It had been almost a decade since I visited Collell, and what I saw turned my stomach. The first time I was there, in that old shrine hidden in the Catalan forest, was in 1999, while I was working on a book on what happened there 60 years earlier: the shooting of nearly 50 Francoist prisoners late in the Civil War. After the conflict ended, the shrine had been used as a Church-run school. With me on the visit was Josep María Nadal, who as a boy had spent years in the school, but had never heard of the firing-squad episode. The building, by then disused, was guarded by an elderly caretaker. Then we looked for the exact spot where, I had read, the massacre had taken place. I thought I found it 150 meters away, in an esplanade where the trail petered out, and there was absolutely nothing, not even the tiniest reminder of the 48 people who died there.
Two years later I published a book. It was not then in vogue to write about the Civil War, or no more than it had always been. People of my age considered it a bore, as remote as the battle of Salamina; nor was "historical memory" yet a buzzword. In spite of, or because of this, the book was very well received, and director David Trueba expressed interest in making a film of it. So I went back to Collell and showed him the shrine, and the esplanade.
Somebody kept painting the cross with swastikas, which were then painted out with white
A few days later something extraordinary happened. We were both in Paris, when we got a call from the film's producer, Carmen Huete. She had been wandering in the woods with an aide, searching for the spot, when, at about nightfall, they encountered an old man. She said his face changed when she asked about the shooting. Later they learned that he had been 14 years old when it all happened; that he was a shepherd, living with his parents near Collell; and that he helped to bury the bodies. Later, after the war was over, he had had to dig them up for the families to identify and carry away. But the only thing the old man did that evening was to bid the two women to follow him while he cleared a way along a weed-choked trail, where nobody had passed in decades, to a clearing in the woods -- in the midst of which there stood a great stone cross.
This was the cenotaph in memory of the dead of Collell. For decades no one had visited it. This was why the trail was hidden, and why I had made a mistake. With time, of course, all this changed, and Collell became a flourishing tourist attraction. I returned there some weeks ago, in the company of the writer Bruno Arpaia and the photographer Daniel Mordzinski. It was a shock. The cenotaph was still there, but no longer hidden. It was now visible from the highway, the woods having been cut down to expose it to view.
The second surprise was even nastier. The monument, which I remembered as dark, was now almost white, surrounded by a railing, and profaned by a number of swastikas in a shrieking blue color. At this point I turned and went away. At the sanctuary we were told that this had been going on for some time. Somebody kept painting the cross with swastikas, which were then painted out with white; then after a while the swastikas would appear again. Hence the color, and the useless protective railing.
Then we walked back to the cenotaph, and stood gazing at those hellish crosses painted on it. It occurred to me that we had done the wrong thing. Ten years ago, the cenotaph lost in the woods had been a bad symptom, the symptom of our incapacity to accept our past. Now, 10 years later, the same cenotaph repeatedly vilified in the sight of all was an even worse symptom -- though I couldn't say what of.