My last post wasn’t entirely serious. That walk in the Pyrennean mists was fun despite the weather. We were well nourished (energy bars, abundant picnic food, and a delicious walnut cake that Michel shared). Thanks to the miracle of Gore-Tex and microfibres, we were warm and dry, and after it was over, we knew we’d be driving back to our cosy homes and family life.
But if you’d asked most of us whether we’d want to submit ourselves to a walk even more gruelling, every day for 4 days, in constant fear for our lives, maybe in the depths of winter, we’d have been certain to answer ‘no’.
Not so the men and women who during the Second World War risked their lives across the Pyrenees along paths such as le Chemin de la Liberté. On Monday, as part of its Remembrance season, the BBC broadcast its own tribute to those who trekked for 4 days up 4,750 metres of difficult, rocky terrain, in conditions that could change from mist to snow, to dazzling sun, to sleet several times in the course of a single day. These people – more than a 1000 of them over the whole period – were Allied soldiers and airmen who’d found themselves in enemy territory, escaped POWs and Jewish refugees: and the French and Spanish who helped them across the mountains to Spain.
Escapees had little choice. They were brave and resourceful from sheer necessity. But those who sheltered them as they travelled south through occupied Europe, prepared for their journeys, who shared the little they had, who interpreted, forged documents, sourced warm clothing so servicemen could ditch their tell-tale uniforms, those ‘passeurs’ who guided them to the comparative safety of Spain took unimaginable risks.
Would I have been brave enough to put my life on the line for strangers? Especially if in doing so, I risked the lives of my own family? I’m glad I don’t have to ask myself this question. More than a 100 ‘passeurs’ were caught and either executed or deported. 450 Ariègeois who assisted the escapees were deported – that’s one in 330 inhabitants of the region at the time. And they’re only the ones who were caught. Many others, somehow, weren’t.
A couple of years ago, a friend in the choir told me a story, a part of her family history. It didn’t happen in the Ariège, and it’s nothing to do with the passeurs, but it has stayed with me as a telling example of the desperation and bravery often shown in this period. Her family then lived in an isolated village in the Creuse, and they’d given shelter to a young Jewish girl for the duration. If searches were conducted – and they were – this child was inserted into one of those long bolsters the French used to favour, and arranged on the made-up bed. She simply had to lie there, still as a corpse, till the search was over. She survived. They survived.
At least she didn’t have to flee with a miscellaneous band of other inexperienced escapees: soldiers, mothers, underfed and frightened people, led by a series of local guides over often treacherous mountain passes – no waymarks and well-trodden paths here. At least her mother wasn’t asked to suffocate her because her pathetic cries might alert a German patrol. These things happened. Those times are over: but the memories live on.