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Escape Through the Pyrenees


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About the Author

Lisa Fittko fled to France in 1941, settled in Cuba for a time, and immigrated to the United States in 1948. She is active in the peace movement.

David Koblick an American, is retired from the electrical construction Industry and resides with his wife, Berta, in Steyr, Austria. His second vocation is translating in the German and English languages.


Fleeing Nazi Germany, anti-Fascist activists Fittko, a Jew, and her Protestant husband, Hans, found themselves in France when the war broke out. Although Germany had stripped them of their citizenship, the French treated them as enemy aliens and in 1940 husband and wife were confined in separate French concentration camps for a couple of months. As the Germans advanced, the prisoners escaped and reunited in unoccupied southern France, where, awaiting passports and transit visas, they helped to smuggle other emigres over the Pyrenees to Spain. The most famous refugee saved from the Nazis by the Fittkos was the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who during the arduous crossing was ailing from heart disease. Although he was unfailingly courteous, Benjamin insisted on lugging along a large, conspicuous briefcase that he said contained his new manuscript. Once over the border, the Spanish authorities informed Benjamin he would be returned to France, and he took his own life; the manuscript vanished. Fittko's clipped and compressed writing style, combined with much minutiae on French bureaucratic red tape and the refugees' chase after ever-elusive transit visas, diminish the book's emotional impact. Yet this stands as a worthy account of French wartime cowardice and xenophobia and of the brave souls who defied officialdom. (May)

Fittko's book is a memoir of life as an ``enemy alien'' in France before and after the Nazi invasion of 1940. As a Jewish leftist reared in Berlin, Fittko and her husband Hans fled Germany in 1933 to apparent safety in France. German emigres were regarded as grave political threats, however, and they were rounded up and isolated in concentration camps in France. Fittko experienced the hunger, disease, and chaos of the Gurs camp. As Hitler's army swept through France, she and several comrades escaped. She was reunited with her husband at the foot of the Pyrenees. They made their way out of the country through a tortuous mountain pass. They also guided other refugees to safety. The book is illustrated with historical documents and original photographs (not seen). Although the story is unique and heroic, the prose is acceptable at best and often difficult to follow.-- Susan Dearstyne, Schenectady Cty. Community Coll., N.Y.

Lisa Fittko had no room for self-pity. Their campaigns against terror were pure struggles; [her] accounts, even allowing for the retouching of memory, are pure too." -Smithsonian

"The author takes delight in describing the people she met--the 70-year-old female hobo, for example . . . who read Baudelaire and sang the "Marseillaise" at the top of her voice. . . . It is in portraits like this that Escape Through the Pyrenees, well translated by David Koblick, transcends the documentary forumla and captures the poetry of human character." -New York Times Book Review

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