Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Prayer to All Refugees

It's Wednesday morning and our walk is ending. We thank our excellent guides Roelof and George. I say 'Au revoir' and mean it; I can't wait to get back to the Pyrenees. I also discover that Eric is discussing coming back, but with a slighter easier route in mind so that more people can participate. More than one person says that this is the most arduous adventure he or she has ever undertaken.

Brian asks us to conclude with a prayer for all refugees, those who flee tyranny in whichever land, who try to swim from Africa to Spain, who hide in the backs of lorries or the holds of ships, who suffer simply because of who they are, and who still believe in freedom.

We all agree. Our climb has been intended as a memorial to those who fled across these mountains over sixty years ago, as a tribute to everyone who walks the path of freedom, and as a gesture to say that we stand by their side.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Valued Freedoms

The walking has been wonderful and everyone has shown a super spirit. This is what community is all about! I am so grateful. I have to thank Jeremy Schonfeld in particular, because, when I mentioned the idea over tea one Shabbat, instead of telling me I was meshuggah, he said “I’ll come with you”. He did, bringing his immense erudition on all things Jewish to enrich our journey.

I read to the group from Lisa Fittko’s account of how she guided Walter Benjamin over the border. Alte Benjamin, she called him, though he is only 48. His old school manners, and charm, are matched by a determination which offsets his dubious health. He rests every 10 minutes before he becomes exhausted. Lisa urges him to leave his heavy briefcase behind. But he will not be parted from the manuscript it contains. This, he insists, is “...more important than I am, more important than myself”. They reach the summit and Lisa does find a moment to appreciate the scene: “ The semi circle of Catalonia Rousillon, with its vermilion coast and autumn landscape with innumerable hues of red and yellow gold. I gasp for breath I have never seen such beauty before”.

They make it into Spain. But a few days later comes the news that Benjamin is dead. The Spanish border authorities have told the group they would be sent back (a policy rescinded almost at once). This was more than he could take and Benjamin took the morphine pills he had kept with him just in case. His aim had been achieved. He and his manuscript were beyond the reach of the Gestapo.

The work was never found. The records of the Spanish police refer to the briefcase and papers of unknown content.

There are freedoms which people value more than their own life.
Histories of Escape

I'm trying to read about crossing the Pyrenees both from the point of view of Jewish and from that of World War II history. My brother lent me the book "Home Run; Escape from Nazi Europe". It's astonishing how the Resistance in Holland, Belgium and France created routes for downed Allied Airmen. They were sent as 'parcels' from as far as the Dutch border to the south of France, then across the mountains. Fear awaited them at every turn; would they be captured by the Germans? Was it better to be safe as a POW or risk being shot in trying to make it home as an 'evader'? Whom did one trust? Should one knock at the farmhouse door? Could one trust the priest? Many did indeed work for the Resistance. Hundreds of men made it back, an invaluable replenishment of personnel for the RAF and an immense tribute to the courage of those who served in the Resistance, many of them only in their teens.

Yet from what I've read, though key difficulties were shared, the Jewish experience of flight was different. The Jews who sought refuge in Vichy France hoping to cross into Spain or Switzerland were effectively stateless. The key question was not only how to flee but where to flee. Who would take them? The USA? Cuba? Panama? Papers were needed for the right to reside, to travel, to enter another country and if you could not prove that you had somewhere which would accept you in the end, you couldn't even pass through anywhere in transit.
More wonderful flowers as we descend into Spain. Remarkable weather too on the Spanish side; the skies quickly darken, thunder fills the valleys, the rain gets thicker then colder and turns to hail. Not worth wearing an anorak reasons Mossy. By the time one gets it one, one is soaked already. One of our guides, George, unfurls his khaki mountain umbrella. We are glad there is no need for his other piece of special equipment, an ice axe, although we all enjoy those sections of our climbs and descents which take us over snow (it's July and the snow is still there).

I've never seen anything like it; whole valleys are filled with the grey green strap like leaves of narcissi with tall white spikes of flower. Losing my way on a particularly steep and slippery section of hillside I discover purple and red orchids among them.

Then comes the only mishap on our walk; Eric's rucksack comes hurtling down. Mercifully without its owner, disgorging plastic packages as it falls. On the pre-text of gathering them up, I clamber back for a second view of the orchids.

Further down and all through Wednesday's walk are fields filled with tall yellow gentians; I've always longed to see them but until now never have.

We've reentered woodland. Our guide explains that the Atlantic influence make the French side wetter, hence the deciduous forests. But here on the Mediterranean side it is drier (!), thus the pines are the wonderful scent of their needles which cover the woodland floor.

At length we reach the river. Later that night I read of a group of allied airmen who climb for 19 hours through terrible weather only to find the river on the Spanish side in spate and the water impassable. The bridge is of course guarded by Franco's army. They have to turn and climb all the way back. Mercifully they make a successful passage a few days later.

Our group sets off with tremendous good spirit. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Eric and all his Trekkies experience finding local guides, making endless arrangements, matching up the loose ends of people’s different itineraries. Our guides are charming, helpful, know the way down to every slope and spree, and are eternally optimistic about the time each climb will take us.

We cover an age range of 60 years from Mossy and Rachel to Wynne whose stamina and slow but steady progress are an inspiration to us all. (If we could only manage like that when reach 75, the rest of all think).

The climbing is arduous and the descents have ropey moments (literally and figuratively). “We came to remember something painful and painful it has been” I overhear someone say, but with good humour.

What stirring moments. At some of the steepest places, and there are several with drops of dozens or even hundreds of feet, little more than a ledge away, I determinedly don’t look down but study the wild flowers at my feet.

The flowers are magnificent. Blue trumpet gentians in profusion together with the smaller, daintier spring gentians. After lunch we stand on the ridge at 2,600m astride the border so many longed to reach.
Dusk and Dawn

We all go outside to watch the sun set. It descends an orange red ball across the sea of mist below. Behind us the high mountains including the ridge to the south which marks the border with Spain and which we will cross tomorrow are illuminated with the final incandescance of dusk. Later I return outside close to midnight and see the bands and patches of snow on those mountains glowing beneath the vaults of stars.

Imagine climbing those mountains at night with no torches, unsure which way to go. The man who runs the refuge tells us that these routes were used not only in the summer but in January and in February too when the snow lay meters deep. I just read the account of an allied airman who crossed the Pyrenees led by a guide only to find the river on the Spanish side in spate. They had to go all the way back and repeat the 17 hour climb days later, but fortunately with success.

In the morning a brilliant blue sky covers the mountains. As we say shacharit certain prayers claim our attention. “Blessed be God who prepares our footsteps, who gives the weary strength”. “Praise God for the heavens, you mountains and all hills”.