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Miriam Davenport (June 6, 1915, Boston, Massachusetts – September 13, 1999, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan) was an American painter and sculptor who played an important role helping European Jews and intellectuals escape the Holocaust during World War II.

Miriam Davenport and Varian Fry

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, studied art and architecture history at Smith College before spending a year at the Graduate Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Awarded a Carnegie summer art scholarship to study in Paris, France, she attended the Institut d'Art et d'Archéologie at the Sorbonne.

With the German occupation of France, Davenport fled first to the city of Toulouse where she met the poet Walter Mehring and others who were looking to escape to the United States. Miriam Davenport went to see if she could get help for their escape through the port city of Marseille, which although under control of the Vichy Regime, was not yet occupied by the Nazis.

However, it was a dangerous time and the United States consulate in Marseille was strongly urging all Americans to leave France. Davenport soon met fellow American, Mary Jayne Gold, a wealthy Chicago socialite, and the two teamed up with another American, the journalist Varian Fry. At enormous risk to themselves, Davenport and the others ran a covert operation helping writers, artists, scientists, and academics Jews escape from France. They arranged for some of these refugees to escape over the mountains to the safety of Spain and Portugal while others they smuggled aboard freighters sailing to either North Africa or ports in North or South America.

During the less than two years that Miriam Davenport and her group were able to operate in Marseille, they were responsible for the evacuation of more than 2,000 refugees who came from all over Europe including such notable personalities as the artist Marc Chagall, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, writer Hannah Arendt and Nobel Prize winner Otto Meyerhof.

Expelled from France by the Nazis in 1941, on her return to the United States, Miriam Davenport became involved in a number of humanitarian efforts including the Progressive Schools Committee for Refugee Children, the International Rescue and Relief Committee, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As well, she worked with the American Council of Learned Societies' Committee for the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas for whom she helped prepare maps and documentation for use by the Allied Forces to help avoid bombing culturally important sites as well as to enable military units on the ground to secure these sites to prevent pillaging.

Davenport worked at Princeton University where she oversaw the office of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists for Albert Einstein. Married to a scholar, she and her husband moved to Iowa in 1951 where he had been offered a professorship at the University of Iowa.

Miriam then picked up where she had left off at the Sorbonne in Paris before World War II and pursued further studies as a painter and sculptor. Widowed at age forty-six, over the next few years, in addition to earning her Ph.D., she worked as an art instructor and taught French language courses at the university. Following her marriage to archaeologist and ancient history scholar, Charles Ebel, she moved with him to a home in Michigan.

The unselfish and heroic deeds of Miriam Davenport during World War II received almost no public recognition of any kind until 1980 when her friend Mary Jayne Gold published a book titled Crossroads Marseilles, 1940 that recounted the events. Although Varian Fry had died in 1967, Miriam Davenport was able to visit Marseille and to be reunited with Ms. Gold who had returned to live permanently on the French Riviera.

Miriam Davenport died of cancer in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan in 1999, aged 84. Her body was returned to Iowa for burial.

Varian Fry Institute: Miriam Davenport Ebel

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