On 5 May, the Americans liberated the Austrian concentration camp, where many Spanish Republicans who were exiled after the civil war, were prisoners
Today a database has been opened to the public with information regarding the 9,161 prisoners who were taken to Nazi concentration camps, of whom more than 5,000 died of hunger, disease or execution.
One hundred and eighty-six steps separated the barracks from the granite quarry, where the prisoners worked themselves to death. As they carried the huge stones from the quarry on their backs, the foremen beat, tripped and pushed them. Such was life in the concentration camp of Mauthausen-Gusen, where more than seven thousand Spaniards were taken from their homeland after the civil war. From the first contingent in 1940 until the liberation on 5 May, 1945, almost 5,000 Spaniards were exterminated in what some called the “Spanish camp”.
It took 75 years, but it is finally possible to access the register of the Spaniards who were taken to the Nazi concentration camps. In 2019 the government declared 5 May as a day to pay homage to the Spanish victims of Nazism, it also published in the Official State Bulletin (BOE) the data of the 4,427 people who died in Mauthausen. Today this is one of the most complete records open to public access of the Spanish prisoners who were deported to Nazi concentration camps.
This is the Democratic Memory Bank, created by Pompeu Fabra University and Amical Mauthausen and kept in the Democratic Memorial of the Generalitat de Catalunya. According to this register, there is a total of 9,161 Spanish prisoners between 1940 and 1944, of which almost 60% lost their lives, 3,539 survived, and the rest are still missing.
Statelessness in hell
In the last months of the Spanish civil war, half a million Spanish exiles crossed the French border to escape the war, where they ended up work camps in the south of the country. Faced with bleak prospects, many joined the French Foreign Legion, who they would eventually fight alongside in World War II, and others were integrated into the foreign workers’ companies. Thousands were captured by the Nazis, who had invaded France in the summer of 1940.
After passing through the prisoner-of-war camps, the Spanish were sent to concentration camps such as Mauthausen-Gusen in Austria. In August 1940 the first contingent arrived with 392 Spanish prisoners, who were given the blue triangle representing the stateless – since Franco, already in power, had ceased to consider them Spanish – with an S for Spanier. In 1945, the figure had reached over 7,300 Spaniards.
Although the first barracks were built in 1938, it was the Spaniards who built Mauthausen, one of the reasons why, among those deported there, it was known as the “Spanish camp”. Life there revolved around the Wienner-Gräben granite quarry, where prisoners were enslaved to death by exhaustion. As they carried huge pieces of granite on their backs, the kapos – other prisoners who acted as foremen – humiliated them by pushing, hitting and tripping them up the so-called “death ladder”. When the first Spaniard died at the end of August 1940, the rest of his compatriots observed a minute’s silence amid the incredulous looks of the foremen, who would witness this ritual again on many other occasions. Other Spaniards, with more luck, managed to work as bricklayers, tailors, hairdressers and photographers, thus increasing their chances of staying alive.
Over the years, the Spanish prisoners became the veterans of the camp, teaching the newly deported from the Russian and French fronts the strategies that were necessary to survive in what could only be described as a type of hell on earth. Among other things, the Spanish underground organization – in operation since 1941 – redistributed the scarce food of the prisoners to help the weakest and sickest. They also distributed medicine stolen from the infirmary and, in some cases, even saved a fellow prisoner from death in the icy showers.
There was hope until the very end
As the end of the war approached and the fall of the Third Reich loomed, the overpopulation of the countryside made the situation unbearable. The massive arrival of inmates from other Nazi concentration camps made it necessary to eliminate the weakest, the Jews and Russians concentrated there. The methods of extermination used in Mauthausen throughout its existence were many and extremely cruel. In addition to slave labour in the quarries, there were gas chambers, freezing showers – in a matter of hours more than 3,000 prisoners died by these means- mass shootings, medical experiments, bleeding (bleeding the inmates to death to send their blood to the Eastern front), hanging and starvation, among others.
The horrors of Mauthausen, however, did not entirely dampen the spirits of the Spaniards. If there is one thing that the other inmates later remembered about them, it was precisely their faith in the final defeat of Nazism, even in the worst moments of the war. They were so convinced of their salvation by the Allies that they preserved evidence of the genocide, such as the photographs of the Catalan Francisco Boix, who managed to hide snapshots of the camp’s reality during his work in the photo labs.
And so it was. On the night of 4 May, 1945, explosions in towns near Mauthausen-Gusen announced the imminent arrival of the Allies and caused the members of the SS to flee. The next day, American troops were received in the camp with a banner that would go down in history: “Antifascist Spaniards Salute Liberating Forces”. The Nazi flags were replaced by Republican flags. The Spaniards, like the other inmates, were finally free.
But, although freed, the Spaniards did not have it easy from that moment on. They could not return to Spain, since Franco refused to acknowledge those who had survived the tortures of his ideological allies. Their destiny would be to seek asylum in other countries, far from the one that for decades would repay their heroism and courage with oblivion.