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The Homefront, Then and Now

Forty Hard Miles to Freedom

Anyone wanting to reach Spain from France faces a wall of mountains that reaches up more than 11,000 feet. Its passes are few and high. To traverse its steep, rocky 40-mile base on foot challenges even strong young men. Today’s hikers are advised it is a four-day trek that should be tried onlyby fit walkers in good weather, with a knowledgeable guide, and of course, in daylight.

Allied airmen and others trying to escape Nazi-occupied France in the early 1940s had no such luxurious choices. Be they escaped prisoners of war, shot-down airmen, Jewish and other persecuted minorities destined for death camps, or Frenchmen ordered to forced labor camps in Germany, they could take the trail only in secrecy at night, in every kind of weather, with whatever clothing and food they could scrape together. And to find the necessary guide, they had to risk asking locals for help. Knowing they risked their lives – perhaps their family’s lives – by helping, some locals turned the fugitives over to the Germans. Only a few were courageous enough to risk everything and start those escaping on their way.

On the other side of the Pyrenees lay neutral Spain, the domain of Fascist— and friend to Hitler— General Francisco Franco, and the probability of spending some months in one of his odious prisons before being released for ransom. Yet, this uncertain outcome was a better risk than the known evils of life under Hitler.

Nazi checkpoints were frequent; their patrols could appear any time or place. To add to the risk, escapees had a recurring need for a new guide. Locals were under the German eye; they dared not disappear for four days at a time. Escapees had to trust another guide could get free to take them on up the next day’s trail. And, after November of 1942, when the Allies launched their invasion of German-held North Africa, the Germans tightened their control of the border. Arrests multiplied; trails were discovered; many of the shepherds, forestry workers, hunters and smugglers who had acted as guides were caught and executed or sent to concentration camps.

The Allies responded by establishing better, more secret, routes. Britain, Belgium, Holland, and the French resistance all worked to pass not only men but military information over the mountains. Although half of the 2,000 known guides perished during their service, 3,000 men, women and children successfully escaped the Nazi noose by crossing the Pyrenees. Of those, some 800 were Allied airmen. Their successful trek on the Trail to Freedom is commemorated every year, often by descendants of the original trekkers seeking to understand what their ancestors endured and honor the strength and courage that earned them their freedom. Freedom they quickly used to get back into the fight against the Axis powers.

The Freedom Trail Association was formed after the president of France officially recognized the trail’s significance in 1994. The association holds an annual commemorative hike the second week of July on one trail in the center of the Pyrenees. It is the longest and most difficult route, but was the most used because its difficulty made it hardest for the Germans to patrol. The association also has a museum in Saint-Girons, France. Both hike and museum are open to the public. For more information see http://chemindelaliberte.fr/page-accueil/the-freedom-trail? Please see www.pyreneesmountainadventure.com to see more photos and information on traveling to the area.
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