Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lisa Eckstein-Fittko (1909-2005)

Lisa Eckstein, daughter of Simon Eckstein, was born in Uzhhorod, Ung, Hungary in 1909.  Her large family was active in many spheres of cultural and economic life of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One branch of her family was active in the Czech national movement, others were prominent industrialists and patrons of the arts. Johann Strauss II, the "Waltz King" was an in-law.

After the family moved to Berlin, she witnessed the Nazi rise to power and became involved in anti-fascist politics. She worked as an underground Resistance fighter in Berlin, Prague (where she met her husband Hans Fittko), Zurich, Amsterdam, Paris, Marseilles and the Pyrenees where she escorted refugees into Spain from 1940 to 1941. In Banyuls-sur-mer she was asked by the Socialist mayor, Azéma to assist émigrés in crossing the border, and in creating a network of information so that the "new route would be known by those who came after". Lisa, an émigré herself, wanted to get to Portugal in order to escape by boat to the U.S.

She remained in Banyuls-sur-mer to participate in Varian Fry's "border project" (Emergency Rescue Committee). Hers became the "new route" and was an alternative to the fascist controlled coastal path from Cerbere to Portbou. It became known as the "Lister Route" in 1939 (named after the Spanish Republican general who led his troops out of Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War). In 1940 it was coined the "F-Route" by Fry.

Perhaps the best-known refugee she helped was Walter Benjamin, whom she took over the Pyrenees following verbal instructions and a small map drawn by mayor Azéma. They reached the border town of Port-Bou, Spain on 25 September 1940.

Benjamin was later found dead in a Port-Bou hotel. After his death, the rest of her group was allowed to proceed. According to Lisa, Benjamin carried with him a heavy briefcase which he claimed to be more important than his life. This story was not confirmed by other accounts, causing some controversy. Chimen Abramsky, an authority who was among the first to hear the story from Lisa herself, gave her account credibility. A briefcase was noted in the Spanish police records, but its contents mention only "newspapers and various other papers of unimportant content". Speculation as to its contents have been the subject of scholarly articles and artistic works inspired by Benjamin's story and Lisa Fittko's account of it in her books.

Hans and Lisa Fittko escaped to Cuba, and from there entered the U.S. She came to international recognition over 40 years later through her two widely-translated memoirs, in which she describes her actions. She died in Chicago in 2005.

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