About 80,000 people fled from National Socialism to Spain, over the Pyrenees, which are up to 3,400 metres high.
Boat with refugees in the Mediterranean Sea: Now as then people flee from violent regimes, civil war, discrimination, poverty and catastrophes. Noborder Network · flickr.com CC BY 2.0
Flight across Europe
Fascism triumphs in Europe: In 1922 Mussolini becomes head of state in Italy, in 1933 National Socialism comes to power in Germany, in 1939 the putschist, Franco, and is victorious in the Spanish Civil War. The Hitler regime with its anti-Semitic tyranny drives dissidents underground or into exile. The Jewish Communist Lisa Fittko also goes into hiding in 1933 and before she flees from Berlin works in opposition to Hitler (1+2➘):
Many wanted to actively oppose Hitler. But one could not talk about it. So we produced flyers, which I typed, but even typing raised suspicions. A group of young people were caught distributing leaflets. While under arrest they described me, because they thought I had long since gone into exile. Then it was clear, I had to leave.
Fleeing the German occupation force: France near Gien, 19.6.1940
Bundesarchiv, picture 146-1971-083-01 / Tritschler / CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
Left wing politicians, artists, Jews, communist and socialist activists, academics, union or anti–fascist activists flee from persecution, torture, concentration camps and death. (3➘)
On the 1st September 1939 Nazi Germany invades Poland and starts the Second World War. It forces hundreds of thousands to flee from the occupied countries across Europe, often to France. After the defeat of France in 1940, many are forced to flee to the still unoccupied south, finally arriving in the port of Marseille. The only escape routes now are by sea or over the Pyrenees, then in spite of Franco, across Spain to Lisbon-in order to reach Mexico, Cuba or the USA by boat. (4➘)
Helping Refugees to Escape across the Pyrenees
In Marseille many of those hunted by the Nazis manage to obtain the all-important exit visa and a passage into exile by sea. But when no more ships leave from the port the refugees are trapped. The only remaining escape route is over the Pyrenees, then across Spain to Lisbon. (5➘)
The socialists, Claire and Henry Ehrman are taken from the train in the French border town of Cerbere, because they have no exit visa. Young and experienced in the underground movement, they succeed on their third attempt in fleeing over the mountains from Banyuls to Portbou. (6➘)
The 16 kilometre long smugglers‘ path from Banyuls in France across the Pyrenees to Portbou in Spain is one of the most important, clandestine routes. The support of those who assist the refugees to escape like Lisa and Hans Fittko is essential to finding the secret paths and avoiding the border patrols.
Many networks engage in (organised) rescue work and save tens of thousands of people at great personal risk to themselves. There are mountain farmers, Spanish republicans in exile, members of the Résistance and the Allies. Increased surveillance of the Pyrenean border forces them to use ever more dangerous escape routes in the central Pyrenees, over high passes and across snowfields.
Lisa Fittko is born Lisa Ekstein in 1909 and grows up in Vienna and Berlin. Although as a Jew and communist she is in great danger from 1933 on, for some months she continues to work in the underground movement against Hitler. In Prague she meets Hans Fittko, who as a communist had to flee Berlin. Together they escape to southern France, which is still unoccupied. In spite of being hunted themselves, Lisa and Hans Fittko stay for seven months in Banyuls-sur-Mer and from September 1940 work as rescue activists. (7➘) The first person Lisa Fittko takes to the Spanish border, with the help of the socialist mayor of Banyuls, Vincent Azéma, is Walter Benjamin.
Friends had told me about Mayor Azéma: In the Spanish Civil War, he had already smuggled medicines, and probably people as well across the border and he drew me a sketch of the route. I explained to Benjamin that I had never taken this route before and asked whether he was willing to take the risk. He replied that the risk would be not to go.
Some of the emigrants found it very difficult, having to abandon all their possessions. In fact, the only time we were stopped by the customs officers was when a man insisted on taking his fur coat with him. Two to three times a week we took to the mountains, collecting firewood to hide our true purpose. However, twenty years later in Banyuls people asked me whether my friends had arrived in New York safely. We would never have succeeded without the tacit approval of the people of Banyuls.
Working together with the US-American Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) Lisa and Hans Fittko smuggle Jews, political activists, downed allied pilots across the Pyrenees several times a week. From April 1941 only French citizens are allowed in the Pyrenees border area: the Fitch’s rescue missions become impossible. In November 1941 they themselves go into exile: first to Cuba, then to the USA. In 2001 a memorial to the rescue activists, Lisa and Hans Fittko, is erected on the Boulevard des Evades de France in Banyuls-sur-Mer. (8➘)
Anyone wishing to cross the border to Spain is faced with a sheer insurmountable pile of paperwork. Everyone needs a valid passport, a transit visa for Spain, a visa for the country of exile, a French exit visa, passes…
Many emigrants are stateless either because the Nazis expatriated them for being opponents of the regime or they lost their German citizenship because they were Jews. Walter Benjamin is expatriated on the 23rd February 1939 because he wrote for the communist exile newspaper Das Wort (The Word). After years on the run many fugitives’ passports have long since expired. And if they managed to acquire one visa, another has often already expired.
Sixteen-year-old Margit Messner was born in Austria and grew up in Prague. As a Jew she is at first an exile in Paris, later she meets up with her mother again in the South of France. (9➘)
Border rules and regulations are liable to change overnight. This causes deportations back to France –even if, at the beginning, some French and Spanish border guards turn a blind eye in sympathy. For many opponents of the Nazi regime false papers are the only hope. The Rumanian doctor and rescue activist, Maurice Verzeano, took care of this too. (10➘)
Border Fence round the Spanish Enclave Melilla in North Africa By Miguel González Novo from Melilla, España [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Then noble rescue activists - criminal people traffickers, unscrupulous, exploitative, misanthropic? The view of those who offer refugee support depends on historico-political circumstances. Where at one time active refugee support was considered necessary in a time of need, nowadays it is often considered to be illegal. Bernd Mesovic of ProAsyl regrets this change in perspective:
Nowadays helping refugees to escape has been criminalised and is portrayed as organised crime; empirical studies have demonstrated that most refugees flee with the support of family networks. In the discussion fuelled by the media about people trafficking, the refugees are portrayed as victims of unscrupulous confidence tricksters.
There are, and were, many various motives for helping refugees to escape and range from solidarity and altruism, through occasional support to purely commercial operations. The boundaries are fluid. Most refugees, however, manage to cross state borders without help.
Nonetheless the strengthening of Europe’s external borders, the ever more complete monitoring, forces people to embark on increasingly dangerous routes, and in addition to avail themselves of the expensive services of people traffickers. (11➘) It is evident that there is mercenary or badly planned escape aid.
The trans-national network Watch the Med helps people who are in acute danger in the Mediterranean. It documents failure to render assistance and human rights violations on Europe’s external borders. (12➘)
On the whole, however, supporting escape makes escape safer. Sociological studies show that emigrants themselves sometimes act as people traffickers, because they have the requisite knowledge and need money to continue their journey.
Lisa and Hans Fittko, who were also pursued, used their experience from many years on the run to successfully guide many refugees over the border.
Sources and External Links
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Lisa Fittko’s Memories can be heard here:
Lisa Fittko: Meine Biographie liegt in der Weltgeschichte, (Engl. Lisa Fittko: My Biography is Part of World History... ), ABACUS Medien 2006. A documentary Audio-book – 3 CDs with Booklet, ABACUS Medien 2006
Lisa Fittko describes her opposition to National Socialism and her first years in exile in her book: Solidarität unerwünscht. Erinnerungen 1933-1940 (Engl. Unwelcome Solidarity. Memories 1933-1940). Carl Hanser Verlag 1992
The Exiles’ Archive is a virtual Centre for Banned Arts, which not only researches the lives of prominent exiles but also collates information on forgotten or less well-known creative artists and intellectuals:
Patrik von zur Mühlen: Fluchtweg Spanien–Portugal: die deutsche Emigration und der Exodus aus Europa 1933 – 1945. (Engl. Escape Route Spain–Portugal) Dietz 1992
Josep Calvet: Las montañas de la libertad. El paso de refugiados por los pirineos durante la segunda guerra mundial 1939-1944. Alianza Editorial 2010; catalá: Josep Calvet: Les Muntanyes de la Llibertat. El pas d'evadits pels Pirineus durant la Segona Guerra Mundial. (Engl. The Mountains of Liberty. The refugee route across the Pyrenees during the World War II) L’Avenç 2008.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) also offers detailed information on the Holocaust, persecution, flight and resistance by Jews and other Nazi victims-through texts, pictures and a large video and audio archive: . Here is the unabridged interview with Claire and Henry Ehrmann:
Lisa Fittko describes her time as a rescue activist in the Pyrenees in her book: Mein Weg über die Pyrenäen. Erinnerungen 1940/41. Carl Hanser Verlag 1985; in English: Lisa Fittko: Escape Through the Pyrenees. Northwestern University Press 2000.
Catherine Stodolsky, historian and Lisa Fittko`s niece, has done research on her aunt’s life:
The unabridged interview with Margit Meissner from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) can be heard here:
The interview with Marcel “Maurice” Verzeano from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) can be found here:
In Spain the pressure group Salvemos la Hospitalidad (Engl. Let us Preserve Hospitality) campaigns against the criminalisation of rescue aid and support for refugees:
The trans-national network Watch the Med helps people who are in acute danger in the Mediterranean Sea. It documents failure to render assistance and human rights violations on Europe’s external borders.