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Help and rescue Transnational Resistance Women

Escape over the Pyrenees

In September 1940, Lisa Ekstein leads a small group of German Jews from the French coastal town of Banyuls over the Pyrenees mountain range to the Spanish border. Among them is the persecuted intellectual Walter Benjamin, who undertakes the arduous journey to escape the Nazis. However, when he is arrested in Spain, he commits suicide.


Lisa Ekstein, born in 1909 into a Jewish family in back then Austria-Hungary, moved to Berlin in 1922, where she became involved in the Socialist Student Union and the Communist Youth Association. When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, she initially remained politically active, but soon decided to flee to Prague. Together with Hans Fittko, she fled to Paris via Switzerland in 1938. Initially safe, a year later they were interned in camps in France as ‘enemy aliens’ – hostile foreigners. They both managed to escape and lived under false names on the French coast, in the town of Banyuls near the border with Spain.


Although Spain is ruled by the fascist General Franco at the time, it is considered safer than France for people fleeing Hitler. Lisa and Hans Fittko made the decision to help as many people as possible to flee to Spain. They put their own escape plans on hold and, from September 1940, organised the escape across the Pyrenees for those people in France who were threatened by the German occupation and the collapsing and collaborating Vichy regime. They are supported by Varian Fry from the “Emergency Rescue Committee”. The ERC provides funding for documents, tickets, accommodation and food. The socialist mayor of the village, Azéma, and other people in Banyuls also supported them. In the winter of 1940/41, the Fittkos brought persecuted people across the Pyrenees in small groups several times a week, mostly disguised as vineyard labourers. That way, they rescue around 300 persecuted people over the 12-kilometre mountain route to Spain.


As they were being persecuted too, Lisa and Hans Fittko were in great danger of being discovered on the escape route. They fled to Cuba in the spring of 1941.

Elisa Zenck

Sources / further reading

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