The quaint principality of Andorra is a tiny buffer between France and Spain – and was once part of an escape route for those running from the Nazis.

Andorran Head of State Antoni Marti-Petit meets with Kimhi in December 2014 (photo credit: CARLA KIMHI)
Andorran Head of State Antoni Marti-Petit meets with Kimhi in December 2014
(photo credit: CARLA KIMHI)
If it were not for the fast-moving stream marking the border with France at the foot of the slope, Carla might not have recognized the place at all. But she remembered the words spoken back then – seven decades before – as clearly as if they were still echoing across the Pyrenees range.
“What are you doing on Andorran soil?” asked one of the two men in khaki uniforms who had suddenly appeared.
They were talking to a man in a black uniform advancing toward Carla and her family.
“These people are my prey,” said the German border guard in a bad French accent. He used the French word “proie.”
Twelve-year-old Carla, her parents and her older brother hugged each other, the four of them unmoving and silent as the drama in which they were the central characters played out around them.
“You have no visa to Andorra,” said the Andorran policemen to the German. “You cannot do anything here.”
Seventy-two years later, Carla Kimhi of Tel Aviv returned to Andorra last December on a skiing holiday with her 16-year-old grandson. When she checked into a hotel in the town of Pas de la Case, near the border crossing where her life had been spared – so dramatically, yet so off-handedly – she could not contain her emotions. “I want to thank the people of Andorra for saving me and my family from certain death,” she told the people at the reception desk.
The next morning, Carla was asked by the hotel owner to tell him her story.
An hour later, he informed her that the head of Andorra’s government, Antoni Marti-Petit, was sending an official car to bring her to his office.
A press conference followed, attended by reporters from all of Andorra’s media. For them, Carla was a reminder of the time when their quaint principality, a tiny buffer between France and Spain, had been part of an escape route for downed allied pilots and others.
BEFORE REACHING the Andorran border that day in 1942, Carla and her family had been running for four years, a step ahead of the Germans. The odyssey had begun abruptly in Vienna in March 1938, when Carla was eight, with the announcement of the Anschluss – Germany’s annexation of Austria. Carla’s father, Dr. Sigmund Bernson, a lawyer turned wealthy lumber merchant, did not hesitate. Taking only what they could carry in rucksacks, the family drove off at 6 a.m. the next day for the Czech border but could not get through.
Turned back at the Hungarian border as well, they returned to Vienna. There Dr. Bernson bought four tickets on the last train for Italy that night, leaving his car at the station. From Italy, they traveled to France, where they moved around the country as illegals. Periodically Carla’s father was arrested for lacking proper papers but always got out.
When the Germans approached Paris, the family again left everything within a day and headed south to Vichy France, ruled by a collaborationist regime but not yet occupied by the Germans. Carla’s brother and father worked on farms in the village where they found refuge.
One day Carla, fetching water at the village spring, saw trucks with German soldiers arriving. Their rural interlude was over. A neighbor familiar with the Andorran border, nearly 113 km. away, agreed to take them there. They drove through the night and at 5 a.m. halted at the foot of a slope. After crossing a stream, their neighbor said, they would climb until they reached a road. They would then be in neutral Andorra.
Taking their shoes off before entering the freezing waters, they helped each other hop from rock to rock. When they reached the road, they paused for breath. A kilometer away was a small border post flying a flag with a swastika.
It was from there that the German border guard, who had apparently seen them climbing, emerged.
AT THE Andorran border post to which they were later taken by the Andorran guards, they were greeted warmly and fed. (During her visit last December, Carla was taken to meet a former border guard, now 100 years old, who had seen them that day at the post. “I remember it well,” he said. “We saw lots of escapees but you were a family.”) The local police chief said he would help them find someone to guide them over the mountains into Spain. When Carla’s father said he had no money left to pay a guide, the officer asked if they had anything they could sell. Carla’s mother, Hannah, had a gold chain and ivory opera binoculars. A policeman accompanied her to the local castle where the hereditary owner, the seigneur, gave her the money needed and pledged to keep the items until they returned to redeem them. (They never did.) The trek over the mountains lasted four days, perhaps five. They walked at night to avoid border patrols and hid by day. It was the end of November and bitter cold. They slept in barns, sometimes on the ground, and ate whatever meager food their guide, Pierre, could provide.
“I was dead tired, cold and hungry,” recalls Carla. “I used to run ahead and lie down on the ground to sleep until the others caught up with me.” Finally, they reached a farmhouse. “Pierre told us to knock on the door and mention his name.” They were deep enough into Spain, he said, that they wouldn’t be handed back to France. “We said goodbye. He and we had tears in our eyes.”
The farmer let them sleep in the barn and gave them a hot meal. In the morning, he told them to board any bus that stopped on the nearby road. They would be arrested, he said, by two carabinieri who sat at the back of every bus. It was the simplest way to hand themselves over to the authorities, which had to be done in any case.
THE FAMILY spent months in prisons, mother and daughter separated from father and son. Generally they slept on the floor. When Carla became ill she was taken to a Catholic orphanage. It was an American Jewish charity organization that retrieved them and arranged for them to reach Haifa on a ship with other Jewish refugees toward the end of the war.
Carla’s father traveled to Vienna two years later in the hope of reclaiming his assets. He died of a heart attack shortly after arriving there, at age 57. None of his wealth was retrieved.
At 18, life opened before Carla and no longer meant mere survival. On her birthday she married an Israeli fighter pilot. The next day she herself joined the air force, becoming in due course a lieutenant. Speaking five languages, she subsequently worked as a simultaneous translator but eased into the theatrical and musical world, becoming an assistant director at a local theater, then managing director of two orchestras.
For seven years she served as head of the production department of CBS Records in Israel. Eventually she opened an agency as an impresario, bringing classical music performers to Israel.
Her third marriage, with an Israeli executive, lasted 40 years until his death.
She has four children, 13 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Throughout the ordeal of the war years, Carla said in an interview this month, she never felt she had been dealt a bad hand, not even when climbing over the freezing Pyrenees or sleeping on the floors of prisons. On the contrary.
“We knew what was happening in Europe,” she says. “I was constantly happy to have been saved.”