Writings and essays about flamenco

Category — Spanish History

Spanish Republican Soldiers in Nazi Concentration Camps – Article in El País by Clara Morales – Translated with comments by Brook Zern

Translator’s note:  The following article by Clara Morales from the April 24th issue of Spain’s leading newspaper, El País, tells of a stage production titled “The Blue Triangle”.  It describes the fate of the Spanish Republicans who fought against Franco’s invading army and were sent to Mauthausen, a notorious Nazi concentration camp.  It was built around a huge quarry, near Hitler’s home town of Linz, Austria.  Some 36,000 prisoners dies on its grounds, worked to death, gassed or executed.  Another 60,00o died in the nearby sub-camps in the Mauthausen system.  This is the highest toll among the concentration camps, as opposed to the vast totals of the Nazi’s industrial-scale death camps or extermination camps.  Mauthausen was liberated by the U.S. Army 11th Armored Division on May 5th and 6th, 1945.  The war in Europe ended on May 8th.

Toward the end, this article reveals the bitterness of two people involved in the theatrical production about Spain’s failure to recognize her dead and surviving heroes who suffered in the Nazi camps.  There is a reference to Spain’s “Law of Historical Memory” that recognizes the exiles and deportees, but fails to grant institutional recognition.  

The article:

A “Vaudeville Show” to Recount the Horrors of the Spaniards in Mauthausen

The Austrian prisoner had escaped, and now he had to pay:  “The only way out of Mauthausen is through the crematorium chimney.”  The horror that the prisoners had experienced, the torments, meant that the Austrian deserved something special.  He was carried in a wagon before 10,000 deportees to the sound of a Gypsy band, and his hanged body swung in the wind to the sound of the Beer Barrel Polka.

That’s what Francisco Boix, the only Spanish prisoner to testify at the Nuremberg trials, told us.  And that’s borne witness by the handful of photographs that he managed to take out of the camp, revealing the truth that the Nazi leaders tried to deny.  And that’s what is recalled in The Blue Triangle, written by Laila Ripoll and Mariano Llorente and directed by Ripoll, debuting Friday in Madrid’s Valle-Inclán Theater.  The National Dramatic Center’s production is an homage to the more than 7,000 Spanish Republicans who died in Mauthausen (of a total of 10,000 who perished in all the camps).  They were stripped of their nationality by the Franco regime and delivered to the Germans by the French General Petain after fleeing into that country.  It is the first theatrical treatment of this little-known episode of the Spanish Civil War.

“If anyone has doubts that they ended up there at Franco’s direction, they just have bad intentions.  We tell the story as the Germans themselves told it,” says Ripoll.  The SS officer August Eigruber explained it all clearly in his words of June 27, 1941:  “We offered those 6,000 Spaniards [the total at that date] to Spain’s Chief of State Franco.  He refused them and declared that he would never admit these Reds who fought for the Soviet Union into Spain.”  At that point, the Republican combatants became stateless.  In the camps they could be recognized by the blue triangle of those who had no nationality, on which there was embroidered an “S” for Spanish.

They were just another group.  Forced to carry 90-pound rocks up and down the 186 steps of the quarry.  Fed with turnip soup morning, noon and night.  Stacked into the barracks.  Subjected to the 35 forms of murder described by the prisoner Ernst Martin – Ripoll’s main preoccupation in bringing the work to the stage.  “We’ve seen a thousand films about the concentration camps, the electrified fences, the feeding to the dogs.  How does one speak of such horror?”

The answer, in “The Blue Triangle,” turns to black humor.  The laughter of Francisco Boix as his defense against the sound of screams and shots.  And the surprising move of the Spaniards:  To present in 1942 a sort of variety show called “The Rajah of Rajaloya”, mentioned in the book by Montserrat Roig titled “The Catalans in the Nazi Camps.”  In Ripoll’s work, the songs about the Arabian nights are replaced by “The Song of the Electric Fence”. “The Crematorium Song”, “The March of the Little Blue Triangles”…

Hell itself can never be described from up close; there must be distance.  That same recourse was used in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus”, in which the Nazis are cats and the Jews, rats.

The photographs taken by Boix and another prisoner, Antoni García, serve as a conducting wire, an aesthetic horizon and a visual resource.  Both worked in the camp’s Identification Service, headed by the old SS man Paul Ricken and dedicated to recording the prisoners lives day by day.  But it also depicted the illustrious visitors:  Himmler came through, as did the Governor of the German region of Linz, the SS general Ernst Kaltenbrunner…  Thanks to those photos it was possible to prove the conscious participation in the murders at the camps.  Thanks to Francisco Boix and Antoni García.  Thanks to the plan of the former to get the photographs out of the camp and save them from destruction., as shown in Llorenç Soler’s documentary “Francisco Boix: A Photographer in Hell” (2000) and in Benito Bermejo’s book “Francisco Boix:  The Photographer of Mauthausen” (2002).

The Catalan’s photo archive belongs to La Amical de Mauthauen, an association of more than 600 members that includes the Republican deportees and their family members.  Rosa Torán, a historian and member of Amical, appreciates the efforts of Ripoll and Llorente to “make this history known to a large public”, but doesn’t expect anything from Spanish authorities.  Although the Law of Historical Memory recognizes exiles and deportees, Torán criticizes the lack of institutional recognition.  This September, the special relator [court reporter?] of the United Nations for the Promotion of Truth, Justice and Reparations, Pablo de Greiff, will publish a document about the situation of Franco’s victims.  Amical hopes that the document will definitively clarify “the effective knowledge of the prisoners’ situation on the part of the Spanish authorities.”  Not much else.

Ripoll shares the critical view of Torán, but not her resigned attitude.  The dramatist and director burns when she remembers her trips to the south of France.  “I was recently in Lyon, in the Museum of the Deportations, and it made me envious.  The way they see and memorialize their heroes – their heroes!  While we Spaniards, as a society, have let them die.”   [“Cómo tienen a sus héroes, ¡leche, a sus héroes!  Nosotros los hemos ido dejando morir como sociedad.”]

Few of the survivors will see this recognition.  On May 5th of 1945, 2.184 Spanish survivors greeted the American liberators who arrived at Mauthausen.   Torán estimates that only three ex-deportees are alive today.   “As a generous estimate, I’d say there are 20 in the whole world.”

End of article.  The original is found at:


Translator’s note:  I had not really known of this aspect of Spanish history.  Its continuing relevance and resonance is poignant, and Spain’s reluctance to confront the crimes of that period is a continuing concern.

Comparisons are odious, but…  In the annals of crimes against humanity, even with so many contending examples, I consider the attempted extermination of the world’s Jews by one of the world’s most advanced nations and glorious cultures as a thing apart, even while recognizing the ghastly magnitude and close equivalence of the Gypsy genocide, and the Nazi murder of so many millions of others in Europe.  The implacable determination of Adolf Hitler to kill every last Jewish child, even as it jeopardized his entire war effort and then even when he knew the war was lost, is a singular case of personal evil turned into unique historical tragedy.

While I have read, with great difficulty, many accounts of that event (most recently, Alan Bullock’s “Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives”) I was most affected by the above-mentioned comic strip – excuse me, graphic novel – by Art Spiegelman, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, which I found by accident in an issue of Raw magazine.  The cartoon  device of the cats and mice – and the pigs and other nationalities – used a sort of averted vision, as implied above, to reveal the unblinking reality of the matter-of-fact verbal account as told to Spiegelman by his survivor father, Vladek.  

The true dimension of the horror of his father’s experience is suddenly driven home when, after we have witnessed the seemingly endless degradation and unspeakable actions he endures in “Maus I: My Father Bleeds History”, “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale” begins his recollection of Auschwitz with the words: “And Here my Troubles Began…”

Brook Zern


April 23, 2014   1 Comment