From 1939, Jewish men, women and children, political refugees, and Allied pilots who had been shot down, tried to enter Spain so they could return to Great Britain or embark for the United States. The town of Sort, close to the French border, was one of the crossing places for those who used the Pyrenees routes in the counties of Pallars Sobira or Valle de Aran to enter Spanish territory.
Sort was a compulsory stop in all cases due to Franco’s heavy controls on the Catalan Pyrenees to avoid Maqui resistance and the entrance of “undesirables” into Spanish territory. The detention process was the same in practically all cases: the refugees were captured just a few minutes after crossing into Spain and then held in the Sort prison until the Lleida Provincial Court determined their fate.
The confinement lasted several weeks and the future of each detainee depended on various factors. Members of the Allied forces were initially detained in the prison and later moved to hotels in Sort, for instance the old Hotel Pessets. Normally the Red Cross obtained authorisation for their exit from Spain with intermediation from the American or British embassies. Not everyone was as lucky.
Jews and the political refugees had the most difficult situation. The men were detained in the Sort prison, while the women and children were held at local inns or family homes with locals who were promised future payment. With a space of just 24 m2, this small seclusion centre was frequently to be found saturated with a transitional population of more than 50 people.
Just a few weeks later some were freed by court order while others were sent to concentration camps in Spain. Those who were not claimed by anyone were deported to occupied France. According to the original registers, it is estimated that between 1939 and 1944, 2,660 exiles passed through Sort prison: French (1,288), Canadian (407) and Polish (235).
The paths, routes and stories of these people who crossed the Pyrenees are today known as the “Freedom Paths.” In 2007 the prison was reopened and converted into a free museum which commemorates the miseries and the fortunes of all those who passed through it. The Sort Prison Museum exhibits original documents, photographs and military paraphernalia from the era.
It is a short but worthwhile visit and demonstrates that the Pyrenees has a fascinating history as well as impressive natural beauty. If anybody were to ask me to sum up the museum, I would describe it in two words: diminutive and enormous. Diminutive because of its size and because of how little is known of its implications; but enormous because of each and every one of the 2,660 personal stories with names which have left their mark in the prison’s confined space. Showing us that even in the most desperate and completely unjust situations, hope and generosity are values which define our humanity.
Sort is a traditional village located in the Pallars Sobirá region of the Catalan Pyrenees. Bordering with Andorra, this region offers numerous attractions and things to see and do. Combine an interesting, historical experience visiting the Sort prison and the Romanesque route of Pallars Sobirá and continue your trip with fun adventure sports, skiing and hiking through the beautiful natural parks in the region.
How to Get there
Bus: There is a daily bus service from the bus station Estación del Nord in Barcelona to the village of Sort. It is a four and a half hour journey and the fare is €34.10.
Car: From Barcelona: Leave Barcelona via the C-58 and C-16. Turn left on the C-25 following the signs to Lleida. Continue to the C-14 and N-260 going north until you reach Sort. It is a four hour drive and the highway toll is €2.15.