Monday, June 30, 2008

At the Mountain Refuge of Estagnous

The group has all met up at the high mountain refuge of Estagnous, 2250m high. Two metal placards are screwed to the face of a boulder. They read:“There passed by here between 1940 and 1944 all those who refused to bow to Nazi oppression and escaped to fight for freedom.” The second reads “Chemin de la Liberte” Underneath is a picture of soldiers and the inscription reads “Faithful to their memory on the 50th anniversary of the (Normandy) landings for the liberation of France.” The first inscription troubles me. How many people refused to bow to Nazi to oppression but had no route out, no possible hope of escape? How many Jews and non-Jews, would have longed to pass by here?

We sit at tables on the veranda of the refuge looking back down at the route we climbed. Except that most of it is hidden in a thick mist which fills the long valley below. Ridges and peaks emerge above it, yet below us like islands in a grey white sea. Near at hand and steeply below us are two small lakes. One still half frozen and covered in snow. We gather we will become better acquainted with them tomorrow before we climb steeply up to the paths which lead to Spain.

In the Pyrenees

We begin to climb and thoughts of history give way to appreciation of the overwhelming beauty of this place. We follow a stream steeply upwards, sometimes across grassland, and sometimes through woods. There are beaches and silver birch with pine and elder.

We find more wild flowers than I’ve ever seen in my life. Purple orchids, rhododendrons with the last of its red flowers (crush a leaf and the rich perfume reminds me of the Scottish bracken), lenten roses growing freely, bilberries but the fruit is all gone and higher up (400m is just the climb before lunch), yellow lilies. I’ve never seen lilies growing wild before.

We stop at the foot of a vast waterfall. It pours over the ledge high above us and divides into half a dozen cascades down the huge slab of rock.

Bruce asked me whether any of the people who fled this way could have had a chance to absorb its natural beauty. We agree that this is most unlikely. At night, freezing cold, hungry, weak from months or years of flight; terrified of capture or betrayal, this journey must have been hell for them, except that it was their one and only hope of freedom.

About the Camp of Gurs [it’s in the direction of the Atlantic coast and our route will not take us there but we saw the site last Autumn]

Gurs was constructed in less than 3 weeks in the spring of 1939 to hold Spaniards fleeing Franco. From May 1940 it served as a camp for enemy aliens or ‘indesireables’ including Jews who fled Germany and in among them, expatriate German Nazi sympathizers.

Who were the French to know the difference? Many escaped at that time or were liberated. Among the former was Hannah Arendt.

From October 1940 Jews began to be deported there directly from Germany. Many were still able to obtain documents and flee but thousands were turned over by the Vichy regime to the Nazis. They were sent north Drancy, then east to Auschwitz.

Finally with the Liberation the camp was used to hold French Nazi collaborators, German prisoners of war and Spaniards who had fought in the French resistance. The Allies were worried lest the latter group take on Franco.

In 1946 the camp was dismantled.

2 years ago I bought a copy of the Gurs Hagaddah. It was handwritten and partly typed in the camp for Pesach 1941. It is prefaced by a picture of a yellow butterfly perching on barbed wire. In the distance behind the huts the snow covered Pyrenees can be seen. The image of freedom. Meanwhile Mossy and I have taken the night train and are on our way to the start of the Chemin de la Liberte.
Visiting the Memorial to the Shoa in Paris
Sitting having a coffee by the Seine with Notre Dame behind me I keep thinking of the lines of Paul Celan: “Your golden hair Margareta, your ashen hair Shulamith”

The effect of visiting the memorial to the Shoa prays on us all. Mossy and I are held up outside at security. We have rucksacks and the machine for examining bags has broken down. There’s an irony about Jews who fled Germany being stopped from entering here. Eventually the young, frum man in charge asks me if I know what the week’s Sidra is, and we’re let in,

Philippe, a member of the Masorti congregation in Paris, guides us. His mother was hidden during the war. Rabbi Krygier explains how his father was saved from deportation by a strange man who at first terrified him. It turned out to be a priest. This man moved him from hiding place to hiding place until the liberation risking his own life many times. I’ve been reading Lisa Fittko’s account of the war years in France. Young, Jewish, active in the political Resistance against Hitler, she fled Germany in 1933. She describes the round up of enemy aliens in the Velodrome D’Hiver, the camp at Gurs. The mass escape, as the French have more urgent preoccupations in the place of the route and the armistice, the confusion. How do you make plans to escape when you have no money, no papers, and don’t know where your loved ones are?

An intrepid sparrow sits on a wrought iron hanger right next to our table. Mossy takes out his camera but the bird is gone. You’ll never capture me. I have wings to protect my freedom!

The Seine rocks the moored boat come café where we are sitting. The onset of darkness is making the fading daylight more intense.

I think it was in Paris by the Seine that the darkness which had been haunting Paul Celan overcame him: “Death is a master from Germany; your golden Margareta, your ashen hair Shulamith”