LISA AND HANS FITTKO AND VARIAN FRY
(LECTURE GIVEN AT Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand , BERLIN, APRIL, 2007)
This article deals with people who
worked to save those persecuted by the National Socialist regime. More precisely, it deals with the so-called
“F” route, and the rescue work which
Lisa and Hans Fittko, together with Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue
Committee (ERC) performed in
The author is writing as an historian
but also as a close relative of Lisa Fittko, with whom she had a deep and
intensive relationship. Lisa was her
Aunt, and the only remaining relative outside of her immediate family who
survived the Holocaust. (After the war,
we learned that Lisa´s parents and a number
of other family members had survived). But Lisa was not only important for this
reason. From an early age, growing up
The “F” in “
In the period from September, 1940
and April, 1941, ie for seven months,
Lisa and Hans Fittko accompanied hundreds of people who had to flee from the
Nazis across the
Varian Fry was a young American who
arrived in Marseille in the fall of 1940 as a representative of the New York Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). His mission in
In his memoir, written in 1942,
SURRENDER ON DEMAND: THE DRAMATIC STORY OF THE UNDERGROUND ORGANIZATION SET UP
BY AMERICANS IN FRANCE TO RESCUE ANTI-NAZIS FROM THE GESTAPO (NEW YORK, RANDOM
HOUSE, 1945), he describes his work for the ERC. Varian Fry, a recent Harvard graduate, was just
beginning a career in journalism in
It was a period when Marseille
constituted the one and only exit point for those fleeing from the German
troops. The refugees were sitting in a
trap: more than 40,000 German, Austrian and Czech exiles, most of them now
stateless, had come to
Most important, the Armistice
Thousands were pressing towards the
But only the very few were able to pass into
Before describing the “F” route in
detail – a path across the
Lisa Ekstein was born in 1909 in
the Habsburg Empire into a Jewish bourgeois intellectual family. She grew up in
she became deeply engaged in illegal work. She participated in the publication of propaganda
leaflets and typed copy for the
forbidden newspaper THE ROTE FAHNE.
After the Nazi seizure of power she was forced to go underground and shortly thereafter, to leave
In 1934 in
Finally, moving to
Lisa and a friend organized an escape for a group of women from the camp- (she describes this in dramatic detail in her book ESCAPE THROUGH THE PYRENEES (Translated by David Koblick: Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1991: first published as MEIN WEG ÜBER DIE PYRENÄEN BY Carl Hanser Verlag, 1985). She was able to rejoin her husband, and together with a group of friends, they found their way to unoccupied Marseille.
But in Marseille, where thousands
of emigrants were waiting to somehow cross the
Lisa, her husband, her brother and
his family as well as a group of political friends were caught in the
trap. They found temporary refuge in the
nearby town of
Because the men were of military
age (under 42 years old), it was too dangerous for them to try crossing the
border region between
Lisa was chosen to go investigate
the possibility of an illegal crossing into
Through political friends, Lisa had the names of some port workers in
Port Vendres who might be of some help.
And indeed in this way she was able to contact the Socialist mayor in
the neighboring town of
He explained that this relatively easy path, the way via Cerbères, was no longer safe because it was now guarded by the Gardes Mobiles- the unit of the French police most hostile to foreigners.
Instead of this route, Azéma made Lisa
a drawing of a new path across the
Lisa decided that this path would be too difficult for her sister in law and the baby and was planning their return to Marseille. However in the night there was a knock on the door: it was, as she called him “the old Benjamin” who was standing at the door.
THE BENJAMIN STORY
The detailed and dramatic story of Walter Benjamin´s flight across the mountains is the centerpiece of Lisa Fittko´s prize-winning book ESCAPE THROUGH THE PYRENEES.
Here one can read Lisa`s “disrespectful”
description of this today so highly revered philosopher. We learn the circumstances under which Lisa
came to accompany him along the
difficult foot path to the Spanish border.
“Old Benjamin”, as Lisa called him (he was 48 years old) had heard from
Lisa´s husband in Marseille that she was looking for a secure escape route across
He was determined to get to
In Lisa´s story, Benjamin was carrying a briefcase which he indicated was more important to him than his life. Today it is thought that the briefcase contained Benjamin´s last and penultimate manuscript. This remains however merely speculation: while a briefcase was indeed located, a manuscript was never found.
Since Lisa was not in possession of
valid identity papers, she left Benjamin as soon as they were able to sight the
Spanish customs post and returned back to
A week later, she learned that Benjamin had been told by the Spanish authorities that he would not be allowed transit and would have to turn back; as a result he had taken his life.
In answer to the question”What did Benjamin say about the manuscript? Did he speak of the contents? Let me cite a short passage from Lisa`s book. It conveys a good impression of her manner; she was a practical woman, an energetic and resolute person- not an intellectual:
“Heavens above! I had my hands full guiding our little group upward.( On Benjamin´s request she had accepted to take along two more people; a woman and her adolescent son). Philosophy had to wait until we were over the mountain. I was busy rescuing some human beings from the Nazis, and here I was with this odd character, Old Benjamin, who under no circumstances would let himself be parted from his ballast, the black leather briefcase. And so, for better or worse, we had to drag that monstrosity over the mountain. (p. 110).
HOW THEY CAME TO WORK WITH VARIAN FRY
Directly upon her return to Marseille, Lisa learned from her husband, Hans, that a meeting had been organized for that very evening with Varian Fry, the American representative of the ERC.
Fry´s assistant, Albert Hirschman,
had probably heard that Lisa had taken Benjamin across the
In the course of the conversation that evening, the Fittko´s pointed out that it was essential to construct an organized system with adequate built-in precautions. It was essential, they argued, that someone should be permanently present at the border to take people across. It was never their intention to take over this task themselves; yet on Fry´s urging, they finally decided to put off their own flight plans for a few weeks and get the system in gear. They never suspected that these “few weeks” would turn into seven months. Seven months – when your life is daily in danger - that is an almost endless period.
Varian Fry thought that he could convince the Fittkos to take on this task by offering them money. Hans Fittko was outraged: their commitment could not be paid for with money.
“Listen a moment” said Hirshman. “He doesn´t know you, he scarcely knows who you are. You can´t expect him to understand people of the German Resistance.” Hans regarded Fry thoughtfully. “Do you know,” he said, “that assisting men of military age in illegal border-crossings now rates the death penalty? And you offer us money. We would have to be insane indeed. Do you actually know what an anti-Fasicst is? Do you understand the word “Überzeugung” - conviction?” P. 119
The Fittkos agreed to work with Fry for political reasons; they were anti-Nazis and were committed to doing everything in their power to continue the resistance. In an interview, given to the Frankfurter Rundschau in 1992, Lisa explained:
“It was less an individual decision- rather a part of the resistance. We were part of a group of people who had put up a fight against Nazism and we wanted to survive (and continue the fight). This was the task that we could accomplish in the movement. So we did it. It had nothing to do with doing good deeds.”
This point will be taken up later. Important is that - contrary to the claims of various recent authors - the Fittko`s resistance work was not a charitable enterprise, nor did they do it for fame or for money; it was political work and Hans and Lisa took it on as professionals.
THE “F” ROUTE: HOW DID IT FUNCTION?
The Fittkos`Underground Railway” served for refugees of all political hues. They wanted to help those most endangered. Some had fled because they were anti-Nazis, some simply because they were Jews. All of those who came to Banyuls, however, were afraid they would be caught by the Nazis.
They even took British pilots who had been shot down. Lisa reports:
“They were so fit that my husband could bring them over in three hours. For others it took a whole day.” (The only problem was that they were tall and blond; very different from the local people: we chose a higher and even less frequented route for them).
We would start off very early- before sunrise- it was dark and not too hot.
That was the time when the peasants were on their way to the vineyards, and we tried to walk along with them, so as not to be too conspicuous.
The refugees were to wear something
like the working clothes of the locals so they could blend in. They were to carry nothing but a “Musette”, a
food bag and wear Espadrilles instead of street shoes. (They later worked out a
system of sending a small amount of luggage thru to
There were of course many cases in which the refugees did not follow the prescribed rules- one man tried to sneak his fur coat along with him. It was only after the custom official was given the coat that they were able to continue safely.
But in fact, the border guards were
not at all malicious and generally made every effort to look the other
way. Like many, but not all French, they showed tolerance for foreigners
and enemies of
“It was Hans who worked out this system: we had our living quarters just above the customs house in Banyuls and naturally made friends with the Gendarme and his wife. We drank wine together – that sweet wine than comes from Banyuls.
Hans would bring wood back on his way home from the mountain trip. It kept us warm- but mainly it was our alibi.
These were the important technical details- we had to make sure everything be done correctly- as we knew from experience.
But the friendships- they were authentic: nobody in the village forgot how Hans helped in the chain of men who passed the pails of water to put out that terrible fire that broke out one night.
To explain our accent, we said that
we were French from
Plus, we had these wonderful false identity papers- thanks to Bill Speir and the committee.”
How did the system function? Like in the anti-fascist resistance. “The refugees were given a torn piece of paper with a number on it. The other half of the paper was sent to us by courier: the two pieces had to fit.”
How many were saved?
“We took groups of 4 to 5 people- never more; we did this three times a week or so. “ Varian Fry estimated that the Fittkos took about 300 people over the border in this period- from September 1940 to March 1941. He also stressed the fact that apart from the Benjamin tragedy, not one of their people had been formally interrogated – NONE were ever arrested.
But Lisa, when asked about the number answered:
“We never counted- we never even thought about that. We also didn´t ever have the feeling that this was “history”. No, we only thought about how to get these people out.”
Here Lisa is silent about the fact that she and Hans had years of experience in underground work. They knew about the Gestapo interrogations and how ignorance could save your life.
There could be no list of the saved refugees. Indeed it was essential to forget any names you actually knew (many came with forged papers). For this reason, lists of names in underground work was absolutely taboo.
Fry and illegal underground work:
Lisa was very impressed that Fry was willing to use illegal methods to save people. The other committees working in Marseille felt obliged to adhere to the rules and were thus restricted to merely playing an advisory and or financial role.
When asked about Fry she answered:
“He was totally naïve. He was an American and I think he was very
liberal and had some contact with left-leaning people in the
In fact, because the “F” Route, the only rescue route he used in this period, was illegal Fry was forced to deny any knowledge of it.
In answer to the
“It appears,” he lied, “that the prefecture had got the absurd idea that some members of my staff had been conducting persons illegally over the border. Actually no member of my staff had been near the border or has been since..”
THE UNKNOWN POLITICAL BACKGROUND OF THE ERC:
It is important to emphasize that the Emergency Rescue Committee was initially organized for the purpose of saving political refugees. Once this background is known, it no longer surprising to learn that Fry always gave priority treatment to the politically persecuted.
A series of new books have recently come out concerning Fry and his rescue work: They include: A QUIET AMERICAN: THE SECRET WAR OF VARIAN FRY von Andy Marino (NY, St. Martins Press, 1999);
Sheila Isenberg, A HERO OF OUR OWN: HOW ONE AMERICAN IN MARSEILLE SAVED MARC CHAGALL, MAX ERNST, ANDRÉ BRETON, HANNAH ARENDT AND MORE THAN A THOUSAND OTHERS FROM THE NAZIS (NY, RANDOM HOUSE, 2001);
Rosemary Sullivan, VILLA AIR-BEL: WORLD WAR II, ESCAPE AND A HOUSE IN MARSEILLE (NY, HARPERCOLLINS 2006).
These publications, as well as the numerous exhibitions on Varian Fry and the ERC in Washington, NY, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris , Marseille, Aix en Provence and Munich, place great emphasis upon the famous and glamorous artists, writers and scientists who were saved by the committee; these included Heinrich and Golo Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Alma Mahler-Werfel und Franz Werfel; André Breton, Victor Serge, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Nobel Prize winning scientist Walter Meyerhof, etc.
Important as it was, this emigration to the
These prominent people were of tremendous value for the ERC.
Because the committee was constantly obliged to fight for its existence and for the necessary means to finance the rescue operation, it was easiest for fundraising purposes to have well-known refugees on the lists.
Thus Harold Oram, one of the main fundraisers for the committee wrote to Fry in March, 1941:
“If Albert Einstein could be
In the recent literature, much emphasis is placed upon the fascinating and adventurous interludes in the period that Fry spent in the South of France. These include stories about what has become the legendary Villa Air Bel, where Fry and a number of the members of the committee lived together with some of the famous Surrealists –Victor Serge and Andre Breton , Max Ernst and others - playing bizarre games and celebrating with art competitions, music and wine. But this wild adventure was but a brief respite from the harsh realities.
Further mythological exaggerations concern the image of Varian Fry as an inexperienced, guileless person, that is as an “innocent American”. This image was a perfect camouflage in the dangerous situation in the South of France of the time. Later, it served as protection against accusations thrown around in McCarthyite America.
Despite the prominence given to this adventurous and somewhat glamorous side of Fry´s experience in the literature cited above and even in Fry´s own book, it is significant that Fry dedicated the book, published in 1945, to Karl Frank, alias Paul Hagen and his American wife, Anna Caples.
Frank was a left-wing activist from
The reasons for Hans und Lisa`s cooperation now become clearer.
The principle was: the enemies of Hitler must be saved:
Although the Fittkos were no longer
in any political party, they were convinced, like many political resistants,
that in the German people- especially within the working-class movement and the
unions- the potential for resistance to Hitler was present. And one had to save the oppositional forces
of all kinds for the time when Hitler was gone- so as to be able to build a
In this article, I have tried to show that the relatively well-known story of Varian Fry has often been told in a way that overshadows the true political nature of the enterprise. The refugees were in desperate danger and needed to be saved. But for many of them and for their rescuers, exile and personal safety was not the only goal.
Albert Hirschman expressed their view most concisely: “I didn´t want to leave, I wasn´t interested in going into exile, I wanted to win.”
However in April, 1941, a new regulation banned foreigners from the border region altogether, and Hans and Lisa Fittko were forced to abandon their rescue operation.
With Fry´s help, they were able to
get passage on a ship to
But at the end of the war, the
Fittko´s found that neither West or
They had risked their lives for
hundreds of people. Yet there was no
place for them in either of the two parts of
1. The original German publication was: Lisa Fittko, Mein Weg über die Pyrenäen. Erinnerungen 1940/41 (München/Wien, Hanser Verlag, 1985). A later paperback:
Mein Weg über die Pyrenäen. Errinerungen 1940/41. Vorwort von Frederik Hetman(Ravensburg, 1992).
also translated into French,
Le Chemin des Pyrénées. Souvenirs 1940-41. Trad. Léa Marcou (Paris, Marin Sel, 1987). The book was also translated into Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese and Italian.
Mein Weg über die Pyrenäen was awarded the prize „Politisches Buch des Jahres“ . In 2004 the German version was republished by (DTV, Reihe Hanser).
Solidarität unerwünscht. Meine Flucht durch Europa. Erinnerungen 1933-1940 (München/Wien: Hanser Verlag, 1992; Frankfurt/M: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994 (Fischer Taschenbuch Nr. 11819). English Version: Solidarity and Treason: Resistance and Exile, 1933-1940. Tr. Roslyn Theobald in collaboration with the author (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993).
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