Yorkshire Post 30 August 2008
Many of the human tragedies which unfolded during the course of the Second World War seem no longer to grip people’s imagination. Some have simply been forgotten. Others, such as the one movingly recounted here, never managed to enter the public’s consciousness. Which makes it all the more important that Rosemary Bailey’s investigative work reaches as wide an audience as possible.
An award-winning travel writer, she has been based in the Pyrenees for many years. But in all her time there, she never truly came to understand the impact which the Second World War had on what she had come to regard as her own community. Putting that right proved no easy task. She had heard stories about the Resistance, about refugee routes over the mountains from Spain, and about the heroic actions of those who risked everything to help others escape.
But stories were one thing; first-hand accounts of exactly what happened quite another.
She takes up her story as the Spanish Civil War ended with the fall of Barcelona to Franco’s forces in January 1939, precipitating the exodus of half a million Spanish Republicans, civilians and soldiers, across the Pyrenees into France. The fate that befell them forms the backbone of her book, and reveals hitherto little-known episodes involving betrayal, heroism, kindness and inhumanity.
She tells, for example, of the concentration camps that sprang up on Mediterranian beaches now crowded with holiday-makers; fenced-off compounds in which thousands interned without shelter were forced to scrape furrows in the sand to escape the severe winter weather. Resistance hideouts, midnight parachute landing grounds and Valmanya, the village burned to the ground during vicious reprisals, all emerge from under the veil of history. Their stories are told movingly in Bailey’s fluid, evocative prose, in which historical facts merge seamlessly with travel memoirs and personal recollections.
In her prologue, Bailey writes: “I have no desire or competence to judge. I just want to begin to understand.” Thanks to her determined efforts and her evident humanity, she now does. Just as importantly, so do we.
The Jewish Chronicle
Midnight parachute drops, secret mountain hideouts, coded messages hidden in bread crusts: the tales of derring-do in Rosemary Bailey’s latest book would not be out of place in a Boys’ Own adventure story.
Indeed, they do provide a certain light relief in this thorough, thought-provoking and at times deeply disturbing account of the impact of the Second World War on the villages and towns of the Pyrenees.
This is Bailey’s third book about the Pyrenees, an area she clearly knows extremely well and loves deeply. Despite her knowledge, however, she gradually realised that the region’s recent past remained a “veiled history”, a period many local people didn’t want to discuss with her or even recall for themselves.
Drawing on love letters, archive material, memoirs and extensive interviews with elderly survivors, Bailey has nevertheless pieced together a vivid portrait of a determined, resilient people, actively involved in both resistance and collaboration, responsible for acts of brutality on the one hand, extraordinary courage and selflessness on the other.
From 1939, the Pyrenees found itself on the frontier of two wars, with refugees escaping in both directions. For the next six years, the region experienced an invasion of desperate people from all over Europe. First came the Spanish refugees, in flight from the civil war and Franco; then the French themselves, following the ignominious defeat by Germany in June 1940 and the establishment of the Vichy government; and then, of course, there were the Jews.
There were an estimated 300,000 Jews in France by 1940, almost half of whom were recent immigrants, from Germany, Belgium and Holland. Paris had the third largest Jewish community after Warsaw and New York. After the passing of the infamous Statut des Juifs, in October 1940, their situation changed dramatically for the worse. Thousands fled south to the Pyrenees. Some, like Alma Mahler and her fourth husband, the Czech writer, Franz Werfel, escaped over the mountains into Spain, and from there to America. Others, such as Walter Benjamin, struggled over the mountains only to be turned back at the border. Rather than be returned to France and certain imprisonment, Benjamin killed himself with a massive dose of morphine.
The role of the Vichy government in the rounding up of Jews in France is still a sensitive issue. Bailey, at least, is clear that the French government played an active and enthusiastic part.
French concentration camps, such as Rivesaltes near Perpignan, had been set up originally to contain Spanish refugees but, by the end of 1941, there were an estimated 40,000 Jews in the camps in southern France.
By August 1943, Rivesaltes was the main collection centre in Unoccupied France. Not for nothing was Rivesaltes known as the “Drancy of the South”. Conditions were appalling. Many people, children and babies especially, died from hunger, cold, typhus, and gastro-enteritis. Mothers were urged to abandon their children – their best chance of life. Eyewitness accounts of these desperate separations make heartbreaking reading. Those who survived the French camps were deported to Auschwitz, Ravensbruck or Majdanek.
Extraordinarily brave individuals did what they could. Thousands of Jewish children were saved thanks to the tireless efforts of people such as the Quaker Edith Pye, nurses Mary Elmes and Alice Resch, Donald Lowrie, Hiram Bingham, and Varian Fry, sometimes called “The American Schindler”. Nevertheless, Bailey’s account raises the usual questions about the extent to which relief efforts may have unwittingly colluded in the Final Solution.
The Jews were not the only victims of war in the Pyrenees. Nor were they only victims. Many were actively and effectively involved in the Resistance, fighting alongside Spanish refugees and local people. Ultimately, no one in the region emerged entirely unscathed.
Inspiring in places, horrifying in others, Bailey’s portrait of the Pyrenees at war is a quiet triumph of historical reconstruction.
Part travel book, part history, part personal memoir, this is a gripping read. When Yorkshire writer Rosemary Bailey went to live in a former monastery in the south of France, she became fascinated by the landscape and its history.
The Pyrenees are the high mountain range that divide France from Spain. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of refugees struggled over them to seek safety from Franco’s fascist regime in appalling conditions in France. There wasn’t enough food or shelter for them. Many lived in holes in the sand on the beach.
Among the people and organisations who helped were British Quakers, who established a community and also helped many children escape to new lives.
A few years later, when the Germans controlled France, the Pyrenees once again became an escape route for people fleeing the German occupation, or conducting guerrilla warfare against their invaders. The Resistance was busy, based among the high mountain crags.
For those of us whose knowledge of the time is based on watching ’Allo ’Allo or those old black and white films, this book is a revelation.
In Britain we have no idea of what it must be like to be an occupied country – the divided loyalties, the treachery. So difficult that 60 years later, people are still reluctant to talk about it. There were episodes of extraordinary cruelty, hardship and equal bravery. Half a century later, the bitter rifts still show in some of these villages.
This is very much a journalist’s account – letting the actual people involved speak for themselves, often for the first time. Rosemary Bailey unravels the story in a meticulous, entirely neutral, unjudgemental way – and because of that it is all the more powerful.
Telling the Pain of Spain
By Jim Greenhalf
Just a handful of pages into Rosemary Bailey’s book about the borderland of France and Spain in the years immediately after the Spanish Civil War, I was hooked. I had made notes about the deaths of the Spanish poets Antonio Machado and Federico Garcia Lorca; saw in a new light Picasso’s painting Guernica and Dali’s Autumn Cannibalism; and understood the deep underlying melancholy of the cello playing in the last 17 years of Pablo Casals’ life. In short, this unprepossessing little paperback made the same sort of impact that Joanna Harris’s novel Chocolat made on so many.
By the second chapter, Halifax-born Rosemary had told me a lot that I was only sketchily aware of and plenty that I knew nothing about – principally about the Spanish Retirada. Between January 26 and February 14, 1939, about half a million refugees from the defeated Republican side had defied the winter and General Franco’s low-flying warplanes, journeying across the Pyrenees to the French border. After the outbreak of the Second World War that September, and the subsequent Nazi invasion and occupation of most of France the following year, the story of what happened in that part of southern France got darker. As Rosemary says in a short prologue: “It is still very much a veiled history. Though now the French acknowledge that the role of the Resistance in winning the war has been glorified way beyond its actual numbers of achievements, few even now are willing to admit the level of acceptance of the German occupation, of the fascist ideals of the Vichy government, and the degree of collaboration, passive or active, that went on throughout the war years.” Her book, a mixture of history, memoir, travel writing and reportage, sheds light on a little-known episode of modern European history. And it all came about when Rosemary and her husband moved into a former monastery in the Pyrenees and were given a batch of love letters written by two previous occupants in that period, Amelie and Pierre. Fortunately, this is not a book solely constructed of letters; the epistolary style can get tiresome. Extracts are used, together with interviews, to develop and colour the story in what is a dispassionate but never boring chronicle.
The National. August 21. 2008
A higher love…
Love in a cold climate: Bailey has produced an absorbing account that effectively encompasses her narrative’s twin tragedies.
In her new book, Rosemary Bailey revisits the Spanish Civil War and the refugee crisis it created. Colin Randall welcomes a well-researched addition to a crowded literature.???Love and War in the Pyrenees?Rosemary Bailey?Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Before the fall of Paris, there was the fall of Catalonia, last stronghold of Spanish Republicans as Franco swept to victory in the Civil War. ??Across the French border, the foothills of the eastern Pyrenees and beaches of the Mediterranean presented a dramatic backdrop to both conflicts. It was here that displaced or hounded people ended up after fleeing from their oppressors, successively Spanish fascists to the south, Nazi invaders to the north.
Whether these desperate casualties of war trudged from Spain or Paris, their journeys typically involved terrible privation and peril, and the welcome on arrival was far from warm.??Whereas the French had expected 20,000 Spanish refugees, the numbers reached half a million. On the beaches of Argèles-sur-mer and St Cyprien-sur-mer, now holiday playgrounds for legions of peaceable invaders, tens of thousands suffered in wretched conditions behind barbed wire. The Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, fortunate enough to have the means to lodge privately, reported scenes that “might have been from Dante’s Inferno”.
The French authorities thought nothing of calling these affronts to humanity concentration camps. And after the Second World War began in earnest, an additional use was found for them: as detention centres for victims of Vichy France’s willingness to do the Nazis’ dirty work. When people were dragged from their homes by the French on behalf of their German masters the sites became staging posts in a journey that, for most, ended in death in another kind of concentration camp far to the north and east.
Literature has served this period of modern history well. Orwell, Hemingway, Antony Beevor and numerous others have written memorably on the Spanish Civil War. The chaos and despair of the flight from Paris in June 1940 has been faithfully chronicled, most strikingly by Irène Nemirovsky, who experienced the events for herself. Her magnificent novel, Suite Française, remained hidden from public view for 60 years after her own death in Auschwitz.
In the face of this wealth of writing, there may be no strict need for Rosemary Bailey’s Love and War in the Pyrenees. Yet Bailey, a Yorkshirewoman who has made her home in these mountains, has produced an absorbing account that effectively encompasses both human tragedies.??By chance, Suite Française was the first book Bailey read in French. It made a profound impact, but her curiosity had already been fired by a pair of faded espadrilles seen in a museum near the frontier. They had belonged to one of the passeurs, guides who – with varying success and, come to that, dependability – drew on intimate knowledge of the hostile border lands to help refugees seeking to escape across the hills.
Bailey had also acquired the love letters that passed between between Pierre and Amélie, a country doctor and a city girl from Marseille, during their pre-war courtship and into their marriage, during which Pierre was sent to serve as a medical lieutenant close to the Maginot Line. The couple’s home, Corbiac, was the same old monastery Bailey was to buy half a century later, and their daughter gave her the letters after reading of her attempts to restore the property.
Pierre, like so many in 1940, saw Marshal Philippe Pétain, the First World War hero heading the Vichy government, as the best hope of salvation. The French had been humiliated, there was little faith in – or liking for – the British (less still after 1,300 sailors died when Churchill ordered the destruction of the French fleet at the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kébir, to keep it out of Hitler’s hands). And this was before the acceptance of German victory, as the price of keeping part of France notionally free, turned to craven collaboration.
As Henri Goujon, a doctor and resistant, explained to Bailey when rationalising the actions of Col Jean-Jacques Ruffiandis, another old French warrior who co-operated with the enemy: “You have to understand that Pétain was the legitimate government […] someone like Ruffiandis was just doing his duty.” The nub of French acquiescence is that no matter how evil the Nazis were, many people just wanted to live their lives, put food on the table, get through the war; moreover, Pétain’s administration was recognised by the US and other countries.
Not until the penultimate page of Bailey’s book do we reach the awkward question of how the British, so quick to deplore French surrender, would have reacted in comparable circumstances. “We don’t know what we would have done had the Germans invaded Britain,” she admits, adding that on the island of Guernsey, “the nearest we got to occupation”, the population gave up its Jews as soon as the Germans arrived.
Indeed, it is difficult to argue convincingly that things would have been so different. Given a charismatic or revered leader of their own, many in the the police, administration and commerce might well have opted for self-preservation, too. Resistance, as in France, would have come mainly from the Left. The achievements and heroics of that resistance would have come to be exaggerated.??Bailey’s implicit recognition of this is belated, but important. Speaking from France, she went further: “I would really like to think I’d have been brave, resisted. But if my children had needed to be fed, have shoes and so on, I fear I would have done whatever was necessary.”
For all her admiration of the resistants’ courage, Bailey understands the dilemma people faced, and she tells a difficult tale with a minimum of judgement. Her slog around the countryside in search of new details of resistance triumphs and failures, and fresh insights into the treatment of Spanish and French refugees, paid handsome dividends. This was a dogged pursuit of first-hand testimony from primary sources nearing the end of their lives, often without having ever shared their experiences, even with loved ones.
There are quarrels, but these are chiefly with Bailey’s publishers. One map aside, the book contains no illustrations, though Bailey repeatedly refers to photographs seen on her rounds. The narrative has untidy moments. But this honest, emotional story – “I wept as I wrote it,” she says – deserves to be widely read, not least by the holidaymakers who flock each year to those Mediterranean beaches without the least idea of what took place there less than 70 years ago.
Love and War in the Pyrenees By Rosemary Bailey. Phoenix, £8.99
Rosemary Bailey lives in a restored monastery in the French Pyrenees. Making use of love letters between a young couple who lived there during the Second World War, she delves into that still confused period. She starts with the ‘Retirada’, the arrival in 1939 of thousands of Spaniards fleeing Franco. After France fell in 1940, the flood of refugees went the other way. Bailey renders history personal and so brings it to life.