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VE Day month: Spain's unsung heroes, 75 years on
VE Day month: Spain's unsung heroes, 75 years on
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, May 31, 2020
WITH most of Europe in some sort of lockdown, what should have been a major historical landmark anniversary this month has passed without the pomp and circumstance it deserves: It's now 75 years since 'VE Day', which spelled the end of the horrors of World War II, although many of the British and American soldiers would continue to live through these for another three-and-a-half months before 'VJ Day' on August 15, 1945 when the far-east prisoner of war camps were opened and those who had – literally, by some miracle – survived were shipped home.
One tends to think Spain did not have much of a part to play in World War II – it was grappling with its own struggles then, with the Civil War of 1936 to 1939 having just ended with victory for General Francisco Franco and his fascist brigade, leading to a dictatorship that would not end until his death 37 years later.
But in fact, tens of thousands of Spaniards risked, or lost, their lives fighting for and in France – effectively, against the side of their national leader, since Franco was an ally of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
“Over 5,200 were murdered by the barbaric Nazis with the full knowledge and without the opposition of Franco's régime and France under Vichy,” says the Friends of Mauthausen and Other Camps Association.
“More than 9,500 men and women of the Résistance and anti-fascism fighters were declared enemies of Franco and Hitler for standing up for their values and for the Republic, and were deported to concentration camps.”
Most Spaniards captured – 7,532, according to records – went to Mauthausen, and the majority of the other 2,000 ended up in Buchenwald, Ebensee, Ravensbrück, Dachau, Gusen, Holleschein and Sachsenhausen.
Although well over half of them perished, of those who lived to tell the tale, a very tiny handful are still living and telling it.
“Nowadays, more than ever, in light of the current world situation with the dangers of social and environmental collapse, the growth of the far right and inequality, we need to revive and celebrate the spirit of deportees of all nationalities – and of the International Brigades who fought alongside the Republicans during the years of the Spanish war and in Nazi camps,” says the association.
The International Brigades included Brits – men and women, with boots on the ground and attending to the injured and dying in medical tents – but more on that later; there's enough in it for a whole new article, so we don't want to spoil it by glossing over it here.
The Spaniards who freed Paris
Among the Spaniards who fought on the right side of World War II were the 146 who made up the bulk of the 9th Company of the French Army Regiment of the March of Chad – only 14 were not from Spain – and who played a major rôle in the liberation of Paris on August 24, 1944.
Known as La Neuve – but to the Spanish members of it, La Nueve – the 9th Company, under French orders, marched into Paris from the southern Kremlin-Bicêtre neighbourhood, the 13ème arrondissement, via what is now the metro station of Port d'Italie.
Riding on tanks emblazoned with the names of Civil War battles, which were in turn named after the towns, cities or provinces where they were held – Teruel, Guernica, Guadalajara – and singing Spanish wartime songs, they were among around half a million who had left Spain after losing the Civil War and settled in refugee camps north of the border.
They had been trained in what were then the French colonies of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, and in the UK, before heading to the capital, fired up with determination to avenge the loss of Spain as they knew it to the fascism movement.
Under General Leclerc, they freed the city within 24 hours – but it would not be until 2004 before they were formally remembered.
For all bar three of them, earning the City of Paris Medal for their efforts in 2010 came too late, as would the 2015 renaming of the parkland at the Hôtel de Ville, or city hall as the Jardin des Combattants de 'la Nueve' and last year's unveiling of a giant fresco in the 13ème in their honour.
In fact, their Lieutenant, the man who led them into the firing line and under whose orders they marched, Amado Granell, was killed in a car crash en route to the French Consulate in Valencia 47 years ago – 28 years after the freeing of Paris – having been one of just 20 who survived the final showdown.
Homage to Rafael, the last of the Paris liberators
By the time of the 'City of Paris Medal', only three were left, and by this year, there was just one survivor – Rafael Gómez Nieto.
And he, too, having got through fighting in the Spanish Civil War alive, then survived several concentration camps and finally, the battle for the liberation of Paris, died in unforeseen, banal and probably preventable circumstances, like Amado Granell.
A tribute was read out to him by the French government, calling him a 'hero of freedom', after he passed away aged 99 from Covid-19 on March 31 this year.
To mark the 75th year of VE Day and the liberation of Mauthausen, Rafael Gómez was one of two Spanish men given a formal tribute by Spain's government this month, known as a 'personal reparation and recognition' – a homage created in December 2007 as a way of 'making it up to' those who 'suffered persecution or violence for their political, ideological or religious values during the Civil War and the dictatorship' and which has so far been granted to 3,014 people, with another 85 applications in the pipeline.
Rafael, born in Adra, Almería province in 1921, was conscripted aged just 17 – about the same age as most of the Spaniards in 'La Nueve' – and fought with the troops supporting the government of the Second Republic before seeking refuge in France after its defeat.
He was held prisoner in several concentration camps before being 'claimed' by some relatives living in Algeria, when he was freed, joined the French African Corps and took part in the Allied conquest of north Africa, before enlisting with the Free French Forces and becoming part of the volunteers on La Nueve.
The year after his and his Company's successful bid to liberate Paris, Rafael moved back to Algeria, married a Spanish woman with French nationality and had children, then the whole family returned to France in 1957, settling in Strasbourg.
He had been living in Strasbourg these last 63 years and was still resident in the eastern French city when he passed away from Covid-19.
Juan Romero, 101, tells us how the 'little girl with the smile' haunts him nearly 80 years on
The second Spaniard who was the subject of a tribute or 'personal reparation' this month is still alive – Juan Romero Romero, who is 101.
Born in Torrecampo, Córdoba province on April 21, 1919, he is one of the few Spanish survivors of Mauthausen who remains living today.
He was also 17 when he was conscripted, two years earlier than Rafael, and fought in the Civil War with the 33rd Brigade of the Spanish Armed Forces' 15th Corps.
After the fall of Catalunya in February 1939 – two months before the Civil War ended – he fled to France, enlisted in the Foreign Legion and continued to fight against fascism, still raw from the damage the movement had caused to his country of birth.
Juan spent many of his tender years in horrific conditions in a German death camp – he was captured in early 1940, when he was not yet 21, and forced into hard labour in Brandenburg before being deported to Mauthausen the following year.
He would not be repatriated to France until 1945 – a whole five years in concentration camps, having lived several traumatic lifetimes of the type that almost nobody from his home country will ever go through today, and was still only 26 years old.
In Mauthausen, he worked from dawn to dusk in the quarry, lifting heavy rocks.
“When the day ended, we had to lift a stone up a ladder, and it wasn't exactly small,” he remembers.
“The SS were criminals. Every day wheelbarrows full of dead bodies turned up in the quarry.”
During the three years he was put to work disinfecting the clothing of new arrivals, he witnessed hundreds being marched into the gas chambers.
“If there were groups who arrived and, instead of going into the showers, were left outside, that was really bad – these ones would go straight to the gas chamber.
“Once, a group arrived, there were men, women, and very small children. There were 30 or 40 of them. We were about to leave the building; we waited until they came in, and they walked past me, and a little girl smiled at me – the poor little thing, totally ignorant, didn't know she was going straight into the gas chamber.
“This caused me a great deal of harm. I'd seen many groups, but this little one, the girl who smiled at me...even now, over 70 years later, I think about her every night.
“I still can't believe I got out of there alive. I witnessed so many atrocities – murders, firing squads...but I couldn't go back to Spain. I'd already declared war on Franco. I went back there for the first time in 1960, by which time I was a French citizen – I went to Barcelona to see my family.”
Juan settled in Aÿ along with another 20 or so deportees – he is the only one in the town still alive - rebuilt his life, met a woman at a dance in 1947 and fell in love, married her and had four children, and then worked the next 30 years in a vineyard and wine merchant's, manufacturing champagne.
But would not be decorated by the French Légion d'Honneur until 2016, aged 97 – although when he did, he was surrounded by the three generations of his family who would never have been born if he had not made it through Mauthausen, which he has never been back to visit as he knows he would find the memories too traumatic.
Not just statistics: Photos and interviews with the humans behind the horrors
Juan is now one of the 100 names and faces on the newly-created website, Deportados.es, which shows the real lives behind the Spaniards who were captured by the Nazis and who survived the torture, punishing manual labour, starvation and humiliation inflicted on prisoners held in concentration camps.
Interviews, personal photos, videos, first-person testimonials from the victims themselves are included.
Some of them were only children when they were captured, such as José Alcubierre Pérez, who was 14, and Ramiro Santisteban Castillo, who grew up surrounded by barbed wire with his parents and siblings.
And then there's Marcial Mayans Costa, who prevented the murder of 18,000 prisoners at Ebensee.
Theirs are recent photographs, but dozens of others, in black and white and dating back to the 1930s, did not make it home – like Marcelino Bilbao Bilbao, a victim of the SS doctors' medical experiments, and Francisco García Aucejo, who was killed in the gas chambers; and who was quite possibly one of the hundreds Juan Romero saw arriving and walking into them.
The 100 also includes Neus Català, who passed away a year ago aged 103 in her home town of Els Guiamets (Tarragona province). She was the only woman from Catalunya to survive both Mauthausen and Holleschein, where over 92,000 women died – her story (click on the link above on her name) is a fascinating one, and her autobiography, Ashes in the Sky ('Cenizas en el Cielo') can be found in Spanish or English.
Photograph 1: The liberation of Mauthausen and the freeing of the Spanish prisoners (by Madrid's Complutense University)
Photograph 2: The Jardins des Combattants de 'la Nueve' gardens at the Hôtel de Ville, or city hall, in Paris (Wikimedia Commons); inset: The liberation of Paris (archive)
Photograph 3: Rafael Gómez Nieto (front right, with the medal pinned on his lapel), the last survivor of the 9th Company which freed Paris, who died from Covid-19 on March 31 (by Spain's deputy president Pablo Iglesias on Twitter)
Photograph 4: Left – Juan Romero Romero aged 97, having just been awarded the Légion d'Honneur; right – Juan aged 19, a year before being captured by the Nazis, after which he spent five years in a concentration camp (Deportados.es)
Photograph 5: Survivors, and those who paid with their lives: 100 Spaniards who ended up in Nazi concentration camps (Deportados.es)
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