The orange groves on either side of the mountain do not understand the meaning of borders. Pulling from the same soil in silent reverberation, carrying stories of each passing generation, every harvest, every secret. In this way they are whole, sharing a transmutable richness in root and fruit where one does not survive without the other. It is a code we cannot touch but we share. Yet we divide these fruits by country, by taste, and by aesthetic value. We separate our fruits and defend our borders. Perhaps unwittingly, the natural division made by the Pyrenees between France and Spain facilitated escape in the Second World War. My great aunt Lisa Fittko, a refugee from Germany, became central in the local resistance of the small border town Banyuls-sur-Mer, where she found herself after escaping a camp in Gurs, with Hannah Arendt and a few others.

Since I never met my grandparents, Lisa was like a grandmother to me or rather the distant emblem of one, the embodiment of an otherwise lost generation. She was a fierce story teller with an incredible memory, recalling the tiniest details of her experiences throughout the war. She wasn’t the type to play with me or braid my hair, cook or sing, rather she asked for my thoughts and offered me new ways of understanding. More importantly, what intrigued me as a young girl was the way she had an answer for everything and held firm in her convictions, assured in her gestures and demeanor during heated political discussion. During these moments between adults, I would often slip away to the boudoir where she kept her collection of lipsticks, trying each one while WFMT 98.7 Chicago’s classical radio played softly beside the mirror. Less for beauty than a symbolic embodiment of her strength and assuredness, I imagined this as a tactile way to absorb her wordless wisdom.

When Hitler came to power, Lisa was a twenty-four year old secretary in Berlin. She had already been active in the resistance, organizing anti-fascists and establishing a network. She wrote in detail about her indirect route across Europe, from Berlin to Paris where she was caught and sent to a detention camp in Gurs, then escaped and zigzagged along Southern France. After reading her memoirs as an adolescent, and then again in my twenties, something intangible solidified in me that set the tone for my recent exploration. In August 2019, months before the pandemic, I took a short trip to Barcelona where I detoured to Banyuls-sur-Mer to retrace her footsteps, returning again for several months during national lockdown in autumn 2020.

Centuries before the demarcation lines were set, Banyuls-sur-Mer was a Greek trade port that later became Catalan country. Fishermen developed a system of hiding goods in the cavernous cliffs (called the Cova Fordada) that line the coast where salt, tobacco, foreign currency, sugar, rice, sheets and skins were nearly impossible to regulate, and so became known as the Smugglers Republic by Louis XIV. In 1793, Spanish troops encountered unprecedented local resistance while attempting to invade Roussillon, a battle that became known as the Battle of Roussillon on the Col de Banyuls. Since the region has always been full of resilience, contraband and pride, it would make sense that Lisa found herself here, able to hide and actively counter the Third Reich. For a period of seven months, several times a week she would lead refugees along a smugglers path to Spain. Now called the “F Route” after her last name “Fittko”, I spent a lot of time retracing her path, searching for markers, melting into the mountains with the sun, moving out of time to be near her.

“It’s what anyone should have done.”

One late summer morning on the F Route, chasing the last shadows as the sun reached its zenith, I remembered an encouraging image from Lisa’s memoir. “Finally we reached the summit. I had gone on ahead, and I stopped to look around. The spectacular scene appeared so unexpectedly that for a moment I thought I was seeing a mirage. Far below, where we had come from, the deep-blue Mediterranean was visible; on the other side, in front of us, steep cliffs fell away to a glass sheet of transparent turquoise- a second ocean? Yes, of course; it was the Spanish coast. Behind us, to the north, the semicircle of Catalonia’s Roussillon, with its Côte Vermeille, the Vermilion Coast, an autumn landscape with its innumerable hues of red and yellow-gold. I gasped for breath – I had never seen such beauty before.” Feeling a little lightheaded, I soaked my white t-shirt with the last of the water, rewrapped it around my head and pushed forward up the last rocky stretch. Undoubtedly, when I made it to the plateau with one foot in France and the other in Spain, it was as spectacular as she described and for a moment I forgot about the blistering heat. How did she manage this in espadrilles, hungry and tired, several times a week?

As the seasonal shift brought the Tramontane winds, the leaves began to turn and the gendarmes patrolled the streets enforcing curfew, I felt a strange sense of cyclical timelessness. But with this impression came more questions without answers, only the patterns in nature. I started thinking that for every unknown there is a color-way, which is to say maybe these things can be explained as colors. You can see it in the orange light at dawn and sunset that bathes the village, crinkling the black schist rocks as if they were paper, filling their crevices like kinstugi. I became content with this color as a way to replace the urge for an explanation of things that must remain language-less.

All around, orange trees were within reach from my window and I pulled the branch in the morning. Here was a ripe wilderness of unkept riches, falling flecks of color on grey sidewalks, deep green gardens and taupe earth. The Banyulenc did not share my incredulous sense of loss for each untasted juice droplet, a $4 piece of fruit in New York City. In an abundance of utility and beauty where there is no difference between the two, they were valueless; overstocked and overlooked. I realized this fallen fruit was part of a lifecycle rather than a commodity; a necessary release.

Although initially I returned to Banyuls to continue working the harvest, you could say I went as a way to find something of myself in my family history, a story which has always been fragmented and delicate. There are many ways to understand a story, for example there is the imagining, the walking, and the reflection, the synthesis of which might bring understanding or, in this case, peace. When I left Banyuls, it was easier to gather my thoughts from a distance. Something within me was concerned with the logistics of how to become useful during war. Like a child playing make believe, I imagined the pressure of her thoughts:

Discretion! Stay on the move and informed of enemy whereabouts. Know the landscape, know your mind. Find the way out, find someone who can forge visas to …Gibraltar, Morocco, Cuba, China… find this napkin sketch escape route, do no think of when you’ll eat next; when you are hungry, keep going. When your body aches, keep going. When you get sick, keep going. Blend in, speak the language, learn the mannerisms. Embrace the village that hides you and refuses your food stamps. Get firewood, bring bread, fuet catalan and cheese. Climb the footpath disguised as a vineyard hand, thread through crevices of the mountain, fabricate stories for the gendarmes, hope your efforts are not in vain when you leave the refugees at the plateau for the Spanish side. Analyze everyone and every move, but don’t waste time.

Just stay alive and get them over the mountain.

One day early on, Lisa opened the door to find Walter Benjamin asking her to take him over the border to Port Bou. They hadn’t seen each other since Paris, yet somehow he found her in Banyuls. That was Lisa’s first expedition, which had many delays between his failing health, his luggage, and several detours. After she left him at the summit, she turned back toward the village feeling relieved that all seemed to have gone as planned. But several days later, she heard of the tragedy.

It was this rural community that supported the resistance during the war as they had before and as they continue to today, refusing denomination as French or Spanish, fighting to be recognized as an independent Catalan state. In her memoir Escape Through the Pyrenees, Lisa describes many instances where people looked after her without regard for the rules of Vichy. At the butcher shop with very few food stamps, she offered them up meagerly and the butcher replied, “I asked how much meat you want, not how many food stamps you have.” Rosa Ventajou, a fiery woman whose family goes back centuries in Banyuls, was always finding ways to help. Lisa and her husband Hans stayed in Rosa’s family apartment for most of that period. On one particular occasion in April 1941, Vichy gendarmes came to question them about the legitimacy of their travel documents after a new decree was passed that no foreigners could remain in the region. Rosa made a scene on the street, “What’s going on? Where are you off to? What étrangers? Who are foreigners here?” Hearing the commotion, other women leaned out their apartment windows and chimed in. “Foreigners? These are our neighbors. Who stood in the chain half the night passing water-buckets during the fire? And now you’re calling them étrangers?” “She’s really right you know, that’s the truth, I saw it myself, monsieur helped to put out our fire, therefore he belongs here.”

At this time, there was a lot of confusing paperwork meant to stall and limit foreigners living in or transiting through France. In order to travel safely, one needed a sauf-conduit with an identification number, called a Piéce d’Identité, which Lisa didn’t have as a refugee. In vehement Catalan, the Sergeant argued with the Mayor’s Secretary about whether the responsibility fell under gendarmerie or mayoral jurisdiction (note that the issue was not whether or where they would evict Lisa, but who was responsible for her outcome). They hesitated to put refus de sejour, which was technically what Vichy required and would have had her arrested at the first checkpoint; instead they were trying to find a reasonable alternative. After much deliberation, it was suggested that they simply write Piéce d’Identité by hand on that line because, as Lisa recalls in her memoirs, “‘you’d be sticking to the truth; at the checkpoint they’d surely think you made a mistake and really intended to write Carte d’Identité – especially since her husband has one.’ Everyone found that to be brilliant. So we dragged ourselves back and they issued the sauf-conduits to us. Mine stated: Piéce d’Identité: Piéce d’Identité. Then we shook hands all around. Au revoir, bonne chance!” This kind of ambiguous aversion to rules highlights a certain kind of flexibility and loyalty that seems deeply rooted here.

History is not lost, it’s a living foundation for the modern cultural labyrinth. In this melding of Catalan and French, beyond their differences is their deep respect for the land, a unifying entity across the borders and a commonality above everything else. While other parts of the coast may have modernized, these village surroundings have remained wild, practically untouched apart from the vineyards, and even they are terraced within the natural topographical fabric. An abundance of sanctuaries in the area attract divers, snorkelers and photographers, supporting the beauty of the wilderness. While much of the French coastline has become something of a cliché mise-en-scène, Banyuls is too niche, rough and wild, too resistant to frills; a raw, resilient beauty unwilling to be tamed by consumerism.

When in the foothills I looked across the valley to the mountain range, and depending on the time of day or the way the light hit, especially when it became a rich orange, the foliage emerged in dimensions so sharp that if I looked too closely I lost my depth perception, as if the mountain were at arms length. And then I was the mountain, in a dreamlike state. My friend Pedro handed me an orange carpel he picked from the overhanging tree. The burst of flavor snapped me back to my feet, standing on the opposite hill on a footpath in the olive grove, looking once again across the valley. Rather the opposite of an out of body experience, where sight became taste it was a palpable vision.

Leaning into our merging history, I sensed walking in Lisa’s footsteps eighty years later, hearing the same friendly voices she heard, considered the way the light warmed my face the way it warmed hers, considered turning the same corner, considered the trees that have seen me pass beneath them as they’ve seen her, as they’ve seen the gendarmes in pursuit.

We unite in this light and these fruits out of time. After all, what keeps anything alive beyond death? As they looked back at the village from the train car on their way to Marseille, she turned to her husband and said, “When all of this is over and we’ve grown old and want peace and quiet at last, then we can come back and live here.” After the war, in Chicago, Hans passed away in poor health, so they never did. Sometimes I wonder why Lisa didn’t go back anyway, but she was as stubborn as they come. And now I see the gift of not knowing Banyuls sooner, and of her letting it go, was essential to the story continuing. That through our independent discoveries in life beyond the realms of conscious discourse, we find bridges of understanding. A “good omen”, as she would say; her quiet lesson.

Lisa Fittko, Escape Through The Pyrenees (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1991)

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