May 26, 2024

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They climbed the mountains to escape the Nazis. Now their great-grandchildren are making the same journey



CNN

Over the mountaintop, across the border was the promised land, the no-man’s-land Spain – an escape, a second chance, a future.

Behind them was Nazi-occupied France and imprisonment or certain death.

During World War II, a perilous route through the Pyrenees provided a way for hundreds of thousands of Resistance fighters, civilians, Jews, Allied soldiers, and fleeing prisoners of war to evade Nazi pursuers.

For many, the trek across stony fields and frozen glaciers was the last leg in a long and fraught journey across wartime Europe, hiding from the German army, Gestapo secret police and paramilitary forces.

This month, the path that begins in Arege Pyrenees, France, is again reversed by footsteps, as 87 people climbed their way from France to Spain, including the descendants of those who escaped, and walked to honor their relatives.

The Freedom Trail, whose recent ascent has been attacked in a zigzag course through an ice sheet, is an annual “walking memorial,” says Englishman Paul Williams, a mountain guide and trustee of local history.

Courtesy of Mary Janiszewski

Richard Christenson with his daughter, Ruth

Officially recognized by a French presidential decree in 1994 to mark the 50th anniversary of the D-Day D-Day landings that began the liberation of France, the trip remembers those who fled to Spain during the war.

Previous hikers include Luke Janiszewski, a 25-year-old from the Baltimore area.

“I didn’t have Nazis on my tail, and I didn’t climb for my life,” he told CNN. But, he adds, “I tried so many times to think ‘oh my god my grandfather did this with X amount of food’, and he was driven on his own like ‘I need to get into neutral Spain and go back to England so I can do what I have to do’.”

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Lieutenant Richard Christenson, pilot of a B-17, was shot down over northern France and launched over the Pyrenees while the war was still going on. But he returns home to live out the rest of his days with his wife, Ruth.

His daughter Katherine, 81, who wrote a book about his escape, and grandchildren Mary, 52, and Tim, 54, joined great-grandchildren Luke and Jake to walk the train in 2018, its 25th anniversary.

“I’ve never been to Europe,” Tim said, adding that he wouldn’t normally come just to see the mountains. But to retrace Grandpa’s steps, he said, “Oh, in a heartbeat.”

“I felt a bit of a connection with him, you know?” He remembers Luke, who never knew his grandfather.

This encounter with the past came alive during a pre-march dinner, where the Janiszewskis met the descendants of the local family that rescued Lt. Christenson.

Sitting with them, Tim thought about how this human drama would play out against the backdrop of America’s role in ending World War II.

“We came and saved France but your grandfather or your great-grandfather saved my grandfather while he was trying to help save you. It’s just this wonderful network and connection that makes you feel so united in one with everyone.”

Oliver Briscoe

People fleeing persecution frequently used the border between France and Spain in the Pyrenees.

On the second weekend of July every year, this walk creates its own memories. This year is dedicated, in particular, to Paul Bruet, a member of the French Resistance and one of the founders of the Freedom Trail association.

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Born July 9, 1923, he made his escape over the Pyrenees in July of 1944. If not for his death in 2020, this year would have been his 100th birthday.

Broué was the embodiment of local war stories—not only mountain guide “passeurs” but also the families who hid, channeled, and died to help men like Christenson.

Roughly 50% of the British and American deserters came through this region of the mountains, according to Guy Serris, a retired French colonel who is now the head of the FTA, which organizes the 40-mile, four-day hiking trip.

Ceres is also a local man, from Seix, a town in the lush green foothills that is the first stopping point on the way, where the local mayor hosts an evening meal ‘vin d’honneur’ to mark the occasion.

“The town and people of Seix see this as an honor, given the role the municipality played during the war,” Ceres told CNN.

In his speeches this year to the infantry, he emphasized that the old, who had fought in the war “or lived it or heard spoken of it at home,” had a duty to tell the younger generations about it.

They are the memories that walkers take with them to Spain. The two countries are bound by a common life on the mountains – a life of herds of pine forests and herds of cows that borders cannot separate.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the region saw mountain escape routes used in reverse, as Republican refugees crossed into France to flee General Franco’s rule at the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Despite Franco’s pro-German sympathies, Spain remained neutral during World War II, largely because of its dependence on US imports. Thus, those crossing the Pyrenees were turned a blind eye.

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Fugitive Allied soldiers who made it through would be detained in the nearest Spanish city, taken to a concentration camp and released soon after.

Courtesy of Joseph McNichol

Frank McNichol, first row, second from right, pictured with a B-17 bomber crew in 1944.

US Air Force Second Lieutenant Frank MacNicol was briefly held prisoner in the Spanish town of Isaba when he crossed paths in 1944 after being shot down during a bombing raid.

His son, Joseph McNichol, 64, a retired Florida police officer, recounted that he made a pilgrimage in 2016 to see the cell where his father was imprisoned.

“It was a holiday in that part of Spain, but our hotel called the mayor, whom they knew, and explained the situation,” said MacNicol.

“He was more than happy to come that morning and open the town hall and show me the room, which was just a dusty old storeroom.”

Courtesy of Joseph McNichol

Joseph McNichol sees the room where his father was held in Isapa, Spain.

MacNicol said he was only seven when his father later died of liver failure from hepatitis, which he likely contracted from his time in France.

“I never had a conversation with my parents with adults about anything, not least about this topic.”

“I get goosebumps just to talk about it,” he said, reflecting on a vision of the dungeon in a small town in Spain, having crossed the border 72 years to the day his father was there.