(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 Southern France in the years  between1940-41.


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 in Chicago,   Lisa served the author as a model of an emancipated and self-sufficient woman.  We always spoke about her past and from 1960 on we regularly went to visit Banyuls-dur Mer, the village from which she took people across the Pyrenees.  Lisa  entrusted the author with her archive.  The many discussions and interviews with Lisa constitute the basis for a scholarly and personal Lisa Fittko biography which is in progress.


The “F” in “F Route” stood for Fittko.  Why “F”?  Because the Fittkos had to be protected.  It was illegal work and it was punishable by death.


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 Pyrenees.


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 Vichy France was to save  political opponents of Hitler and others persecuted by the Nazis who were now in danger in the South of France.


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  New York when he took over this task.  He did so mainly because no one else was available.  He knew that he was inexperienced and quite naïve.  Initially  he really believed that he would be able to save the persecuted with  a few visas and the  three hundred dollars in his possession - stuffed into his shoes.


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 France- the classical land of exile.  After the invasion of German troops and the creation of the Vichy regime they were no longer safe-  not even in the unoccupied  Southern part of France.  And the atmosphere in France itself was ever more hostile to foreigners and to Jews.

Most important, the Armistice between France and Germany in June, 1940 contained a clause according to which the refugees were to be surrendered to the Nazis “on demand”.  The Gestapo was free to come and fetch them.


Thousands were pressing towards the port of Marseille seeking an exit by sea.  When it became clear that  the possibility of obtaining ship passage  was an virtually an illusion, it became urgent to find a way to cross the Pyrenees mountains.   Spain, although under a Fascist regime, was allowing transit for refugees.  Crossing Spain to Portugal, they were usually able to find their way to England or America from Lisabon.


But only  the very few were able to pass into Spain legally.  For the so-called “enemy aliens”, who were for the most part illegal émigrés to France, an exit visa could only be obtained from the authorities in Vichy, and was thus unattainable.  Thus the search began for a foot path  to Spain which would avoid the French border control.  There were many tries;  paid smugglers or criminal adventurers were used,   some attempts were successful, others not.  In September, 1940, it became clear that none of the ways along the coast were secure.


Before describing the “F” route in detail – a path across the Pyrenees -  how it was organized and perfected with the necessary security measures and professional preparation- a few biographical facts about Lisa Fittko will be provided.


Lisa Ekstein was born in 1909 in the Habsburg Empire into a Jewish bourgeois intellectual family.  She grew up in Vienna.  Her father was the publisher of a literary-political journal.  When the family moved to Berlin in the 1920`s, Lisa quickly became  politically conscious  and soon became intensely involved in the youth organization of the Communist Party.   As she describes it in her book SOLIDARITY OR TREASON: RESISTANCE AND EXILE, 1933-1940 (Translated by Roslyn Theobald in collaboration with the author, (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1993)  (first published as Solidarität Unerwüncht: Meine Fluch durch Europe, Erinnerungen 1933-1940 (Hanser, München, 1992)

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 Germany and go into exile.


In 1934 in Prague she met her husband, Hans Fittko, a working-class leader and journalist  from Berlin.  Together they continued  their resistance against the Nazis – now from  outside the country; they specialized in border work.  In particular, Hans was  passing people and material across the Czech-German border.  When the  Czech authorities, under pressure from the German government, forced Hans to leave the country, they moved to Basel Switzerland, continuing their resistance activities until they once again were forced to leave.  Moving to the Netherlands, they  again organized dangerous border work;  this entailed,  among other things, smuggling anti-fascist literature into Germany and obtaining and passing on information about German rearmament.


Finally, moving to France,  they were soon interned as “enemy aliens” as were all other refugees from the German-dominated areas, Lisa in the woman´s camp in  Gurs, Hans in Vernuch.

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 Mediterranean, the situation was practically hopeless.  It was an atmosphere of phantom ships, panic and chaos; the only alternative way out of France was to cross the Pyrenees but here the risks were great: the Spanish were opening and closing their borders at random.


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 Cassis (where, by the way, her parents were able to survive the whole war).


Because the men were of military age (under 42 years old), it was too dangerous for them to try crossing the border region between France and Spain.  Thus it was decided that Lisa´s husband and her brother would try to find a ship to North Africa. (In fact this ship did not sail- but that is another story).


Lisa was chosen to go investigate the possibility of an illegal crossing into Spain for the women.  She and her sister-in-law, Eva Ekstein, as well as Eva´s small daughter Catherine, aged two, traveled to Port Vendres, a port city close to the Spanish border, to feel out the situation.


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 Banyuls sur Mer, Vincent Azéma,.  Azéma had himself already walked refugees into Spain, using a path along the coastal road.

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 Pyrenees.  This was a far more difficult one, further to the west, a longer and more dangerous path.  It was a former smugglers route which the Republican General Lister had  used to bring his defeated troops in the Spanish Civil War out of Spain.


 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 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 the Pyrenees.  Benjamin simply arrived at the border and knocked on her door;  it was the evening after her return from visiting Mayor Azéma.

He was determined to get to Spain and so they took off on an exploratory trip along the path together. 
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 France.



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).




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 Pyrenees.  After a series of attempts to bring people  to Spain had ended in tragic failure,  the committee was searching for a new path across the mountains.


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.

Lisa writes:

“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 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 Spain separately).

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 Vichy.


“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 Alsace- this was outside of the Vichy governance and thus out of reach if someone had wanted to check our files.

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 USA.  But who in America had ever heard of illegal work under the Nazis?  He couldn’t have been anything but naïve.  He tried to learn.   He surrounded himself with some people- of course there were not many of them- who had some experience and who could help him in this way.  But he tried to learn and his naiveté slowly disappeared- no, disappear is too much: he was not a German anti-fascist and he never became one- you couldn’t  really expect that from him.  He never really understood us.  But he understood the situation and he learned to deal with it- and very rapidly.  In my opinion he performed very valuable work.”


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.


The US government had cabled to all American consuls in France warning them not to have anything to do with illegal activities.  The French police were after Fry and his New York Committee now felt it necessary for Fry to return the States. (Until he was arrested, by the French,  in August, 1941 he continuously had to fight to be able to continue his job).

In answer to the New York request Fry denied any illegal activities and cabled to N.Y.:


“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..”






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);








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 USA – and it had an enormous impact upon the development of the arts and sciences and  America´s preeminent role in science and the arts in the post-war period – it must be said that it served mainly as a cover for the rescuers.


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 brought to America today,” Oram confided,” we could raise one million (dollars) within a short time by exhibiting him throughout the country.  (Pablo) Casals is probably worth one hundred thousand.  Picasso fifty-thousand.  Your trio (Werfel, Mann, and Feutwanger) brought in thirty-five thousand.  Since their arrival we have had nothing good to offer th public and they are pretty shopworn by this time.  See if you can dig up something big.”


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 Vienna who went through many political shifts before he finally became a founder of the “Neu Beginnen” movement.  “Neu Beginnen” was a group formed from members of the left parties which one could label politically avant garde.  They had come to believe that,  in particular in the face of the growth of Fascism,  it was necessary for Communists and Socialists to join together and form a new organization.  Frank had come to the US already before the 2nd World War and had come to know the young journalist Varian Fry who had made a name for himself with a shocking report about the rise of the Nazi movement which was published on the first page of the New York Times.  Karl Frank was concerned with saving his political friends when they were forced to flee, and he was the actual initiator of the idea of what became the ERC.

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 better Germany.  For this reason they wanted to remain in Europe and continue the fight.

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 Cuba at the end of 1941.  It was only in 1948 that they were able to move to the United States, and join the rest of the family.   (Lisa´s parents were able to leave France for the US in 1952.)  But in fact they really always wanted to return to Germany- that had been their dream.


But at the end of the war, the Fittko´s found that neither West or East Germany offered the possibility for them to work to realize their political ideals.


They had risked their lives for hundreds of people.  Yet there was no place for them in either of the two parts of Germany.  Hans Fittko is forgotten, Lisa´s memoirs, although recently re-published,  have reached only a limited audience.  It is time to honor them and the many other unrecognized members of the German Resistance.



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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