The Spaniards in transit: war, retreat, deportation, and silence.

It was July 1936, summer had arrived in Barcelona and the hot nights were an invitation to prolong the get-togethers until the early hours of the morning to make up for the heat of the day. The athletes registered for the People's Olympiad, which was to be held from 19 to 26 July in the Montjuïc stadium, were strolling through the streets, oblivious to what was to happen to them a few days later. The People's Olympiad had established itself as an alternative sporting event to the one that was to be held in Nazi Germany's Berlin, showing itself to the world as an international anti-fascist meeting promoted by the Red Sports International, and organised in Barcelona by the Comité Català pro Esport Popular-CCEP (Catalan Committee for Popular Sport). More than 6,000 athletes, men and women from 23 countries, registered to compete in more than 19 sports.

4. Medal Olimpiada Popular

(Image: Enrique Urraca. Barcelona)


The cities of Barcelona and Berlin had competed to host the 11th edition of the Olympic Games, and although Barcelona enjoyed a certain advantage, in the end the International Olympic Committee-IOC chose Berlin as the venue for the Games. The Popular Front Government of the Second Republic, considering that this sporting event glorified Nazi and Fascist ideology, decided not to participate, nor to send Spanish representatives to the Berlin Games.

On the morning of 18 July, the people of Barcelona had awakened with the expectation of receiving news of what was happening in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco. Uncertainty hovered freely in the streets in a latent flow of anti-fascist struggle. Inside the Palau de la Música Catalana, cellist Pau Casals was rehearsing with his orchestra and the Orfeó Gracienc the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth, which was to open the People's Olympiad. Casals and some members of the orchestra and choir had had difficulty attending the rehearsal. Getting to Barcelona by car from his home in El Vendrell became a complex journey, roadblocks slowed down travel and the railway network was not working.

At last the rehearsal could begin but something unexpected happened. Suddenly the orchestra and the choir had to interrupt the rehearsal, ceasing their activity to listen attentively to the news that an emissary from the Palau de la Generalitat was sending them: "a group of soldiers had risen up against the government of the II Republic in the Spanish territories of North Africa, in the cities of Melilla, Tetuan, Ceuta and Larache". The words filled the entire space, replacing the music, and this change of tone changed their lives in a second. These phrases forebode a complex outcome, and given the seriousness of what was happening, it was decided to cancel the rehearsal. In the streets near the Palau, barricades were already being erected, and on the Ramblas the first shots could be heard between the rebels and those loyal to the Republic.


5. Palau de la Musica Catala Barcelona

(Image: Cristina Cristóbal 2016. Palau de la Música Catalana. Barcelona)


This date of 18 July transformed everything, and many of the athletes, women and men who had come to take part in the People's Olympiad, spontaneously joined the street fights by joining the Workers' Militias in favour of the Second Republic, forming units of foreign volunteers who set off from the Ramblas in Barcelona to the Aragon front. With this gesture of solidarity, the embryo of the movement that would be formed as the International Brigades in October 1936 was born, claiming its first mortal victim in the figure of the Austrian athlete Mechter, who died on 19 July. The International Brigades represented the largest international solidarity movement in recent human history. Men and women left their homes and jobs to support the Second Spanish Republic and fight the fascism that had begun with the military coup led by Francisco Franco. These volunteers were active until 23 September 1938 because the non-intervention pact created in 1936 by France and supported by the United Kingdom forced the government of the Second Spanish Republic to disband them. Their departure moved the brigadistas and the Spanish people who took to the streets to bid them farewell, grateful for their commitment and anti-fascist aid.

And then December 1938 came. Barcelona fell and Franco's troops filled the streets like a spreading oil slick. Flight became necessary; it had to be quick, with no belongings to take with them. Thousands and thousands of men, women, old people and children, entire families had to leave their homes in haste, and head on foot towards the Pyrenees to cross the border into an idealised France, taking refuge on foot in the ditches of the roads from the air raids that Franco's, German and Italian air forces were carrying out on them.

The "Retreat" had begun. It was winter and in February the Pyrenees mountains were covered with snow, a strong wind was blowing in the Empordà, and almost half a million souls began the exodus of hope that would become a perennial exile and a first step towards forced labour, deportation and silence. The gendarmes with their "Allez" "Allez" were pushing them along, oblivious to the struggle that the whole mass of people had been carrying in their guts since 1936 and which now in 1939 forced them to leave their roots. The struggle against fascism in Spain had invaded thousands and thousands of homes, three years of war, hunger, persecution, loneliness, people being pulled from their homes, trucks, shots in the back of the head, desolation and many shot and left dead in the ditches.

And when they crossed the border, the fear was still with them, the uncertainty of what might happen to those they had left behind in their towns and cities, their parents, siblings, friends, wives and children, which was added suffering to the pain of exile. Undoubtedly those who had stayed behind had become possible hostages and victims of repression, imprisonment, rape or murder by the rebel troops, or by the Falangists eager to exterminate any republican ideas that were still alive, or simply because they were a relative or friend of a "republican". Trucks arrived at the doors of houses at dawn to take men and women away, and with a shot in the back of the head on the outskirts of the village, or against any cemetery wall, their lives were silenced, and an anonymous grave was the mute witness to what had happened.

The French government saw in this mass of republican humanity a dangerous enemy for its state, and did not want to welcome them on its soil. Writers, poets, musicians, doctors and workers lost their identity, leaving an empty Spain and a France that missed the opportunity to welcome the intelligentsia and the self-sacrificing workers of its neighbouring country. Instead, it opened internment camps where a hole in the sand of the beach was the shelter from the cold and the wind, it was the bed to sleep in, or the hole to eat in, with no blankets, no fire to keep warm. Families were separated, young men on one side, women, children and old people on the other. Barbed wire fences separated them. And as is always the case with women, it was necessary to go in groups, at certain times of the day, because of the risk of being raped by their watchers. But hope appeared on the horizon of these women's lives. The Elna maternity hospital founded in 1939 by Elisabeth Eidenbenz became a refuge for Spanish women who were pregnant and interned in the concentration camps in the south of France. Elna helped them to give birth to their children in minimum health conditions, and a total of 597 children were born. Later, the same maternity ward helped Jewish women who suffered the same treatment as the Spanish women, and again 200 more babies were born within its walls. The Elna maternity hospital was closed by the Gestapo in 1944.

3. Beach Argelés sur Mer France

Image: Sonia Subirats (Playa de Argelès-Sur-Mer (Francia))


France felt uncomfortable with the presence of Spaniards on its soil, and at the beginning of 1939 decided that foreign refugees should compensate the French government for being on its borders by rendering a service in return for what they received, similar in duration to the military service performed by French citizens. Thus, companies of foreign workers - CTE, were born, April 1939, as militarised units. In September 1939 it became compulsory service. Their job was to carry out border defence construction work, and around 20,000 Republicans formed part of this contingent. Other Spaniards were forced to work in agriculture or industry.

The Pétain government, after the Franco-German armistice, continued to keep the Spaniards who had enlisted in the Foreign Legion in the military, and as they continued to feel uneasy about sheltering the contingent of Republican exiles on French soil, they were forced to choose between: 1) repatriation, which was impossible for the refugees because to return to Spain was to die; 2) working in the countryside or in industry (Groups of Work for Foreigners-GTE, September 1940, or 3) being integrated as forced labourers in North Africa. But not all Spanish Republicans were able to avail themselves of these options and were stranded in the internment camps of the Vichy government with no other way out.

Another percentage of Spaniards found a way out of this situation of internment in the south of France, by boarding the so-called "exile boats" chartered by the SERE (Evacuation Service for Spanish Refugees 1939-1945), and the JARE (Board of Aid to the Spanish Republicans. Created in Paris in 1939 by the Permanent Deputation of the Republican Courts in Exile) and embarking for Mexico, Chile or the Dominican Republic, thus creating a dream life for themselves, but with the nostalgia of an external exile and the weight of an internal exile that would accompany them throughout their lives.

The fight against fascism and Nazism remained in the minds of Spaniards loyal to Republican values, and as soon as they crossed the border and set foot on French soil, they joined the Resistance, summer 1940. This contingent of fighters was a priority target for the Gestapo, who, with the help of Spanish informers linked to the Franco regime, operated with total impunity in France, searched for their members to be killed, imprisoned or deported, as were the Spaniards who took part in the Eysses prison mutiny. After the failure of the Resistance, they left the Penne d'Agenais station toward Compiège, to be sent to the Dachau and Allach concentration camps.


1 Wagon Le Vernet dAriège France

Image: Cristina Cristóbal (Wagon en la estación de Vernet d’Ariège. Francia)


The landing of the Allied forces in 1944 was the trigger for the mass deportation to concentration and extermination camps. The Nazi regime sensed its defeat and decided to give birth to its final project. The French railway networks were the spider’s web that facilitated the transfer of people in wagons under conditions of abuse and extreme violence.

The French internment camps were still full of Spaniards, which for some had been their living quarters since their arrival in France in 1939. And given that the mass deportation had begun, Hitler, faced with the presence of these "Spanish Reds", wanted to ask Franco what he wished done with the Spaniards who were interned in the French camps. The Dictator's answer was clear and unhesitating: "Outside Spanish borders there were no Spaniards". With these simple words he signed the death sentence of those who had defended the legality of the Second Republic. Deportation was to be their fate, a simple solution to eliminate those whom he considered to be human scum. The Allied countries failed to see that Nazism had triumphed in Spain; it was not necessary to invade in the autumn of 1939 because it had already been part of the countries aligned with the Third Reich since the summer of 1936. The Second European War had already begun with its alliance to the military coup that overthrew the Second Republic.

The Dachau concentration camp added a new uncertainty to the ones the prisoners had already experienced, but in this inhospitable place their destiny crossed again with the presence of the International Brigaders who had also been deported to Dachau. Their common anti-fascist ideals along with the sharing of the same language, Spanish, was of vital help to the Spaniards, most of whom did not know the German language, and the -NO PASARAN- was once again both a wish and nostalgia rather than a reality. A plaque on the memorial commemorates these generous Brigaders.


Image: Cristina Cristóbal ( Memorial KZ-Dachau)


Liberation came in April 1945, a day of strange reality, confusion, violence, and helplessness. Most of the deportees were able to return to their countries of origin, to their homes with their families and friends, but the liberation was not the same for everyone. The Spaniards were unable to do so; it was unthinkable to return to Spain. Franco's fascist regime did not allow it, and it was easy to be betrayed by the new regime's supporters and to be shot without trial. Once again, the question of where to go back to came over them: nobody wanted them in their own country. To Inform that they were alive and to whom maintained the fear active still. They knew that their families could be repressed for simply contacting them, and this feeling of guilt silenced many deportees by hiding the fact that they were alive from their loved ones. Some died soon after liberation in solitude. Others were not reunited with their families until long after the end of the war. Others formed new families. Families broken, families rebuilt. Pain and silence. To return was impossible. The dead remained silent, only the search by their families has made it possible to find out about them.


Image:Cristina Cristóbal ( Memorial KZ-Dachau)


The hopes that had been pinned on the Spaniards, who were convinced that after liberating France from Nazi occupation that the Allied forces would help them to overthrow Franco's fascist regime, remained a dream. After the exodus, exile, forced labour, concentration camps, exile ships - Europe silenced them. Nobody remembered that the Lincoln Company that liberated Paris "La Nueve" was formed by Spanish republicans and silence filled their lives. Spain was silence and Europe forgot.

The war had already been over for five years, and a new shadow fell over those who had been recognised as heroes of the French resistance. The Bolero-Paprika operation carried out in France on 7 September 1950 once again went after those who were considered dangerous communists, and once again the Spanish republicans were persecuted, forcing them to leave the place where they lived in order to stay alive. The Warsaw Hospital in Toulouse was considered one of their refuges and action was taken by closing the hospital and arresting the entire medical team as a measure to eliminate Spanish communist organisations in France.

Oblivion and total lack of acknowledgement have been like a long, dark night that has lasted almost eighty years. The Spanish ditches are still full of the anonymous dead who are waiting to be found in order for their remains to be returned to their families.

Once again I would like to recall the words attributed to Pau Casals at his last concert in Spain in October 1938, which I quote verbatim from Robert Baldock's biography of Pau Casals: "During a rehearsal there was an air raid and the musicians had to rush for cover. When it was over, Pau Casals took up his cello and began a Bach Suite until the musicians were ready to continue". At this same concert Pau Casals sent a premonitory message to the world: "Do not commit the crime of allowing the Republic to be assassinated. If you allow Hitler to win in Spain, you will be the next victims of his madness. The war will spread all over Europe, all over the world. Come and help our people.

Cristina Cristóbal Mechó

(Granddaughter of Fermín Cristóbal López nº 94139. Deported and deceased in Dachau)

President of the Amical Dachau-AAD Association

Member of the CID

Barcelona, June 2021


1.- "L'exode d'un peuple", un documentaire de Louis Llech (France, 1939), accompagné par Virgile Goller à l'accordéon.

2.- Espagne 1939 La Retirada (5)

3.- La retirada republicana

TV3 Trinxeres - Capítol 8 - La retirada republicana: De Barcelona a Argelers