The spoon ha carried through four concentration camps
It was 3am in late November 1946, and on the outskirts of a Valencian pueblo called Lles Useres, five Guardia Civil beat 26-year-old Tàrio Rubio to within an inch of his life. Not 15 minutes earlier, he had been sleeping in his bed when the Guardia burst into his room and frogmarched him to this desolate quarry just a few hundred metres from his parents’ small stone house. They wanted information about the maquis’ loosely organised underground resistance movement: names, whereabouts, how many there were. He insisted he was innocent, that he wasn’t a collaborator. How could he know anything?
But he did know something. He knew a lot. And he wondered how much the Guardia really knew about him. Just two days before, they had executed one of Rubio’s fellow collaborators after torturing him. It was doubtful that the dead man had said anything; because if he had, the Guardia probably wouldn't have waited two days to come. But Rubio couldn’t be sure.
The captain ordered his men to throw Rubio up against a wall. They levelled their rifles at him. Last chance, the captain told him. Rubio knew that if he confessed they would kill him anyway, along with his comrades. So he kept his mouth shut. They cocked their rifles and he felt his bowels open up as he trembled from fear and cold. A long minute passed. Finally, the captain ordered his men to stand down.
“I’m going to let you think about it,” he told Rubio, and promised that they would be back. They ordered him to start walking, but he was even more afraid to leave his tormentors. The Ley de Fuga allowed for fugitives to be fired upon and shooting suspects in the back was a popular method of impromptu, legalised execution.
Rubio took to his bed for two weeks, incapacitated by fear and trauma. When at last he returned to work, he learned that one of his fellow collaborators had hung himself in the mountains. “He didn’t know if I had denounced him or not, and was afraid that the Guardia would nab him.”
Today, Rubio is an 86-year-old retired taxi driver. He’s a veteran, a former prisoner of war and one of only two survivors of the forced-labour battalions who worked on the Valle de los Caídos, the pharaonic mausoleum which houses Franco’s remains. When he speaks he has a way of jerking his head back and raising his thick, dark eyebrows, no doubt a habit picked up from conversing through a rear-view mirror for over three decades. A rotund man with a white, well-trimmed moustache, his eyes twinkle with joy in general conversation. But when he discusses his experiences during and shortly after the Civil War, they dull into a pensive and mystified squint.
“In those years, things were extremely dangerous,” he said. “Franquismo was criminal. You can’t comprehend. After the war, they killed some 300,000 people.”
He sits in his cramped den, surrounded by anti-war posters; photos of himself and his comrades, each with a white “P” on their breast, for “prisoner;” slogans in block letters, such as “Governments who violate their constitution have no right to be recognised.” Stacks of books and photocopied documents cover his desk. In the corner are two unpublished books that he’s written, one about Catalan intellectualism and another about exiled Catalans during the Franco era.
“Before Republicanism, Spain had an oligarchy of caciques [abusive, idle, political bosses]. They had estates of many square kilometres and used their land for hunting, or to raise bulls, or otherwise entertain themselves while their countrymen died of hunger. But under the Republic these estates were distributed by the government in parcels to the poor so that they could work the land, to make it possible for them to eat. Suddenly we had justice and liberty. When the military threatened to take all that away, we volunteered. Not to defend our politics, but to defend our liberty.
“I joined the war a year after it began, when I was 17, with three other friends. We were kids, didn’t have whiskers or any meat on us, and they said at first we were too young. So, we went to a barracks and waited for trucks that were on their way to the front. In that way we were able to join. But I wasn’t there long. After only three months, I was taken prisoner.”
Hanging on the wall is a metal spoon that Rubio carried through four concentration camps and eight prisons. He flips through photos of many of these places and describes conditions reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps and medieval dungeons. “This is a prison in Burgos. They had cells in the basement. I was there 14 months without ever seeing sunlight.”
Upon his release from a forced-labour battalion in 1946, Rubio returned to work as a labourer with his father. Yet he didn’t feel free. The Guardia Civil kept careful watch over people, using brutal methods “to maintain order.” Three months after returning home, Rubio joined three other maquis as a collaborator. “Liberty in those days didn’t exist, really. I didn’t think about going back to jail. I only thought of the struggle.”
The maquis used guerilla tactics to fight the Franco regime. For over 20 years—up until Ramon Vila Capdevila, the last active maqui, was gunned down in 1963—they cut communication lines, bombed railways and bridges and assassinated an estimated 1,000 Guardia Civil and other political leaders. Very few official records exist about them because the Franco government—referring to them as “bandits”—underplayed their importance in order to project stability in the country.
The guerillas hid in the mountains and depended on the people of the pueblos to provide information, food and other support. While they faced a relatively quick death in open shoot-outs, they enjoyed a modest sense of security in their fortified positions. Their collaborators, on the other hand, lived with the constant threat of exposure, torture and execution. This was the trade-off for not enduring the hardships of living in the wilderness.
When Tàrio Rubio finally recovered from the trauma of his experience with the Guardia Civil, he returned to work and—for their mutual protection—cut off all contact with the maquis. But every minute of every day he feared another visit from the Guardia. So, in late December of 1946 he slipped off in the night and made his escape. Through an intermediary, he managed to get letters to his parents, letting them know that he was alive without disclosing his location.
He began a new life in Barcelona, married and had a daughter. But for decades, he suffered a jolt of fear whenever he saw a Guardia uniform. “They were the visible head of the evil that was. For years, when I saw a squad of them on the street, I took a different street.”
Today, he maintains a busy schedule speaking in public about his experiences and attending conferences around Europe. “I’m still fighting. When I go to a high school or university, it’s to show them a person that this happened to. There were thousands, no not thousands but millions of people who lived like I did.”