France under German Occupation 1940 – 44
By Eric Gaba CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1933 the National Socialists come to power in Germany. Under the leadership of Adolf Hitler they create a totalitarian dictatorship. Their anti-Semitic racial ideology causes them to pursue and murder Jews, Sinti and Roma, and all those, the regime considers not to belong to the “Aryan race”. Members of the opposition are tortured, put in concentration camps, murdered or driven into exile. On the 1st September 1939, the German army marches on Poland: World War II begins in Europe.
France ‘s entry , into the war, one of the most important host nations for NS fugitives has disastrous consequences for those (previously) holding German passports: Jews and anti-fascists are also considered to be enemy aliens and are sent to internment camps. In June 1940 France capitulates: the north is occupied, the southern, free zone is administered by the Vichy government and collaborates with the Nazis. A mass exodus to the south begins.
Marseille becomes the port of choice for fugitives from the NS: In the port city it is still possible to obtain travel documents and safe passage on a ship to Africa or overseas. However, soon no more ships leave the port. The fugitives are trapped in Marseille.
Extradition on Demand
Vichy-Chief of the French State, Philippe Pétain, and Adolf Hitler at a Meeting in Montoire on the 24th October 1940.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25217 / CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1940 German troops overrun France in just a few weeks. The ceasefire agreement from the 22nd June 1940 regulates Extradition on Demand in Article 19. The Vichy government is required to extradite on demand all those Germans still in France (……) named by the government of the German Reich. In July 1940 the German Kundt Commission compiles lists in the internment camps of southern France: the basis for later extraditions. Even before this the German exclude great numbers: the first denaturalisation list in 1933 deprives thirty three people of their German nationality.
Marseille, Freight Depot at Arenc, January 1943: Deportation of Jews supervised by the SS and the French police. Picture taken by a German Army Propaganda Unit.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-027-1477-19 / Vennemann, Wolfgang / CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
Some of them flee over the Pyrenees to Spain and into exile: Georg Bernhard, the publisher, Emil Gumbel, the mathematician, Ruth Fischer, the communist politician, the writers, Heinrich Mann and Leon Feuchtwanger, and Friedrich Stampfer, the social democrat politician. The Nürnberg Laws of 1935 class Jews as people with fewer rights. From 1941 on they lose their German citizenship as soon as they leave Germany- this makes their onward journey as stateless persons doubly difficult. From 1942 Jews living in France are deported to concentration camps. Escape across the Pyrenees is now a matter of life and death.
In summer 1940 the Emergency Rescue Committee is founded in New York. Its aim is to rescue from France endangered intellectuals in possession of an emergency visa for the US. To this end the ERC send the journalist, Varian Fry to Marseille. He writes in his memoirs: Extradition on Demand:
I left America with bags full of lists of men and women I had to save, and my head full of ideas how to manage it. There were more than two hundred names, to which many hundreds more were later added. (1➘)
Instead of the four weeks he planned, Fry remains for thirteen months, and together with his team helps more than two thousand to flee- among them, the philosopher, Hannah Arendt, the sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz, the pianist, Wanda Landowska, the revolutionary, Victor Serge, the authors, Leon Feuchtwanger, Walter Mehring and Heinrich Mann, the surrealist, André Breton, the artist, Marc Chagall. (2+3➘)
Maurice Verzeano, Charles Fawcett and Jean Gemähling work for the ERC. Here an excerpt from the film Villa Air Bel by Jörg Bundschuh: Verzeano, talks about illegal activities, Fawcett about rescuing less prominent people, Gemähling about the attitude of Vichy France. (4➘)
In view of the hopeless situation at the border Harvard graduate Fry does not eschew bribery and black market deals. In the guise of a legal support bureau for refugees, the ERC works closely with Lisa and Hans Fittko and names the escape route after them: the F-route. Vichy France regards Fry with suspicion, and he feels increasingly abandoned by the US authorities. In August 1941 Fry is expelled from France. (5➘)
About 80,000 people flee from the NS regime, over the Pyrenees to Spain: Jews, anti-fascists, downed Allied pilots and members of the French resistance. The dictator Franco is in power in Spain, in Portugal the Salazar regime. Despite the ideological similarities between Francoism and National Socialism and the German-Spanish Agreement, the Iberian escape route means safety for almost everyone. Extradition to the Nazis is the exception- the rule is to refuse entry, to deport to France, to resort to internment, or best case scenario, to allow successful transit. Margit Meissner, a 16-year-old Jew, flees with her mother from the French border town of Cerbere to Portbou; they are arrested and put in prison in Girona: (6➘)
Margit and Lilly Meissner are soon released. Others spend months in the Spanish internment camp, Miranda de Ebro, and are only freed under pressure from the British consulate or Jewish aid committees. Those who fought in the Spanish Civil War and Spanish anti-fascists are in the most danger. The majority, however, manage to cross Spain-in spite of having no papers or only forged ones. The social democrat journalist, Henry William Katz is smuggled by the ERC and Spanish activists via Madrid to Portugal. (7➘)
After the whole of France is occupied, the Pyrenees exclusion zone is enforced more strictly.
The Pyrenees are both a barrier and a gateway to freedom: forests and ravines, crisscrossed by goat trails are difficult to police. A centuries old smuggling tradition and close contact between the Catalan populations on both sides of the border are invaluable for the rescue organisations. In 1940 it is relatively easy to cross the border. The social democrat, Elsbeth Weichmann, describes an encounter at the border in her book Zuflucht (Sanctuary) (8➘) :
The customs‘ officer turned his back on us and left. He was not yet a Vichy man. He didn’t want to see us.
However, ever more restrictive regulations are imposed: obligatory registration in hotels, massive border controls, strict visa requirements, exclusion zones in coastal and border areas. In 1942 Nazi Germany finally occupies southern France- now the borders are controlled by German rather than French guards. The escape routes become more risky, over ever higher, steeper passes.
Under pressure from Germany, Spain increases its entry requirements. The number of arrests in Spain rises. The Foreign Ministry, however, points out that it is up to Germany to patrol the borders of its sphere of influence.
Sources and External Links
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Varian Fry: Auslieferung auf Verlangen. Die Rettung deutscher Emigranten in Marseille 1940/41, Frankfurt 2009 [DE], Varian Fry: Surrender on Demand, New York 1945 [EN]
The Berlin Association Aktives Museum has created and exhibition on Varian Fry, which is well- worth a visit: , Ausstellungskatalog: Ohne zu zögern. Varian Fry: Berlin – Marseille – New York. Berlin 2007
The website www.varianfry.org offers a great deal of information about Varian Fry and the ERC
The film “Villa Air Bel“by Jörg Bundschuh traces the work of Varian Fry and the ERC. A Kick film production , obtainable from Amazon
Sheila Isenberg: A hero of Our Own. The Story of Varian Fry, New York 2001 [EN]
The complete interview between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum andMargit Meissner can be listened to here:
Here you can look at the complete interview with H. W. and Friedel Katz:
Elsbeth Weichmann: Zuflucht: Jahre des Exils. Hamburg 1983