The role of the evasion networks

Placa en honor de Francisco Ponzán, organitzardor de diferents xarxes d’evasió. ©Josep Calvet.

Placa en honor de Francisco Ponzán, organitzardor de diferents xarxes d’evasió. ©Josep Calvet.

A support structure based on evasion networks was set up in order to help those who sought to escape from France and to make their flight safer and faster. Initially, these networks were responsible for transporting those escaping from the countries occupied by Germany in 1939 and 1940 (Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg) to France. The situation of generalised war in Europe meant that many people needed to cross the Pyrenees. As a result, the networks had to be extended and it was necessary to add the task of helping refugees escape to Spain and even travel as far as Portugal. In all of these cases, the first destination was normally the city of Barcelona, from where the refugees were driven to their chosen points of departure, which was preferably Portugal or Gibraltar.
During these years, tens of evasion networks were established, with each specialising in passing a specific group of people (soldiers, pilots, Jews, French citizens …) over the border or crossing a specific territory (the Val d’Aran, El Pallars Sobirà, Andorra…). Each network could have a number of different branches, according to the route chosen for crossing the frontier. The secret services of the allied countries played an important role in the creation and development of this service. The British and Americans were behind the majority of the evasion networks which, as well as passing people, could also be charged with carrying documentation addressed to the allied army in the north of Africa or to England and the different governments in exile in London. On many occasions, the expeditions returning from Spain were also used to pass on reports and money from the allied diplomatic representations established in Spain to those organising the resistance.

The guides

Guides, who were also known as “passeurs” (passers), were used to cross the Pyrenees to France; this was easily the most dangerous and specialised task that the evasion groups had to perform. The majority of the Catalan guides were people who had been born and who had in the Pyrenees, or who had a very good knowledge of their natural environment, paths and people and who were therefore well-suited for carrying out such a risky and physically demanding type of work. Some had already performed similar tasks during the Spanish Civil War and so knew how to do all the different aspects of this activity.
Their reasons for doing this work were many and varied. Firstly, it is important to underline their personal and political commitment. Even so, economic gain remained the main source of motivation for an important number of “passeurs”. Many earned money from smuggling, which offered considerable financial gains given the period of shortage and the restrictions that reigned in Spain during the early years of Francoism. Finally, it is important to mention a third group of people who carried out certain tasks from time to time and who acted out of humanity and solidarity.
The ordeal that crossing the Pyrenees on foot implied for some poorly prepared or older people meant that it was necessary to include stops where they could rest and recover their strength. For this reason, on the Catalan side of the mountains, the guides used to use a series of trusted farmhouses where it was possible to rest and eat before continuing along the route. There were also refuges, or safe houses, in some settlements. In parallel, other networks specialised in falsifying documentation and particularly that required to travel around Spain, such as passports and letters of safe conduct.

The Principality of Andorra: the main base for the evasion networks and “passeurs”

Since the end of the Spanish Civil War, Andorra had become a refuge for hundreds of Spaniards who had fled before the victory of the Francoist army and who had subsequently survived by dedicating their time to smuggling and passing documents and people from France to Spain, and in the opposite direction. These refugees were then joined by others who had been released from French concentration camps and had sought refuge far from the internment camps of France and the repression in Spain.
These circumstances favoured making the Principality of Andorra the epicentre for many stories linked to the conflict and led to it playing a decisive role in the workings of the evasion networks.
Andorra was the part of the Pyrenees in which the evasion networks that accompanied hundreds of escaping Jews worked with the greatest degree of precision.

Jewish evasion networks

Although in only a very embryonic way, the Jewish resistance was set up in 1940 as a result of the German occupation of France; its mission was to help the Jews who soon began to suffer persecution to flee from the country. Amongst the organisations that were involved in these actions to save people by leading the across the Pyrenees, it is particularly appropriate to highlight the Armée Juivem (AJ – Jewish Army). This organisation was founded in January 1942 and during the spring of 1943, it began to organise chains of evaders destined for Spain and also to provide support to escaping Jews who wished to join the allied forces in Palestine.
The networks associated with the Mouvement de Jeunesse Sioniste (MJS) also helped hundreds of young people to cross the frontier. Many of them had received a Zionist education and productive training in France and would later go to Palestine. From August 1942 onwards, when Nazi raids in the south of France intensified, they helped to save hundreds of adults.
The Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), an organisation that had been founded in 1912, and which dedicated its attention to children in occupied France during the Second World War, carried out the relevant task of saving young Jews.
It is similarly important to mention the Westerweel network; this was set up in the Netherlands, a common destination for young Jews fleeing for Germany and Austria.

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