When my children suggested a week’s family holiday at Easter on a campsite close to Argelès-sur-Mer, a shiver passed through me. My research on the Spanish Civil War made the name of this small town on the French coast, not far from the Spanish border, hauntingly familiar. I knew of its long sandy beaches – but not as a tourist attraction or holiday resort. For me, its beaches evoked scenes of suffering and death, where two hundred thousand Republican exiles from Spain had been confined in the concentration camps set up in February 1939 at the end of the Civil War.
Refugees from all over Spain, including children, the old and sick, the war-wounded, Republican soldiers and members of the government fled to France after the fall of Barcelona in January 1939, making for the border at Le Perthus or over the snow-covered Pyrenees. In ten days, half a million Spaniards arrived at the border, having trudged with whatever they could carry of their possessions in what became known as La Retirada. As they walked, they were shot at from the sea and bombed from the air by Franco’s forces, including his German and Italian reinforcements.
Of those who made it across to France, many died of exposure, starvation or disease. The French, unprepared for such a huge influx of refugees, herded them into internment (or more accurately, concentration) camps, fenced in with barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers and gendarmes. The north beach of Argelès-sur-mer formed the first and largest of these open camps, which barely conformed to the most basic conditions of health and hygiene. From February to June, the refugees confined there lived in makeshift shelters or were forced to dig holes in the sand for protection from the elements. ‘Carne fria’ (cold meat) was the term they used for those who had died of cold during the night in the hollows dug out in the sand.
From September 1939, wooden shacks were constructed to house the women and children. Others were sent to refuges across France along with some of the injured and sick, but many remained trapped in the camps. Later, under the Vichy regime, the camps became more international. The Spanish Republicans were joined by other ‘undesirables’ including stateless persons, foreign Jews and Romani.
Although I didn’t encounter any ghosts (as I’d half expected to), I found many reminders of La Retirada. Whereas in Spain, the country’s 20th century history is often swept under the carpet, on the French side of the border this did not seem to be so. In the town of Argelès, a small museum bears witness to the Spanish exiles and their journey with photos, documents, maps and an interactive exhibition. There’s an annual commemoration, Chemins de la Retirada, in the third week of February. A beach monolith was erected in 1999 at the former entrance to the camp in homage to the Spanish Republicans interned there. The town has a Spanish cemetery where those who died in the camps were buried and a tree dedicated to the seventy children under ten among them.
At Collioure, a few kilometres south of Argelès, an imposing fortress, the Chateau Royal, stands on the seafront, dominating the town. In 1939, it was transformed into a prison, its first occupants destined to be Spanish Republican exiles. The town is famed for its association with Spanish poet Antonio Machado, a Republican who fled Barcelona accompanied by family and friends in January 1939. Exhausted and ill, he stopped to rest and recover at the Casa Quintana in Collioure, where he died exactly a month after leaving Barcelona. His tomb in the town’s cemetery has become a place of pilgrimage. When I visited, a group of devotees were adding more flowers to the numerous bouquets already in place along with poems and messages. Collioure is now a pretty town with a great market and many artistic connections.
Manuel Azaña, last President of the 2nd Republic also died in France after setting up a government in exile in the small village of La Vajol on the Spanish-French border. A bronze sculpture erected in the village pays homage to the exiled Spaniards. It was inspired by a photo taken by a foreign journalist and represents a man and his six year-old daughter on their long and torturous journey together with other exiles, to the border at Prats de Molló, after the girl lost a leg in the bombing by Franco’s troops in Monsó in November 1937.
In the town of Elne, a little way inland, a Swiss aid worker, Elisabeth Eidenbenz, appalled by the high number of maternal and infant deaths in the camps, raised enough money to fund the renting and conversion of an abandoned chateau into a maternity hospital. She oversaw its repair and renovation, completed in November 1939. From December that year she brought hundreds of pregnant women from the Argelès camp, providing them with a healthy and welcoming place to give birth and rest afterwards. She is credited with saving the lives of six hundred children. Decades later, her work was recognised and the former hospital building now serves as a memorial and museum.
As refugees from other, more recent wars arrive on beaches in various European countries including Britain and are often treated with as little or less compassion than those fleeing the Spanish Civil War eighty plus years ago, the many memorials on the beaches of the Côte Vermeille and its small towns are important. Is it too much to hope that these sad reminders will help convince governments to take a more humane attitude to today’s refugees? The answer seems to be yes.