“I am almost ashamed to confess that 95% of my free time is dedicated to investigating our past, I define myself as a modest inquirer.” José Cabañas (León, 1955) describes in this way, without a hint of false humility, his work as a student of the republican prisoners who ended up in the Francoist concentration camps in León.
Josep Sala, survivor of the Francoist concentration camps: “We were not even a number, we were nothing”
His work, which began in 1996 and which has led him to publish several books, has revealed the existence of more than 500 Catalan prisoners in Francoist concentration camps throughout Castilla y León. Almost 300 of them died executed or in strange circumstances in enclosures in which, during some periods, up to 10 daily deaths were counted. Most do not appear in any registry nor have they been claimed by any entity of historical memory.
According to the count of the Memorial Democràtic, the institution of the Generalitat in charge of the recovery of historical memory, only about forty Catalans were in Francoist camps in the province of León. Cabañas has shown that there were many missing to be counted and is in the process of submitting all the documentation it has available for the Catalan body to update its data.
His latest research, collected in the book Convulsions (Editorial Base, in Catalan; Ediciones Forastero, in Spanish) has been described as “impressive” and “essential” by the prestigious Hispanist Paul Preston, who has extended the volume. “He is one of the local historians without whom we would not know anything about the atrocities committed in many provinces,” the British historian writes in the foreword.
“It is a very high honor that Preston talks about my work like this,” Cabañas explains in a telephone conversation. “My interest in the Civil War came precisely after reading your books.”
Cabañas graduated in Industrial Technical Engineering and currently works as a prison officer. He is the head of the Pereiro de Aguiar prison (Ourense), and the organization of his employment in long shifts frees him later for days to investigate.
What made her curious, however, was not the free time, but the need to know what had happened in her family. This ‘amateur’ historian is a descendant of two Republicans assassinated by Franco. “What happened to my maternal grandfather was a taboo in my house,” he recalls. “They didn’t ask about him, nor did they explain what had happened to him. They only said that he had died in the war like so many others.”
The 14,000 files from the fields
One day, more than 14,000 prison files from the concentration camps of León fell into his hands. The list, arranged alphabetically and in ‘pdf’ format, offered data on a large part of the inmates: name and surname, origin and, in some cases, the cause of death.
“I started to open all those that seemed to me Catalan surnames,” recalls Cabañas. “He found many surnames in Catalan that, however, were prisoners of Huesca or Teruel, they were being discarded.” This historian managed to separate 550 prisoners from Catalonia, although he believes that there must be many more in that huge list that he has in his hands. “550 is a minimum but surely there are many more,” he adds. “Those whose last names were García or Pérez, he discarded them and perhaps they were Catalans.”
The book offers a very complete drawing on the fate of hundreds of republican soldiers from Catalonia who, after the Battle of the Ebro (1938), ended up in various concentration camps in Castilla y León. He also discovers the existence of a prison camp in Santa Ana de Astorga, which to date had gone unnoticed because it had been confused with that of Santa Ana de León, with a similar name and located in the same province.
Cabañas explains that he learned to be a historian in the most basic way: by reading a lot of history. “I have a library that is not small and 90% of the books are of history,” he points out. “I have always read solvent historians and you are learning the search and handling of sources and to work with honesty and rigor”.
The diaries of Jaume Cusidó
Convulsions Not only does it list all the Catalan prisoners with first and last names who ended up locked up there or died, but it also offers valuable first-person testimony about life in these camps that were established throughout Spain as the rebels consolidated their coup d’état .
He does so through the testimony of Jaume Cusidó, an accountant for a textile company in Sabadell -his father was the concierge of the Banc Sabadell in that town- linked to ERC who joined the Republican side and ended up participating in the war, later in the withdrawal to France and ended up locked in one of these enclosures in Spain.
The son of this accountant sent Cabañas a detailed diary written by his father during the war and the months he spent locked up in the field of Valencia de Don Juan in Coyanza (León). At the same time, the book also reproduces the correspondence between this prisoner and his wife, in whose letters the heartbreak and fear of the uncertainty, distance and hunger that were spent during the first post-war months can be appreciated.
Cusidó recounted in his diary his journey through towns throughout Catalonia during a republican retreat that accelerated exponentially as the days passed. This young Catalan describes in all kinds of details the burning of documents and factories, the haste and anguish at the realization that fascism was finally taking over after more than two years of hard fighting. It also recounts the looting of some republican soldiers in abandoned homes on their way to France.
“I don’t even know how many kilometers we have walked,” writes Cusidó on January 28, 1939, a period in which the exodus from Catalonia to the border reached more than half a million people. “There are men, many women accompanied by their children, young and old. All denote tiredness and discomfort. What a tragedy!
A week later, their superior in the army would tell them that they were free and that they smarten up as best they could. “The rout has occurred everywhere,” he wrote on February 6 of the same year.
After arriving in France and being interned in a concentration camp in Saint Cyprien, 25 kilometers from Perpinyán, Cusidó was one of those who denied the Republic and agreed to return to Spain. He would then begin his journey through different towns on the peninsula until he ended up in the aforementioned field of Valencia de Don Juan.
With a Castilian full of Catalan words, Cusidó describes in his diary and in his letters to his wife, Manolita Muñoz, his daily life in this concentration camp. It details everything from the political sermons that the “exalted” local priests blurt out to the obsession to obtain decent food, to the itching and bedbugs that proliferated among the inmates or the reprimands for speaking in Catalan among them.
“We pass through the village and there is a house with an open window, I can see a bed scrupulously arranged, with clean white clothes… Who could have it! I wish I hadn’t looked out of that window ”, he wrote on March 6, 1939, after the first weeks in prison in the concentration camp.
In the letters, his wife keeps him updated on the steps to get him out of the concentration camp and on how his son is growing. In a moment of sincerity, Manolita Muñoz explains to him the desire she has to recover with her husband all the time lost between them because of the war.
“When you come I want us to go to the Restaurant that one at the Breakwater, remember? that we went when we got married, to eat a good rice with fish. And I want to have a lot of fun and I want to go everywhere to enjoy the beauty and dance a lot until my head is spinning … Anyway, I want to take revenge for these three years of war, because if not, we are going to grow old and we will not have enjoyed life, won’t you please me, my darling? ”he wrote in a letter dated April 17, 1939.“ We have to live life ”.