Without a doubt, the real stars of the “Perseguits i salvats” (Persecuted and Saved) project are the people who managed to escape through the Lleida Pyrenees during the Second World War. Below, as an example, we provide a summary of some of the personal histories of these refugees and their families.
The Bielinsky family
Avraham Bielinsky, who was a tailor by trade, had settled in Germany in 1929, along with his wife, Esther Guita; both were of Polish origin. In 1932, their son Reinhold was born. As a result of the anti-Semitism that was rampant in Germany in the 1930s, and particularly after the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, the family decided to leave Germany and to settle in Paris. It was there that their second child, Françoise, was born. The arrival of the German army in Paris, in June 1940, produced another important disruption in the life of this family. The Vichy government, presided over by Marshal Pétain , soon began to persecute the Jews. Avraham was detained and sent to a detention camp for foreigners near Paris. Fortunately, however, he was able to escape and then flee, with the rest of his family, to the south of France and the area that had not been occupied by the Nazis. Once in Pau (Pyrénées Atlantiques), Avraham found work in a textile factory owned by Victor Masplé-Somps. In October 1942, faced with the imminent arrival of the Germans in the departments of southern France, the family made plans for their escape to Spain. Victor Masplé-Somps managed to obtain passports for them to travel to Honduras. The Bielinsky family therefore left Pau and headed for Luchon. From this settlement, nestled in the heart of the Pyrenees, they then had to embark on the final part of their escape. This would take them to Spain, from where they planned to catch a boat to the American continent. They left Luchon and first travelled to Juzet de Luchon. From there, they had to walk for several hours, crossing the Pyrenees via the Tres Corets pass, to reach the first settlement in Spain: the village of Les, in the Val d’Aran. There, they were detained by the Guardia Civil and placed in police custody. The police agent involved consulted the Guardia Civil regarding how to proceed with the detainees and whether he should deport them to France or allow them to continue their journey through Spain. While waiting for an official answer, which in many cases was dramatic as refugees in this situation could be forced to return to France, the Bielinsky family managed to get someone to stamp their passports and so on 13th January 1943, they were able to reach Vigo from where they set sail for Venezuela; they arrived there on 3rd February.
While the Bielinsky family settled in Venezuela, far away from the barbaric acts and persecution, Victor Masplé-Somps, the man who had protected them in Pau, was detained by the Gestapo. He was subsequently deported to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, where he died on 15th February 1945. It was not until 2012 that Françoise Bielinsky, under her married name of Paquita Sitzer, and her family would know the exact point from which she had escaped from the Nazis. She then returned to Les a year later, in August 2013, coinciding with her 75th birthday. She was warmly received by the local inhabitants and thanked the people of Les for the help that they had given to hundreds of Jewish families who managed to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe.
From. Mireia Boya
The Henle family
The Henle family, who were originally from Belgium, formed part of the Jews who the Vichy government had grouped together at Aulus-les-Bains (Ariège) in the spring of 1942. This family was formed by the father (Hans) and mother (Laura), a seven-month-old baby (Claude) and the maternal grandmother (77 year old Meta). After witnessing a series of successive attacks which affected many of their colleagues at Aulus, and faced with the threat of being deported to an extermination camp, they decided to flee to Spain. It was now the middle of December 1942 and the Germans had already arrived in Ariège. They actively monitored the frontier in order to prevent acts of evasion and persecuted both those who sought to leave France and, with even greater vigour, those who tried to help them by acting as guides. The Henle family received help from Jean Pierre Agouau and his 18-year-old daughter, Jeanne. They both knew the mountain routes between Ariège and El Pallars Sobirà very well because they kept herds of sheep there for much of the year. Despite the new situation in Aulus following the arrival of the Germans, in a gesture of bravery and solidarity, Agouau decided to accompany a group of nine people, including this family, as far as the Guiló pass, right on the border between France and Spain. This was a particularly hard journey. Snow covered the whole route and Laura walked with great difficulty on account of a combination of tiredness and cold. There were also a number of incidents along the route.
The improvised guide had to carry the baby in order to take some of the weight off the mother. Meanwhile, the grandmother suffered an accident on the descent and had to be left to rest . She was found two days later, hiding in a cave. Just after crossing into Spanish territory, the Henle family were detained by a couple of Guardia Civil agents and taken to Tavascan. A few days later, they were all confined to the prison in Sort, from where they were later transferred to Lleida. While Hans was sent to the concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro, the rest of the family were allowed to travel to Madrid, where they were then set free. It was not until March 1944 that they were able to leave Spain for Canada, where they would settle definitively. In 2004, Claude Henle and Jeanne Rogalle, the person who was saved and the saviour, were reunited. The village of Aulus-les-Bains hosted this moving ceremony during which Rogalle was awarded the Medal of Righteousness by the Israeli government and also received the French Legion of Honour.
Perla Kapelman was born in Poland on 20th May, 1922. A year later, her parents emigrated to France and made their home in Paris. On the outbreak of the Second World War, her father enlisted as a volunteer in the French army. Following the French surrender and the signing of the Franco-German armistice, the family found themselves trapped in Paris. The most important raid against the Jews in France took place on the night between 16th and 17th July 1942; it was known as the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome) raid. In total, 12,884 Jews were arrested. The conditions under which they were detained were particularly dramatic as families were separated and many of them would never see each other again. The prisoners were taken to the camp at Drancy and then deported to extermination camps in Germany. On the night of 15th to 16th July, Perla – who was on holiday from school – was sleeping at a neighbour’s house; this was how she escaped the raid. When she returned home, she found her flat empty and discovered that her relatives had been detained. A few days later, Perla managed to flee from Paris; she travelled to Dax, by train, and then managed to cross France and reach the free zone, with the help of a guide. After the occupation of free France by the Germans, on 11th November, Perla decided to escape from the country. With a Belgian friend, and the help of a guide, she crossed the Pyrenees heading for Spain. After a walk of several days, she arrived in the Val d’Aran. There, she was caught and imprisoned in Vielha and then transferred to Sort, where she spent the night of 23rd December 1942 at the women’s prison. The next day, she was transferred to Lleida. On 28th December she arrived in Barcelona with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or “The Joint”. She then remained there for thirteen months before leaving Spain for Palestine from the port of Cádiz on 18th January, 1944. After an eight-day voyage across the Mediterranean, she finally reached the port of Haifa.
Elias Zomerplaag, who was born in 1925, lived in Antwerp (Belgium) with his parents and sister. On 10th May 1940, they were woken by a German bombing raid and five days later fled to France. At Caen (Calvados), his father tried to find a boat to take them to England, but it was impossible. After passing through Caen, they took a freight train which carried them southward. After a number of problems they eventually reached the castle of Lafourguette (Haute-Garonne), where they met up with a large group of Dutch Jews. They stayed there until June 1942, when the Vichy government ordered them to be taken to a guarded residence in the village of Aulus-les-Bains (Ariège). There, Elias worked cutting wood in a forest and washing dishes in a hotel. In November, after German troops arrived in the village, his parents thought that given his age (17), he would be forced to work for the Germans. It was then that they encouraged him to cross the Pyrenees and enter Spain. It was the beginning of December and he formed part of an expedition that included 12 other Jews. Guides led them to the Guiló pass and then showed them which path to follow in order to reach Tavascan. On their way down from the mountains they were captured, near the Romedo pools, by two members of the Guardia Civil who drove them to Tavascan, where they arrived on 6th December. After staying in the village for a couple of days, at a place prepared for them by the Guardia Civil, they were then transferred to the prison in Sort. A few days later, Elias was taken first to the prison at Tremp and then to those of Lleida and Zaragoza, before finally arriving at the concentration camp of Miranda de Ebro, where he remained until the end of June 1943. Once freed, his consulate arranged for him to leave Spain from the port of Vigo, on a boat destined for Jamaica. From there, he went on to the Dutch Antilles. The rest of his family tried to escape to Spain on a later expedition, but they were discovered by the Germans. They were deported to the transit camp of Drancy on the outskirts of Paris, but the mother managed to present documentation showing that she was not of Jewish origin and so she was freed together with her daughter, Betty. In contrast, the father was sent to the island of Alderney where he was forced to look for unexploded bombs on the beaches. After the allied Normandy Landing, he was deported to Germany, but managed to escape by jumping off the train that was carrying him. This was how he survived. Once the Second World War had finished, the Zomerplaag family went back to live in Antwerp, where Elias died in 2013.
Volf Slomovics arrived in Sort in the middle of April 1944. He was a Jew of Polish origin who was living in Paris when the Second World War broke out. He was detained, along with fourteen other people, by a group of Guardia Civil border guards from Alós d’Isil, but a few days later, he was transferred to Lleida by The Joint. His stay in Lleida lasted almost a month and he was then authorised to reside in Barcelona. On reaching the city, he explained how he had lost contact with the rest of his family. His wife Carlota, whose maiden name was Plesman, and their children : four-year-old twins Berthe and Maurice (Paris, 19th January, 1938), three-year-old Gisèle (Paris, 25th July, 1939) and five-month-old Ernest (Paris, 11th April, 1942) were deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp on convoy number 37, which left the Drancy internment camp on 25th September, 1942. This convoy mainly carried Jews of Romanian origin, most of whom lived in France. Volf escaped from the horror and barbarism of Europe on 26th October 1944, on board the Portuguese ship “Guine”, which sailed from the port of Cádiz, destined for Haifa.
Israel Lewiner was born in Poland on 8th March, 1905 and was married to Laja Lewiner (14th December, 1903). The couple lived in Paris, where their two children Marie (10th July, 1930) and Maurice (30th October, 1932) were born. Laja’s trail was lost at their last known place of residence: the Mirador hotel in Nice. Their two children remained under the protection of the Moussa Abadi and Odette Rosentock networks, which formed one of the main circuits for saving Jewish children in the south of France. With the help of various other people, between 1943 and 1945, these networks managed to save more than five hundred young Jews in the department of Alpes-Maritimes. Israel managed to cross the Pyrenees and to take refuge in Spain, but on 7th March, 1944, he was captured by the Guardia Civil of Alós d’Isil, together with a group of young Dutch Zionists. He was then transferred to Sort where he was provided with accommodation at the Hotel Pessets. A few days later, he went to Barcelona, where he stayed at a number of different boarding houses, paid for by The Joint. Israel died on 21st July, 1945. His son Maurice continued to live in France at the end of the Second World War. He was a founder member of the youth section of the French Communist Party and, after having several different jobs, eventually became the commercial manager of the newspaper L’Humanité. He died in Paris on 16th August 1994.
Edmond and Madaleine Vermes
This husband and wife, who were born in Hungary in 1900, originally lived in Austria, where Edmond was a prestigious doctor. In 1938, following the union of Austria and Nazi Germany and faced with the threat of persecution for being Jews, they decided to flee to France and to settle in Paris. In 1940, after the German army reached the French capital, they decided to head south in search of a more peaceful place to live, away from persecution. However, in spring 1942, together with a large group of Jews, they were rounded up by the Vichy government at Aulus-les-Bains. In July of the same year, they were shocked to witness the attacks that were carried out against tens of Jews staying at this small village in the department of Ariège. The cruelty with which families were forced to leave their homes and were taken to the internment camp of Drancy, near Paris, as a previous step to their deportation to extermination camps in Poland, had a great impact on this couple. They immediately took the decision to secretly leave the region and to hide at Toulouse de Languedoc. Their ultimate objective was to reach the Iberian Peninsula and then to move to America. In Toulouse, they contracted the services of a guide who would provide them with false documentation and take them to the Principality of Andorra. Having crossed Andorra, where they stayed for a few days, they managed to reach La Seu d’Urgell, the first Spanish settlement after the frontier, on 4th November 1942. There, they voluntarily presented themselves at the police station. After several days walking in the mountains without appropriate equipment and suffering the inclement weather conditions, Edmond and Madaleine were physically exhausted, had swollen feet and were covered in bruises. They were also panic-stricken at the thought of being detained and possibly turned over to the Nazis. Given their physical condition, they were put up at the Hotel Andria and, a few weeks later, the Spanish authorities decided to move them to Madrid. They then left Spain and headed for Lisbon (Portugal). On 1st September 1943, they took the steamship “Lourenço Marqués” and sailed to Philadelphia (USA), arriving there on 4th October. They subsequently settled in New York.
The Theodor family
The Theodor family was one of those that stayed at the Andria hotel in La Seu d’Urgell. On 22nd December 1942, Paul Heinz Theodor, his wife, Natalie, and their two sons, Ralph and Peter, were still at the hotel. Paul Heinz Theodor, who was an engineer by profession, had been born at Konigsberg, on 27th March, 1903. This important port city, which had been the capital of East Prussia, became known as Kaliningrad after the Second World War . The residents of Brussels (Belgium) experienced the growing tide of anti-Semitism that swept over the country just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Then, following the German occupation of May 1940, together with hundreds of other Jews living in Belgium, Paul Heinz was transferred to the concentration camp of Saint Cyprien, where he would remain until 1941. At the end of November 1942, the whole family arrived at La Seu d’Urgell, via Andorra. On 2nd December, they were transferred to the prison that had been set up at the Old Seminary in Lleida. The father and his elder, 16-year-old, son were then transferred to the concentration camp of Miranda de Ebro. Meanwhile, Nathalie and the younger son were imprisoned at the Ventas prison in Madrid. However, they were freed thanks to the intervention of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and then waited for Ralph and Paul Heinz to be released from Miranda. The whole family then went to Vigo where they boarded the steamship “Marqués de Comillas” and set sail for the USA.