Lisa Fittko, photographed in 1939 for a passport.
Gompertz dug into the history of the period, looking at such works as Haim Avni’s Spain, the Jews, and Franco (1982). His fluency in Spanish helped him examine several primary sources from the Francoist regime. Yet he found the most compelling source material to be testimonies from Jewish survivors, such as Lisa Fittko’s Escape Through the Pyrenees. Fittko (1909-2005) was born in the Ukraine, became a political activist, and helped hundreds of refugees escape Nazi-occupied France during the war.
Far less famous, but also intricately connected to the project, was his own great-uncle Werner Cahn, who had been born in the Netherlands. Gompertz had the good fortune of being able to sit with Cahn at his home in San Diego and record him speaking, looking at maps, and explaining the story of his incredible wartime escape. Cahn made it out of Spain in 1944 and spent four years in Haifa, on Israel’s northern coast, before immigrating to America. Gompertz included excerpts from the interview with his great-uncle in his final paper for Prof. Naar.
The overall picture that emerged from his research was of a National government that was politically pragmatic as Franco tried to consolidate power in the years following the Spanish Civil War. Officially neutral during the Second World War, Spain had an ambiguous policy toward Jewish refugees and the covert rescue efforts happening along its borders.
Gompertz explains, “The Spanish government policy literally changed from month to month during the war. It created a vacuum at the bottom level, so local officials could interpret it however they wanted. Some individuals were legitimately sympathetic to the plight of the Jewish refugees; others were happy to accept bribes or turn a blind eye as Jews passed through the border; others refused to cooperate. Sometimes a refugee’s fate just depended on the day or which official he happened to talk to.” For this reason, in every personal narrative he read, the writer attributed his or her survival to incredible luck.
Prof. Naar’s guidance was crucial as Gompertz balanced the different accounts he was uncovering: “The biggest understanding I gained from Prof. Naar was how to interpret memoirs in the context of history. Everything is written through a perspective, and people’s perspectives are just as important as what actually happened. In my project I compared the personal narratives to the historical sources and compared how those two things coexist and complement each other, even when they sometimes contradict each other.”
Developing this kind of nuanced critical thinking is one of the clear benefits of Jewish Studies courses and studying the humanities in general. For Gompertz, honing his analytical skills paid off: this past spring he was accepted to UW School of Law.