In the entrance to the Francesc Boix public library on Carrer Blai in Poble Sec there is a black and white photograph of a young man dressed in a greatcoat. A Leica camera hangs round his neck. Behind him are the barbed wires and barracks of a Nazi work camp. Just around the corner from the library, at Margarit 19, a plaque informs us that Francesc Boix i Campo was born here on August 14th 1920, and that he was “a photographer, fighter against fascism, prisoner at Mauthausen, and the only Spaniard to be called as a witness at the Nuremburg Trials against the leaders of the Third Reich”.
Little is known of Boix’s early life. His father was a tailor and ran a shop (today an excellent bar) under the family home, where in the evenings he would host meetings with left-wing Catalanists. He was also an amateur photographer and instilled in his son a love of the camera.
When the Civil War broke out in Barcelona in July 1936, Boix, just 15, joined the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), the Catalan communist party and started to work for youth magazines as a photographer. He then volunteered as what we call today an embedded photographer and saw action on various fronts, including the Battle of the Ebro. As Franco’s forces closed in on Barcelona in January 1939, Boix headed for the French border, along with hundreds of thousands of women, children and the defeated remnants of the Republican army. The French government finally opened the frontier to the soldiers on February 5th, but instead of being treated as Republican brothers they were immediately imprisoned in concentration camps. Boix himself was sent to the Septfonds Camp. Conditions were atrocious and disease was rife. Many died of hunger, cold and dysentery.
With the threat of invasion, Boix, along with many Spanish refugees, was conscripted by the French army to build defences. Germany invaded in May 1940 and Boix was taken prisoner in June in Belfort in northern France, from where he was transferred to a prisoner of war camp. The Nazis saw the Spaniards as political enemies to be treated as such. Any reservations they may have had seem to have been dispelled after a visit to Germany by the Spanish Foreign Minister and Nazi-admirer, Ramón Serrano Súñer who was Franco’s brother-in-law (hence his nickname as El Cuñadísimo (1). The Franco regime disowned the Republicans, allowing the Nazis to declare them stateless citizens (like Jews and Gypsies), and hence to be worked to death. The Spaniards who were deported back to Spain faced torture, concentration camps and firing squads. As far as Franco was concerned, the Nazis merely helped by eliminating opposition.
After passing through a series of prison camps, Boix, like most of the Republicans, was sent to the Mauthausen concentration complex in Austria, reserved for the most “Incorrigible Political Enemies of the Reich”, where the aim was extermination through labour in quarries, munitions factories and assembly plants. On their arrival, the prisoners were forced to strip and passed like cattle through showers. Then, they were given a striped uniform with a blue triangle used to identify foreign forced labourers, with an ‘S’ superimposed on top, to denote not ‘Stateless’ but ‘Spanier’. Boix, who had already managed to pick up some German, was designated as works translator.
At first the Spaniards were the largest group in Mauthausen. Many were forced to work in appalling conditions in the quarries. They also built much of the camp itself, leading a French survivor to proclaim “Every stone of Mauthausen represents a Spanish death”, most of those deaths occurred in the first year, many from malnutrition and overwork. With the arrival of other nationalities like Russians and Poles, the Spanish survivors gradually began to take over more ‘privileged’ positions, displacing the German common criminals. This was not because they were now treated any better, but rather because they were so well organised; held together by their anti-fascist political beliefs and in part by the discipline of the Communist Party. They managed to keep alive as many Republicans as possible, though favouring party members. They also organised acts of sabotage and resistance, the most important job of which fell to Boix.
With his photographic skills and basic German, Boix managed to get a job in the camp photo lab. Together with another Catalan, Antoni Garcia (2), he developed and printed photos taken by the SS of each prisoner on arrival and of each death. The photos were partly taken to feed the methodical bureaucratic obsession of the Nazis (five copies of each case), but also often as souvenirs for SS members. Boix made copies of 3,000 negatives, showing executions, the barbarous acts committed by the camp’s staff and, crucially, visits by top Nazis. The negatives were smuggled out by labourers who were sent each day to work in a nearby factory. There, they passed the negatives to an incredibly brave young Austrian woman called Anna Pointner, who hid them in the garden wall of her house.
As the Allies drew closer, the final months in the camps painted a horrific scene. The SS, fuelled by their murderous madness and by a desire to cover up all evidence, set about killing all remaining prisoners, but they ran out of time and fled before the advance of the US army. Mauthausen was finally liberated by the prisoners on May 5th 1945, the only camp to be taken this way. The Americans were welcomed with a huge banner proclaiming ‘Los españoles antifascistas saludan a las fuerzas libertadoras.’ Boix himself set to work photographing the liberation.
The death toll for the whole complex remains unknown, though the figure of 200,000 is often quoted. Russian and Polish prisoners were the biggest victims, along with Jews. Of the some 7,200 Spaniards who entered Mauthausen, only 2,200 were alive by their liberation in 1945. Another 2,000 probably died in other camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald. Many were at the limits of their resistance and half were dead within a year. Most of the survivors who could not return to Franco’s Spain were given asylum in France.
In late 1945 Boix moved to Paris where he began to work as a photo reporter for French left-wing press titles such as L’Humanité, Ce Soir, and Regards, which published photo stories of the negatives, the biggest collection from any camp. In 1946, he was called by the French prosecution as a witness in the Nuremberg Trials. Boix’s declaration, backed by photos taken by the SS, was short and harrowing. He described slave labour, torture, public executions enlivened by a gypsy band forced to play polkas and how the SS guards received bonuses for shooting Jews. But most importantly, he testified to the presence at the camp of Heinrich Himmler, Albert Speer and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the latter of whom had denied any knowledge of the camps, and who was convicted directly as a result of Boix’s testimony (3). The same year Boix was also a witness at a second trial in Dachau against other Nazis from Mauthausen.
He died in Paris on June 6th 1951 from tuberculosis which he had probably caught during his time in Mauthausen. He was 30 years old, a young man from Poble Sec, to whom history gave the role of documenting Nazi barbarity.
1. 1. Cuñadísimo—A play on words between Generalísimo and cuñado (brother-in-law)
2. The two did not get along. Garcia was timorous and reserved, Boix rebellious and outgoing. Some accounts are highly critical of Boix’s role in discrediting the role played by Garcia in hiding some of the photos.
3. His complete testimony is available here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/01-28-46.asp
-- Nick Lloyd leads Civil War tours in Barcelona with the Centre d’Estudis de Montjuic and runs www.iberianature.com