Netflix series Transatlantic tells the story of Varian Fry, who helped more than 2,000 Jews flee the Nazis.
When Julie Orringer wrote The Flight Portfolio in 2019, it never occurred to her that one day it would become a Netflix show. But Transatlantic, a seven-part series that begins streaming on April 7, is based on her book.
“It’s wonderful and surreal to see my work being adapted for a Netflix series,” says Orringer, who was partly raised in Ann Arbor and graduated from Huron High School. “I’m delighted the way it turned out.”
Transatlantic — like The Flight Portfolio (published by Alfred A. Knopf) — is the compelling story of Varian Fry, an American journalist who founded the Emergency Rescue Committee, a New York-based group that helped refugees escape occupied France.
Fry and the group helped more than 2,000 Jews and Nazi-dissidents flee to the United States. Many were famous artists and writers on the Nazi’s most-wanted list, including Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz and writer Andre Breton.
The series, like the book, is set in 1940 in Marseilles. Fry’s colleague, American heiress Mary Jayne Gold, rented the Villa Air on the outskirts of Marseille. There, Varian and his associates secretly housed the refugees and provided them with the necessary documents to get them safely out of the county.
As a young journalist, Fry had reported on the Nazi’s regime from Germany in 1935. He witnessed Jews being brutalized with no consequences and wrote about it for the New York Times.
The Netflix project idea was Anna Winger’s, the creator of the Netflix hit Unorthodox. Winger and her production company Airlift Productions had signed an exclusive deal to produce international dramas for Netflix.
“Anna, the showrunner and producer of the series, is a longtime friend of mine,” says Orringer, who has published four books and numerous short stories. “Anna had been interested in Fry for many years but had no idea that I was, too, until she read my novel.
“Around the time my book came out, she told me she wanted to option it for a Netflix series.”
Bringing History to Life
During the filming of Transatlantic, Orringer traveled to France to see the production in progress. “To be on set last year in Marseille, and to watch specific scenes from the book come to life, was a stunning, powerful, unforgettable experience,” recalls Orringer, who was an extra in the show.
“I got to know the actors, and I saw how the makeup artists and costume designers helped to bring the characters to life. I remember watching a rough cut from a scene in which Varian receives a letter from an old lover, and it was astonishing to think that the piece of paper in the actor’s hand had originated in my book.”
Orringer became aware of Fry and his work while doing research for her novel The Invisible Bridge (Alfred. A. Knopf, 2010). “As I was learning about the terms of the 1940 Franco-German Armistice, I read about Fry’s work on behalf of refugee artists and writers,” she says. “I realized Fry was a pivotal figure in 20th-century art because he saved thousands of artists who were in danger of being deported to concentration camps. The more I read about him, the clearer it seemed that he needed his own book.”
Both Transatlantic and The Flight Portfolio are historically accurate but have been fictionalized in order to illuminate the characters’ inner lives. In Orringer’s book, the historical facts were not altered and the characters bear their real names, but she wanted to dig a little deeper into Fry’s personal life.
“I wanted to be completely faithful in the history and represent Fry’s life accurately — where he went to school, who his friends were, how he learned about the injustices being perpetrated by the Nazis, and how his organization was formed,” says Orringer, who spent years combing through papers, books, photos and documents at libraries, colleges and institutions. “But the tone of Fry’s memoir is noirish — and I wondered why he had chosen that pose. Who was he really? What was he hiding?”
One of Fry’s secrets, Orringer learned, was that he was gay. The social mores of that time made it difficult for him to even acknowledge that element of his own character, much less live openly as a gay man. But in Marseille, Fry had a relationship with Stephane Hessel, who would later become a French diplomat. That relationship was recorded in Hessel’s own memoir, but at the time it was kept secret. “In my book, I wanted to tell a part of that story that couldn’t have been told at the time,” Orringer says. “What was motivating him to do this work, aside from his altruism? Why did his life fall apart once he got back to the States? When history doesn’t hold the answers, fiction allows us to address questions like these. In effect, it gives us X-ray vision into the human soul.”
The Path to Ann Arbor
It’s not surprising Orringer became a prolific writer. She was born in Miami while her dad, Carl, a cardiologist and her mom, Agnes, a pediatrician, were medical students at the University of Miami. When Julie was 4,the family moved to Boston where her father had a fellowship at Harvard. Her brother, Dan, was born there, and her sister, Amy, was born in New Orleans, where they lived for six years. When Orringer was in eighth grade, they moved to Ann Arbor, where her parents worked at the University of Michigan hospital. They joined Congregation Beth Israel, where Julie became a bat mitzvah.
“There was a wonderful progressive Jewish community in Ann Arbor,” she says. “Our synagogue encouraged us to think about how we could personally make the world a better place. That early learning contributed to my interest in Fry — he wasn’t Jewish himself, yet he went out of his way to help thousands of Jewish refugees.”
After high school, Orringer attended Cornell University where she earned a B.A. in English, and then earned an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. She eventually made her way to New York, where she resides in Brooklyn with her husband, writer Ryan Harty, and their two children.
Orringer’s first book How to Breathe Underwater was published in 2003 (Alfred A. Knopf.) Her second book, The Invisible Bridge is about a Hungarian-Jewish
student who leaves Budapest in 1937 to study architecture in Paris, falls in love with a former ballerina and struggles to survive the war. Orringer, who teaches at NYU and Stanford University’s Stanford in New York Program, has earned dozens of awards, including the Yale Review’s Editor’s Prize and Cowan Award from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.
Her interest in writing about the Holocaust can be traced back to hearing stories from her maternal grandfather. Orringer’s mom was Hungarian, and her family was in Budapest during the war. “All my life I heard these whispered stories about our family’s survival,” she says. “One day I sat down with my grandfather and asked to hear all about his life, He was an architecture student and studied until he was conscripted into a forced battalion of the Hungarian army. His parents perished in Auschwitz and his older brother died of typhus during his own forced labor. My grandparents were married during the war — my grandmother survived in a Red Cross shelter at the center of Budapest during the Nazi occupation.”
Because her grandfather’s stories were so compelling, and many people are unaware of the details relating to the Holocaust in Hungary, Orringer knew they needed to become a novel.
Currently, Orringer is writing a contemporary novel about artistic and marital betrayal. Her dad, Carl Orringer, is a cardiologist at the University of Miami Health System; her brother Dan is a neurosurgeon at NYU, and her sister Amy is a merchandising director at Google in San Francisco. Orringer’s mom, Agnes, died of cancer in 1993. They still have a lot of family in Ann Arbor.
For now, Orringer is looking forward to watching her story come to life on the small screen. “Thanks to Anna and her team, millions of viewers will now get to learn about Varian Fry’s work in Marseille and about the artists and writers he saved,” she says. “That’s what’s really important here — that we understand how remarkable Varian’s project was, and we all feel our personal responsibility to take action against injustice.”