Now that the refugee crisis is raging in the Mediterranean (I refer here to the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms and the brutal reluctance of the Italian authorities to help her passengers), it’s time to remember that we, Spaniards, were also once refugees. In January 1939, when it was already obvious that Franco’s fascist troops would win the assault against the democratic Spanish Republican Government, about 500,000 persons crossed the border to seek refuge in France. They were, of course, mostly Republicans who feared for their lives, ranging from first-rank political figures to common citizens, all with a clear understanding that all of Spain would become a prison in the post-war period. As it did.
There is a hidden family story here, which I need to tell. It has taken me many years to understand that my paternal grandmother was among those anonymous citizens together with my father and possibly his aunt, though I have no proof that this was the case. Allow me to explain.
My paternal grandfather was only 19 when the war started in July 1936 and from what I gather he and my grandmother –a Galician migrant seven years his senior– contracted a war marriage only a few days later. I mean by this that they would not have married in such haste, or at all, if it weren’t for the war. My grandfather eventually became a Republican commissar (the head of a small militia platoon) and fought mainly in the Teruel area; in one of his very few comments on the war, he claimed to have taken part in the Ebro Battle with the International Brigades. My father was born in 1937 and he has often told us that when he finally met his father he was already four, and had no idea of who he was. This was, then, in 1941, most likely during the first leave which my grandfather had from his three-year post-war military service, a punishment meted out to low-profile Republican soldiers (or those who had managed to silence what they really did, as I suspect in my grandfather’s case).
Anyway, my father was baptized in March 1939 in the church of Saint André de Meouilles (today Saint-André-les-Alpes), in the French district of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. He does have a certificate for this but no further information whatsoever about why he was there at the time. He never asked, fancy that! I understood (not too long ago) that my grandmother must have run away with her baby to France, returning possibly once the war was over for good (after April 1939). She never said a word about this, and to this day I have been unable to locate a refugee camp in the area where my father was christened, though probably they were at Sisteron (for a complete list, see https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campos_de_internamiento_en_Francia ).
The family of photographer Agustí Centelles is luckier. He did not discuss his terrible experience in detail with them, but he left a considerable number of letters to his wife and two handwritten notebooks. These were rescued from oblivion by his son Sergi as late as 1986, right after his father’s death. Later, Teresa Ferré edited the text, published in 2008 as Diari d’un fotògraf: Bram, 1939. In case you have never heard of Centelles, he is the author of one of the most iconic images of the Spanish Civil War, the one showing three Republican guards and a male civilian shooting as they lean on the bodies of some dead horses (this was taken on 19 July 1936 in the middle of Barcelona’s Eixample).
Centelles (1909-1985), often dubbed the local Robert Capa, was a pioneering press photographer. Born in València, he pursued his whole career in Barcelona, though in two very different phases. His press-related task ended in 1939, with his exile to France and his internment in the refugee camp of Bram, following an intense collaboration with the Republican Government (though he was never a soldier). When he returned (in 1944) Centelles spent a couple of years as a baker, living a clandestine life in Reus with his wife and child, until the Francoist authorities allowed him to work as a photographer again, but only in advertising and industrial photography. When he left for France, Centelles was carrying with him a suitcase with thousands of negatives, which he hid in the Carcassone home of some loyal friends until 1976, once Franco died. The exhibition of his pre-1939 photos, specially the one staged in 2002, has secured his lasting fame as a press photographer, which is what Centelles always was.
Teresa Ferré warns in her introduction that Centelles was not a literary writer. Besides, she adds, his notebooks are not a memoir written in hindsight, but a very basic journal kept against all odds at Bram. Centelles begins his first notebook with a dedication to his son Sergi (then an infant) and to ‘all those who might come later’, meaning, I think, other children he and his wife might have, though the dedication encompasses any potential reader. Writing in Catalan with many doubts about his proficiency, Centelles already expresses in the first paragraph the complaint that articulates the whole text: although he is a political refugee, the French authorities are treating him (and all his fellow Republican refugees) as a prisoner. The bare prose, once the initial summary of his life is covered, works as a diary, by which I do not mean a journal in the style of Anne Frank’s but as a record of the daily struggle to live in the camp of Bram, organized in very simple, starkly descriptive entries.
I must say that the catalogue of small daily events which Centelles offers is more than sufficient to get a thorough picture of the Republican refugees’ miserable life. Although I cannot name a specific text, before reading Centelles the descriptions I had come across of the horrors in appalling camps such as the one at Argèles-sur-Mer (https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campo_de_concentraci%C3%B3n_de_Argel%C3%A8s-sur-Mer) had already put me on the alert about the terrible odyssey of the Republican refugees. Basically, theirs was a case of escaping the frying pan to fall into the fire, and much more so for the men. They found themselves forced to work for the French Army once WWII started, which explains why so many ended in Mauthausen (some women, too). Centelles escaped that fate because, as he narrates, he was eventually hired by an elderly photographer in Carcassonne whose son had been recruited to be a soldier. The camp authorities charged a fee for the services of the refugee prisoners farmed out to work elsewhere… but this is a minor abuse compared to the rest.
The camps are difficult to discuss without criticizing the inhumane, horrific treatment which the French authorities offered to the refugees. Just like the Syrian refugees today, the Republican refugees were clearly unwelcome. When they poured in masses into French territory, they were secluded, as Centelles narrates, into concentration camps not very different from the ones Franco was using in Spain (see Carlos Hernández de Miguel’s new book Los campos de concentración de Franco: Sometimiento, torturas y muerte tras las alambradas). The refugees, as Centelles rightly complains, were treated in practice as prisoners: piled in barracks that were actually shacks, undernourished (because of rampant corruption), practically isolated from home, prevented from circulating freely in France, and left to die from disease caused by the unspeakable filth. Spanish refugees, Centelles notes, were treated with extreme distaste by the local population, who saw them as dirty criminals deserving their imprisonment. Knowing the war was lost and they could hardly return to Franco’s Spain, the refugees were abandoned to their fate, and only aided by the few surviving Republican institutions. These helped some to embark on a long-lasting exile in nations such as Mexico, Argentina, or Chile, though most Republicans eventually returned to Spain. Why Mexico, above all, reacted with such generosity and France with so little is something that needs to be considered.
Europe has not built (so far) concentration camps for refugees, but the United States has, as we have been seeing, and shamelessly so. I am very much aware that migrants and refugees are categories that tend to be mixed today, since both are exploited by mafias and, anyway, many who run away from their home countries are both poor and politically persecuted. I do not know how this situation can be solved for good –there are 65 million political refugees all over the world (see www.acnur.org) and possibly as many people trying to escape plain poverty. When the war in Syria started (back in 2011), if that can be called a war at all, it seemed that, given the availability of personal testimonials on the social networks, the more civilized nations would quickly offer help. People would be granted visas, flights would be organized, jobs would be found for those in fear of losing their lives. Instead, refugees had to brave the hostility of the people in the territories which they crossed on foot (remember that Hungarian female journalist kicking a Syrian man carrying his boy in his arms?) and of the Mediterranean. Texts like Centelles’ journal show us that the plight of the refugee may affect people like us at any moment –people like my grandmother and my father– yet we still see the refugee as an unwelcome guest.
Since Centelles knew the value of graphic representation, he would probably be quite surprised at how little impact the work of the press photographers is having today. Or any other audio-visual report. Netflix’s short documentary The White Helmets (2017), which follows the Syrian first responders rescuing civilians from the rubble caused by the bombings, got an Oscar. The group had been nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize, which they lost to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Many other videos and photos are available but, still, the slaughter continues. What, then, does it take for basic human empathy to take roots? If textual, rather than audio-visual representation is what we need, then a long list of books is already available (see https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/the-read-down/books-understand-refugee-experience). And possibly, plenty of academic analysis.
I come to the sad conclusion that nothing works. We have refugee fatigue, it seems. We always wonder how the Holocaust could happen, with so very few people helping those imprisoned in the extermination camps but I also wonder what went through the mind of the ordinary French people who thought it was fine to keep 500,000 Spaniards in concentration camps. The French authorities, Centelles explains, wanted to be thanked for the effort made. He himself took the pictures published in the local Bram press showing the camp officers and the refugees celebrating the generosity of our neighbours. It was all false, of course, and soon collapsed once WWII started and the refugees became a veritable nuisance. I wonder what would have happened if the Republican Government had won the Civil War and Spain had been flooded with 500,000 French refugees escaping their Nazi invaders –and I’m not saying the camps would not have been the chosen solution on this side of the Pyrenees.
Homo Sapiens is, definitely, not progressing at all.
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