It's commonplace to read in the biographies of 20th-century artists that so-and-so left Europe in the late 1930s or early 1940s to live in the United States. The moves sound so sensible and easy. Many were Jews, many were leftists, so they got out of a continent being overrun by the Nazis. If only it had really been so simple.

After World War II began, only the very lucky or the very rich avoided horrific escape trips that required strenuous walks over mountain borders or being smuggled under false papers in deathtrap ships. While they waited for the permits to leave, real or fake, thousands clustered in Marseille, the polyglot French port controlled through late 1942 by the collaborationist Vichy government. A handful of idealistic young Americans also came to Marseille to help them get out, in the months before the U.S. entered the war.

This is the subject of Rosemary Sullivan's Villa Air-Bel, a true tale full of intrigue, danger, crazed love, death and survival. Her main characters, American do-gooders and European artists, washed up for a time in the villa, a dilapidated suburban mansion that provided cheap shared accommodations. The house becomes a focal point for Sullivan to tell us how the housemates and their friends all got there, and how they got away if they did. The most famous residents were two surrealists, poet AndrŽ Breton and painter Max Ernst. But the most important in terms of their eventual escape were two young men who worked for the New York-based Emergency Rescue Committee: Varian Fry, an American liberal activist who used any means necessary to help the artists get out of France, and Danny Benedite, a French leftist who had the grit and practical knowledge to make Fry's mission possible. They and an odd conglomeration of aides managed to save 2,000 people before Vichy expelled Fry. Among them were Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Marcel Duchamp, Wilfredo Lam, Victor Serge and Remedios Varo. The debt of modern culture to the motley crowd at the Villa Air-Bel is truly incalculable. Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

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