Photograph: harbour district of Marseille 1943
Jews being deported in the harbour district of Marseille, 24 January 1943
Bild 101I-027-1477-29, © Bundesarchiv, Fotograf: Wolfgang Vennemann


Ich war 7 Monate in einem Irrenhaus. Das Irrenhaus hieß Marseille. Auch ich war vor Elend irre gewesen, in Marseille.

[I spent 7 months in a lunatic asylum, a lunatic asylum named Marseille. And I also went insane with misery in Marseille. (ed. trans.)]

Soma Morgenstern, Pariser Tagebuch, 24. August 1950

When the German army marched into France in the summer of 1940, the country ceased to be a safe place of exile. German occupation triggered off a mass exodus to the “zone libre” in the South of France. However, German émigrés were not even safe there for long, as Pétain, the French head of state, was obliged under the ceasefire agreement to extradite on demand.

The harbour city Marseille therefore became a destination for thousands of refugees who wanted to leave Europe by ship as fast as possible. Once there, they had to grapple with bureaucracy in order to acquire the necessary papers. To embark on the main escape route via Spain and Portugal, refugees not only needed a French exit permit, but also a transit visa for both countries and a visa for the overseas country of destination. In some cases the visa for one of the countries had already expired before all of the necessary papers could be obtained, or the ship that had been booked had been cancelled without replacement because of the war. Exiting France legally was also made more difficult for many as they did not possess any valid papers when they arrived in Marseille or had become stateless after being expatriated from Germany.

Several aid committees, among them Jewish organisations, Quakers and Unitarians tried to help refugees on site – if necessary, using illegal means. The Emergency Rescue Committee, which was established to rescue artists and intellectuals, sent Varian Fry to Marseille. Among other things, the ERC helped people cross the border illegally over the Pyrenees or organised ship transport for exiles.

In August 1942, before German troops had even entered the country, the deportation of Jews and other refugees began in the unoccupied French zone. Anyone who was able to went into hiding or tried to flee to Switzerland. Marseille’s harbour district was cleared by the Germans in the spring of 1943 suffering a great deal of destruction in the process.

Further reading:
Klein, Anne: Flüchtlingspolitik und Flüchtlingshilfe 1940-1942. Varian Fry und die Komitees zur Rettung politisch Verfolgter in New York und Marseille. Berlin: Metropol 2007 
Exil am Mittelmeer. Deutsche Schriftsteller in Südfrankreich von 1933-1941. Hg. von Ulrike Voswinckel und Frank Berninger. München: Allitera Verlag 2005
Ohne zu zögern. Varian Fry: Berlin – Marseille – New York. [Ausstellungskatalog] Berlin: Aktives Museum 2007