Friday, February 15, 2013

Museum chronicles plight of Civil War exiles

A drive across country through the burned olive trees that are showing some signs of recovery took us to La Jonquera, the Spanish border town. Today there seemed to be even more trucks going in both directions than usual. The main drag was lined with gas stations, rest stops for truckers and huge supermarkets that have parking lots filled with French and Spanish cars. We dropped into one supermarket with an emphasis on Spanish products and alcohol of every description. Apparently people come to shop for the cheap prices but items we looked at were more expensive than we were used to. But we didn't visit La Jonquera for the shopping.

This week is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombing of Figueres, our local town, in the Spanish Civil War. Today, we decided to visit the Museum of Exile in La Jonquera, which commemorates the hundreds of thousands of political refugees who fled Franco's fascist Spain after losing the civil war in 1939. Since my father nearly joined one of the International Brigades, it made the visit even more interesting for me. The museum is full of pictures, drawings, news reports and films of the last days of the Republican government in Spain as Franco's troops swept all before them. The events that led up to the war from the rebel coup and the support from Germany and Italy, while the Soviet Union and Mexico supported the Republicans, were well chronicled. The focus of the museum is the history of Catalonia in the war, the bombing of the major cities and the hardships endured by the population and the subsequent fleeing across the border, over the Pyrenees mountains that act as the border still today, into a less than welcoming France.

Some were lucky enough to get ships to Mexico, Chile or a few other countries in South America or North Africa but many were interned in concentration camps in southern France where they faced disease and malnutrition. Eventually some returned to a precarious existence in Spain.

There are no precise numbers of the exiled that sought this route out of Spain but anywhere from 600,000 to a million people are estimated to have left their homeland for a very uncertain future in 1939, just as Europe was exploding into world war. Some eventually joined the French resistance, others the armies of Britain or Russia, and some of the most unlucky ones were moved to work camps in Germany and eastern Europe.
For the Catalans it was a particularly traumatic time as their President, Lluis Companys was held by the Gestapo in France and returned to Spain to be executed in 1940. A few thousand Catalans ended up in Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where photographs were taken and hidden. These photos were used to secure convictions in Nuremberg and now the graphic photos are preserved in the museum.

The end of World War Two didn't really help the Republican exiles. Many were settled in their new countries but they couldn't return to Spain with Franco still in power. Post war and in the new cold war era, Franco was now accepted by the Americans and the British in their fight against communism. American money was invested in Spain's failing economy and American air bases were established in Spain.

It was not until after Franco's death in 1975 that democracy and a new political order meant that many of these exiles could return to their native country, although for many of them it was too late.

The museum was fascinating with all the photos, movies and displays all succinctly explained on the earphones that were supplied. I felt that I had a much better appreciation of the history of Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War after our visit.

But today is Valentine's Day so it was home to cook duck breast in Grand Marnier sauce. Delicious.

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