What was Franco’s role in the deportation of 10,000 Spaniards to Nazi camps?

Historians point to the dictatorship’s connivance with the decision to send Spanish republican exiles from France to places like Mauthausen, where many of them died

Diego Fonseca Rodríguez
Spanish concentration camp survivor Neus Català in 2005.
Spanish concentration camp survivor Neus Català in 2005.JOAN SÁNCHEZ

Neus Català is the most recent Spanish survivor of a Nazi concentration camp to pass away. On April 20, Català died in her home town of Els Guiamets, in Tarragona province, at the age of 103. In 1943 Català was arrested in France for collaborating with the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France, and sent to a concentration camp in Ravensbrück, Germany.

In the past 13 months, five other Spaniards who were sent to concentration camps during World War II have passed away: Francisco Aura, José Marfil, Francisco Griéguez, Ramiro Santiesteban and Cristóbal Soriano. These exiled Spaniards who had fought for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War survived Mauthausen, but died without seeing their country take any responsibility for the deportation of nearly 10,000 Spaniards to the Nazi camps.

On August 20, 1940, in occupied France, a train left from the city of Angoulême for Mauthausen. It came to be known as the Convoy of the 927 because of the number of people it carried, and it was made up entirely of Spanish exiles who had fled the Franco regime. It also became the first train to take civilians to a Nazi concentration camp. Now, as the 80th anniversary of the date approaches, historians want acknowledgment of the role played by the Franco regime in these deportations.

Approximately 3,800 Spaniards survived the Nazi concentration camps

According to information from support associations and several historians, at least six Spaniards who survived Nazi concentration camps are still alive today: Vicente García (survivor of Buchenwald), José Manuel García Peruyera (Buchenwald), Lázaro Nates (Mauthausen), Siegfried Meir (Mauthausen), Juan Romero (Mauthausen) and Conchita Grangé (Ravensbrück). “But it is possible that there are more people out there who have never wanted to tell their story,” says Benito Bermejo, a historian and one of the main experts on the deportations.

Approximately 3,800 Spaniards, or 40% of those deported, survived the camps. But time has taken its toll on the survivors. The few who are still alive are unable to do interviews, attend tributes or participate in conferences to share their story.

Many of their stories have been passed on to second and third generations, who continue to honor the memory of their family members and demand legal recognition of what they went through. A year and a half ago, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) presented a motion asking Congress to legally recognize the Spanish republicans who were deported to Nazi camps, but it was rejected.  

“The minimum demands of restitution and dignity have not been met, which is a huge contrast to other European countries that once supported fascism, but later, under democracy, asked for forgiveness,” says Enric Garriga, president of Amical de Mauthausen (Friends of Mauthausen), an organization dedicated to the memory of the concentration camp victims, and the son of Marcelino Garriga, a Spaniard who was deported to Buchenwald.

According to the six historians interviewed for this article, there is no doubt that Franco had responsibility in the deportations. “Key evidence has been found. Although we do not know what the decision-making process was for deporting Spaniards to Mauthausen, there are several key documents which point to the Franco regime,” explains José Antonio Lisbona, historian and author of Más allá del deber (or, Beyond Duty) which explores the Spanish foreign service’s response to the Holocaust.

They didn’t try to protect their citizens because they did not consider them to be Spaniards German historian Bernd Rother

One of these documents is a memo sent out on September 25, 1940 by the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, to all authorities in the Third Reich and to occupied territories such as France under the Vichy regime. The message provided instructions on how to proceed with the Rotspanienkampser, literally the Combatants of Red Spain. This order, dictated under Hitler’s orders, stripped the detainees of their status as prisoners of war and made it possible for them to be sent to concentration camps.

“This document has a lot to do with what [then Presidency Minister] Ramón Serrano Suñer did two days earlier in Germany, where he met with [SS leader] Heinrich Himmler. Common sense and historical practice show that this meeting was the genesis for that internal order. In later statements, Franco and Serrano Suñer insisted that there were no Spaniards outside of Spain, which in other words, meant that they did not consider them to be Spaniards,” explains Lisbona.

Another document which points to Franco’s connivance is kept in the General Administration Archives in Alcalá de Henares. In this report, the German embassy in Madrid enquired about the Convoy of the 927, the shipment of republican Spaniards – including women, men, children and the elderly – from Angoulême to Mauthausen on August 20, 1940. “Berlin asked what it should do with the minors who were over 14 years of age, and there was no official response. We haven’t found documents either in the Spanish archives or in the German ones. And there was no reply because they were not interested in the subject,” says Lisbona.

Bernd Rother, a German historian and author of Franco and the Holocaust, argues: “It was fairly easy for the Franco government to ignore it. They didn’t try to protect their citizens because they did not consider them to be Spaniards.”

There are several key documents which point to the Franco regime Historian José Antonio Lisbona

The plight of the Spaniards deported to Nazi concentration camps was forgotten under the Franco regime, which survived until the late 1970s. Survivors spent decades in the shadows, living in exile as they were overlooked by a dictatorship that fabricated lies about Franco saving Jews. It was not until nearly 20 years later that the first literary evidence of the deportations began to appear.

In 1963, Joaquím Amat-Piniella, a survivor of Mauthausen, managed to bypass the censors and publish K.L. Reich, a novel that documents the Nazi horrors. In 1970, the magazine Cuadernos para el diálogo chose to feature concentration camp survivors. In the next 15 years, only two other major works on the subject were published – the history book Los catalanes en los campos nazis (or, Catalans in the Nazi Camps) by Spanish author Montserrat Roig in 1977, and the memoirs of Neus Català, De la resistencia y la deportación (or, Of Resistance and Deportation), in 1984.

“It has been really hard for this issue to come to light, given the scant interest there was during the Franco regime, the difficulty of accessing the archives, and the regime’s propaganda,” says historian Josep Calvet.

While a lot of documentary work on this subject has been published in the past 15 years, most historians interviewed for this article believe that few young people today know about the deportations. Rosa Torán, a historian and former president of Amical de Mauthausen, believes this is mostly due to political reasons.

“The problem is finding a way to integrate deportation into Spain’s history. It’s a political issue because the deportation of the Republicans was not by chance: they were combatants who were defeated, exiled and deported in connivance with the Spanish dictatorship. It’s about not assuming or recognizing Spain’s fascist past.”

Sixty years after the liberation of Mauthausen

In 2005, former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero visited Mauthausen, six decades after its liberation, and officially honored Spanish republican victims. For Nathalie Serra, daughter of Mauthausen survivor Miquel Serra, another small step was taken recently when last February, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez paid tribute to exiles at a French concentration camp in Argèles-sur-Mer, where 450,000 Spaniards were detained.

English version by Asia London Palomba.

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