If you are heading for the French Pyrenees region this summer (and there are few more beautiful places in which to take a holiday), you would be better off leaving your Michelin Guide at home and taking Edward Stourton’s fascinating book instead. You will learn a great deal about the dark secrets of a neglected corner of France and about a neglected area of Second World War research: the story of the escape routes across the Pyrenees taken by thousands fleeing the German occupation of France.
If their story is known at all in Britain and America, it is because an estimated 1,500 Allied soldiers and airmen were among their number, but as Stourton points out, a far greater number of French people made the perilous journey over the rugged border mountain range. Estimates range between 30,000 and 100,000, among them many Jews who would otherwise have ended up in the death camps.
In the months before the war, the flow had been in the opposite direction, consisting of Republican refugees from General Franco’s victorious nationalists in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. They received a shabby welcome from the French authorities, who built concentration camps for them which soon came in handy for the Vichy government when it started rounding up Jews. Stourton tells some moving stories of Jews, some of them small children, who managed to escape the Vichy (and subsequent German) net and made it across the Pyrenees to safety in Spain and beyond.
There is a distinct darkening of tone as the war progresses and the Germans take over complete control of France. In the early years of the war, British soldiers trapped by the German advance and airmen shot down over Belgium and France made their way south, and if they made it to Vichy France often appear to have led a relaxed lifestyle while they waited for the opportunity to cross into Spain. Stourton pays just tribute to the many brave Belgian men and women who organised escape lines for Allied servicemen through France to the Pyrenees and often paid for their courage with their lives.
The Vichy regime was bad enough, particularly in its brutal attitude to Jews, but once the Germans had taken over control of the whole of France escape became much harder, with more efficient border patrols and vicious reprisals on French people who sheltered and aided refugees. These brave people were enthusiastically backed by thousands of tough and combat-hardened Spanish republican exiles itching to get back at the Nazis who had backed Franco. The stream of French refugees increased significantly with the introduction of the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO) in February 1943 which was designed to conscript young men for forced labour, mainly in Germany.
The actual mountain crossings themselves were often deadly ordeals. The foreign and Jewish refugees were usually at the end of their tether, malnourished and poorly dressed, before they set off on what they hoped would be the last leg of their journey, and Stourton has collected some grim tales of what went on in the mountains. Some of the passeurs (guides) were brave idealists, but many more were callous mercenaries who would even resort to shooting their weaker charges if their slowness endangered the lives of the rest of the party. One such victim was Jacques Grunbach, the Jewish editor of an underground newspaper. He was part of an escape group in November 1942 led by a famed passeur Lazare Cabrero-Monclus, known as El Magno. Grunbach, who had a weak heart, slipped and broke his ankle and had to be left behind while El Magno led the others to a hut higher up. When he went back for Grunbach, he judged him beyond hope, shot him and heaved him over a ridge. His body was not found until 1950; Cabrero-Monclus stood trial for his murder in Toulouse in 1953 but was acquitted. (To be fair, he led Grunbach’s companions to safety.)
Judging by the organisation of his material, Stourton would not have made much of a passeur himself: he frequently leaves the path to dart off in unexpected directions before getting back on track. But he has a sharp eye for a moving personal story and a real feel for the sector of la France profonde where the events he describes took place. I am surely not alone in mourning his disgraceful removal from Radio 4’s Today programme, where his intelligent and courteous manner is still missed. He brings those qualities to this thoughtful book, which is a worthy memorial to countless daring, and desperate, people.