Lisa Fittko

Lisa Fittko headshot
Born Elizabeth Eckstein in an international Jewish family in Uzhhorod then in the Austro-Hungarian empire, later in Czechoslovakia, then the Soviet Union and today in Ukraine, Lisa Fittko (1909-2005) spent most of her childhood in Budapest and Vienna before witnessing the Nazi rise to power in Berlin where her family moved after World War I. She became an anti-fascist, wrote and distributed leaflets protesting torture in Nazi prisons, and worked as an underground resistance fighter in Berlin, Prague (where she met her comrade and future husband Hans Fittko), Zurich, Amsterdam and Paris.

After Germany invaded France, Fittko was sent as an “enemy alien” to the Gurs concentration camp in southwestern France. There, she helped fellow prisoner Hannah Arendt by supplying her with a stolen release document. Fittko reached Marseille and finally the Pyrenees where she escorted refugees into Spain during 1940-1941. The Socialist mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer asked Fittko to help emigrés cross into Spain. Fittko wanted to reach Portugal to then take a boat to the US, but she remained in Banyuls-sur-Mer to work with Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee. In 1940, Fry coined her mountainous escape route, an alternative to the shorter, fascist-controlled coastal path from Cerbère (France) to Portbou (Spain), the F-Route (F for Fittko). In the first of her many walks over the Pyrenees, Fittko took German philosopher Walter Benjamin into Spain, reaching Portbou on September 25, 1940. The morning after the Spanish police threatened to turn their small group of emigrés back to occupied France, Benjamin was found dead, apparently of suicide, in the small Portbou hotel where they arrived.

From Cuba where she escaped with her husband Hans, Fittko reached the US. She became internationally known over forty years later through her two widely translated memoirs that describe her actions,
Escape Through the Pyrenees, first published in 1985 in West Germany where it won the award for political book of the year, and Solidarity and Treason: Resistance and Exile, 1933-1940. In 1986, the president of West Germany awarded Fittko the Distinguished Medal of Merit, First Class. She died in Chicago at the age of 95.

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