When Hitler rose to power in January 1933, he moved quickly to squelch dissident demonstrations and meetings. But a group of activists, including Lisa Fittko and her future husband, Hans, continued to publish and distribute antifascist literature underground–Lisa occasionally hid manuscripts in her blouse while waiting for a contact to lead her to a safe location to type them up. Later that year the situation became too dangerous and the Fittkos had to flee Germany, first to Czechoslovakia, then Holland, and finally to what they thought was safety in France. Considered a political threat by the Vichy government, Lisa was thrown into an internment camp, from which she eventually escaped. Reunited, the Fittkos ended up in a small village near the Spanish border. There, for six months during 1940 and ’41, the Fittkos risked their lives leading anti-Nazi refugees through the Pyrenees to safety in Spain, assisting Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee. Fry, who died in 1967, is credited with rescuing nearly 2,000 refugees, including Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, and Marcel Duchamp.
“People are constantly asking me, ‘What gave you the courage?'” says Lisa Fittko, now 89. “We had to do it. It was the conviction that any fascist regime is murderous and has to be fought.”
In November 1941 Fry arranged for the Fittkos to get visas to Cuba. They stayed there seven years, until Lisa and Hans moved to Chicago, where her brother and his family lived. Hans had become ill in Cuba, but was not diagnosed with a brain aneurysm until after their arrival in the U.S. He died in 1960 at the age of 56. Lisa, who speaks five languages, worked in secretarial and administrative jobs and became well-known as a local peace activist. She now lives in Hyde Park and has written two books about her wartime experiences, Escape Through the Pyrenees and Solidarity and Treason, both published by Northwestern University Press. Filmmaker Constanze Zahn has highlighted Fittko’s deeds in her new work, Lisa Fittko–We Said We Will Not Surrender.
“Assignment: Rescue,” an exhibit on Fry at the Field Museum, credits the Fittkos with a crucial role in the committee’s success. “I’m always happy when I see young people learning about what happened then,” says Fittko. “I’m very grateful that people understand, but I hope they also realize that we weren’t the only brave ones.”
Lisa Fittko–We Said We Will Not Surrender screens at one on Sunday, the last day of the exhibit’s run, at the Field Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt at Lake Shore Drive. Afterward Fittko and Zahn will discuss the film. The event is free with admission to the museum, which is $7, $4 for students, seniors, and children 3 to 17. Call 312-322-8854.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Solde Ohlbaum.