Walking down a tree-lined street in the Poble Sec neighborhood of Barcelona, one could easily miss a small bronze square sitting in the pavement. In the regional language Catalan, the words are stamped into the metal: “Here lived Francesc Boix Campo, born 1920, exiled 1939, deported 1941, Mauthausen, liberated.”
Holocaust memorials like this one — which honors a Spanish survivor of a Nazi concentration camp — are part of a project that began in Germany but has expanded across Europe and the United States in recent years.
These modest memorials conceal a powerful purpose: to make the victims of a traumatic past a visible and permanent part of the modern landscape.
In October, Spain’s current progressive government passed a new law – called the Democratic Remembrance Law – that recognizes Spaniards who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis.
Among other things, the law would create a census and a national DNA bank to help identify the thousands of Spaniards killed during World War II.
I am a scholar of Spain’s role in World War II and the Holocaust. The way the country has faced this disturbing past has evolved significantly in recent decades. Spain has publicly avoided the history of Spaniards killed in Nazi camps, who were victims of Adolf Hitler, but also of Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator from 1939 to 1975.
This new law marks a shift, recognizing that the Spanish government has a role to play in reviving the memory of all the victims of Spain’s dark years.
From the Spanish Civil War to the Second World War
Spain underwent a civil war from 1936 to 1939, which set the stage for World War II. A group of military leaders led by Franco rose up against the democratically elected Spanish government in 1936. Three violent years later, these fascist insurgents won the war, and Franco was installed as dictator.
Spain’s allegiance to the Nazis began with the Spanish Civil War. Hitler sent Condor Legion planes to bomb the northern city of Guernica—an event commemorated in a famous painting by Pablo Picasso—in 1937. Hitler also helped arm the military uprising against the democratic government during the civil war . Just a few years later, during World War II, Franco would return the favor by sending raw materials used to manufacture weapons of war to Hitler.
In the spring of 1939, half a million refugees poured across the border from Spain to France to escape the violence, including hundreds of thousands of veterans who had fought for Spain’s elected government in the civil war.
Forced into refugee camps with little access to food and clean water along the beaches in southern France, they were given a choice: return to Spain, where they would face Franco’s violent vengeance, or fight the Nazis.
Thousands enlisted as soldiers or manual laborers for the French army. Others joined the French Resistance.
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Franco disowned the Spanish refugees he considered traitors. Germany deported 10,000 to 15,000 Spaniards to Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis killed about 60 percent of these Spanish refugees.
Bring victims of World War II out of the shadows
As politicians debate whether it is appropriate to remember Spain’s painful past or whether the government is opening old wounds, groups of citizens have stepped in.
The Stolpersteine project, a public art initiative started in 1992 by German artist Gunter Demnig, commemorates Jews and other victims of the Nazis, such as people persecuted for their political views, with a “stumbling stone” set in the pavement placed outside the individual’s last known residence. .
By acknowledging non-Jewish political prisoners during the Second World War, Stolpersteine confirms Spain’s partnership with the Nazis in the ground on which people walk, and demonstrates how a dark history can be brought to light. The first memorials in Spain were placed in 2015 in the small town of Navàs, about an hour north of Barcelona.
The project has grown over the past seven years to commemorate more than 600 Spaniards in 96 cities and towns spread across the country.
Stolpersteine in Spain, to sidestep the political firestorm over Spain’s World War II history, seeks to bring victims out of the shadows of memory.
The project makes public the names of people who have suffered during each country’s violent past. These plaques challenge viewers to consider who these victims were and what their own connection to this past might be. The Spaniards commemorated by Stolpersteine are not household names: They are simply people who fled Spain in 1939 and never returned.
Keep the memory of a painful past
Spain is now experiencing the rise of Vox, a far-right political party. If Vox wins the 2023 national election, it will likely roll back the Democratic Remembrance Act—and the government’s initiative to reform history education and map mass graves.
The Stolpersteine project avoids the argument about who is responsible for remembering Spain’s past. Objectively factual, each plaque contains the essential details of each individual political prisoner’s escape from Spain, journey through war-torn Europe, and survival or death in a Nazi camp. The stone’s placement outside the prisoner’s last known home makes a connection with the street, city and region where they lived.
As Spaniards and tourists take pictures of the bronze squares they come across and share them on social mediathey start a conversation about who these individuals were, what motivated them to leave Spain and how they ended up in Nazi camps.
One of the people recognized with a memorial stone, Boix, was a Spanish Civil War veteran and Nazi camp survivor. After fighting fascism in two wars, Boix was imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria for four years. While in the camp, he worked as an assistant in the photography laboratory, where he stole negatives from the Nazis and later used them in his testimony at the Nuremberg trials.
Boix, who died in 1951, is one of the most famous concentration camp survivors in Spain. His story illustrates the struggle against fascism, which he and his fellow Spanish Nazi camp prisoners fought on a daily basis.
Stolpersteine memorials in Spain not only raise the visibility of these largely unknown victims of Nazi violence. They also connect with the residents and visitors who walk along the same sidewalks decades later.
Sara J. Brenneis is a scholar of contemporary Spain focused on cultural studies, including literature, film, history and new media.
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