The Last Passeur

From an Article by Scott Goodall MBE
PAUL BARRAU, from the village of Sentenac d'Oust near Saint-Girons, France, died in August 2005 at the age of 82. His demise marks the end of a remarkable chapter in the history of the local mountain guides, or "passeurs", who operated in the Ariège region of South-West France during the Second World War.
By 1942, thousands of desperate people - Jews, evading Frenchmen and shot-down Allied airmen - were converging on the Pyrenees in an effort to escape over the mountains and reach safety in neutral Spain. Of the eight known "passeurs" who lived in the villages of Seix and Sentenac d'Oust, six were members of the Barrau family. Simple country folk, farmers and shepherds, they selflessly risked their own lives to help others for no other reasons than their shared belief in equality, independence and above all ... the right to live as free men.
Brothers Louis and Paul Barrau were just 19 and 20 years of age respectively when their father and uncle, Norbert and Jean Barrau, began to smuggle groups of refugees and evading airmen along a high-level "Chemin de la Liberté" or freedom trail between Saint-Girons and the Spanish frontier. Their luck ran out in April 1943 when they were arrested, imprisoned and subsequently deported to a German labour camp. Both men died there six months later.
Louis and Paul, meanwhile, had taken over their father's and uncle's roles as local "passeurs". Many times, both young men - working independently, and always at night - led groups of up to thirty evaders hidden in isolated barns in the hills above Saint-Girons on and up past the soaring massif of Mont Valier at 2838 metres to the Spanish frontier at la Pale de Claouère.
On the night of 12th September 1943, Paul Barrau was tending his sheep at a cabin not far from the Col de la Core when a relative arrived with the chilling news that Paul's younger brother Louis had been killed by a German patrol at a barn just above their home near the Col de l'Artigue. Louis, in fact had been betrayed by a so-called Spanish "friend" while waiting for another group of French and Allied evaders to arrive. Instead, it was the Germans who climbed to the Col, surrounded the barn and called on Louis to surrender. Knowing what had happened to his father and uncle, Louis refused. The Germans then set fire to the barn and Louis made a break for it through a window at the rear. He was shot and killed before he had covered fifty metres.
The traitor who had betrayed Louis Barrau had also given Paul's name to the occupying forces. From the night of 12th September 1943, Paul became a hunted man. Unable to return home, he hid for five days and five nights in the high peaks that he knew so well before crossing the border himself to seek safety in Spain and - with the fierce determination of so many of the French evaders he had already helped - to join the Free French Forces of General de Gaulle in North Africa.
But escape to Franco's Spain was never as easy as it sounded. Paul Barrau spent several months in Lerida jail and lost ten kilos in weight before finally being released by the Red Cross to join his compatriots in North Africa, where he later fought with the Free French Army in its various campaigns northwards through Europe to Alsace as the allies at last drove the German conquerors back across the River Rhine to final defeat.
After the war, Paul returned to his native Ariège and the simple life that he had always known and loved as a farmer and shepherd. Those members of ELMS and other international hikers who have participated in our annual "Chemin de la Liberté" event each July will know that at lunchtime on day one, a ceremony is always held at the barn at the Col de l'Artigue where Louis Barrau was killed on 12th September 1943.
For many years, from the inauguration of the hike in 1994, until ill-health prevented him in 2002, Paul Barrau was always present at this moving occasion. A quiet, almost solitary and enigmatic figure standing silently in the background - in good weather crouched with his faithful dog and long mountain walking pole in a typical "shepherd's stance", in bad weather, barely visible under the cover of his vast black and very traditional shepherd's umbrella. Many thoughts and memories must have gone through his mind every year as he watched the youth of today laughing, willing and eager to take on a challenge that was infinitely more difficult and dangerous back in the war-torn years of the 1940's.
A member of the Escape Lines Memorial Society, Paul was visited regularly by local friends and ELMS members at his mountain farm. Later, because of ill health, he moved into the village.
Until his death he kept with him a letter from the ELMS Secretary thanking him for his wartime work, and requesting that he accept a grant from the Society to assist him in his new home in the village. He could not read English, but when he found a nurse who could, he showed her the letter and asked her to read it to him. He was very proud of his letter.
Paul Barrau was the last surviving "passeur" in this area of the central Pyrenees. His funeral service took place on a fine, sunny day in August with the participation of dozens of his friends and neighbours, representatives of "Les Evadés de France" and "Les Anciens Combattants", plus myself as a representative of ELMS.
Paul is buried alongside the grave of his brother Louis in the small mountain cemetery at Sentenac d'Oust.