The picturesque town of Argelès-sur-Mer, in France and just half an hour from the Spanish border, has done and continues to do important work of memory every day to remember and not forget what happened there more than 80 years ago.
Between the end of January and the beginning of February 1939, half a million people crossed the border between Andorra and the Mediterranean Coast, fleeing a Spain dominated by Franco’s troops. Real human rivers walked along roads and paths with what they could carry until they entered a region that suddenly saw its population tripled.
Argelès-sur-Mer offered the first large and flat open space where an internment camp could be set up: its huge and vast beach. In the Camp d’Argelés between 100,000 and 200,000 people were concentrated, and although there has been nothing left of it for a long time, this French town does not want to forget its past and invites us to learn about the troubled past of a Spain in war.
The Memorial du Camp d’Argelès and the Route of Memory
Argelès-sur-Mer is a very touristy town, especially in summer. It has a beautiful historic center and is surrounded by numerous campsites. A quiet and peaceful destination for the most veteran French who come in search of good weather, a sparkling beach, a lively port and a rich gastronomic offer.
But that beach looked very different in 1939. Instead of towels, there was barbed wire. Instead of umbrellas, families divided. Instead of restaurants, hungry. And instead of tourists, soldiers of the French colonial troops from North Africa. That, and many thousands of people who had had to flee their own country. And so that none of this is forgotten, Argelès makes a great effort so that his memory does not disappear.
- The Campo de Argelès Memorial
If we want to know what happened to those Republican exiles who had no choice but to settle in Argelès when fleeing from Franco, then our first stop is at number 26 Avenue de la Liberation. The Memorial du Camp d’Argelès was inaugurated in 2014 as the culmination of more than 20 years of research. A museum, educational and cultural space that pays tribute to those refugees through interactive scenography, films, audiovisual testimonies, archive documents, press clippings, photographs and even works of art made on the beach.
“The visits that come to us are 60% Spanish and 40% French,” says Olga Arcos, from the Memorial team, “but we received many Spanish schoolchildren and we are surprised by how little they know about their past, about the War of Spain and the dictatorship. Not just about Campo de Argelès, which is very specific, but about its own history in general ”. To solve this, the exhibition begins with two rooms dedicated to Spain during the Civil War to understand the historical context. After crossing the border like one more exile, we arrive at Argelès beach, where a new destination awaits us. In the next room we see how the refugees adapted, from the first holes they had to make in the sand to protect themselves from the winter cold, the shacks that came later, and even the barracks that they were able to build already in the summer of 39.
Life in the countryside is taking shape and militant activities are emerging, but also social, cultural and artistic given the heterogeneity of its components. And with them two magazines born in the sand on the beach: Rosellon and La Barraca.
Here the Spaniards were not alone, the so-called “undesirable foreigners” also entered the countryside, many from Eastern Europe and many other members of nomadic gypsy and Jewish populations. Soon the Saint-Cyprien and Barcarès camps also opened and the Argelès camps was closed by the German authorities in 1942 to carry out military landing maneuvers on that same beach.
The Route of Memory is the route we can take through Argelès-sur-Mer to remember what happened here not so long ago. Taking as a starting point the Memorial du Camp d’Argelès itself, once we have visited it from beginning to end and know its history, we have to head to the beach to see the Monolith of Memory, from 1999. This monolith is It stands where in its day the entrance door to Campo de Argelès stood and today three plaques, one in French, one Spanish and one in Catalan, commemorate that makeshift shelter near number 50 Boulevard de la Mer. If once on the beach you continue walking north you will reach the Marende car park, where another plaque marks the end of the camp. Only then can you be truly aware of its dimensions.
From the beach we will return inland along the Avenida de la Retirada to continue with the Route of Memory and reach the Cimetière des Espagnols, the cemetery that was set up here in 1939 to collect the deceased in the Campo de Argelès. It was devastated by a great flood in 1940, but a great stela reminds those who lost their lives there. Next to her, in 1999 a tree was planted dedicated to the 70 children under the age of 10 who also died in the field. A place where periodic commemorations are held and a meeting point for those who want to know the history of foreign camps, whether or not they have ties to them.
Robert Capa: L’armée oubliée du camp d’Argeles
As an exquisite complement to the Memorial du Camp d’Argelès and the Route of Memory, from March 18 until November 15, 2021, the Galerie Marianne hosts an exclusive photographic exhibition by Robert Capa. On March 18, the photojournalist visited the fields of Argelès and Barcarès, and the following day those of Bram and Montolieu. In two days he took some 300 photographs that capture the reality of the refugees and many of them can be seen here.
The exhibition tells us with images the harshness of the countryside through Capa’s lens, capable of capturing moments, looks and emotions that take us to a past in black on white full of shadows. We will see his negatives, the photographs published in magazines such as Picture Post and Paris Match, the day-to-day on the beach, the pilgrimage of the refugees changing location and even the Bram cemetery, where Capa ended the report that had been published in early 1939. started in mid-1936 with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.