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Catalans in the Nazi Camps (1977)

by Neus Real

This is, without a doubt, Montserrat Roig's most affecting book. In addition to offering an excellent example of the author's journalistic abilities, it constitutes a high quality, pioneering documentation of the experience of Republicans in the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. The work, published in 1977, collects all of the testimonies that Roig was able to access and organizes them in a text written in favor of historical memory. It aspires to a definite aim: to begin to break the silence imposed by the Franco years upon those who, after their defeat in 1939, had to suffer the hell of deportation.

Montserrat Roig presents Els catalans als camps nazis (Catalans in the Nazi Camps) as the gathering of various testimonies from citizens of the Catalan-speaking territories who were deported to a concentration camp between 1939 and 1945. Suggested by the historian Josep Benet and edited by the author between 1973 and 1976, the volume gave voice to all those who, for political and historical reasons, were left without even the possibility that their suffering would be recognized, and who shared an unspeakable experience. The social, cultural and political commitment that characterizes Roig as a writer is derived, here, from the preparation of a well-documented text that seeks to verify the facts, but that at no time pursues a supposed historical objectivity. On the contrary. It is a text full of passion, which does not hide its ideological and personal position, that of its author: a Roig who identifies fully with the pain of the survivors and who is profoundly outspoken against Nazism and further injustices of the so-called European democracies.

Els catalans als camps nazis is structured in three parts that follow the chronological order of events, from the end of the Civil War in 1939 and the withdrawal of the Republicans to France, to the liberation of the camps by the allied troops and the difficulties and disillusionment that followed. Included, of course, are the day-by-day accounts of the deportees (the majority were sent to Mauthausen as their dreadful fate). She closes the work with an appendix that includes lists of all Catalan deaths, deaths occurring in other territories of the Spanish state, and deaths of those who, although originally from elsewhere, had settled in Catalonia. This appendix, extremely useful and frightening, also incorporates other lists of deportees (such as those who were moved from Mauthausen to other camps, for example).

The central part of the book, dedicated to direct experience of the Nazi terror, is excruciating, and indispensible for anyone interested in Europe's past and recent history. But equally excruciating and indispensible are the stories of the exodus and the final experiences of Republicans who had been in the camps. In the first case, because it compounded the hardships of the 1939 defeat. In the second, because after living through the nightmare of the concentration camps, survivors would realize that not only was Franco still in power, but that the trauma of their experiences often generated incredulity, reticence, skepticism, and incomprehension from those around them. In many cases, the memories ended up lost and forgotten—except, of course, for those who lived through them, as is the case for all who can never rid themselves, in mind or body, of trauma.

At the end of the book, Montserrat Roig writes: “While new generations have received some news, faked or not, of the Spanish Civil War, a total silence glided over the Nazi extermination camps. It seemed that the Republican victims of German Nazi-fascism had never existed. Until 1968 there was no official mention of Spanish deaths in the Nazi camps. If deportees asked the officials about their situation, they were always told it was being looked into. Until 1974, the Spanish government did not issue any death certificate from the Mauthausen camp.” This, then, is the meaning of this work, so horrible and simultaneously so necessary, that opened avenues towards the recovery of a terrible part of our history and that, even so, closes with an optimistic message: we should never renounce the ideal of a free and just world. The deportees, despite all that they had experienced, never stopped believing that this world was possible. This is, according to the author, their great lesson for later generations. We couldn't agree more.

Translated by Robin Vogelzang
Montserrat Roig
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