Every knock was a threat. It was 1940, and Lisa Fittko was staying in a little room in the French border town of Banyuls. She could have been arrested at any time, Still, when the knock came she answered it, and she opened the door to find the famous German philosopher Walter Benjamin standing there. “Your husband said you would take me over the mountains,” he said. Of course, she thought, Hans would say that–even though he, back in Marseilles, had no idea that she had found a safe path over the Pyrenees; he didn’t even know for sure that she was still alive. But he had had faith that somehow she would manage to make the perilous trip from Marseilles to Banyuls, and that somehow she would save Benjamin.
Fittko was one of a group of refugees who had only recently escaped to Marseilles from a French internment camp. She had been selected from the group to go to Banyuls to find them a safe passage over the Pyrenees to Spain. From there they could find their way to neutral Lisbon and to a ship that would take them away from Europe. Most of the rest of the continent was by then either occupied by Hitler or in league with him in his madness. The far south of France was not yet occupied by the Germans, though the French police were cooperating with the Germans in rounding up the refugees.
Fittko led Benjamin on foot over the mountains to safety in Spain, but that night he took an overdose of morphine. Forty years later, having retired from her job at the University of Chicago, Fittko wrote about her trip with Benjamin. The article found its way to Gershom Scholem, who handled Benjamin’s papers in Israel, who wanted to have the story published in a German literary magazine. Then two German publishers offered Fittko contracts to write her memoirs of her last months in Europe and of her work saving Jews and anti-Nazi activists. In 1985 Mein Weg Uber die Pyrenaen was published in Germany to rave reviews. No American company has yet expressed interest in publishing it. “You are not writing for American readers,” said Fittko’s German publisher. “This is for Germans.” Yet the book was translated into French, Spanish, and Japanese and received the French Academy Prize and a prize for best political book of the year in Germany. Fittko, who is now 79 and lives in Hyde Park, says there may not be much of a market in this country for a book that talks about the people who fought Hitler, not only about his victims.
Lisa Fittko was born Lisa Ekstein in 1909 in a small town in Austria-Hungary that was annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II. Before World War I the family moved to Vienna, where they lived precariously as Fittko’s father, Ignaz, struggled to publish an antiwar literary magazine. In an attempt to destroy the magazine the government tried several times to draft him; he was legally exempt, though Fittko doesn’t know why. But it seems that President Woodrow Wilson subscribed to the magazine, and as a result, Fittko says, several influential people in Vienna convinced the government to leave the magazine and her father alone. “‘Who knows who will win the war? And we can always say afterward that we, the Austrian government, tolerated an antiwar magazine during the war,’ they said. And so, after several crises in which he was drafted and then released, they did allow him to publish.”
Her father had invested all the family’s money in the magazine. Her mother helped out by selling her embroidery and knitting. But their idealism couldn’t survive long in a desperately poor country that had just lost a war. The family moved to Berlin in 1922. Ignaz Ekstein went into the import-export business, but continued to write. “We were much better off then,” Fittko says. Her father no longer took an active part in politics, but the family values didn’t change. “One thing I miss is when children grow up without being taught what integrity is,” she says. “I don’t think my parents ever said, ‘Now Lisa, you must have integrity,’ but I always knew what it meant. And I guess you can get very old, as I’m doing now, and there’s still some basic childhood–well, a focus through a whole life. You never think it through. I never sat down and wondered, ‘Is integrity so important?’ It’s just there.”
The family’s integrity, she says, came from their social and artistic values, not their religious values. When as a child Fittko asked whether there was a God, her parents told her, “You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.” The only religious training she had was from a rabbi who came–along with a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister–to her school twice a week to give the children religious instruction.
The offices of the magazine in Vienna had been part of the family home. “Everyone important in Viennese culture and left-wing political life passed through,” Fittko says. Some were friends, some only colleagues. Later, growing up in Berlin, Fittko became deeply involved in the world of art and politics. Some of her family’s friends and relatives were more political than others. An aunt, who was a painter, seemed to have no interest in the political upheavals of prewar Berlin, but she was one of the many who ended up in a concentration camp. In the end she became political. “She was sent to Auschwitz to die because she refused to paint a portrait of the camp doctor,” says Fittko. A well-known left-wing journalist cousin was sent to Buchenwald. “He was made to repeat over and over again his speeches, while they were torturing and beating him. In the end he was killed,” she says. “There were lots of people like that who had to give their lives.”
In the 1920s and the very early 30s, before Hitler rose to power, Berlin was a scene of great confusion, often chaos. “On the one hand,” Fittko says, “there was the rising nationalism, though the Nazis were something like LaRouche is now in this country–something to laugh at. This man had such a funny mustache. But the right-wing paramilitary organizations were very serious, and then slowly it came about–as the depression got worse, the Nazis became something you had to look at seriously. And in those last years before the Nazis took power, there was what you might call a latent civil war, especially in Berlin. In the morning you read about how many people were killed, first by the paramilitary and, more and more, by the Nazis. That was one side of Berlin. It activated me and drew me into the antifascist movement that was growing steadily.
“On the other hand there was the other side of Berlin–our Berlin, which was the height of cultural development in the theater, the movies, literature, and music. It was so exciting. It was a first. It had never happened before in this world, it seemed to us. Sometimes I’m asked, ‘Isn’t that a contradiction–the right-wing movement and all that art?’ To me it has always seemed that one is connected with the other, that the attack by the Right on our rights, our freedom, our progressive outlook, what we were going to make of this world drove us to such a height that had never before happened. We were fighting for it. ‘This is our Berlin,’ we said. ‘They’ll never be able to take our Berlin.’ And that developed incredible strength in every phase of the movement against fascism. If there is a mighty enemy, I think that makes for a high point of culture and civilization.”
It is often believed that Hitler was elected by the Germans. In fact he was appointed chancellor. “They never had a majority,” says Fittko. “They became among the parties the strongest, but if, in the election of 1932, the Social Democrats, the Communists, and the Liberal Democrats had cooperated, they would have had the clear majority. The votes of the Nazi Party were threatening, but they never had a majority; they had only 33 percent of the vote. But the left wing and the center could never get together.
“The Social Democrats controlled most of the unions, and the workers were unionized. The unions thought they were almighty. At every level the Social Democrats had a parallel culture. They had schools–like the Karl Marx School in the district next to mine–sports organizations, theater, music. They had all their own organizations as opposed to the official ones. It was a very strange situation, because the government was also Social Democrat. And then there were the Communists, who were not as strong, but they were a large mass party with their own organizations. They had their theaters, with Bertolt Brecht, where all of Berlin went because they were so excellent. There was no cultural field in which they didn’t have something. And then there were the agnostics–the official word was ‘dissident.’ We were told, when we had to fill in religion on forms, that we should write dissident. They even had a parallel ceremony to the communion for the children of freethinkers. So there was this whole culture that was existing parallel to the establishment. There was a working-class university that had the same accreditation as the University of Berlin.”
At the same time in Germany there was a rising tide of anti-Semitism, though less was seen in cosmopolitan Berlin. During the 20s as many as 430 organizations and 700 periodicals arose to push the anti-Semitic message. The Jews were blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I, for food shortages, for all the problems of postwar Germany. Hitler’s and the storm troopers’ message fell on willing ears.
It was some time before the Nazis began killing their enemies in an official, organized way. At first they used the storm troopers, who sought out and murdered those who opposed them and those they disagreed with. (The word Nazi, says Fittko, was coined by the Berlin Left to ridicule the storm troopers.) But in 1933 the president installed Hitler as chancellor. On February 27, 1933, the capitol building–the Reichstag–was allegedly burned down by a communist. The communists were trying to overthrow the government, the Nazis said. The next day a series of edicts, over President Hindenburg’s signature, was issued that represented the first phase in the undermining of the constitution. It was, Fittko says, “the sign that the terror was beginning.” On July 8, after a series of political maneuvers and the rounding up of 15,000 Social Democrats and Communists, Hitler declared, “The party has now become the state.” Jews were defined as non-Aryans and all Jewish civil servants lost their jobs.
As Fittko’s involvement in antifascist activities grew, the danger to her life grew. There was a torchlight march to the chancellor’s residence when Hitler was named to that position. Hundreds of thousands of storm troopers and other admirers were massed in front of the building. When Hitler appeared at the window, there was a storm of jubilation. The crowd started singing and raising their arms in the Nazi salute. Fittko had joined the crowd out of curiosity. But she didn’t raise her arm. “Not as a protest,” she says. “I wasn’t that stupid. But it was the first day, and nobody knew what it really meant. It was all constitutional so far, and it hadn’t penetrated yet that I would automatically have to raise my arm in this kind of crowd–that it was a matter of life and death.” The crowd around her began to notice that she didn’t have her arm in the air, and became hostile. “What’s the matter? Don’t you have an arm?” they shouted. Then someone behind Fittko started to pull her back through the crowd, which slowly opened and closed behind her to make room for her to escape. “It probably happened because people thought, ‘This is a very stupid young woman. Why should we let her be killed?'” Fittko says.
By 1933 Fittko was no longer living with her parents, who had hastily moved to a new neighborhood when Hitler became chancellor to escape the surveillance of the police, neighbors, and storm troopers. “They thought they would be safe in the new, rather fancy neighborhood, because they didn’t know what was to come. Nobody knew,” Fittko says.
Fittko had become a well-known anti-Nazi and had gone underground. She found a little apartment–a room, kitchen, and bath–in the back of a little candy store in a working-class district of Berlin. “The two women who owned the store were members of a working-class choir–everyone had their own choirs–so their political orientation was clear, but it was not with any party. Their reaction to the Nazis was also clear, and when they were told about this young woman who needed a place to live, they said sure.” When she moved, Fittko disappeared from the police records. Although in most European nations at that time one had to be registered with the police and carry papers indicating that, Fittko did not reregister.
On April 1, 1933, the Nazis, using the weak president as cover again, declared a boycott against all Jewish businesses. Storm troopers lined up in front of Jewish businesses with signs saying, “Don’t buy from the Jew.” Fittko was walking across a square near her home when she came upon a group of storm troopers in front of a shoe store. “It was a small store, so if they–as they pretended–were after the capitalists, that wasn’t the kind of store it was,” Fittko says. She looked into the store and saw a young man who was obviously frightened. She walked slowly through the Nazis to the store. “I wanted to make it clear I wasn’t running away from anything. I did it on impulse. You’d think I had learned a little bit to be careful, but I wasn’t.” One of the Nazis bent down to her and said, “Are you crazy? Get away from here.” She looked up and recognized a face she had seen at left-wing gatherings. “There were people who went over. They were offered a job, a uniform, a gun.” She walked on into the store and told the young man, “I don’t need any shoes. I wouldn’t have any money to pay for shoes. But I’m going to sit down and you just show me some shoes and then I will leave.” He asked her why she’d come in. Fittko says she told him, “I just wanted you to know that you’re not alone.” He brought her a pair of shoes, and she tried them on. Then she walked out. “I was so filled with outrage about what they did to this young man. I felt I had to do something. But it wasn’t very well thought through. I hope I didn’t do too many things like that, but it took some time before my reactions became adjusted to the new situation.”
The day the boycott was declared, Fittko says, “my young cousin from Czechoslovakia showed up. He had bicycled all the way with a message from his father. He went to our former apartment only to find my parents gone. A neighbor said he didn’t know their address, but he would try to find out. He then got in touch with my parents to find out whether he should give this boy the address. Reassured, he told the boy where to go. The boy said to my parents, ‘My father sent me to tell you that the Jew here probably can’t judge the circumstances as well as we do from the outside. He feels that you’ve got to come immediately. He has opened his house to you.'” Her parents quickly left the country.
Despite their entreaties, Fittko did not leave with them. “There was the hope in all our minds that this would not last. And they were scared. They knew I was working with the resistance, producing all kinds of literature to be distributed.” She insisted that Hitler could be overthrown and that she had to help. Her brother, Hans, also stayed behind. His dissertation in physics had just been accepted, and he had to wait to take his orals to defend his thesis for his PhD. But before he could take his orals, he, along with a number of other Jews, was barred from the university. (Nevertheless, he became a well-known theoretical physicist and spent his last working decades as senior physicist at Argonne National Laboratory.)
“It wasn’t quite clear who was on what side for a long time,” says Fittko. “The storm troopers didn’t know how much power they had when Hitler was appointed chancellor. They rampaged through the working-class districts, which were all left-wing, but they didn’t know just how much protection they would have from the police or the government. Sometimes they would come for someone–he would run up to the roof and shout, ‘Call the police.’ And the police would come and claim him as their prisoner. They would accuse him of murder or robbery and would take him to jail, which was a safer place for him to be. The police at that time were mostly Social Democrats, too. But the police didn’t always come; they didn’t always know what to do. It was a mixture of organized terror and some kind of order, but mostly chaos. There was no gestapo yet. It was at first only storm troopers in neighborhoods going after people they knew and hated. They were taking revenge on their enemies, even enemies from grade school. It was mad.”
It was only a few months, however, before Hitler managed to take over the police, to organize the terror, and to establish the camps, where anti-Nazi activists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, and others who defied Hitler’s authority were systematically sent. Fittko somehow managed to avoid arrest, though she was secretly writing, printing, and distributing anti-Nazi literature. It was difficult work. “Where do you find a typewriter where you don’t attract attention in those working-class neighborhoods where we worked? You didn’t have typewriters going all the time. And how do you put it together, duplicate it? The distribution was always the easiest part–there were always young people eager to do it.”
In the summer of 1933, Fittko was finally forced to leave Germany. “The big problem of the underground resistance was the constant breaking of connections by arrest. You would meet only in very small groups. You would work with only one or two other people. Every time there was an arrest, there was a lot to think about. First you had to make new connections. But more important, you had to wonder, ‘Is the person who’s been arrested going to hold up under torture and not reveal you? Are you next?’ You could never foresee who was going to hold up. It didn’t depend on physical build or on what you believed was the character of that person. You just didn’t know where the breaking point was. For some it was soon, for others it was never.” In midsummer, the three students with whom Fittko was working were arrested.
There was a lot of communication among prisoners and between them and the outside world. The three students heard a rumor that Fittko had left the country and decided to put all the responsibility for their actions on her. She was, they told their interrogators, a beautiful woman who had seduced them. “They were not traitors,” Fittko says. “They assumed I was safe.” They were released and then found Fittko.
Word had come down that a census would be taken. Every person was to spend the night at the address where he or she would be registered. Every apartment would be searched. “I came home to that little candy store, and that woman went down on her knees begging me not to come home anymore. It was the most terrible night, according to all those who remember, but incredibly it has disappeared from history.”
Fittko decided to go back to her parents’ apartment, where she was no longer registered but where her brother was still living. She hid in the maid’s room at the back of the house. In the morning the storm troopers arrived. They were students, and when her brother showed them his student ID, they immediately became friendly–though they couldn’t know he was Jewish. They left without searching the apartment.
Fittko managed to join her parents in the small town in Czechoslovakia where her relatives lived, but quickly went off to Prague. “Many of those who had fled had gone to Prague. I knew I would find my old friends there.”
In Prague, Fittko lived and ate where she could. She sought help from some of the various refugee committees that operated in the city. She says she didn’t have much luck with the Jewish committee. “They said there were other committees for political activists.” She was finally taken in by the equivalent of her old union, an office workers’ union. “Their arms were open to us. They gave us the same financial support they gave their unemployed workers–which wasn’t very much, but it helped. They helped us to find places to live.”
Other Czechs helped, too. When winter came, Fittko had only a heavy sweater. A friend told the Jewish owner of a women’s clothing store that she needed a coat. He told Fittko to pick out any coat she wanted, and in turn she would help him out twice a week in the morning. Other Czechs gave her free tickets to the opera, movies, plays, and concerts.
But many Czechs were afraid to be associated with the refugees. Even some of her relatives refused to see her.
Some of the refugee committees rented dormitories to provide sleeping places for the refugees. Fittko was sleeping here and there, but gave one of those dormitories as her mailing address. One day when she went to ask for her mail, she was sent to a young man named Hans Fittko. Later he told her that he had not really been in charge of the mail, but had asked the regular mail clerk to let him handle her mail. They were married about a year later, though not officially, since they were not legal residents.
To earn a little money, Fittko typed a manuscript for a woman who was writing what Fittko describes as a lousy book. “I never knew what she was trying to say,” she laughs. But the typing gradually expanded to include lunch, and she found out that the woman and Fittko’s mother had gone to school together, a fact that cemented their relationship. “I had a permanent job and lunch,” Fittko says.
After a few months, Fittko began living in a large apartment with other refugees, who slept six to a room. “It was horrible, but we didn’t see it that way then. Most of the people there had gone through terrible persecution. Some had been tortured. The husbands of two of the women had been murdered. So if you are in these kinds of surroundings, you look at your comfort differently. I think this is the first time I have realized just how awful that accommodation was. People–women and children–had to sleep wherever they could.”
The political refugees in Prague found each other easily and some began producing anti-Nazi literature and smuggling it into Germany. “It had become clear that it was much too costly, in terms of victims, to produce the material in Germany,” says Fittko. “It made much more sense to produce it in Czechoslovakia and smuggle it across the border–across a mountain range between the two countries.” Hans Fittko had been smuggled into Czechoslovakia by some friends who were ski instructors in the mountains. He brought them the materials, and they were his smugglers. But Hans was finally forced to flee Czechoslovakia after a gestapo spy infiltrated the network and pointed to him as a major organizer. Germany then began pressuring Czechoslovakia to expel him.
Hans headed for Basel, Switzerland, and Lisa followed him. She could enter the country on her German passport, though she could not legally stay. They stayed in Basel, which is near the border with Germany, about two and a half years, sleeping and eating where they could while they continued their underground work. But because they were there illegally, they were constantly in danger. They couldn’t speak in the street, because the German spoken by the Swiss is very different from the German spoken in Berlin. They also had to be careful where they went because, Fittko explains, “if you’ve been a refugee for years, it shows–even if they put a new dress on you.”
Fittko’s experience in Switzerland left her with mixed emotions. On the one hand, she says, the Swiss authorities refused to give the refugees papers, so most could only stay in the country illegally. On the other hand, the Swiss people were wonderful to the refugees. “They just took us in. They said, ‘Send me a person to sleep for a couple of months or to eat regularly.’ They knew we were illegal and that we had nothing to eat and all that. We could not work. It was, of course, dangerous for them to take people in who had no right to live there. They were really wonderful.” But the Swiss apparently didn’t much take to Fittko. She didn’t knit. She smoked–and enjoyed it. “And then there were those meals,” she says. “I understood it was meant well. After all, it was some sacrifice. You had to be home. You had to cook. I remember one place–the Wednesday night–that I had nightmares before I had to go there. They were so good to me. They always had pasta–spaghetti or macaroni. They had these huge plates. They would put the macaroni on my plate–more and more. And I’d keep saying thank you, thank you, that’s enough. But no, I was a hungry refugee and I had to eat. I was hungry, but enough is enough. I just couldn’t eat it all. So they started talking about me. ‘Our macaroni is not good enough for her.’ I was trying to explain that the macaroni was good, the best I ever had, but too much. They wouldn’t accept it. On top of not knitting and smoking for pleasure, it was just too much. They weren’t downright rude, but they didn’t like me, and they let me know. But we needed their goodwill, and I knew I had to somehow calm them down and make them like me.”
To be in Switzerland illegally was bad enough. To be doing underground work against a neighboring country, when Switzerland prided itself on its neutrality, was far worse. Throughout their stay in Basel, Lisa and Hans maintained contact with young people in Germany, who regularly stole across the border to report on the mood in Germany, particularly in the plants where they worked. Sometimes these young Germans wrote the leaflets they distributed in their plants. More often Hans and Lisa wrote the materials based on what they’d been told, and Hans arranged to have them smuggled.
Then the German government issued a warrant for Hans’s arrest, which the Swiss government agreed to honor. The Germans did not know his real name, but had a complete physical description from the Swiss girlfriend of a German who was working with the Fittkos and distributing literature in Germany and was caught. The gestapo contacted the girlfriend and promised that he would be released if she would reveal Hans’s whereabouts. “She was a nonpolitical, didn’t know what was happening, and obviously had not very much conscience,” Fittko says.
Lisa was called to the office of the state prosecutor, a Jewish social democrat, who told her the Swiss government had agreed to arrest and extradite Hans and that she should get him out of the country. Hans was in Zurich, but Fittko immediately sent someone to warn him. When she got home, her neighborhood had been cordoned off by police. She found Hans asleep in their room. “He had somehow slipped through that police cordon. We then stayed for a few more days, taking our chances because there were all kinds of things happening at the border that had to be taken care of. And then we left. Some Swiss friends took me on a streetcar over the French border.” Other friends walked Hans into France. Hans and Lisa met and headed for Holland.
“In Amsterdam, it was more difficult,” says Fittko. “I knew Dutch, so I was a little better off than my husband, but the Dutch policy at that time was worse than the other neighboring countries. When the Swiss caught you, they put you across the French border. When the French caught you, they put you in jail for ten days and then put you back across the Swiss border. Then the Swiss repeated the same thing. But the Dutch put you back across the German border. We spent that year in Amsterdam with my husband never speaking in any public place.”
Hans spent most of his time at the Dutch-German border working with the resistance. Lisa was alone most of the time, in a country where she knew hardly anyone. “There was no refugee community,” she says. “It was almost impossible for a refugee to exist there.” They found housing and food with a theater couple who were socialists. Lisa helped Hans with writing and typing, but was on her own most of the time. “It was a year in which I did things I’d always wanted to do but never had time for,” she says. She went to concerts and museums, and “just wandered through the city–which is wonderful.” Despite the constant danger of being arrested, it was a year of some joy.
After a year in Amsterdam the two went to Paris, where Lisa’s family was living. Her brother had suddenly married his fiancee, who was in danger, so that she could legally leave Germany on his Austrian passport.
Hans and Lisa found it difficult just to live in Paris. They stopped their underground work, though they met regularly with the refugee community: the artists, writers, poets, musicians, activists–many of whom were Jews–who had fled to Paris in large numbers. The French tolerated their presence, but they did not welcome them. They were not permitted to work or even to marry.
Fittko’s father did the correspondence for a mail-order house to earn a few francs. As a young girl Fittko had studied in France for a year and could therefore speak the language. She found occasional jobs as a typist, but most of the time worked as a cleaning woman or a baby-sitter. It was the women in the refugee community who earned the money for their families to live on. “We had no work permits, but the women could do household work and baby-sitting that was not reported,” she says. “So you had secretaries of state and famous poets scrubbing floors. And those families of course exploited us, paying us much less than they would have had to pay French women.
“It was terrible. Often we didn’t have money for bread. We helped each other, though. One week we didn’t have the rent and people somehow got together and scratched up the money among them so we would not be put out of that little apartment.”
On September 3, 1939, England and France declared war on Germany. The day after, large red signs appeared on walls around Paris, stating that all men of German origin between the ages of 16 and 65 should report to a huge stadium in the city. Hans had to go. He and most of the other men were then sent to camps around the country. In the camps the French tried to recruit refugees for the French Foreign Legion, which was building a railroad across the Sahara. The refugees were promised French citizenship, the right to marry, and other benefits. If they did not join up, they were told, they would be kept in the camps until the war was over. Some men joined. Others refused. Fittko says the only time she cried all those years was when she heard that her husband had joined the legion. But it was just another of the many false rumors that circulated daily.
In the months that followed, Fittko says, “there was a war, but no war. There was some air activity that sent people into bomb shelters constantly, but no bombings. Everybody was sure that it would be a chemical war. Gas masks were given out to the entire population–except the refugees. We didn’t get gas masks–which meant if it was a chemical war we would die, but it also meant that we were immediately recognizable as Germans.”
In May the German offensive began. Again the red posters appeared, this time requiring all the women of German origin and the men who had been released from the French camps to appear in a stadium. After being kept there for a couple of weeks, the women were put on trains and the doors were locked. “It was an endless train ride. We didn’t know where we were going, but we figured that we must be going south because the Germans were coming from the north. Finally we reached a camp in the south of France called Gurs, which was a camp created during the Spanish Civil War when the Spanish Republican army was fleeing Franco. The story goes that the camp commander, who still had some Spanish in the camp, got a phone call from Paris saying, ‘We are shipping herewith 14,000 women to be put into your camp.’ There was a long silence from the commander. He had fainted. That story was told everywhere.
“When we came in, we didn’t understand what was happening. We weren’t beaten or tortured, but the camp was horrible. How long I was there I don’t remember, but I think it was about six weeks. Then the French army collapsed, and the Germans were breaking through and advancing rapidly. They were using encircling tactics, which meant that people escaping from the camps never knew whether the Germans were occupying that territory.”
The camp officers fled before the advancing Germans. Some announced to the prisoners that they were leaving, and that the prisoners should take care of themselves as best they could. The refugees fled. Fittko and a friend went to the gate of the camp, where there were still soldiers on guard. They told the guards they would be right back, and walked out. They walked until they were given a ride by a French officer, who took them to the police station in a small village in the mountains that was within three hours’ walking distance of Lourdes. Fittko says the officer told the police chief, “These women are being persecuted by the Germans, and I herewith make you, the police officer of this village, responsible for their safety.” The policeman took his responsibility seriously and tried to prevent the women from leaving the village.
On June 22, 1940, the French surrendered to the Germans and agreed to surrender any refugees to them. Three-fifths of France was occupied; southeast France was under the Vichy government. But, says Fittko, “we knew then that the Germans would not advance to where we were in the south of France. We decided we had to get out of the village to look for our families. We went to Lourdes, where we tried to get some papers that would legalize us. We did get temporary papers from an army officer who defied his orders and helped us. Then we decided to go to Marseilles, where we heard all the refugees were going. It was an open port. Somehow the refugees were magnetically drawn together. We had a perfect network of information in a totally chaotic situation. We corresponded somehow. It was almost magical. I got a postcard in Lourdes from my brother saying, ‘I’m alive. I’ve heard that your husband was seen on a bicycle on the road between Limoges and Montauban.’ I wrote to him at the address of a friend in Montauban telling him that we would take such and such a train on a certain day and that he should be in the railroad station in Toulouse to meet us.”
Her husband wasn’t there. He had assumed that she would come to where he was, in a half-finished villa that had been taken over by the refugees. “I didn’t know what to do,” Fittko says. “His logic was that if he wasn’t in the railroad station, he didn’t have to do anything–I would look for him. ‘What else would you do?’ he said when I found him. “You wouldn’t go to Marseilles without me.’ So I looked for him and ran into a woman I knew, and she said, ‘Your husband is waiting for you in Montauban.’ My anger was mounting, What if this woman hadn’t come by the railroad station? How would I find him? My friends said I was crazy to go to look for him without knowing where to find him, but they waited for me to come back with him and board the next train to Marseilles. The woman told me he was waiting for me in his garden–which only made me angrier. His garden! He was in the garden of that villa when I got there. He knew I had no valid papers. It was a totally impossible situation. I started screaming at him. I was exhausted. I’d been standing up all night in the railroad station. It was unbearable. What really made me mad was that he was right. I wouldn’t have gone to Marseilles without him.”
In the chaos of the last weeks before the French surrender, some camp commanders had put some of the German men into army uniforms and had given them papers that indicated they were part of the army. Hans was one of those men. In Montauban he had been given discharge papers, but they stipulated that he travel on foot to his next destination. When he protested, an officer explained that the trains could be used only if a soldier was returning to the place he had come from. Hans had come from Paris and so faced having to walk to Marseilles–perhaps a two-week journey. But a friend “accidentally” knocked a glass of wine on his papers, obscuring the fact that he had come from Paris. The Fittkos took the next train to Marseilles.
“We wanted to get out of France, out of the trap,” says Fittko. “We considered, if we couldn’t get out, going to some small village where we were not known to hibernate. But it was clear that sooner or later the Germans had to take the rest of France, because of the possibility of an invasion from the south. So we were following up all kinds of possibilities, but without much hope because we didn’t know anybody, we had no money, no connections. We finally were able to get papers to leave the country. How we would do that we weren’t sure. We thought we could go to Portugal, which was neutral, but for that you needed two transit visas–one for Portugal and one for Spain. And a visa for the country of your final destination. We finally got one from Panama. Others had Chinese visas. There was a Chinese office where they would put a stamp on your passport, for which you paid 100 francs. Later on, a Chinese friend told us that this stamp said ‘The bearer of this is, at no time, under no circumstances, allowed to enter China.’ But who knew Chinese? It was a booming business.
“What we didn’t have was the French exit visa. We were ready to go, but we had to cross the border illegally because the French would have arrested us. The Nazis were after men under 42 who might be going to join de Gaulle’s army that was organizing in England. There were 10 to 15 of us ready to go. We decided that, instead of all of us going down to the border and perhaps getting arrested, one of us should go and scout out a safe passage. They asked me to go.”
In Banyuls, a town near the border, Fittko discovered that the mayor was a socialist activist who, during the Spanish Civil War, had smuggled guns into Spain and refugees out. He described the road that would be safe. The next morning, Walter Benjamin arrived at Fittko’s door. She spent the next two days taking him to Spain, finding her way along the path recommended by the mayor.
When she returned, she found a telegram from her husband telling her to return to Marseilles at once, as their Portuguese visas had expired and had to be renewed immediately. She took the next train, “Without papers, traveling on trains was very dangerous, But we had learned a trick. You went into the toilet in the railroad station in Marseilles, and there was another door that opened into a hotel lobby. You could escape the police. So I escaped. When I got back, my husband said to me, ‘There are two Americans who want to talk to us right away.’ That evening we met Varian Fry from the American Emergency Rescue Committee [AERC]. He had heard about my taking Benjamin over the mountains and asked if we would go back to the border and take other refugees over. We delayed our own escape plans and agreed to do it for a couple weeks. The couple weeks stretched into seven months.” It is the story of those seven months that Fittko wrote about in her book.
The AERC paid for Hans and Lisa’s expenses in Banyuls. The mayor protected them, though obviously it was dangerous to help refugees cross the border. They lived first in what Fittko says was a beautiful but very primitive old house, but later moved into the second floor of a house that had such amenities as an inside toilet and running water.
Over the next seven months, Hans and Lisa guided refugees–young, old, all nervous, some querulous, some cooperative, some difficult–over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. The refugees were sent to Banyuls by the AERC and by friends of the Fittkos.
Some had fled because they were anti-Nazis, some simply because they were Jews. At that time, Fittko says, the known anti-Nazis were in the most danger. All of those who came to Banyuls, however, were afraid they would be caught by the Nazis. “We were surrounded by a world–in addition to France and Germany–where the gestapo had a powerful influence.”
The AERC has estimated the number of people the Fittkos took over the border at between 100 and 300. “We never kept count,” says Fittko. “It was not a time to keep records or even to count from one week to the next.” The trip varied from a few hours to a day, depending on the person. An older person who had never climbed a mountain before or who was slow and frightened had to stop often and could take a whole day. There were also those who were so nervous and frightened that they could not follow directions. And there was not always a cleared path–“Rocks, rocks, and more rocks.” Either separately or together, the Fittkos would take the refugees to the point where they could see the Spanish village that was their destination. Once in Spain, the refugees would then go the rest of the way by themselves. Most of them went on to Lisbon and then left Europe.
To make the trip, the refugees had to dress like the local peasants, so that they blended in. They had to start before dawn, when the peasants were on their way to the vineyards, so that it did not seem unusual for them to be on the road. They could carry nothing, because it would make them conspicuous and slow them down. The Fittkos had arranged to have a small amount of luggage transported to their destination in Spain, though some of the refugees didn’t trust that their belongings would get there. Fittko laughs now about a middle-aged man who wanted to bring his luggage and only agreed to have it sent when he was told that he–and his wife and children–could not go otherwise. The next morning Hans and Lisa started out walking some distance ahead of the family. When Hans looked back, he saw that the local customs official was following them. Hans went back to talk with the official and found that the refugee was carrying a fur coat–in the heat. He had endangered his family and the Fittkos to preserve the mark of status of his previous life. The coat was immediately abandoned, the customs official was placated, and the family crossed the mountains safely.
The word came in October of 1941 that it was time for the Fittkos to leave. The AERC had at last been able to buy Cuban visas for them. Four hundred more people were rescued along with the Fittkos. The AERC paid $500 per person for the boat trip, $500 each for the Cuban visas, and $2,000 each to the Cuban government to guarantee their financial status.
Their small ship was so crowded that many people were put in the hold, which quickly became almost unbearable. As soon as the ship reached warm waters, Fittko slept on the deck. Their ship was on the water for 14 days. They arrived in Cuba ten days before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Everyone was taken immediately to a camp, which they were not permitted to leave–they were told that their financial guarantee had not been received. A man wearing a Western Union cap appeared and offered to send telegrams for them. Fittko gave him one for her brother, who was already in the U.S., and then realized that the man was asking for five dollars from everyone, regardless of the length or destination of the wire. Later she learned that the telegrams were never received and that the “messenger” had stolen his cap.
Within a few days they found that they could get anything for money. One day Hans bribed a guard to take him and Lisa downtown in a cab. The guard’s only condition was that they stop at every tavern along the way so that he could have a drink. “We made it to downtown Havana under the official eye of this guard, and my husband had the name of the lawyer there through whom the [AERC] had made the payments,” says Fittko. “We went to his office–he was a senator. My husband talked to him, showed him our papers, and asked why we were being held. The lawyer said, ‘No problem. You just go back and you’ll be out tonight. They claim they didn’t get the money.’ My husband said, ‘What do you mean? How can they claim they didn’t get the money? Have you given the authorities the money?’ The lawyer smiled and said, ‘You can’t blame me for trying.'” Hans and Lisa were released that night.
At last the Fittkos relaxed. They liked Cuba. They would stay there, they believed, until the war ended and Germany was defeated, and would then return to help build a democratic society. Hans had been a journalist in pre-Nazi Germany, and he wanted to return to his work. Meanwhile they would earn a little money. After several hard years, Lisa’s language skills got her a job running an import business for a man who was often away. Hans worked wherever he could, until an opportunity for him to become an apprentice diamond cutter opened and he began working with skilled refugees from Belgium and Holland. (All diamond stocks in the U.S. had been requisitioned for the war effort, so the New York diamond firms had moved to Cuba, where they could buy diamonds without government restrictions, finish them, and then sell them in the U.S.)
Then Hans suddenly developed a brain aneurysm. To get better medical treatment for him, the Fittkos emigrated to the U.S. in 1948. They had given up their dream of returning to Germany.
They went first to New York with the plan of remaining there. But after a couple of weeks they went to see Lisa’s brother, who had settled with his family in Chicago, where he had a job with the Armour Research Foundation. They had not seen each other for eight years. “We came to visit for two weeks, and here I am,” Fittko says.
They stayed because Lisa’s parents had finally been given visas to come to the U.S., and it seemed sensible that the whole family should be in one place. The Eksteins had survived the war in the south of France, but they were old and sickly. For several years, the Fittkos lived with the Eksteins in an apartment on the north side.
Hans had periods when he could work and lead a normal life, though he never went back to being a journalist. But he and her parents were often sick, and Lisa felt she had to make as much money as she could. She worked long hours in a series of jobs in the import-export business–work she often didn’t enjoy. She then went home at night to earn a few dollars as a translator. “It was very hard,” she says.
In 1960 Hans died. By 1964 both of her parents were also dead. Fittko decided that she would take life easier, that she would no longer travel downtown every day to a job. She now lived in Hyde Park, and though the University of Chicago didn’t need her language skills, she didn’t need to earn as much money as she had. She took a job as a clerical worker at the university and began to look around for some political activity. She joined the Hyde Park Peace Council, which was protesting the beginnings of the Vietnam war, and by 1969 was its chairman–a job she held off and on over the years. Once more, she was producing leaflets and getting them distributed, circulating petitions, planning meetings, supporting candidates, but this time she was doing it openly and in safety. At 79, she is now the group’s coordinator, though the group is not very active anymore. She is known for her idealism, her calm demeanor, and her knowledge of how to get things done.
In 1968 Fittko went back to see Germany. “I’m a very curious person,” she says. “Berlin is where I developed educationally, culturally, politically–as a person. It took me a long, long time to realize that Berlin is not where I belong for the rest of my life. All that emigration all over Europe and Cuba was only going to be temporary, I thought. Even though I understood it intellectually, in my emotional life I was going back to Berlin. It was years before I accepted that I am not a Berliner.” She has since made a number of trips to Germany, several of them to work with her German publisher.
When Fittko retired in 1974 after ten years at the U. of C., she asked herself what she would do with the rest of her life. She had moved into a huge cooperative building in Hyde Park and was soon elected a member of the board and later chairman of the board. She worked almost full-time for a year at that job until she moved out of the co-op. “I don’t regret the time and energy I put into the job, but there were many difficulties,” she says.
She had always thought she could write–she says it was the only thing in school that she did well. But aside from leaflets, she hadn’t done any writing in years. In 1981 she started writing short pieces about her memories that she hoped to publish, although she didn’t know how. Friends who read them encouraged her. Then a serious illness left her very weak. But in 1985 her account of the fate of the German refugees who had been trapped in France and of the seven months she spent guiding refugees across the French border was published in Germany, and she was feted there as a major contributor to the literature of recent German history. “What I think people like about my book,” she says, “is that it was written by someone who was there and tried to do something about it.”
Though she is still suffering the aftermath of her illness, Fittko is now writing another book, this one on the early stages of Nazism in Germany. She rises late and works at her computer as long as she can. In the evenings she still sometimes goes to meetings of the peace organizations to which she is devoted. “I do what I can,” she says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.