Fittko, Lisa (1909—)

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Fittko, Lisa (1909—)

Austrian-born activist who, with her husband, played a crucial role in helping almost 1,500 endangered refugees, many of them world-famous artists and intellectuals, flee Nazi-occupied France over a perilous but effective Pyrenees escape route known as the F-Route. Born Lisa Eckstein in Uzhorod (then Austria-Hungary, now Ukraine), on August 23, 1909; had a brother Hans Eckstein; married Johannes (Hans) Fittko.

In partnership with her husband, was active in resisting Nazism as exiles (1930s); played a crucial role in saving the lives of almost 1,500 endangered refugees, many of them world-famous artists and intellectuals (1940–41), helping them flee Nazi-occupied France over a Pyrenees escape route known as the F-Route (Fittko-Route); with husband, escaped to Cuba (1941), finally settling in U.S.; lived in Chicago and was active in the peace movement; awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, First Class, by the Federal Republic of Germany in recognition of her role in the resistance (1986).

Born in the town of Uzhorod in the Carpathian mountains in 1909, Lisa Eckstein grew up in Vienna and Berlin where her assimilated Jewish parents exposed her to the liberal humanist values that had flourished in 19th-century Central Europe. The optimistic ideals that made possible the emancipation of Jews in the century before 1914 suffered grievously during World War I and its traumatic aftermath in defeated Germany and Austria. As a young student in Berlin, Lisa witnessed the rise of Nazi intolerance and racism as brown-shirted storm troopers insulted and physically assaulted their political enemies, particularly if they were Jews. Like many young people from bourgeois homes, Lisa was drawn to the organized working class as the only possible bulwark against the triumph of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist movement. A committed Social Democrat from an early age, she was convinced that only in a society based on socialism and egalitarianism could people transcend the narrow tribalism that had spawned wars, ethnic hatreds and exploitation throughout human history.

By the early 1930s, Lisa was putting her strongly held ideals into practice as an active member of Berlin's Socialist Student League. As soon as the Nazi dictatorship began to be erected in early 1933, Lisa and her young colleagues started to engage in highly dangerous underground activities, particularly the writing and dissemination of anti-Nazi literature. While producing their illegal leaflets, Lisa and her small band of resisters worked efficiently but they were always in fear of being discovered by the police or neighborhood Nazis. To hide the sound of their typewriter, they played the triumphal march from Aïda at high volume on their phonograph. The flyers, optimistically inscribed DEATH TO FASCISM—THE STRUGGLE GOES ON!, were left in the entrance halls of apartment buildings or under doors. Within months, however, the Nazi regime became increasingly efficient at discovering and crushing opposition cells like Lisa's, and she fled to the safety of Prague, in a Czechoslovakia that remained an island of democracy in the heart of Europe. There, Lisa met Hans Fittko.

An active Social Democrat from a working-class setting, Hans had pushed his way up from poverty to become a noted journalist and anti-Nazi publicist in Germany. When the Nazis took over the German government in the first months of 1933, Hans became a marked man, charged with "intellectual authorship" of the murder of a Berlin Nazi. Subject to the death penalty that he was convinced would be carried out if he found himself in Nazi hands, Hans had fled to Prague in the still-free Czechoslovak Republic. There, he met fellow refugee Lisa Eckstein. Hans and Lisa fell in love and became inseparable, sharing the hardships and dangers of political exile from the Third Reich.

As one of the most talented of the anti-Nazi journalists, Hans continued the struggle even as Hitler's Germany went from triumph to triumph throughout the 1930s. Lisa assisted his work and served as a full partner in their often materially and psychologically difficult life of exile. The Fittkos were high on the Nazi wanted list and never felt safe from assassination or kidnapping by Hitler's agents. They lived a precarious existence in Czechoslovakia, then Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France. Although she developed a deeper sense of her Jewish identity during these years, Lisa regarded herself as essentially a socialist political emigré from Nazi tyranny. Despite the hardships both endured, she and Hans often found their morale strengthened by the shared work of their anti-Nazi colleagues, be they German emigrés or the politically alert citizens of the nations that offered them refuge.

The start of World War II in September 1939 brought entirely new challenges to the Fittkos. A panicky French government arrested and interned all of the German refugees, incarcerating them in concentration camps under harsh conditions. Lisa found herself imprisoned in Gurs, a camp near the Pyrenees that quickly became known not only for its inadequate facilities but also for the often remarkable spirit of endurance that emerged among its prisoners. French paranoia about ubiquitous "German spies" made officials arrest not only les indésirables like the Fittkos who had as anti-Nazis and foreigners never been viewed with sympathy by a conservative bureaucracy, but others as well who fell under a blanket definition of potential traitors. These improbable "threats to the national security of France" included some French-speaking nuns who had lived in the province of Alsace, which had been part of the German Reich until 1918, as well as a Frenchwoman who had been briefly married to a German almost two decades earlier.

Although she was able to simply walk out of the Gurs camp after the military collapse of France in June 1940, Lisa Fittko remained at great risk from the Nazis who continued to occupy the northern region of France, leaving the rest of the country to be administered by the collaborationist French regime headquartered in the southern resort town of Vichy. Both Hans Fittko and Lisa's brother Hans Eckstein had been released from imprisonment some time before the German invasion in May. By the end of 1940, Vichy-controlled France was swarming with frightened refugees from Nazi tyranny, as well as many individuals who, out of conviction or greed, were willing to report on the whereabouts of these same refugees to the Vichy authorities who were now enforcing laws hostile to Jews and anti-Nazis.

With the vast majority of the French people traumatized and concerned with personal survival, a rescuer now appeared from far away in the form of an improbable hero, a young American named Varian Fry. The son of a wealthy stockbroker, Fry had graduated from Harvard and become a successful magazine editor in his home city of New York. After a trip to Berlin, he grew alarmed by the Nazi threat to modern civilization but soon discovered that most of his fellow Americans remained complacent about foreign developments that did not immediately impact on their daily lives.

Varian Fry found it impossible to remain indifferent. In the fall of 1939, he and the Austrian emigré Karl Frank raised funds to enable refugees from Nazism to leave France for the United States. The situation became much more desperate in June 1940 when France was conquered by the Nazis. Carrying papers identifying himself as a YMCA relief worker, and with a list of several hundred names of intellectuals threatened by the Nazis, Fry arrived in Marseille in August 1940. He also brought along $3,000 in cash taped to his leg. By the time Fry arrived, French authorities handed over to the German Gestapo all requests for exit visas—thus making it impossible for political or racial refugees from Nazism to leave France. Relying on the refugee grapevine, Fry quickly established contact with hundreds of potential escapees. With a staff of two—German-born refugee economist Albert Hirschman (called "Beamish" by Fry) and Boston-born art history student Miriam Davenport —Fry sought a viable escape route for increasingly desperate men and women.

The most obvious course—by sea—was also the most perilous, many of the available boats being unseaworthy and traffic being closely monitored by the French authorities. That left the Pyrenees. Although the Spanish and Portuguese dictatorships were clearly sympathetic to Hitler's Germany, they were nevertheless willing to allow refugees to travel through their countries provided they had proper transit visas and ultimate destinations, such as the United States, that would accept them. The snag was to find a way to get out of France illegally. Since the refugees did not have exit visas, Fry had to provide them with forged ones. These were brilliantly executed by another refugee, the Viennese cartoonist Bill Freier, who spent his days doing portraits on the Marseille waterfront, while spending his evenings altering passports. Fry's rescue system was inaugurated in the fishing village of Cerbere, where the frontier posts were so positioned that neither the French nor Spanish officials could see each other, thus providing a golden opportunity for slipping refugees into Spain.

Unfortunately, after a while the Germans became suspicious of the Cerbere area and stationed troops there; a new route had to be found. Fortunately, Beamish had heard about the long years of experience Lisa and Hans Fittko had had in eluding Nazi pursuers during the 1930s. The Fittkos had already been scouting the mountain passes of the Pyrenees to plan their own escape in the near future. Now, Beamish brought them to Fry, who was able to persuade the couple to delay their own departure from France in order to help guide others over the border.

By the end of September 1940, the Fittkos had left Marseille for Banyuls-sur-Mer, a town a few kilometers up the coast from the now-abandoned escape route at Cerbere. Using identity papers forged by Freier, the Fittkos moved into a large house and were able to find work in local vineyards along the border. The house occupied by Lisa and Hans Fittko was to become a transit hotel for an extraordinary collection—nearly 1,500 in all—of writers, artists and scholars fleeing from Hitler's Europe. The caliber of talent can only be hinted at in the following names: the artists Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, and Max Ernst; musicians such as Wanda Landowska ; writers such as Hannah Arendt and André Breton; and scholars such as the courageous anti-Nazi statistician and publicist Emil Julius Gumbel.

Before they departed from Marseille, refugees were given half of a torn strip of colored paper; a number was on the end of each strip. Lisa Fittko had the other half, with the same number on it. If the numbers matched and the two pieces fit together perfectly, she knew that the refugee had been sent by Fry. After a few days, Lisa or Hans would take some of their "visiting friends" into the nearby fields, either to work for a while in the vineyards or participate in a picnic. Then, when the coast was clear, the refugees would one by one fade into the hills. Amazingly, none who escaped the Nazis via what soon came to be known as the "F-Route" (Fittko-Route) were ever caught.

Only one incident marred these triumphs: the tragic death of the brilliant German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. On September 26, 1940, Lisa Fittko was the guide for a group of three refugees that included the unworldly Benjamin, whom she referred to half-fondly, half-mockingly as "Old Benjamin." Because of a serious heart condition, Benjamin was compelled to take a one-minute break for every ten minutes or so of strenuous hiking. Unfortunately on that day the Spanish border police had been given new orders, and the group's transit visas were declared to be invalid. Benjamin's will to live crumbled while spending the night in the Spanish border village of Port-Bou, and he took a fatal dose of morphine. Ironically, his two companions were able to proceed through Spain and on to the United States when authorities decided to waive their new regulations immediately after Benjamin's suicide, perhaps because of the philosopher's tragic escape from life.

Only when Varian Fry was taken into custody on August 29, 1941, did the Fittkos again seriously plan for their own escape. They had worked from the town of Banyuls-sur-Mer for more than six months. Now, in November 1941, Lisa and Hans succeeded in themselves escaping from Vichy France. By the end of 1941 time had virtually run out on Jews and anti-Nazis in Hitler's Europe, where the machinery of mass annihilation began to function with ever greater efficiency with each passing day. In their nation of refuge, Cuba, the Fittkos were soon able to create a new life for themselves.

But Lisa and her husband never gave up the hope of returning to Germany after the defeat of Hitlerism. Remaining ardent socialists, both believed that they could be of use in a defeated Germany, helping to build a democratic socialist society that would never again be able to threaten either its own citizens or humanity at large. But fate decreed that the Fittkos were never to return to a shattered Europe. Concerned that a radically democratized Germany might become overly pro-Soviet or neutralist, American occupation authorities in Germany soon after 1945 took measures to prevent the return of leftist exiles like the Fittkos. As a result, although they still resided in Cuba, they found themselves frustrated in their efforts to receive authorization papers for a return to Europe.

In 1948, Lisa and her husband left Cuba for the United States. They settled in Chicago, which had a large community of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Soon after their arrival Hans Fittko became seriously ill, and after a number of years of declining health he died. Refusing to become permanently depressed, Lisa Fittko continued her lifelong political and social activism in the context of her adopted country. She took a strong stand against the Vietnam War, was active in the Nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s, and on countless occasions spoke out for racial and economic justice. She began writing her memoirs, which first appeared as articles in German magazines, and finally as books published in Munich in 1985 and 1992 (French and Spanish translations appeared in print in 1987 and 1997, respectively). In 1991, her memoir Escape Through the Pyrenees appeared in print, followed in 1993 by her account of the years of exile and resistance, 1933–40, entitled Solidarity and Treason. Published by Northwestern University Press, both volumes received enthusiastic reviews. In these books, Fittko paid tribute not only to the courage of her late husband as her partner in the difficult struggle against fascism, but also provided examples of the moral tenacity of thousands of other now largely forgotten anti-Fascist exiles of the 1930s who refused to accept as inevitable the victory of Hitler's barbarous hordes.

Determined to keep alive the ideals that had in dark times served to inspire her and her late husband, Fittko gladly took on the role of teacher and witness to history. In the final decades of her life, she chose to spend some of her most rewarding hours answering questions posed by the next generation, which included her youngest niece, Marlene. Growing up in a world of peace and prosperity, Marlene and her contemporaries were often ignorant of the terror, war and suffering that dominated the youth of Lisa and Hans Fittko. Lisa's answer to her niece's question of "Can it happen again?" was as simple as it was eloquent, "The same as before? Hardly. Although the breeding grounds of fascism have neither temporal nor geographical borders." When asked by Marlene as to where her homeland was now, Lisa Fittko answered, "Now my home is here. Although the dream of peace and freedom lives everywhere."


Brodersen, Momme, and Martina Dervis. Walter Benjamin: A Biography. Translated by Malcolm R. Green and Ingrida Ligers. London: Verso, 1996.

Caron, Vicki. "The Missed Opportunity: French Refugee Policy in Wartime, 1939-40," in Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques. Vol. 22, no. 1. Winter 1996, pp. 117–157.

Dornhof, Dorothea. "'Nur nicht stillschweigen müssen zu den Verbrechen seines Landes': Gespräch mit Lisa Fittko, Chicago, 14. Dezember 1992," in Exilforschung: Ein internationales Jahrbuch. Vol. 11, 1993, pp. 229–238.

Fittko, Lisa. "'Der alte Benjamin': Flucht über die Pyrenäen," in Merkur: Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken. Vol. 36, no. 1. January 1982, pp. 35–49.

——. Escape Through the Pyrenees. Translated by David Koblick. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

——. Solidarity and Treason: Resistance and Exile, 1933–1940. Translated by Roslyn Theobald in collaboration with the author. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993.

Fry, Varian. Surrender on Demand. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, 1997.

Glayman, Claude. "Une adversaire irréductible du nazisme," in La Quinzaine littéraire. No. 495. October 16–31, 1987, p. 17.

Jasper, Willi. Hotel Lutetia: Ein deutsches Exil in Paris. Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1994.

Mühlen, Patrik von zur. Fluchtziel Lateinamerika—Die deutsche Emigration 1933–1945: Politische Aktivitäten und soziokulturelle Integration. Bonn: Verlag Neue Gesellschaft, 1988.

Sharon, Lynn. "Zealous assistance," in Jerusalem Post. January 10, 1992.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia