The Franco-German armistice, signed in June 1940 following the German invasion of France, called on the Vichy government to surrender on demand all refugees considered enemies of the Third Reich. Suddenly, thousands of artists, scientists and other intellectuals feared for their lives. The Emergency Rescue Committee, based in New York, compiled a list of two hundred people it considered the most endangered, including artists and writers André Breton, Max Ernst and Benjamin Péret. The committee sent Varian Fry to set up its headquarters in Marseilles, with the aim of helping these artists to escape. A number of them were sheltered at the Villa Air-Bel.
Amidst the chaos and terror of wartime France, the villa became an oasis of calm, and a centre of creativity. Rosemary Sullivan explores the diaries, memoirs and letters of the individuals involved as she uncovers their private worlds and the web of relationships they developed. Central to her task is to understand what it must feel like to move from freedom to occupation: to feel threatened, administered, restrained. Villa Air-Bel brilliantly dramatizes the slow, relentless process by which ordinary lives were turned into lives lived in terror. In the end every artist in the house, as well as two thousand others, found asylum outside of France through the courageous intervention of Fry and his committee.