In Memoriam: Lisa Fittko, Holocaust Rescue Activist

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

High up in the Pyrenees mountains, away from the regular hiking paths and little known even to most climbers, is a tiny summit from which one can see the coastline of France on one side, and the Spanish coast on the other, all at a glance.

But the groups of travelers whom Lisa Fittko led across that summit in 1940-41 had no time to enjoy the breathtaking view.  For them, it was the crossing point between death and life,  between the terrors of the Gestapo and Vichy France that they had escaped, and the safety of Spain to which Fittko was guiding them.

Fittko, who passed away in Chicago’s Provident Hospital on March 12 at age 95, was an unlikely Holocaust rescue hero whose extraordinary deeds are just beginning to receive recognition.

As a teenager in 1920s Berlin, Fittko (then Ekstein) was eyewitness to the chaos and violence preceding the Nazis’ rise to power.  After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Fittko’s parents quickly emigrated, but she chose to remain and become active in anti-Nazi political activity.  Fittko lived in a tiny back room of a candy shop, preparing anti-Hitler leaflets while playing a record of “Aida” on high volume to mask the sound of her typing.

Fittko’s failure to give the Nazi salute at a Hitler rally landed her on a Gestapo hit list.  In an interview with the Vancouver Sun many years later, she said that she had acted out carelessness– “I was stupid, but not that stupid.”  In any event, pursued both as a Jew and an anti-Nazi activist, Fittko fled to Prague.  There she met her husband-to-be, anti-Nazi activist Hans Fittko.

Hans, who was accused of shooting a Nazi activist in Berlin, was constantly on the run from the Gestapo.  He and Lisa took refuge for some time in Switzerland and then in the Netherlands.  In both countries, they devoted themselves to producing anti-Nazi literature which they smuggled into Germany.  In 1939, they made their way to France, joining the thousands of refugee artists, intellectuals, and activists, many of them Jews, in search of haven from the Nazis.

After the outbreak of the war, the French authorities rounded up the German and Austrian citizens within its borders, sweeping up anti-Nazis like the Fittkos along with Nazi sympathizers.  Lisa was sent to Gurs, a women’s detention camp near the Pyrenees mountains and the French-Spanish border.  Using forged documents, she and a group of fellow-prisoners, including the not-yet-famous philosopher Hannah Arendt, escaped Gurs amidst the chaos of the German army’s advance in the spring of 1940.

Instead of fleeing to Spain, however, Lisa and Hans set to work helping other refugees escape.  With a map provided by Vincent Azema, the socialist mayor of the French border town of Banyuls, Lisa traced a mountain route to Spain that was traditionally used by smugglers.

The first group that she took across the Pyrenees, in September 1940, included the philosopher Walter Benjamin, whom Hannah Arendt called “the outstanding literary critic of the twentieth century.”  “I helped Walter Benjamin not because he was Walter Benjamin,” Lisa later recalled.  “If it had been someone else who I knew I could trust and for whom staying in France was too dangerous, I would have helped anyone, regardless of their name.”

The group made it to the Spanish border, but the journey ended tragically when the Spanish authorities refused to permit their entry and Benjamin, fearing capture by the Gestapo, took his own life.  Benjamin’s briefcase, which apparently contained the manuscript for his next book, disappeared after his death and was never found, setting off much speculation among scholars in the decades since.

“Once I’d taken Walter Benjamin across, it was clear that it would work,” Lisa recounted in a 1998 documentary, “Lisa Fittko: But We Said We Will Not Surrender.”  ” I found the way, although it wasn’t that easy and the first time  I lost my way repeatedly.  It’s terribly difficult to orient oneself in the mountains.  It is practically impossible.  One knows the general direction, but when you’re up there, everything you see is mountains, you see nothing but mountains.”


In New York City earlier that summer, friends and colleagues of the refugee intellectuals in France established the Emergency Rescue Committee.   They hoped to bring the most prominent cultural figures among the refugees to the United States–a tall order, given the prevailing anti-immigration mood among the American public, Congress, and the Roosevelt administration.  Not only did the administration oppose liberalizing America’s tight immigration quotas,  but the State Department set up bureaucratic obstacles to avoid granting most of the immigration visas that the law still permitted.  Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long instructed  American consular officials to “postpone and postpone and postpone” approving visa applications from Jewish refugees.

As a result, during the Hitler years, 1933-1945, only 35.8 percent of the German-Austrian quota was filled.  Nearly 200,000 quota places from Axis-ruled countries were unfilled–nearly 200,000 lives that could have been saved.

With help from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Emergency Rescue Committee secured the administration’s reluctant agreement to provide emergency visas to two hundred prominent artists and intellectuals and their families.  Varian Fry, a Harvard-trained classics scholar and foreign affairs journalist, volunteered to travel to Vichy France to organize the exodus.

Fry immediately made contact with a group of Jewish, German, and other anti-Nazi activists, including a number of Americans involved in helping refugees escape.  One was Hiram (Harry) Bingham IV, the U.S. vice-consul in Marseille, who was hiding refugees at his rented villa on the outskirts of the city.

Bingham was the son of a U.S. Senator and explorer upon whom Steven Spielberg reportedly based his famous movie character, Indiana Jones.   Defying his bosses at the State Department, Bingham provided Fry with documents needed to protect refugees, such as affidavits in lieu of passports and travel documents.

In one instance, Bingham arranged for the famous German Jewish novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger, to be smuggled out of a Vichy internment camp disguised in women’s clothing.  Posing as Bingham’s mother-in-law from Germany, Feuchtwanger, in Bingham’s car, made it through German checkpoints to the vice-consul’s country house, where he hid until Bingham could help get him out of the country.


Fry and his colleagues, who were constantly searching for new escape routes, caught wind of the Fittkos’ activity and, in a meeting at a cafe in Marseille, proposed that they work together.  Unaware of the Fittkos’ background as anti-Nazi activists, Fry inadvertently insulted them by asking how much they would charge to lead refugees over the Pyrenees.  Bristling with indignation at the thought of being mistaken for common smugglers, Hans and Lisa replied that they acted “out of conscience, not for money.”

Every few days for the next seven months, Lisa and Hans, posing as vineyard laborers, led groups of refugees who were sent to them by Fry.  Reflecting on the experience years later, Lisa was unsure how many people they led to freedom, although the number was certainly in the hundreds.  “How many?  We didn’t count,” she told Los Angeles filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, who interviewed her in 1999 for his forthcoming documentary, “And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille.”  “It never occurred to us that this would be history and that somebody would come to Chicago and ask me.”

“Most of the people who came, until they were here didn’t really know what they were getting into,” Lisa told Sauvage.  “Fry or the committee had sent them to the border, ‘We’ll get you over the border, we have people there.’  And then they saw the mountains.”

Fry biographer Andy Marino descibes the journey:  “They would begin early, at four or five o’clock in the morning, and walk along the path with the workers starting out for their day’s toil among the vines. The refugees would be clad in workers’ clothes–dungarees and tatty old suits, with espadrilles on their feet.  In that way, they were less likely to attract attention from the border guards … The refugees had only to travel light, leaving what bags they had behind them and carrying only a musette–knapsack–like the genuine workers.”

After the workers reached their vineyards, Lisa and Hans would lead the refugees along the former smugglers’ trail, which Fry, in his 1945 book “Surrender on Demand,” called “the F route” so as not to endanger the Fittkos by revealing their identity.  Each journey involved seven or more hours of arduous hiking at steep altitudes.

For his film, Sauvage went to France and retraced the Fittkos’ foosteps along the F route.  He was armed with a video camera and a copy of Lisa’s autobiography, Escape Through the Pyrenees.  “I was determined to find the summit point that Lisa described in her book, where she could see the French coastline behind her and the Spanish border just ahead,” Sauvage said.  “I hired the son of former smugglers, who knew the area like the back of his hand because his parents had a vineyard high up in the mountains.  Sure enough, he found the spot.  To stand there, on the very spot where Lisa and Hans had escorted hundreds of refugees to freedom was incredible.”

On several occasions, Sauvage interviewed Lisa at her home on South East View Park, near the University of Chicago.  “She was extraordinarily smart and reflective,” he notes.  “When I asked her a question, she would ponder it carefully, looking for the deepest way to answer.  She also had a phenomenal, absolutely vivid memory.”

Altogether, Fry, Bingham, the Fittkos and the other members of their rescue network helped save an estimated 2,000 people, including such famous artists as Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Jacques Lipschitz, as well as Nobel Prize-winning scientist Otto Meyerhof,  writer Franz Werfel, and Andre Breton, founder of Surrealism.

“Fry and my father and the others would never have been able to save so many lives without the incredible and fearless dedication of Lisa and Hans Fittko,” says William S. Bingham, a Connecticut attorney who is the youngest son of the late Hiram Bingham IV.  “At a time when the U.S. State Department not only opposed taking in refugees but sabotaged those who tried to rescue them, Lisa Fittko joined hands with Fry, my fathers, and others to do what could be done.  It is sad that her voice and memories are now lost.”


The Fry rescue mission came to a halt in 1941.  Furious German and Vichy officials complained to the State Department about Fry’s refugee-smuggling work.  Anxious to avoid irritating American-German relations –the U.S. was not yet at war with Hitler– the State Department transferred Bingham out of France and revoked Fry’s passport.  He was then expelled by the French, forcing him to return to the United States after thirteen months of refugee work.  Meanwhile, the Vichy French in April 1941 banned all non-natives from the area near the Franco-Spanish border.  With Fry’s assistance, the Fittkos escaped to Cuba that November.

Lisa’s brother, Dr. Hans Ekstein, escaped Vichy France on the last ship out of Marseille in 1941, with his wife and two-year old daughter, Catherine.  In 1948, Lisa and her husband Hans immigrated to the United States, reuniting with Lisa’s family in Chicago.  The following year, they were joined by Lisa’s parents, who had been sheltered during the war by French socialists in the village of Cassis.

Catherine Ekstein Stodolsky came to know her aunt Lisa well while growing up in Chicago, and interviewed her many times for a family biography that she is completing.  Today a historian based in Munich, Dr. Stodolsky spoke at the memorial service that was held in Lisa’s apartment building two weeks ago.  She notes that Lisa “never liked to be described as a heroine.  Her belief was that she simply did what anyone should have done.  Whether it was leading refugees across the Pyrenees or smuggling anti-Nazi leaflets into Germany, she and her husband acted on their convictions, regardless of the danger.”

Hans Fittko, who died in 1960, was posthumously named a Righteous Gentile by Israel’s Holocaust memorial center, Yad VaShem.

Lisa’s autobiography was first published in 1985 in West Germany, where it was named Political Book of the Year, and the following year the West German government awarded her its Distinguished Service Medal.   Northwestern University Press published an English edition in 1991.  Her second book, “Solidarity and Treason: Resistance and Exile, 1933-1940,” appeared in 1993.  Her rescue work was also chronicled in the Craig Eisendrath-Roberta Spivek play, “The Angel of History” (2002) and the Jay Parini novel “Benjamin’s Crossing” (1997).

In 1994, Lisa visited the Pyrenees crossing site again, to take part in a ceremony at the installation of a monument to Walter Benjamin designed by the Israeli sculptor Danny Karavan.  The monument bears Benjamin’s words, “It is more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.”  Lisa and Hans Fittko were among the nameless whose deeds are only now, sixty years later, beginning to attain the renown that they merit.

(Published exclusively in the Chicago Jewish News, April 1-7 2005)

April 2004