
  • What do Varian Fry’s actions say about his identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • “A Tribute to Varian Fry.” A Tribute to Varian Fry.
  • Jaffee McCabe, Cynthia, “Wanted by the Gestapo: Saved by America – Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee” 79-91 in Jarrell C. Jackman and Carla M. Borden, eds., The Muses Flee Hitler: Cultural Transfer and Adaptation 1930-1945. Smithsonian, 1983.
  • McClafferty, Carla Killough. In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (BYR); 2 September 2008.

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