By John Morgan
It was a short YouTube video, simply called ‘Gratitude’. A modest ceremony in France in 2011, attended by the families of people who had escaped to freedom across the Pyrenees mountains during World War II and the families of those who had helped them. I was there that day and witnessed the children of an Allied serviceman meet, for the first time, the daughter of the woman who had sheltered their father and lost her life as a result. As his son asked a friend to translate a simple message ‘Tell her we wanted to come to say thanks…’, his voice tailed away as he embraced a stranger whose family had saved his. It was then I understood the value of remembrance and which still has significance, not least for us in Ireland.
We usually associate World War Two with large-scale military battles. Less well known are moving acts of courage by individuals, all to help a stranger in trouble.
This is essentially the story of what were known as Escape Lines which existed mainly in wartime Europe. Escape Lines were a form of non-military resistance, networks which rescued people desperately trying to escape Nazi-occupied countries.
Those evaders included Allied servicemen and, of course, Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust. Ordinary people put their lives in danger to shelter evaders. The Escape Lines arranged forged identity cards and travel passes and guided evaders across borders, often along arduous trails across mountain frontiers like the Pyrenees, in snow and freezing temperatures, usually at night.
The two biggest networks were the Comet Line which escorted evaders over the western Pyrenees. The Pat O’Leary line used the high Central Pyrenees trails and the routes further east.
More recently, Historic Memory groups have increased awareness of Escape Line history. Commemorative hiking events are organised every year to walk in the footsteps of the evaders and their guides, taking history out of the books and giving a rare opportunity to experience their difficult journeys to freedom. I have organised some of those events and have been privileged to welcome families, some of whom have travelled from the other side of the world, returning to the European mountain passes their parents and grandparents had crossed, in order to say a simple thank you.
As individuals, the members of the Escape Lines were very different people but they shared a determination to free Europe from totalitarianism. Among the Escape Line leaders were Andrée de Jongh, from Brussels, who would survive Ravensbruck Concentration camp and, after the war, would work for many years in Africa. Charles Schepens, a doctor, later became the father of modern eye surgery, giving his name to the Schepens Ophthalmoscope which is still used by the medical profession today.
Irish author, Samuel Beckett, who himself was in the French Resistance, was aware of the Escape Lines. In his play, Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon refer to a Pyrenees route, known as the Freedom Trail, which Beckett scholars say was in his mind when he wrote the play shortly after the end of the war.
Irish people too have their escape line stories. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty created the Rome Escape Line which rescued approx. 6,500 people. Mary Elmes from Cork became the first Irish person honoured as ‘Righteous among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem in Israel for her work in saving Jewish children. And their sacrifices too. Robert Armstrong from Longford and Catherine Crean lost their lives, Robert in Waldheim and Catherine in Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Approximately 33,000 people escaped across the Pyrenees alone during the war. A significant achievement, for which Escape Lines can take much of the credit. It also came at a high cost. Many people in the Escape Lines did not survive the war and, afterwards, as an intensely personal tribute, evaders often named their children after those who had saved them.
Fundamentally, the message of the Escape Lines was solidarity and compassion for a stranger in the most difficult of times. In 1943, in the French Basque Country, two evaders had died trying to cross into Spain. The Nazis, believing they had been helped by an escape line from a nearby village, brought their bodies there and deposited them on the steps of the Town Hall as a warning. A strict night-time curfew was in operation but, when the Nazis returned at first light the next morning, the bodies were completely covered in flowers, a much stronger and defiant message which ultimately endured.
At present, many of us will be thinking of journeys abroad we will make in the future as a simple way of encouraging us through this challenging period of restrictions and lockdown. Spare a thought for those whose journeys, in earlier, more challenging times, have had a quiet influence on the Europe of today.
The above article is written by John Morgan, a Dublin-based lawyer and Secretary of the Basque Pyrenees Freedom Trails Association (BPFTA). John was a speaker at the Comet Lines International Symposium Freedom Trails of Europe: Intersections between the Arts, Equality, Human Rights held in 2019 at the Samuel Beckett Theatre to a full house of 205 youth and adults.