'Shortly after arriving at Prades, I visited some of the concentration camps - there were a number nearby, at Rivesaltes, Vernet, Le Boulou, Septfonds, Argelès - where the Spanish refugees were confined. The scenes I witnessed might have been from Dante's Inferno. Tens of thousands of men and women and children were herded together like animals, penned in by barbed wire, housed - if one can call it that - in tents and crumbling shacks. There was no sanitation facilities or provision for medical care. There was little water and barely enough food to keep the inmates from starvation. The camp at Argelès was typical. Here more than a hundred thousand refugees had been massed in open areas among sand dunes along the seashore. Though it was winter, they had been provided with no shelter whatsoever - many had burrowed holes in the wet sand to protect themselves from the pelting rains and bitter winds. The driftwood they gathered for fires to warm themselves was soon exhausted. Scores had perished from exposure, hunger and disease. At the time of my arrival the hospitals in Perpignan still overflowed with the sick and dying.'Those words from that great humanitarian and musician Pablo Casals describe conditions in the notorious Argelès-sur-Mer internment camp in 1939. After Barcelona fell to Franco's fascist forces in the last months of the Spanish Civil War almost half a million Spanish Republican civilians and soldiers struggled across the eastern Pyrenees to what they thought would be freedom in France. But the French government, which had signed a European non-intervention agreement, herded the refugees into settlements which Casals describes as concentration camps and which were known elsewhere as les Camps du Mépris - camps of scorn.
La retirada (retreat) was one of the largest human exoduses of modern times and it is estimated that 15,000 Republican refugees died in the French refugee camps. Yet it is one of several political skeletons the French managed to lock away in cupboards for many years - among the others are their subjugation of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, the links between some elements of the Catholic church and the extreme right-wing, and the Vichy regime's active persecution of Jews and other so-called “undesirables”. As a self-confessed Casals groupie I was familiar with the story of the French concentration camps and of the Catalan musician's selfless work on behalf of the refugees. But I wanted to see for myself, so last summer I set out from England with my wife to find the forgotten concentration camp at Argelès.
Our exit from the E15 autoroute was at Le Boulou, the site in 1939 of a transit camp from which refugees were sent to other camps in the region. We followed the route of the exiles towards the sea and finally arrived at the site of the Argelès-sur-Mer concentration camp after a journey of 1150 miles. As Pau Casals describes, the camp was situated in an open area among sand dunes on the seashore. The area is now a tourist beach and the photo above shows the landward border of the old camp, this is now a car park with only a small plaque to mark the area's grim history. As can be seen in my photos sand dunes have long since reclaimed the area and there is no evidence of the camp other than a few poignant memorials. Several of the photos use the perimeter fence of a tourist camp sites to evoke the atmosphere of 1939.
Casals lived in exile in Prades at the foot of Mount Canigou, and the mountain which means so much to Catalans was visible through the wire of the Argelès camp, as can be seen above. The Catalans are fiercely patriotic and Lluis Companys, president of Catalonia, was one of those who fled across the Pyrenees only to be interned. After the German invasion of France in 1940 the Vichy government handed Companys over to the Spanish fascists and he was executed in Barcelona. Catalan folklore tells how as he faced the firing squad he removed his shoes and socks to die with his feet on the soil of Catalonia.
Although little remains of the barbaric camp the understated memorials say it all. The one above is in the small Spanish cemetery and is inscribed "To the dead of the camp of Argelès". Below is the plaque in the grove of the children which reads:
'Seventy children died in this camp. They were less than 10 years old.'As that other great Catalan musician and humanitarian Jordi Savall wrote:
'Absolute evil is always the evil inflicted by man on man. That is why, in common with François Cheng, we believe that "it is our urgent and permanent task to unveil the two mysteries which constitute the extremes of the living world: on the one hand, evil, and on the other, beauty. For what is at stake is no less than the truth of human destiny, a destiny which involves the very foundations of our freedom.'
* Header quote is from Joys and Sorrows, reflections by Pablo Casals edited by Albert E. Khan (Macdonald ISBN 356030482) now out of print. Also recommended is Rosemary Bailey's Love and War in the Pyrenees (Phoenix ISBN 9780753825914), Rosemary Bailey is, incidentally, the wife of the biographer of Allen Ginsberg and others, Barry Miles.
* One of the many points made in Rosemary Bailey's excellent book is the vital role that the Quakers played in helping the Republican refugees, and in particular the work of two English Quakers Edith Pye and Hilda Clark who were partners in action and in their private life. The pacifist role of the Quakers deserves another path.
* Regular readers will know the coda to this post. Soon after these photos were taken, like so many Republican refugees I was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Perpignan. At times conditions in the Clinique Médipôle Saint-Roch à Cabestany - Perpignan resembled a 1939 concentration camp. But I have now almost completely recovered and, undaunted, we will be back in Catalonia in May.
* Related resources include In search of Pablo Casals, Are authentic performances a silly convention? The magic mountain and A musician is also a man.
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