From 1939 to 1945, the village of Les on the French border in the Val d’Aran served as a crossing point for many of the 20,000 or more Jews fleeing the Holocaust via the Pyrenees. These “freedom trails” are of special interest to tourists seeking natural beauty and history. Strategically located in the northern Pyrenees, Les provides a natural gateway to the Val d’Aran from the French region of Haute-Garonne, and was one of the main crossing points for the so-called “escape routes” or “freedom trails” in World War II.
Much has been said and even more written on the significance towns in the Catalan Pyrenees played in saving the lives of thousands of allies from 1939 to 1945. Towns have been described, pathways signposted and prisons converted into museums dedicated to the memory. Monuments have even been erected, however – strange as it may seem – practically nothing is known of the people to have made these paths into a tangible hope of a new life for Jews and others fleeing from the Nazis.
In Les the trails are bestowed with both first names and surnames, such as that of Françoise Bielinski. A Jewish girl who arrived at the border town with her family in flight from Nazi Germany, a civil guard renamed her with the Spanish “Paquita Bielinski”, during the many hours the family had to wait before receiving provisional authorisation to enter Spanish territory. Just like in the town of Sort, the standard “welcome” procedure was immediate expulsion, which was the case for a group of Jewish Polish children Spanish customs officers forwarded to Gestapo officers in France and later murdered, or detention until the arrival of definitive instructions from the relevant authorities in the town of Lleida.
The refugees were lodged in hotels, town inns or even put up by local families until being sent to Sort Prison or the concentration camp in Miranda del Ebro. The wait could stretch for weeks or even months, as during the winter snows, Les was rendered completely inaccessible. However, this was not the case for the Bielinski family. It is now certain that the family’s definitive escape was facilitated by a plan formed by several of the town’s residents and a guide. It is a story to have been neglected for many years by history and then revived by various historians, who confirmed that just as for the Bielinskis, a significant number of the town’s inhabitants selflessly sheltered other Jews and persecuted allies.
Accounts exist by refugees, as do they from those to have provided refuge. The latter is exemplified by Les customs official Miguel Giner, who had received confirmation from a German border official that the SS killed the Jews Spain sent back. Giner became one of the angels of the Pyrenees, saving hundreds of lives in 1943. There is currently nothing remaining of the border post, nor of the Spanish customs. A motorway and the well-known Juan Canejan hotel have been built in their place, with the owners of the latter participating in the events of 1943 and the hotel now under the management of their direct descendants.
So what is Les? For many visitors it is a picturesque Pyrenean village, to have been practically unaltered over time. However, for those of us who have had the opportunity to delve just a little deeper into its recent history, Les stands out as one of the few strongholds of hope remaining in Europe for those who held both freedom and life as fundamental to their very existence.