Jews escaping via the Lleida Pyrenees
The first evaders reached Spain between 1939 and 1940, passing the customs offices without any difficulties. The most important wave of escaping Jews, which mainly involved families, occurred between June 1940 and December 1942, coinciding with their persecution by France’s Vichy regime. In 1944, those crossing the Pyrenees were mainly young people and children who had been hiding in France. In order to make their escape quicker and safer, a support structure was organised based on evasion networks guided by the allied secret services and Jewish resistance organisations. This secret movement through the Pyrenees received the support of many Catalan guides and the Principality of Andorra also played an important role in this process.
1939-1940: Documentation in order. The customs offices of Pont de Rei and the Farga de Moles
The first wave of arrivals occurred between September 1939 and June 1940: between the outbreak of war and until the signing of the armistice between France and Germany and the constitution in France of a government that collaborated with the Nazis led by Marshal Pétain. At first, they were mainly Jews of Polish and German origin, but after the German occupation of Belgium and the Netherlands, the scale of the exodus increased. These refugees were mainly families who held the documentation required to emigrate to a third country from Spanish or Portuguese ports. They entered Spain with total normality, using conventional entry points. In Lleida province, this meant via the customs offices of Eth Pònt de Rei, in the Val d’Aran, and the Farga de Moles, near La Seu d’Urgell, on the border with the Principality of Andorra. They had the documentation required to pass through customs. The requirements were strict, because – as well as mandatory passport and authorisation to leave France – they had to obtain a transit visa for Spain emitted by a Spanish diplomatic representation and also the ticket for the ship that would take them to their final destination.
June 1940 – December 1942: fleeing from Vichy France
The capitulation of France in June 1940 and the establishment of a line dividing the country in two parts: one occupied by the Germans and the rest under the control of the government presided over by Marshal Pétain, led to an increase in the number of attempts to flee to the departments of southern France. At this time, there was a great wave of evasions by Jewish families seeking to reach the Iberian Peninsula. The Jews who sought to flee were still mainly families residing in France, although there was a steady incorporation of others from the countries that Germany was gradually incorporating into the Reich. The peak period for refugees passing through the Pyrenees occurred between July and November 1942.
During 1943, the strict surveillance established in the south of France and the sealing of the frontier, by the customs officials and the German police, complicated acts of evasion. Those who did not manage to escape before 1943 went into hiding or were detained and deported. This explains why the arrival of Jews in the Lleida Pyrenees was less intense during 1943.
1944: Zionist prisoners and orphaned children
During the year 1944, the Jews who crossed the Pyrenees were basically: young Zionists who had remained in hiding in France; others who had been placed in the hands of aid organisations by their parents; and children whose parents had been deported. The vast majority remained in the care of the aid organisations that had been given the task of secretly passing them over the border with the help of the different evasion networks.