The Spanish Republicans in Nazi Concentration camps

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The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was the bloodiest conflict western Europe had experienced since the end of World War I in 1918.

It was the breeding ground for mass atrocities. About 200,000 people died as the result of systematic killings, mob violence, torture, or other brutalities.

The fighting displaced millions of Spaniards. Some 500,000 refugees fled in 1939 to France, where many of them would be interned in camps. 15,000 Spanish Republicans ended up in Nazi concentration camps after 1940.

The Spanish Civil War began on July 17, 1936, when generals Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco launched an uprising aimed at overthrowing the country’s democratically elected republic.The Nationalist rebels’ initial efforts to instigate military revolts throughout Spain only partially succeeded. In rural areas with a strong right-wing political presence, Franco’s confederates generally won out.

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They quickly seized political power and instituted martial law. In other areas, particularly cities with strong leftist political traditions, the revolts met with stiff opposition and were often quelled. Some Spanish officers remained loyal to the Republic and refused to join the uprising.

Faced with potential defeat, Franco called upon Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy for aid. Thanks to their military assistance, he was able to airlift troops from Spanish Morocco across to the mainland to continue his assault on Madrid. Throughout the three years of the conflict, Hitler and Mussolini provided the Spanish Nationalist Army with crucial military support.

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When the Civil War ended in 1939, with Franco’s victory, some 500,000 Spanish Republicans escaped to France, where many were placed in internment camps in the south, such as Gurs, St. Cyprien, and Les Milles.

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Following the German defeat of France in spring 1940, Nazi authorities conscripted Spanish Republicans for forced labor and deported more than 30,000 to Germany, where about half of them ended up in concentration camps.because of their anti-Fascist or Communist political affiliation. They were called the Red Spaniards (Rotspanier) because Red was the color of the Communists.

The Mauthausen concentration camp was the main place where Spanish political prisoners were incarcerated by the Nazis.

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By 1941, three years after the main camp opened, 60% of the prisoners were Spanish Republicans.

Up until August 1940, the German and Austrian common-law criminals were the Kapos at Mauthausen; they were assigned to supervise the other prisoners and would typically beat them for the slightest infraction of the rules while the SS guards looked the other way. The Spanish Republicans began to arrive in the camp on August 6th and 9th, 1940; gradually they took over the key positions in the camp from the German Kapos.

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Up until August 1940, the German and Austrian common-law criminals were the Kapos at Mauthausen; they were assigned to supervise the other prisoners and would typically beat them for the slightest infraction of the rules while the SS guards looked the other way. The Spanish Republicans began to arrive in the camp on August 6th and 9th, 1940; gradually they took over the key positions in the camp from the German Kapos.

The anti-Fascist Spaniards were well organized; they were the only cohesive group in the camp, held together by their political beliefs. Later, when the Communist Czechs and French resistance fighters arrived, they joined forces with the Red Spaniards to dominate the camp. The German criminals had no solidarity and did not act as a group, so they did not remain in control

The majority of the Spanish prisoners at Mauthausen worked in the quarries, but some had administrative jobs. Among the later group were Antonio Garcia Alonso and Francesco Boix Campo,. Boix was sent to Mauthausen on January 27, 1941. Because of his facility with German, Boix initially worked as a translator in the camp,but later also became a photographer.

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Garcia arrived in Mauthausen on April 7, 1941. Because he was a trained photographer, Garcia was assigned to work in the camp’s photo lab, Erkennungsdienst.

 

The SS photographer Kornacz was the only one who took photographs, but he employed inmates to handle the developing, printing and filing of the photo archive. Kornacz was assigned to take mug shots of arriving prisoners and to photograph official visits to the camp as well as the bodies of prisoners who died.

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He instructed his assistants to print five copies of each photograph: one for the camp archive and one each to be sent to Berlin, Oranienburg, Vienna and Linz.

 

Before Garcia’s arrival in the lab, a Polish prisoner named Grabowski, began developing a sixth print of key photographs, which he hid behind a wooden beam in the ceiling. After Garcia became responsible for developing film and enlarging photographs, he and Grabowski began compiling a secret photo archive.

In 1944 Grabowski committed suicide, and in February 1945 Garcia fell seriously ill and was taken to the camp infirmary where he remained for over a month. Upon his return, he discovered that the secret archive was missing. He questioned Boix, who was the only other person having any knowledge of the archive. Boix admitted that he had taken the photographs, but he said that they were now in the hands of the camp’s Spanish Communist underground. Garcia, though sympathetic to Communism, was accused by some of Trotskyism and was not part of the underground’s inner circle. Garcia was furious, but there was little he could do. He continued to work with Boix saving key photographs, even after Camp Commandant Franz Ziereis ordered the destruction of all negatives during the last week of the war.

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The Spanish Communist underground temporarily hid Garcia’s photos in several locales within the administrative complex of the camp while looking for a safer hiding place outside of the camp. They decided to give the photos to the boys of the Poschacher Kommando. This labor brigade, made up of young Spanish teenagers, worked in quarries outside the camp itself. During the last months of the war, the brigade had almost no direct supervision by the SS. Over time, the boys had become friendly with Anna Pointner, an Austrian socialist who lived near their work site. She frequently tossed extra food to the boys and eventually confided her political views to them. Feeling they could trust her, the boys asked whether she would be willing to hide some small parcels for them.

Two boys, named Jacinto Cortes and Jesus Grau, whose job it was to bring food to the Kommando in hampers, gradually transferred the entire archive hidden in these lunch hampers. Anna Pointner then hid the photos in a crevice in her garden wall.

After the war, Boix photographed the liberation with a confiscated German camera. He retrieved the camp photographs, which he later published. Boix testified at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg regarding photographic evidence from Mauthausen.

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Some 7,000 of the Spanish Republicans became prisoners in Mauthausen; more than half of them died in the camp.

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A graphic novel adaptation telling the story of Francisco Boix titled “Le Photographe de Mauthausen” was published by Belgian publisher Le Lombard, written by Salva Rubio and pencilled by Pedro J. Colombo, in 2016.

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Mary Elmes-Forgotten hero

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Marie Elisabeth Jean Elmes (5 May 1908 – 9 March 2002)[2] was an Irish businesswoman and aid worker who is credited with saving the lives of at least 200 Jewish children during the Holocaust by hiding them in the boot of her car.In 2015, she became the first and so far the only Irish citizen honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel which was in recognition of her work in the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Born in 1908 at Winthrop Street in Cork, where her parents had a pharmacy, Mary Elmes studied French and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin

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and at the London School of Economics, before going to Spain in the 1930s during the civil war there, where she worked in children’s hospitals.

During the Holocaust, she helped save the lives of Jewish children at the Rivesaltes in the Pyrénées, which became a holding centre for Jews destined for concentration camps.In January 1943, she was arrested on suspicion of helping Jews escape and spent six months in a jail near Paris.

On her release, she returned to helping Jewish people escape the Holocaust.

It would take Prof Ronald Friend almost 70 years to identify the person who saved his life. Then, one morning in January 2011, an email popped into his inbox with a name. The woman who had extricated him from a detention camp during the Second World War was called “Miss Elms”.

He would later discover that her name was, in fact, Mary Elmes. Other details would follow. She was born in Cork City in 1908 and she had helped to save hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazi gas chamber.

(A 1943 school photo of Ronald Friend (middle row, 3rd from left) who was mixed in with local children at a school in the South of France. Mary Elmes extricated Ronald and his brother from the detention camp in 1942)

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He and his brother, then aged 18 months and five years old respectively, were two of those children. Although Prof Friend had spent years piecing together the details of his early childhood, this final piece of the jigsaw had always eluded him.

He had the end of the story, but not the beginning.

He had known, for instance, of his family’s near-escape over the Swiss border in 1942. His father Hans and brother Mario had made it to safety over the border. They turned back, however, when they saw that police had stopped young Ronald and his mother, Eva. They would all be detained at Rivesaltes, a notorious holding camp near Perpignan in the south of France.

He had evidence, too, that he had been spirited away to a safe house in Toulouse. He even met the French priest, Fr Louis Bézard, who had hidden him and his brother in a suitcase as they passed through Toulouse train station under intense Gestapo surveillance.

On 25 September 1942, Mary Elmes wrote to say that they were  going to be liberated the next day and taken to a Quaker hostel, or “colony”, in Vernet-le-Bains, called the Hotel du Portugal.

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The hotel is still there.” He and his brother were finally reunited with their mother Eva in 1947 but they found out their father Hans had been deported to Majdanek camp in 1943. He perished there.

On completing her studies Mary joined the University of London Ambulance Unit in Spain to help the innocent victims of the vicious ongoing Spanish Civil War. She was posted to Almeria in southern Spain to a children’s hospital that soon came under the administration of a Quaker humanitarian organisation the Friends Service Council. Almeria was bombarded by the German Navy in support of Franco’s fascists and Mary was moved further north to Alicante. Her organisational skills were obviously already evident as in Alicante she was put in charge of the hospital.

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Things were no easier in Alicante as the fighting raged on and the town sustained one of the worst aerial attacks of the war in May 1938, this time at the hands of the Italian airforce when more than 300 civilians were killed. Despite the desperate circumstances Mary was committed to her work realising that though she may be able to leave, the children she was helping had no choice but to remain. Her commitment was such that even when her father died back in Cork she refused to return home as no replacement for her could be found. It was at this time that Mary began taking children from the war-torn city up into the mountains to offer some refuge from the fighting and the daily horrors they witnessed.

The Civil War came to an end in April 1939 and a mass exodus of half a million refugees began fleeing to France in order to escape the new nationalist regime. Mary and many of her colleagues went with them making the tortuous journey across the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France. In France they may have escaped the fighting and reprisals but conditions were terrible. The French government had set up holding camps for the new arrivals close to the coast where they were hemmed in by barbed-wire. There was little shelter, no toilet facilities and food and provisions were simply thrown over the fence.

Realising that most of the refugees would not return to Spain as they had hoped the French government finally put in place more organised camps and by the end of May conditions began to improve. Mary set to work caring for the many children who had made the journey and spent much of her time trying to provide reading materials and some kind of education for children and adults in the camps.

At the same time Hitler’s Germany was making preparations for war and in September the Second World War began when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland.

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Many Germans who had fled to France from the Nazis were rounded up as illegal aliens and sent to the camps in the south and things went from bad to worse as the Nazis quickly overran France itself with thousands more heading for the camps. Mary Elmes was based at Camp de Rivesaltes near Perpignan 40km from the Spanish border. As the war progressed and more and more people were detained it would become one of the largest detention centres in France and conditions quickly deteriorated. Her main concern turned from providing books and education to simply keeping as many people alive as she could.

As an Irish citizen Mary was able to remain working at the camp when many of her British and American colleagues were forced to leave as their countries entered the war. As the war progressed the Vichy government began sending thousands of Jews to Rivesaltes to join the already overcrowded Spanish and others who were detained there.

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Its location on a barren plain near Perpignan left it open to the elements, unbearably hot in summer and freezing cold during the winter and many of those detained had only rags for clothes; malnutrition and disease became a serious problem.

It was at this time that Jewish prisoners began being sent to the Drancy camp near Paris

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and then on to Auschwitz where most of them would be murdered. Mary and her colleagues soon realised what was happening after receiving reports from elsewhere and they set about saving as many people as they could. Under the Vichy regime the government was prepared to allow children to be taken from the camp to stay in children’s ‘colonies’ elsewhere but their parents could not go with them. Mary went around the camp asking parents to let the children go in the hope of saving them from an even worse fate.

When the Nazis took full control in 1942 they also put a stop to children being removed from the camp and those who had already escaped began to be moved to safer locations high in the Pyrenees where they would not be found by the authorities. Mary also began taking children from the camp directly herself and smuggling them across the Spanish border in the boot of her car with the help of Dr Joseph Weill and Andrée Salomon two members of the Jewish Children’s Aid Society (OSE).

Mary Elmes was arrested in February 1943 and imprisoned in Toulouse and later Fresnes Prison near Paris but was released six months later. She continued her humanitarian work until the end of the war despite the huge personal risk to her own safety. It is estimated that she helped save the lives of more than 200 Jewish children during the war. When the war came to an end she married a Frenchman and settled in the south of France where she raised two children.

She wass awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest civil accolade for her efforts during the war but refused to accept it not wanting any attention for what she did. She often returned to Cork and Ireland to visit throughout her life and died in France in 2002 at the age of 94. On January 23rd, 2013 Yad Vashem recognized Mary Elisabeth Elmes as Righteous Among the Nations.

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