Last train for spy central

Nestled in the mountains close to the French border, Canfranc reeks of Nazi gold and desperate getaways

The old platform at the Canfranc railway station.
The old platform at the Canfranc railway station.CARLES RIBAS

For the last 40 years, the train station of Canfranc has been quietly going to pieces on the foothills of the Pyrenees. Once a privileged gateway between Spain and Europe, during World War II it was an entry point into the peninsula for Nazi gold, Allied spies and Jews fleeing Hitler's concentration camps.

But ever since the destruction in 1970 of the bridge at nearby L'Estanguet, on the French side, no more trains stop here. There have been several initiatives to restore Canfranc to its former glory, but they were all short-lived, and the railroad station continues its slow decadence, looking like a gutted Titanic, its glass and metal innards exposed to the elements.

In 2000 there was talk about a luxury hotel that might be built here, but that plan never materialized either. Last month, the government of Aragon - the Spanish region in which Canfranc is located - announced that it will buy the station from Adif, the state railroad manager, for a symbolic price of 310,062 euros. Regional officials hope that a more modest plan will find fewer hurdles, and they are now talking about using the space for a university center, a hotel, a few bars and some retail commerce. But until this becomes a reality - private investors willing - the facilities continue to fall into dereliction.

Last year, two train cars caught fire, and a local man recently stopped copper thieves from making off with 23 batteries from the abandoned trains still lying around. The robbers left their booty on the tracks, among the piles of trash and rubble.

Yet Canfranc is more than just a striking example of Modernist architecture, ideal as a set for period movies (it was used in Dr Zhivago) or as the backdrop for vintage fashion photo sessions. It also represents one of the most unique moments in modern Spanish history.

Ever since its inauguration in 1928 by Spanish King Alfonso XIII and French President Gaston Doumergue, Canfranc was an international station jointly managed by Spain and France. During World War II its rails served both the Nazi supply network and the fugitives' flight to freedom. Because of its semi-French nature, it is also the only point inside Spain's geography to ever fly the Nazi swastika after Vichy began collaborating with Berlin in 1942.

At the start of WWII Canfranc was a kind of catflap for those fleeing the Nazis

Nazi gold, whose traffic was forbidden in Europe during the war, was taken to Canfranc by truck and by train after being laundered in Swiss banks. There is documented evidence of 90 metric tons crossing the border. Part of it was used to buy tungsten in Spain and Portugal with which to armor Nazi tanks, but most of the gold made its way to Lisbon and from there to South America. What the Germans could not prevent, however, is those same gold convoys from carrying Allied paratroopers, spies and French Résistance documents in its undersides.

New revelations about the station's old secrets keep emerging. In his recently published book, Canfranc. El oro y los nazis (or, Canfranc. Gold and the Nazis), the journalist Ramón J. Campo identifies 272 foreigners (mostly Jews from all over Europe, but also British journalists, German film directors and Canadian citizens) whom Francisco Franco ordered jailed in the watchtower of the Pyrenean town of Jaca after Spanish law enforcement caught them in the mountains.

Franco's stance with regard to the crossing of Spanish borders during wartime was inconsistent and opportunistic. For the first part of the war, Canfranc was a catflap for thousands of refugees who took advantage of Spain's questionably neutral position to get away from the Nazis. Refugees breathed a sigh of relief inside the station hall, French agents stamped a seal on their passport and they moved on to Spain. This is how the system worked until November 1942, when 50 members of the Bavarian Alpine Troops settled in Canfranc. At that point, the Gestapo began arresting and deporting every refugee who got caught. The terminal that was once a gateway to freedom became a place of bitterness for entire families that had traveled across Europe only to fall into their executioners' hands.

One specific case was that of a Frenchman named Joseph Lapuyade, one of the prisoners at the Jaca prison. After escaping from the Nazis, who had already arrested him and were going to interrogate him, Lapuyade hid in Pau inside a train; concealed in his fist was contact information about a border patrol officer in Canfranc who would help him. But things did not work out for him and he ended up in prison instead.

From that moment on, the only way into Spain was by crossing the Pyrenees on foot. Fugitives used to stop at Pau, where guides were willing to help them across the border for around 5,000 francs. Once in Spain, though, it was all up to them, and it was not unusual for people to get lost and die of exposure in the icy mountain passes.

But one thing did not change: their destination was still Canfranc, because the train to Lisbon or Algeciras (in southern Spain) was the only way to foil the police. As part of the Spanish regime's shifting logic, until 1942 many of the carabineros stationed on the border actually helped refugees make their way to Canfranc. But when German pressure got too strong, Spanish authorities backtracked and started arresting all fugitives. The prison cells in Jaca were the step before the concentration camp of Miranda de Ebro, where prisoners were then deported back to their countries or else transferred to Allied areas in North Africa.

Most of the gold was sent as far as Lisbon by rail before being shipped to South America

Reports left behind by Franco-era civil servants show there were a million reasons for escaping the Nazis. A large portion of the fugitives were French people who wanted to avoid "being sent to Germany to work in industries;" there were also many Jews from Eastern Europe "bearing considerable amounts of jewels and gold." The papers document dramatic stories like that of Madeleine Wayemus, a French woman who was arrested while trying to meet up with her husband, Lajb Kirzsbaum, a Polish Jew who was already inside the concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro. The woman confessed that she had left their two-year-old son back in France in the hope that he would be able to join them later on a train that stopped at Canfranc.

There was a more hardened type of prisoner such as one Marcel Proust, who instead of contemplating madeleines was then a lieutenant on his way to Africa "to fight with the Allies." On March 26, 1943 he was admitted into the Jaca prison with his brother, a sergeant, after being arrested in Biescas. The public servant wrote: "[Marcel Proust] has a bad opinion of the Germans in every way." The reports do not specify on what date he left prison or with what destination.

Now, Campo and other researchers are insisting on the need to work faster on the station's restoration and to open a museum there so that the memory of its past is not lost. In order to understand the fragile nature of these memories, all it takes is a short conversation with Jeannine Le Lay, the daughter of the former station chief who was also the head of an espionage ring that began at Canfranc. Le Lay was a witness and a main character in one of the most singular episodes in the history of Canfranc: her father's flight to Algiers after it became evident that the Nazis and Franco's police were getting ready to arrest him.

A key player in the communication between France and the chiefs of staff in Britain and the United States, Albert Le Lay facilitated the two-way transfer of numerous secrets, spies and machinery in the name of the Résistance. One of his feats was introducing in France via Spain the first transmitter that allowed the French underground in Paris to communicate with London. Very few residents of the village could ever imagine that Le Lay, ever polite and unflappable, spent a whole year with the Gestapo breathing down his neck after his espionage ring was dismantled. One afternoon in 1943, alerted to the fact that the Germans would be coming for him next morning on the nine o'clock train, he, his wife and their small child left Canfranc while pretending to go for a walk along the tracks. On foot and by candlelight, they crossed two tunnels until they were picked up by a taxi sent from Zaragoza by a comrade.

Meanwhile, their teenage daughter Jeannine remained back in the village to throw German spies off the scent, and took the last train out of Canfranc right before the Nazis pulled in. When they realized the bird had flown the coop, they followed Jeannine to Zaragoza. But the young woman hid at the home of a doctor whose son she would end up marrying.

The Gestapo did not give up, however, and showed up at the doctor's house; the latter had to dream up an infectious disease to prevent them from taking Jeannine. During this time, Albert Le Lay had gone on to Algiers - first by road to Seville, then to Gibraltar aboard a ship (where he posed as a sailor), and on to his final destination by plane. After the war, he returned to Canfranc and rejected the government position that he was rumored to have been offered by Charles De Gaulle. Le Lay never did like to talk about his adventures during the war. He simply figured he had done what he had to do.

These are just some of the stories that the station holds inside its crumbling walls. The discoveries began when Jonathan Díaz, a French bus driver who was taking a walk along the tracks in 2000, found some documents that proved the existence of the gold trains. A lot of people then began recollecting adventures that their elders had told them: border officials who loaded up Swiss gold bars; people who got glimpses of paintings and clocks inside German trucks; and family men who were jailed for helping the Résistance.

Four years ago, while Ramón J. Campo was having lunch in Canfranc with Dolores Pardo, a seamstress who had taken highly secret documents with her on a train to Zaragoza, a waitress came up to them. "Are you the gold people?" she asked. "We know a lot of stories around here. Not long ago an elderly American woman came here with her daughter, although they spoke in German. She wanted to show her daughter where she had fled from the Nazis." That story makes up another chapter in Campo's book.

Back in the village, people hope that a new museum will help uncover their history before it is too late. In the last decade, the government of Aragon has invested eight million euros to prevent the historical station from collapsing entirely. Thanks to that, the structure and the ceiling are still holding up, but the inside is still a mess. Just fixing up the hall would cost over three million euros, and it would not be feasible until at least 2014 - if the economic crisis allows for an upsurge in the real estate market. At least in the short run, it does not seem advisable to be too hopeful for Canfranc.

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