Spanish Prisoners at Mauthausen

Spanish prisoners at work in Mauthausen camp

The Mauthausen concentration camp was the main place where Spanish political prisoners were incarcerated by the Nazis. By 1941, three years after the main camp opened, 60% of the prisoners were Spanish Republicans. After their defeat by General Francisco Franco's Army in the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish Republicans escaped to France where they were put into internment camps by the French government. After Germany conquered France in 1940, around 30,000 of these prisoners were deported by the Nazis to concentration camps in Germany and Austria because of their anti-Fascist or Communist political affiliation. They were called the Red Spaniards (Rotspanier) because Red was the color of the Communists.

Up until August 1940, the German and Austrian common-law criminals were the Kapos at Mauthausen; they were assigned to supervise the other prisoners and would typically beat them for the slightest infraction of the rules while the SS guards looked the other way. The Spanish Republicans began to arrive in the camp on August 6th and 9th, 1940; gradually they took over the key positions in the camp from the German Kapos.

The anti-Fascist Spaniards were well organized; they were the only cohesive group in the camp, held together by their political beliefs. Later, when the Communist Czechs and French resistance fighters arrived, they joined forces with the Red Spaniards to dominate the camp. The German criminals had no solidarity and did not act as a group, so they did not remain in control.

Christian Bernadac, author of the book "The 186 Steps," wrote the following regarding the Spanish Republicans:

They were Republican soldiers who began to come across the French frontier in February 1939, after the fall of Catalonia. They hoped to build up their strength, regroup, train and leave for the other side of the Pyrenees, where genuine pockets of resistance still held out. They arrived with arms and baggage, and all this good material rotted on the snow-covered mountain passes or the wet slopes of the Mediterranean...

And they, the vanquished serfs, were herded into improvised "transit" camps, where they died, literally, of hunger, cold and dysentery. The strongest, the most motivated, tried to reconstruct a military or political hierarchy, but many of them, most of them, were annihilated by the defeat and abandoned the struggle. The history of these French concentration camps has never been written: Le Vernet-d'Ariege, Saint-Cyprien, Barcares, Argeles, Gurs, Septfonds...Their story should be known.

Then, volunteers or not, the Spanish Republicans found themselves enrolled in work crews or irregular battalions of foreign volunteers. The rising tide of the German army swept them into prison camps where the Gestapo had no difficulty at all in re-grouping them and sending them to Mauthausen.

According to Bernadac, the Spanish Republicans "wore the blue triangle of religious objectors." In the other Nazi concentration camps, blue was the color of the foreign workers brought to Germany, for example the 1,701,412 Poles who were slave laborers in camps such as Dachau. The Jehovah's Witnesses wore purple triangles. Two of the Spanish prisoners, Marcel Razola and Mariano Constante, wrote a book about their ordeal in Mauthausen; the title of the book was "Triangle bleu" (Blue Triangle).

The first two convoys of Spaniards who were deported to Mauthausen were brought first to the quarry instead of going directly to the front gate of the camp. Their introduction to the camp was the sight of the German Kapos beating the prisoners to force them to work faster. Jose Escobedo, one of the Spanish prisoners, described their arrival. His account was included in the book "Triangle bleu" which was quoted by Christian Bernadac in his book:

We were stunned. It was a prison, we said to each other, like a prison in horror films. It was impossible that they meant to keep us here. We were soldiers, and not criminals. They lined us up in rows of five and we climbed the 180 steps that led to the camp. We passed men carrying stones who seemed to be Spaniards. When we thought about it, it didn't appear to be possible. Probably they were just going to have us pass the night in this camp before transferring us to a work site provided for by the Geneva Convention. Some of us still nurtured an unlimited innocence. Still in line, we were marched in front of the watchtowers with their sentinels, armed with machine guns.

British Author David Wingeate Pike published a book entitled "Spaniards in the Holocaust: Mauthausen, the Horror on the Danube" in 2000, in which he told the story of the Spanish Republicans in Mauthausen. He got much of his information from Juan de Diego, who was a Kapo in the Mauthausen camp. Diego was one of the privileged block leaders in Mauthausen; in this capacity, he had the opportunity to hide some of the incriminating evidence of atrocities from being destroyed by the German guards before they left the camp in the last week of the war.

According to Pike, 90% of the Spanish Republicans, who had previously been interned in France, were sent to Mauthausen in 1940 and 1941. Records saved by the Spanish survivors show that 23,400 Spanish prisoners were registered at Mauthausen and its subcamps and that 16,310 of them died, leaving around 9,200 survivors.

The majority of the Spanish prisoners at Mauthausen worked in the quarries, but some had administrative jobs. Among the later group were Antonio Garcia Alonso and Francesco Boix Campo, according to Pike, who wrote that Boix was sent to Mauthausen on January 27, 1941. Because of his facility with German, Boix initially worked as a translator in the camp. Garcia arrived in Mauthausen on April 7, 1941. Because he was a trained photographer, Garcia was assigned to work in the camp's photo lab, Erkennungsdienst.

The SS photographer Kornacz was the only one who took photographs, but he employed inmates to handle the developing, printing and filing of the photo archive. Kornacz was assigned to take mug shots of arriving prisoners and to photograph official visits to the camp as well as the bodies of prisoners who died. He instructed his assistants to print five copies of each photograph: one for the camp archive and one each to be sent to Berlin, Oranienburg, Vienna and Linz.

Francesco Boix is on the far left with a camera hanging on his chest

According to Pike, before Garcia's arrival in the lab, a Polish prisoner named Grabowski, began developing a sixth print of key photographs, which he hid behind a wooden beam in the ceiling. After Garcia became responsible for developing film and enlarging photographs, he and Grabowski began compiling a secret photo archive. In order to prevent suspicion in case the secret prints were ever found, Garcia moved the photographs to a file cabinet. In June 1941, Kornacz was sent to the eastern front and replaced by SS Hauptscharführer Paul Ricken who was not only an excellent trained photographer, but also a man who abhorred violence and treated his prisoner assistants quite humanely, according to Pike's book. Ricken reorganized the lab and gave Garcia added responsibilities. The two photographers developed a rapport, and Ricken agreed to Garcia's request to engage an additional assistant. At Garcia's suggestion, Ricken appointed Boix.

Pike wrote that Boix knew relatively little about photography, but Garcia wanted to have a fellow Catalan in the lab. The relationship between the two Spaniards became more problematic than Garcia had anticipated. During this time, Garcia and Grabowski continued to print a clandestine sixth copy of key photographs and accumulated an archive of some 200 prints.

In 1944 Grabowski committed suicide, and in February 1945 Garcia fell seriously ill and was taken to the camp infirmary where he remained for over a month. Upon his return, he discovered that the secret archive was missing. He questioned Boix, who was the only other person having any knowledge of the archive. Boix admitted that he had taken the photographs, but he said that they were now in the hands of the camp's Spanish Communist underground. Garcia, though sympathetic to Communism, was accused by some of Trotskyism and was not part of the underground's inner circle. Garcia was furious, but there was little he could do. He continued to work with Boix saving key photographs, even after Camp Commandant Franz Ziereis ordered the destruction of all negatives during the last week of the war.

According to Pike, the Spanish Communist underground temporarily hid Garcia's photos in several locales within the administrative complex of the camp while looking for a safer hiding place outside of the camp. They decided to give the photos to the boys of the Poschacher Kommando. This labor brigade, made up of young Spanish teenagers, worked in quarries outside the camp itself. During the last months of the war, the brigade had almost no direct supervision by the SS. Over time, the boys had become friendly with Anna Pointner, an Austrian socialist who lived near their work site. She frequently tossed extra food to the boys and eventually confided her political views to them. Feeling they could trust her, the boys asked whether she would be willing to hide some small parcels for them.

Two boys, named Jacinto Cortes and Jesus Grau, whose job it was to bring food to the Kommando in hampers, gradually transferred the entire archive hidden in these lunch hampers. Anna Pointner then hid the photos in a crevice in her garden wall.

After the war, Boix photographed the liberation with a confiscated German camera. He retrieved the camp photographs, which he later published. Boix testified at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg regarding photographic evidence from Mauthausen.

According to Martin Gilbert, the author of a book entitled"Holocaust," there were 8,000 Spanish Republicans at the main Mauthausen camp and only 817 of them survived. Gilbert wrote the following in his book:

In just over four months, more than thirty thousand people had been murdered at Mauthausen, or had died from starvation and disease. Jews and Gypsies formed the largest group of those killed, but other groups had also been singled out by the Nazis: homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet prisoners-of-war, and tens of thousands of Spanish Republicans. These Spaniards had been interned in France in September 1939, deported by the Germans to Mauthausen in 1940, and systematically worked to death in the stone quarry there, or shot at random. By January 1945, only three thousand of the Spaniards had remained alive. Of these, 2,163 had been killed in the next three months.