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Argeles refugee camp 1939
María Luisa Fernández's father is among these refugees at Argeles Camp
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Gurs refugee camp
Maria Luisa Fernández and her mother at a camp in Gurs, 1942
For many Catalans, there was only one place to go as the Civil War reached its final stages—France. Franco’s advance and the defeat of the Republic meant a stark choice between being punished for fighting the dictator during the Civil War, or fleeing the country. It is estimated that almost 275,000 Republican fighters chose the latter; some ended up as far away as Mexico, but the majority headed for France, where refugee camps were hastily being constructed on the beaches.
Today, the plight of these refugees is still commemorated on the beach of Argeles in southern France. Every year at the end of February, a dwindling group of aging Spaniards and their relatives gather at the seaside town to remember the mass plight of their relatives.
One of them is María Luisa Fernández, who, at the age of two, was held at one of these camps along with her mother and father. Fernández’s parents had made the dangerous crossing of the Pyrenees, along with thousands of others, in February 1939, expecting a hero’s welcome by France’s Republican government. They were wrong. Rather than being hailed for their resistance to Franco’s Fascist army, they were promptly arrested and marched through French villages with fearful residents observing what the French authorities had designated ‘red’ invaders.
“When we crossed the French border, families were separated,” said Fernández. “My father was sent to Argeles where there was no protection from the elements except wire fences to stop them escaping. My mother and I were herded into cattle trucks for a whole month, along with the elderly and injured, until we were dumped in a field in Magnac-Laval. There we were given just straw to sleep on whilst we were ‘guarded’ by the gendarme [French police]. It was only the support of some English Quakers and the Swiss Red Cross that helped us survive.”
The French authorities treated Republicans so badly for purely political reasons. As had been the case during the war, France was wary of aggravating Franco. Along with Britain, France sought to prevent the Spanish Civil War enveloping the rest of Europe by signing a pact of neutrality with Russia, Germany and Italy. This pact only strengthened Franco’s hand, as Fascist Italy and Germany simply ignored the agreement and continued to supply Franco with weapons. Britain and France, on the other hand, refused to supply the Republicans with weapons to defend themselves against this build-up. In fact, according to historian Ronald Fraser in Blood of Spain, both Britain and France were highly concerned that a Republican victory would see their mining interests in Spain fall into workers’ hands. This unofficial support for Franco was translated into official approval when France officially recognised his regime in February 1939.
According to Exilos.org, an organisation dedicated to remembering exiles of the Civil War, by the summer of 1939 around 10,000 Republicans had died from disease, malnutrition and dehydration in the French refugee camps. In her book, Spanish Culture Beyond The Barbed Wire, author Francie Cate-Arries recalls the lament of one particular refugee: “The gendarme, who insulted you during the day, who treated you like a Spanish pig, and who beat you to get your weak body up and moving, has robbed the devil of his wings and flies.”
However, Cate-Arries said that in her research for the book she also encountered tales of remarkable resilience. “Once I started reading the testimonies, these people’s oral histories, I was intrigued because despite the dire conditions, the physical hardship, the anguish of having lost family members during the war and having been separated during exile, what inspired me to continue with this as a book was this incredible sense of perseverance and survival.”
An example of this resilience is the schools and educational initiatives that prisoners set up among themselves. “There were classes in history, classes in literature, poetry readings, art exhibits and political meetings. So these people who had just fought the war were still fighting the war,” said Cate-Arries. “They struggled not only to physically survive but to keep alive the flame of their beliefs. They weren’t just victims; they were activists—to the extent you can be an activist when you’re enclosed in barbed wire.”
Those male refugees still physically able were given two basic options in 1939, as the end of the Spanish Civil War became the first few months of the Second World War. Around half were sent to the front line or to join the French Foreign Legion, while the rest were sent to work in industry to help France’s war effort. Fernández added that some were not quite so ‘lucky’. “Those women and children left behind with no male member of the family working in industry or on the front line were simply sent back to Spain, without their consent and often even their knowledge.”
An even worse fate befell those refugees who were still in France when it eventually fell to Germany. Many Spaniards were captured or handed over to the Nazis by the Vichy government, and ended up in the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp. These Spaniards were some of the first prisoners to be sent there, before the Jews arrived for extermination. Exilos.org estimates that around 5,000 Republicans were starved or worked to death in the camp, where they were forced to wear a blue triangle, marking them as ‘stateless’ prisoners. One such victim, José Jornet Navarro, described the horror to ABC newspaper: “On entering the camp, I went from 80 to 35 kilos in a matter of weeks. Execution by gas chamber became less common because many simply died of starvation.
"Nevertheless, the Nazis would shoot us for the smallest thing whilst we were working in the forests. They’d throw us in frozen showers until we passed out, or if you couldn’t work any more, they’d inject gasoline into your heart. I don’t know how I survived, but I’m here and will continue to remind people of our own small Holocaust.”
Those refugees who managed to escape such a terrible fate became some of the first underground resistance fighters, helping smuggle British airmen over the Pyrenees and into Spain. Many Republican fighters believed that once Hitler and Mussolini had been defeated, the Allies would come to their aid and battle Franco’s regime, too. However, the end of the war saw no reprieve for Republicans: in vain, many gathered in the Pyrenees to await British and French reinforcements that never arrived. Those who were brave enough to return home found that even their fellow countrymen were wary of them, scared that they might try to plunge the country into war again against the dictatorship.
Fernández is now campaigning for a memorial to be constructed in the Rivesaltes camp, where she and her mother spent time. “Thirty-two years have passed since the death of the dictator and younger generations must know what happened in this country—from the Fascist uprising supported by Hitler to the 39 years of Francoist repression,” she said. “Awareness of the past can help prevent the same terrible things happening again and I think this government can, and must, do whatever is necessary to ensure this is done. Without knowledge of the past, the stability or future of our current democracy can never be secure.”
Civil War Timeline
February Popular Front wins general elections
March Right-wing Falange Party is banned
June Over 1,000,000 Spaniards take part in strike action
July 18th Successful military uprisings take place in Seville and Morocco
July 19th Franco takes command of the army in Spanish Morocco. German and Italian planes airlift Franco’s troops to the mainland
August First international brigade volunteers arrive; Federico Garcia Lorca killed
September Military junta names Franco head of state and commander-in-chief of armed forces
October First Soviet aid arrives
November Nationalists begin siege of Madrid; Hitler and Mussolini recognise Franco regime
March Battle of Guadalajara; Italian troops defeated and Franco stops trying to take Madrid
April Destruction of Guernica by bombs dropped from German planes
May Conflict amongst Republican groups in Barcelona
June Bilbao falls to Nationalists
August Vatican recognises Franco’s regime
December Nationalists air-bomb Barcelona; Republicans air-bomb León
March Italian Air Force starts bombing Barcelona
April Nationalists split Republican Spain in two, by reaching the sea
July to November Battle of the Ebre
September to October Foreign troops fighting for Republicans leave the frontline and begin to leave Spain
December Nationalist troops enter Catalunya
January Barcelona captured by Nationalists
February Britain recognises Franco’s government
March Franco’s troops take Madrid and Valencia
April Republicans surrender unconditionally
In other words...
Five books about the Spanish Civil War
The Battle for Spain Antony Beevor (1982, 2006). One of the most comprehensive accounts of the war by a master historian, this book has recently been revised to include material from foreign archives.
Homage to Catalonia George Orwell (1938). Orwell moved to Spain to fight Fascism with the Communist POUM; this is his first-person account of the political infighting and the hardships of life on the frontline.
The Doves of War: Four Women of Spain Paul Preston (2003). Preston looks at the war experiences and lives of four very different women, on both sides of the Civil War, in this compassionate and moving account.
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway (1940). Hemingway’s novel tells the story of a young, idealistic American who travels to Spain to battle Fascism in the mountains near Segovia.
Winter in Madrid C J Sansom (2006). Set just after the end of the Civil War, this bleak novel traces the paths of a handful of foreigners remaining in Madrid as Franco decides whether to enter the Second World War.