‘Transatlantic’ Real Life Characters: Who Was Varian Fry, Mary Jayne, Albert Hirschman, & Lisa Fittko?


The Netflix miniseries “Transatlantic” is a fictional retelling of a historical rescue operations conducted by the Emergency Rescue Committee in Vichy France, during World War II. With the growing number of refugees migrating to France from Nazi Germany, the ERC was determined to find a safe passage for them. Varian Fry sheltered the anti-Nazi artists (some were banned by the Nazis) at the Splendide Hotel while he tried to figure out a way to get the exit visas they required to leave the country. “Transatlantic” documents one of the most significant migrations during the war. In this article, we take a closer look at the characters, particularly Varian Fry, Mary Jayne Gold, Albert Hirschman, Paul Kandjo, and Lisa Fittko.

Varian Fry

Heading the ERC, Varian Fry was extremely serious about his role and brought practicality to the table. While Mary Jayne Gold would often get carried away by her emotions, Varian always tried to focus on what was actually possible amidst the restrictions. He aimed to get things done by the book and wanted to stay away from the illegal activities in which his teammates often participated. But keeping in mind the urgency of the situation, he often obliged to use unlawful tactics in order to save lives. His passion for helping those in crisis and his respect for the arts were his driving forces, and he successfully managed to pull off the operation.

In 1935, while serving as a foreign correspondent, Varian traveled to Belgium and witnessed how the Nazis mistreated the Jews. The disturbing memories stayed with him, and he realized that he had to take immediate action to save as many lives as he could. That was how the “Emergency Rescue Committee was born. Varian Fry was a married man, and in “Transatlantic,” he is reimagined to be a closeted homosexual. He had fallen in love with Thomas Lovegrove while living in Belgium. They had a similar mindset, and they were passionate about providing relief to the oppressed.

Varian met Thomas after five years in Marseille, and his chateau became the shelter for several refugees. Unlike Varian, who always believed in taking the legal route, Thomas did not care much about it. He started working as a British spy when he realized that it was the only way he could significantly contribute to the war. While Varian did not agree with the choices Thomas made, he eventually realized how they all stemmed from good intentions. Their brief affair during their stay in Marseille came to an end when Varian decided to leave. Even though Varian wanted to spend the rest of his life with Thomas, he was aware of how impossible it was in the real world. While it was a tough choice, he had to go back to his life in New York.

Varian Fry’s sexuality remains debatable. The memories of the war tormented him for the rest of his life, leading to severe mental illness and his untimely death at the age of 59 due to a cerebral hemorrhage.

Mary Jayne Gold And Albert Hirschman

American heiress Mary Jayne Gold lived in Paris and moved to Marseille when the German army started to invade. She met Varian Fry and joined the Emergency Rescue Committee. Even though she downplayed her role in the committee, without her, the operations would have never succeeded. Born into a wealthy family, Mary Jayne was a philanthropist. Even though her father wanted her to return home, she could not imagine going back and living the life of an American housewife. She knew that her parents would marry her off as soon as she returned to any man willing to take her as their wife after her European adventures. Mary was not ready to settle down yet, and while she knew that her father would cut off her monthly stipend, she chose to find an alternative to fund the operation. She worked as a British spy in exchange for funding the operation. Mary was willing to take the risk in the hopes of saving the refugees. Her decision did not sit well with Varian Fry, who knew that she could be tried in court for treason. Later, the US Consul, Graham Patterson, learned about her involvement as well and advised her to return home before he took action against her.

In the Netflix series, Mary Jayne Gold fell in love with Albert Hirschman. A student of economics, Albert had served in the French immigrant infantry division and volunteered to fight on behalf of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. After being thrown out of Germany in 1933 for being a Jew, Albert lived in different countries and had multiple passports. He had experienced life in different places, but he struggled to find his true identity. Albert met Mary Jayne when she waited for him while he was held back in prison. She helped him find his sister, Ursula, and he managed to cross the border to Spain with her. But Mary soon realized that Albert’s purpose was to help as many people as he could.

After witnessing the ongoing slaughter, Albert could not distance himself from the war. He started to work for the Emergency Rescue Committee and handled the illegal aspect of the operation. While working together, his bond with Mary Jayne grew stronger over time. He was wildly astonished by the kind of person Mary Jayne was; he had never expected an American heiress to prioritize others over herself. Their shared passion and similar thought processes led to their romance. Albert wanted to join the armed resistance, but Mary Jayne was not completely on board with his decision. As Paul had mentioned, Mary Jayne could leave everything and return home in a second, but they could not. Their homes were gone, and they had no other option but to fight the tyranny. They had a lot more at stake than Mary Jayne, and Albert decided that he could not live a happy life knowing that he abandoned his people when they needed him most. Mary Jayne left for the United States alone, and Albert surrendered himself to the cause.

The character Albert Hirschman is an amalgamation of the economist and member of the ERC Otto Albert Hirschman, and French soldier turned gangster Raymond Couraud. Mary Jayne Gold had fallen in love with Raymond Couraud in Marseille. As a gangster with knowledge of the trade routes used to bring in illegal goods and even people, Raymond Couraud was of great help to the ERC. He helped organize several escape plans using multiple routes. While Mary Jayne returned home, Couraud dedicated himself to the cause and traveled to England, where he eventually became a member of the Special Air Service. Mary Jayne remained single and without children all her life; she died in 1997 at the age of 88.

Paul Kandjo and Lisa Fittko

A fictional character named Paul Kandjo was the concierge at the Splendide Hotel. He and his brother, Petit, were from Ouidah, Benin. They dreamed of their home and their mother every night. While Petit longed to return home after saving enough from the job, Paul had greater ambition. Paul believed that only by helping the French fight the Nazis would they be able to remove the French from Africa. Their participation in the war would pave the way for understanding and ultimately lead to freedom. He started working for British intelligence when he planned the break-in at Camp des Milles. He always intended to become a part of the armed resistance, and he knew that it would only be possible by serving the British. After losing his brother, he became all the more determined to join the resistance. Paul represents the many Africans who joined the armed resistance in France.

Paul fell in love with Lisa Fittko while working with the ERC. Lisa Fittko had found a new alternative route through the Pyrenees that helped save the lives of thousands of refugees. Their brief romance came to an end when she discovered that among the list of British POWs was her husband, Hans Fittko. All this time, she had believed that her husband had passed away, but she had nothing but love to offer him when he returned after escaping from Camp des Milles. Lisa Fittko is remembered for her contribution, her endless effort in rescuing refugees, and her interaction with Walter Benjamin. In the end, Hans and Lisa Fittko found their way to the United States of America via Cuba.

Final Words

With a few fictional characters and most based on real individuals, “Transatlantic” attempts to showcase how the Emergency Rescue Committee functioned in the restrictive environment and the lengths to which some of the members went to save the refugees. It was the daring acts of individuals who prioritized their duty towards the refugees over their position that ultimately helped the cause. On the contrary, men such as US Consul Graham Patterson existed whose only focus was individual desire and profitability. As long as the Germans drank Coca-Cola and rode Ford, men such as Patterson did not mind the rise of fascism.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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