On 1st April 1939 the putschist Francisco Franco proclaims victory in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and initiates a programme of bloody repression throughout the land. An exodus of defenders of the republic begins: Almost 500,000 flee across the Pyrenees, most of them from Catalonia ,which put up the fiercest resistance (2➘).
The Walter Benjamin Trail is also called the Ruta Lister, after General Lister, whose troops escaped here. Further to the east, on the road from Portbou to Cerbere, people exhausted by the war wait patiently until, at last on 27th January 1939, France opens its border. Among them is 10- year-old Lluïsa Miralles with her mother:
It was freezing cold. We were hungry and had inadequate clothing. When we arrived on foot at the pass, the French officials refused us entry. We waited in the cold until the border was opened: to mothers, children, the injured and the old. It wasn’t until five days later that the Republican army was allowed to cross the border. We walked to Cerbere station and here our exile began.
Lluïsa Miralles at a ceremony of commemoration in Portbou on the 75th anniversary of their escape.
Concentration Camp Mauthausen after liberation on 6th May 1945
Lluïsa Miralles is sent to the internment camp Argeles-sur-Mer, where she meets her father again, one of those, who fought for the republic. Following the occupation of France he is forced to work for the German army, but also writes for the underground press. Lluïsa Miralles marries Miquel Serra, a survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp and lives in Perpignan.
1940: Escape via the F-Route
View from the border Cerbère / Portbou
The Pyrenees: during World War II both an obstacle and gateway to freedom- when fleeing from the Nazis, concentration camps , and death. By the time of the liberation of Southern France in 1944, around 80,000 have crossed the mountains heading south, at first mainly Jewish refugees and the politically persecuted. In 1940 Claire and Henry manage to cross from Banyuls to Portbou by the F-route (3➘):
At the border post we assumed an innocent air and showed them our US visa. They checked our names; they had lists of people who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Even then we weren’t entirely safe; there was still a Fascist country to cross.
Nowadays the Walter Benjamin Trail follows Benjamin’s actual escape route almost all the way. After the F-route across the Pyrenean foothills is ever more closely patrolled, the rescue activist, Marcel “Maurice” Verzeano, reconnoitres new, higher routes via Andorra (4➘):
Together with Italian fascists I organised an escape route from Toulouse lead by the Spaniard, Garcia. On one occasion he shielded refugees from the shots of the border patrol with his own body. Garcia’s network smuggled them across Spain in cars, an ingeniously perfected system.
1942: The whole of France is occupied
“La Batalla del Pirineo”, an exhibition about the escape networks (5➘)
After the Allied landing in North Africa on the 8th November 1942 Nazi Germany occupies Southern France. Surveillance of the Pyrenean border is increased, and a 20 kilometre exclusion zone imposed there. The mountains are extremely dangerous: ever riskier routes, up precipitous slopes. More and more Allied pilots, shot down over France, choose this route or soldiers like the Englishman, Peter Scott Janes. He manages to escape across the lower part of the Pyrenees in 1941, as his son, Keith Janes explains (6➘) [EN]:
In 1943 Paul Brouè crosses the Pyrenees and joins the Resistance
These escape routes save many thousands of lives (7➘). They are also crucial for the contacts between the Allies and, from 1942 on, the increasingly strong Resistance. With the introduction in 1943 of the Service du travail obligatoire (STO) an increasing number of French men and women flee to avoid forced labour. As does Paul Brouè from Seix: Smugglers take him across the Pyrenees in July 1943.
When friends of mine were ordered to Germany to do forced labour, I went over the mountains with them to Spain. On my 20th birthday I was put in prison and was detained in Zaragossa, Lerida, Logroño, and Miranda de Ebro.
Paul Broué is finally released und and joins the Resistance in North Africa (8➘).
Crossing the Pyrenees via steep passes of up to 2,500m, through snow and ice, causes many more deaths- some are shot by border guards, others die from exhaustion, avalanches or falls. It is almost impossible to escape without help: unfit as the fugitives are,and without local knowledge or equipment for the high mountains. The aid of escape networks becomes increasingly important and groups throughout France are actively involved in them: smugglers and farmers, members of the Allied forces and the French resistance. They risk their lives in the fight against the Nazis: for political motives, as an act of solidarity, with humanitarian aims or simply just for money.
Memorial plaque on the grave of the resistance fighter, Francisco Ponzán. He was shot by the Nazis on 17.8.1944, aged 33.
Yeza, (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia
In 1941 24-year-old Andrée de Jongh founds the Réseau Comète in Belgium, a group which smuggles about 400 Allied soldiers out to Spain. She is arrested in 1943, and survives two concentration camps. The Pat O’ Leary network smuggles 3,000 people from France, in close cooperation with Spanish anarchists from the Grupo Ponzán, who hope, in vain, that the fall of Hitler will mean the end of Franco (9➘). Historians estimate that between 1939 and 1944, 20,000- 30,000 Jews manage to escape over the Pyrenees. In April 1943 Jacques L. Godel flees from anti-Semitic persecution in Paris to Spain (10➘):
Even today: Flight and Migration
Migrants reach the Canaries, 2004
Noborder Network, Sara Prestianni, (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Not a day passes without people fleeing from dictatorships, war, discrimination and catastrophes and having similar experiences to those who fled before them: fear of deportation, insurmountable bureaucracy and borders.
For the first time since World War II there are more than 50 million refugees spread across the world. (UNHCR 2014, (11➘))
From a global point of view poverty is increasing: One percent of the population possesses more than half of the world’s wealth. (12➘) The EU is strengthening its external borders and commits human rights violations as seen here at the border fence of Spanish enclave of Melilla (Video here: (13➘))
The Spanish Guardia Civil attempt to drive migrants from the fence, injure some of them badly and return them without medical assistance to Morocco.
Photo from the video by PRO DE IN Melilla
Without a safe and legal way to enter Europe thousands of migrants die at the EU borders and in the Mediterranean (14➘). The reality is that, in spite of the Schengen agreement, there are systematic border controls at internal borders, at Portbou and La Jonquera as well. The Council of the Bar Associations of Catalonia (CICAC) criticises the Spanish Border Agency for continuing to ignore the fundamental human right to legal assistance and offering people without papers neither the help of lawyer nor an interpreter (15➘).
Similar behaviour is condemned by Rafael Flichman from Cimade, an association founded in 1939 to support those in internment camps such as Argeles-sur-Mer, and which is still active today in the fight for the rights of refugees and migrants (16➘):
What killed Walter Benjamin?
The border post between Cerbère and Portbou has been abandoned, but controls still take place.
Walter Benjamin was driven to commit suicide by the Nazis.
The Parisian professor of philosophy, Alain Brossat, criticises this widely held view in his essay Who Killed Walter Benjamin as an unpardonable simplification, which ignores discrimination by the French state in the 1940s, the border regime and exclusion mechanisms (17➘). In 1939 Benjamin is interned as an enemy alien and is denied French citizenship and an exit visa. Already during his exile in France, this internal border (Brossat), and the humiliation of being reduced to the role of supplicant plunges Benjamin into the depths of despair and makes him feel totally friendless.
Border fence at Melilla
Pedro Jiménez Beatríz Rodríguez (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr
Brossat sees parallels to modern societies, where today, too, they divide the population into categories, in order to
separate out and reject certain groups, to create ever new hierarchies, to allow access (to jobs, positions, rights...) for some, and to create conditions of exclusion for others.
Brossat condemns the development of the EU
into a “Fortress Europe”, the multiplication of sorting out devices in our societies, intended for categorizing immigrant workers, for stopping and turning them back.
Closed borders, isolationism, impenetrable visa regulations: the stumbling blocks on the way to freedom are the same now as they were then.
Sources and External Links
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Photo from the film L'exode d'un peuple, Jean Vigo Institute Collections
The Museum of Exiles, Museo Memorial del Exilio (MUME), in La Jonquera , Educational Programme of MUME
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) full-length interview with Claire and Henry Ehrmann
The film “Villa Air Bel“ by Jörg Bundschuh traces the work of Varian Fry and the ERC. A Kick film production , obtainable from Amazon
The Exhibition La batalla del Pirineo. Redes de información y evasión aliadas en el Pallars, el Alt Urgell y Andorra, durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial
Keith Janes runs the home page Conscript Heroes which deals with escape networks . Good sources of information about escape networkshere are here and here .
Information on escape over the Pyrenees 1939 – 1944:
Perseguits i salvats und
The escape route Chemin de la liberté
Josep Calvet: Las montañas de la libertad. El paso de refugiados por los pirineos durante la segunda guerra mundial 1939-1944. Alianza Editorial 2010
Auf katalanisch: Josep Calvet: Les Muntanyes de la Llibertat. El pas d'evadits pels Pirineus durant la Segona Guerra Mundial. Barcelona 2008
Rosa Sala Rose: La penúltima frontera. Fugitivos del nazismo en España. Barcelona 2011
Emilienne Eychenne: Pyrénées de la liberté. Les évasions par l'Espagne 1939 - 1945. Toulouse 1998
Information about Paul Broué
Antonio Téllez Solà: La Red de evasión del grupo Ponzán. Anarquistas en la guerra secreta contra el franquismo y el nazismo (1936-1944). Barcelona 1996
Here the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) full-length interview with Jacques L. Godel:
Study by UNHCR
Oxfam Study on Poverty
Video by PRO.DE.IN Melilla
Information on it can be found here
, here and on
welcome to europe – Independent information for refugees and migrants coming to Europa
Cimade (Comité inter mouvements auprès des évacués)
Alain Brossat: Qui a tué Walter Benjamin? / Who killed Walter Benjamin? [FR] und [EN] , Quién mató a Walter Benjamin im Buch [ES] Alain Brossat, La Resistencia Infinita Seguido de: ¿Quién Mató a Walter Benjamin? Barcelona 2014