The Spanish stateless at Mauthausen

Red triangles for the political prisoners. Red like the Soviet communists, the Bolsheviks… Yellow stars for the Jews, the race that had to be exterminated at all costs, those who were to blame for all the evils that had loomed over the Reich. Green triangles for common criminals, pink for homosexuals, black for gypsies or people with disabilities, and the purple ones for Jehovah’s Witnesses. But what about the blue triangles? Those were reserved for stateless people. This color was the one sewn on the uniforms of the Spaniards who were captured by the Nazi regime. Spaniard citizens whose own country did no longer recognize. Most of them would end up in the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Mauthausen concentration camp

Facilities of the Mauthausen concentration camp. | Shutterstock

More than 9,000 Spanish prisoners

According to the meticulous registry carried out by the Banc de Memòria de la Generalitat de Catalunya, the Pompeu Fabra University and the Asociación Amical Mauthausen, published in May 2021, the number of Spaniards deported to Nazi concentration camps amounts to 9,161. Of them, this same research has determined that 5,166 people died, while 3,539 survived. On the other hand, the fate of at least 456 of the prisoners is unknown at the moment.

But who were these prisoners who wore on their T-shirts a blue triangle marked with the letter S for Spanier? They were Agustín Ruiz Carrete, Ezequiel Palacios García, Felix Velázquez Herrero, Juan Tordesilla Arellano, Conchita Ramos… They were, in almost all cases, soldiers or sympathizers of the Spanish Republic, the losing side in the Spanish Civil War. When that war was about to end, these men and women escaped to France and there they joined the French ranks with the arrival of World War II. But the French country fell to the relentless Wehrmacht and its blitzkrieg. And with it, the Spaniards also fell into Nazi hands.

prisoners of Mauthausen

Photographs of some of the prisoners of Mauthausen. | Shutterstock

The Mauthausen concentration camp

In 1938, even before the outbreak of the international conflict, Germany completed its annexation of Austria. This period started to be known as the appeasement period, a time when the Allied powers preferred not to interfere in the warlike actions that Germany had launched, despite the fact that they were in clear breach of the Treaty of Versailles. Three weeks after that annexation, Austria announced with honor the construction of the first concentration camp outside Germany: Mauthausen. It was built barely 20 kilometers from the city of Linz and became one of the harshest camps of the Third Reich.

The first prisoners arrived in August of that same year. They were political dissidents of the Nazi regime, homosexuals or common prisoners. Later, with the outbreak of the war, the camp inhabitants added Wehrmacht prisoners. The arrival of more and more prisoners made Mauthausen become too small. Thus, the camp was divided into subcamps, among them Gausen I, Gausen II and Gausen III. With time, Mauthausen became known as the camp of the Spaniards due to the large number of prisoners of that nationality that it received.

stairs of death mauthausen

The stairs of death leading up to the granite quarry. | Shutterstock

In Mauthausen the extermination techniques were varied, but perhaps the most frequent and prolonged in time was to kill the prisoners through slave labor. The camp was not where it was by chance. It was located next to the Wiener-Graben granite mine. The prisoners were forced to mine that rock from sunrise to sunset. To do so, they had to climb up and down 186 steps several times a day, carrying stones on their backs. These stairs became known among the prisoners as the stairs of death.

Also, ‘from time to time there were parachuting sessions,’ noted camp survivor Jean-Laurent Grey in the documentary, directed by Barbara Necek, Resistance at Mauthausen. The former prisoner was referring here to those times when the camp guards threw the Jews down a ravine or forced them to push each other. Another of the sadistic inventions of the Nazis to get rid of prisoners.

An act of survival and resistance

If anything is said of the Spanish prisoners, it is that their spirit of struggle and resistance remained intact throughout most of their captivity. But how to confront the enemy in a world in which they only sought to survive from day to day? On June 21, 1941, the SS ordered a general disinfection of the Mauthausen camp. The prisoners were forced to stand naked in the garage yard for 18 hours, enduring the broadcasting of Wehrmacht news, as noted in the documentary.

At the same time, the so-called Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi maneuver aimed at invading the Soviet Union, was launched. It was an episode intended to demoralize the captives. They wanted them to know that they no longer had any hope of winning the war or surviving the camp.

crematory ovens mauthausen

Memorial of the Mauthausen prisoners at one of the crematory ovens. | Shutterstock

However, in this form there were around 5,000 prisoners gathered together. It was impossible for the guards to keep an eye on them all, and thus this event facilitated conversations among them. It was the moment when the seed of resistance grew. The Spaniards then came to the conclusion that the only way to help their comrades and themselves was to become part of the Funktiunshäftlinge or, in other words, the group of prisoner officials. These prisoners were in charge of the kitchen, the administration, the infirmary, etc.

By 1942 the Spaniards had become the veterans of the camp and the Germans began to have a certain respect for them. It was then that more Republicans took advantage of the situation to go among the civil servants. From that position, the Spaniards were able to help other prisoners. They managed to give them more food, place them in positions similar to their own, supply them with more medicine, etc.

Pablo Escribano, one of the Spanish prisoners who was in the camp between 1940 and 1945, told in Barbara Necek’s documentary how they managed to save food for their comrades. ‘[The Nazis] would tell us ‘you have 12 carrots.’ And do you know what we came up with? Cutting a piece of each carrot. There were always 12 carrots, but not of the same dimension.’ In a context in which the Germans were determined to enslave or kill their prisoners, ‘any kind of action that prolonged or maintained life was an act of resistance against the Nazis,’ noted the historian Stephan Matyus in the audiovisual report.

The photographer of Mauthausen: the case of Francesc Boix

The quintessential example of the Spanish resistance at Mauthausen is the photographer Francesc Boix. This young man ended up as a prisoner when he was only 20 years old, after having gone through two wars. In the Spanish war he dedicated himself to taking photographs and that skill was exploited by the camp authorities for his own benefit. Boix went on to work in the photographic laboratory until the liberation of the camp. During those years, the former Republican soldier was able to see the atrocities committed against his comrades and came to the conclusion that this story had to be told.

Thus, with the help of his comrades, Boix and many other prisoners saved and hid negatives of the camp. Images that showed the officers who had lived in the facilities, the lifeless bodies of some of the prisoners, the gas chamber, the crematorium… A photographic report of the harsh reality of Mauthausen. On May 5, 1945, the Spaniards and the rest of the prisoners of the camp received the liberation troops with a banner in Spanish that read: ‘The Spanish antifascists greet the liberating forces’.

At the end of the war and after the liberation of Mauthausen, the Spaniards were, however, in an uncomfortable situation. They could not return to their homes, since Franco ruled Spain and they had collaborated with the Spain of the republic. They were stateless, and as stateless persons they were moved months later to France. There, the photographer managed to publish his images in a communist magazine. It was the first time that the story of Mauthausen was told.

In 1946 Francesc Boix was summoned to the Nuremberg trials as a witness to the crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Some hierarchs, such as Albert Speer, denied having visited the Mauthausen camp, but Boix presented the photographic evidence for which he and his companions had risked their lives. The story was thus preserved, despite attempts by Third Reich Germany to get rid of all the evidence.

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