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Lisa Fittko, who achieved fame, particularly in Germany, by leading Jews and members of the anti-Hitler resistance from Nazi-occupied France to Spain, died on March 12 in Chicago. She was 95.
The cause was pneumonia, said Evelyn Marsh, her niece.
Ms. Fittko emerged from a leftist, artistic family to become active in the resistance to Hitler in the early months of his rule, then fled to continue the fight in other European countries for seven years. For seven tense months in 1940 and 1941, she escorted refugees on a tortuous path over the Pyrenees mountains so they could go on to Spanish and Portuguese ports to seek passage to safe havens.
Many of the people she helped were intellectuals, artists and anti-Nazi organizers. The first refugee she helped was Walter Benjamin, a Marxist literary critic and philosopher whose work has drawn new interest in recent years because of his provocative insights on subjects from consumerism to surrealism.
But that initial mission was thwarted when the Spanish authorities ordered the group to return to France because they lacked proper exit visas, a requirement that had not been enforced in the past and was ignored in the future. Mr. Benjamin died at the age of 48 in Room No. 4 on the second floor of the Hotel de Francia, a cheap pension in Port-Bou, Spain, on Sept. 27, 1940, having apparently committed suicide.
Ms. Fittko had earlier helped the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had been her friend in Paris, get out of a prison in France.
Ms. Fittko and her husband, Hans, became part of the rescue mission of Varian Fry, an American who is credited with saving about 2,000 people, many of them artists and intellectuals, including André Breton, Marc Chagall and Max Ernst.
Miriam Hansen, a professor of English and cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago, said Ms. Fittko became well known in postwar Germany because Germans liked to find and honor people who resisted Hitler. She said Ms. Fittko's death was announced on German radio and television, and obituaries appeared in the major national newspapers. In 1986, the president of West Germany awarded her the Distinguished Medal of Merit, First Class.
In the United States, Ms. Fittko's story was eventually documented in several novels and films, including the 1998 documentary "Lisa Fittko: But We Said We Will Not Surrender."
She wrote two books about her experiences. One, "Escape Through the Pyrenees," which was first published in West Germany in 1985, won that country's award for the political book of the year. It was translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, and, in 1991, into English by Northwestern University Press. The same press in 1993 published her "Solidarity and Treason: Resistance and Exile, 1933-1940."
Lisa Ekstein was born in 1909 in Uzhgorod in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire; it later became part of Czechoslovakia, then part of the Soviet Union and today is part of Ukraine. Most of her childhood was spent in Budapest and Vienna; she was evacuated and sent to the Netherlands with other children for a year during World War I. After the war, her family moved to Berlin.
Through her father, a writer and a publicist for avant-garde artists there, she met many members of the Weimar intelligentsia.
While still in high school, she joined what Ms. Hansen characterized as a Communist organization. She wrote and distributed leaflets protesting torture in Nazi prisons.
At 24 she was working as a secretary and went to a rally to see Hitler. She was reprimanded for not raising her arm in salute. She told an interviewer from The Vancouver Sun in 1999 that her failure to do so was hardly intentional.
"I was stupid, but not that stupid," she said.
She was soon pursued by the Gestapo, and in 1933, she fled to Prague, where she met Hans Fittko, a fellow exile and an even more committed leftist whom the Nazis sought to kill. They married on their odyssey through, among other places, Basel and Amsterdam, ending up in Paris in 1938. There, they continued helping refugees.
After Germany invaded France, Ms. Fittko was detained for a few months in a concentration camp for women at Gurs, France, along with others who had lived in Germany. It was there she aided her friend and fellow prisoner Hannah Arendt by helping to supply her with a stolen release document.
After the Fittkos found each other again, they made their way to Marseille, dodging the French authorities who were collaborating with the Germans. They planned to escape through Spain but separated because the Spanish had begun arresting men who they feared might make their way to Britain to fight Hitler.
Mr. Fittko tried to find sea passage from Marseille to Casablanca. His wife, as originally planned, had gone to the border to find a way to escape by land. In September 1940, Walter Benjamin knocked on the door of her room in Port-Vendres, saying Mr. Fittko had told him to ask her for help.
With the assistance of a local socialist mayor, who gave her an old map, she led Mr. Benjamin and two other refugees across the mountains to Port-Bou, a Spanish border town. Mr. Benjamin died there after swallowing some of the 50 morphine tablets he had earlier split with his friend Arthur Koestler.
Mr. Benjamin had been carrying a heavy, bulging briefcase that he told Ms. Fittko contained "the only copy of his latest writing." She wrote that he said it was "more important than I am, more important than myself."
The briefcase was lost after his death and its contents remain unknown.
For years people suspected that it might have been his lost work on the Parisian arcades, iron-and-glass-roofed shopping corridors, which provoked penetrating philosophical insights on the part of Mr. Benjamin. But those papers were discovered in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where Mr. Benjamin's friend the essayist Georges Bataille had hidden them from the Nazis. They were published in West Germany in 1982.
Howard Eiland, who translated them as "The Arcades Project," published in 1999 by Harvard University Press, said the contents of the lost briefcase remained a mystery. He said, "This sounds like it was something completely different that no one knows about."
Ms. Fittko was soon joined on the French side of the border by her husband, who had not been able to find sea passage. They delayed their own escape when Mr. Fry asked them to help take refugees into Spain. They pretended to be vineyard workers and took people across the mountains on what was called the F route (for Fittko) two or three times a week for seven months. The number of those they helped is sometimes estimated in the hundreds; not one was caught, they said.
The Fittkos eventually escaped to Cuba, then went on to Chicago, where Ms. Fittko's brother lived. Mr. Fittko died in 1960, and Ms. Fittko left no immediate survivors.
She returned to Spain several times to look for Mr. Benjamin's lost briefcase, but never found it.
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Revised: June 25, 2006