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Most Americans have never heard of their countryman Varian Fry. This week, Israel named him a hero.

Fry, who died 27 years ago, became the first U.S. citizen awarded the title "Righteous Among the Nations" on Wednesday for his work saving Jews during World War II, according to Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial.Working in southern France from 1940 to 1941, he helped save 4,000 people from the Nazis before being forced home by U.S. and French officials, said Mordecai Paldiel, director of Yad Vashem's Department of the Righteous.

Paldiel, who presented Fry's case before the Yad Vashem committee, said Fry was different from most other "righteous gentiles" because his country was never occupied by Nazi Germany.

Yad Vashem usually honors only those who risked their lives to save Jews. But it recently honored a Portuguese diplomat and a Japanese diplomat who ruined their careers by issuing visas against their countries' orders.

"When we honor someone like this, we always ask how many people in his place would have gone as far," Paldiel said.

Fry volunteered at the Emergency Rescue Committee to help Jews about to be turned over to the Nazis by French collaborationist authorities. The U.S. State Department gave the Harvard-trained classicist 200 visas and a letter of support, said Elizabeth Berman, a researcher with the Holocaust Museum.

Fry, however, eventually helped thousands, mostly Jews, sneak out of southern France to safety.

Some of his rescues were well-known: philosopher Hannah Arendt, painter Marc Chagall and writer Lion Feuchtwanger.

In one incident, he paid a French official to accept a few hundred Jews as part of a company of demobilized soldiers being sent back to Algeria.

Fry acted with daring, Berman said, and could not help getting noticed. French authorities, with some encouragement from U.S. diplomats embarrassed by his high profile, frequently searched his house and arrested him. They finally expelled him.

Back in the United States, Fry condemned U.S. immigration policy for being too restrictive. The FBI opened a file on him. Years later, his criticism came back to haunt him when he tried and failed to get work in the defense industry.

"The experiences in Marseilles made it difficult for him to readjust," Berman said. "He never got over it."

Fry had two unsuccessful marriages and three children with his second wife. He had difficulty holding down a job and felt ignored by Americans during his lifetime. In the 1960s, the French government awarded him its Legion of Honor.

Fry died alone in 1967 in Ridgefield, Conn., at age 59. He was working on a children's book version of his adventures in France.

Washington's Holocaust Museum is featuring an exhibit on Fry's life until the end of February.