A young Jewish woman's escape over the Pyrenees to Spain

Inge (Berlin) Vogelstein was 19 in April 1943 when she and two other young Jewish refugees fled over the Pyrenees to safety in Spain. She settled in the United States.


inge BerlinIt was in 1939 when, together with my younger brother, I was able to escape Nazi persecution in Germany by means of a children's transport to Belgium. But with the German invasion in 1940 we found ourselves once again under Hitler's rule. While the invasion was in progress, we were evacuated in freight trains under heavy bombardment to southern France, to the hamlet of Seyre (Haute Garonne). A group of some 100 children between the ages of four and sixteen, we lived there for about one year under extremely difficult circumstances, until the Swiss Red Cross became aware of us and moved us to the Château de la Hille near Montégut-Plantaurel in Ariège. While living conditions were still primitive, they were much improved, and gradually we settled down to a well-functioning communal life – until the southern part of France, initially unoccupied, was taken over by German authorities as well. From that time on, those of us who had reached their sixteenth year lived in danger of being arrested and deported. In 1942 it happened: the older ones among us were arrested and taken to the concentration camp of Le Vernet, destined for deportation to the death camps in the East. As we were watching, other French Jews (and probably other minorities) were herded into trains to meet their fate. Thanks to the efforts of the Swiss Red Cross, our group was allowed to return to La Hille. It soon became clear, however, that this was only a temporary breathing spell: we were no longer taken as a group, but individually, at intervals. That is why a number of us decided to attempt escape, some to Switzerland, some to Spain. I opted for the latter route.

Five of us set out toward the foothills of the Pyrenees. After some time, two of our troop decided to return to La Hille. We lacked every essential needed for such an enterprise. We didn't even have a compass, let alone proper footwear and clothing, and very little food. We were to meet with a guide, if I am not mistaken in Saint-Girons. But this person failed to appear. There was no choice but to start into the mountains on our own. While the hills were getting steeper and darkness overtook us, a heavy downpour set in. We thought it best to knock at the door of an isolated farm and ask permission to spend the night in the barn. We were met by a very kind woman who granted our request. Before long, she came over to the barn, walking through the rain to bring us some hot soup – a real godsend. The lady showed no surprise at all at having such strange "guests", but rather seemed used to it. She never inquired about our intentions. While we were bolstering our strength with her good soup, she told us without ado that we would not succeed in crossing the mountains without a guide. However, her son would be willing to lead us up to a point, from where we could proceed with relative confidence. Neither she nor her son asked anything of us in return.

In the early morning hours, the young man came to fetch us at the barn, and together we set out on our way. The ascent was very strenuous indeed; but this did not prevent me from taking in the magnificent grandeur of the mountains at daybreak. It was an unforgettable impression which I would not like to have missed. After hours of extreme exertion our young guide indicated the direction in which we were to proceed. He then passed around his cap, and we emptied into it the meager contents of our pockets. It was time to part ways, and we thanked him heartily. He then returned toward France, while we continued in the opposite direction.

We were incredibly fortunate. We did not run into border guards on the French side, who most likely would have been minions of the German occupiers. A shepherd couple were the first Spaniards we met. They lived in complete isolation, in what was little more than a cave. Although the language barrier between us was nearly complete, they showed us genuine hospitality. Like the lady at the farm, the couple revealed no signs of surprise. They, too, seemed to be used to such "visitors". They offered us their primitive hay loft for a resting place, and we never slept more soundly. We were really exhausted! In a most gracious way, the two shared their meal with us, which consisted of polenta and goats' milk. Before long, a very polite Spanish patrol officer came to arrest us, and to drive us in his official car to the nearest city, Lerida, handing us over to the authorities. Even though we were prisoners, we were happy and relieved: we were treated civilly, and we were not returned to the border.

Inge's brother, Egon Berlin, remained in France and joined the Resistance. He was killed in combat near Roquefixade and is buried in the cemetary in Pamiers. He was 16.

Many thanks to these photographers

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From 2000 to the end of 2017 ariege.com was a site devoted to tourism in the department of Ariège. The site is minimally maintained now but you can get a flavour of this beautiful area of the Pyrenees.