Friday, August 12

Where are the dead children in Perpignan

The words of María Zambrano that describe the path to exile, along the road that connects La Jonquera with Le Perthus, are more lively, explicit and shocking than any photograph. He tells us of a multitude that comes endless, “like blood pushed by a frightened heart.” As the images were in black and white, the philosopher colors them: “It is the color of earth, the color of a beaten forest of holm oak broken with axes” in the “terrible gray morning.” “The human river that overflows over France,” wrote Federica Montseny.

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That road, which today in Spain is called AP-7 or Autopista del Mediterráneo and in France is the A-9, continues upwards, passing through Perpignan. La Zambrano passed by and arrived in Paris, where her husband was waiting for her, to flee to Mexico, but many others did not go beyond Perpignan. Many? This is not yet known.

Perpignan is a small city crossed by a canal and by the memories of erotic cinema. Many Catalans boast of having seen Emmanuele and The last Tango in Paris in premiere sessions in the early ’70s. You could say that Green begins in the Pyrenees, as Vicente Escrivá’s film titled. The exiles of 1939 thought that it was other colors that began in the Pyrenees: perhaps red and black, perhaps purple. But it was not like that. France did not protect Spanish refugees as it should have, and La Retirada continues to be a national disgrace, about which we do not want to talk much. Not all the S cinema in Perpignan compensates for one of those drops of blood from a scared heart.

It is known that with La Retirada, half a million people crossed the Pyrenees between January and February 1939. 13,000 of them were in poor health. How many Spaniards died in Perpignan, sick and badly wounded, between 1939 and 1940? Jordi Oliva, Martí Picas and Noemí Riudor are trying to get an idea.

It was by chance that they came across a list that had not been taken into account until now. At the request of the Spanish consul in Perpignan, a list of 1,685 names that no one had studied was published in the BOE: age, date and place of birth, marital status … The researchers followed the trail that had opened that payroll and, checking other sources, They already manage a database of nearly 3,000 deceased refugees, expanding the chronological space until 1944.

In a pandemic, Jordi, Martí and Noemí consulted all the online files they could, without leaving home. But it was about three weeks ago when they were finally able to hit the road and save the two and a quarter hours it takes them to get there by car from Barcelona. The road to Perpignan, once again.

We tend to have too high expectations of cities, which are sometimes palimpsests of history and other historical stratigraphy. When we travel to them in search of the least obvious memory mapping, we tend to get lost, disoriented. “The city is a desert”, says Jordi Oliva.

The wounded arrived at the Saint-Jean hospital, which remains, although renovated, in the same place, in Haute Vernet, north of the city. Sticking to it, wall to wall, the Vernet cemetery, which will be important in this story. Saint-Jean immediately collapsed and other places had to be set up for the Spanish wounded, such as the Military Hospital and the San Luis Hospital. There, a record was taken of the full names, their personal data, their status upon admission and upon discharge, the diagnosis, the cause of death when the outcome is fatal, and the contact of a reference relative.

Catalan researchers have spent this July as part of a project on the Human Cost of the Civil War that is currently part of the Democratic Memorial, searching the civil registry and municipal archives. The idea was to check the detailed information in the hospital records with the books of the dead in the cemeteries but, to their surprise, they were barred from entering.

Perpignan has several cemeteries: one we already know, it is in Haute Vernet, next to the hospital. There are two others who received burials in those years. One is tiny, that of Saint-Martin, with its iconic white crosses lined up in commemoration of the French ex-combatants of the First World War. Another is the largest in the city and the one with the most burials of Spanish deceased, more than 800: the West Cemetery. Historians had to become negotiators.

They asked to see the books, but they were not allowed, claiming that it was confidential information due to data protection. They alleged the inconsistency of being able to consult and copy the much more detailed hospital records. It seems that thus they advanced some position. Thanks to a contact from the Municipal Archive, they finally got access. Of course: no photos.

The only memorial trail of this difficult chapter of the Civil War victims in immediate exile is in the Western Cemetery. It is a small monolith that says: “In memory of all those who found death in exile.” And a date, October 15, 1944, on the fourth anniversary of the execution of the president of the Catalan Generalitat Lluis Companys.

There was something striking about the records in the Western Cemetery: there were no children. In contrast, the age group with the highest incidence of death is 0-4 years. And up to the age of 10, there are many deceased children, Oliva does not know how many: “A lot.” Infant mortality was very high. It is very significant. “The question is, where are they?”

You had to search the other cemeteries. Perhaps, due to the logistics of the smaller infant burials, they had been taken to a specific place. They asked to see the books in the other cemeteries. Again the negative. The negotiation did not go as well as the first time, and the most they managed was for a municipal employee to collate, during an extra work weekend, the names that they provided in the file of the Vernet cemetery, to see if indeed the compatriots had been buried there. The job, which seemed easy, was not at all: the French like to Frenchize things, and they did the same with names, so that Juan is Jean but Raimundo could be anything else. They don’t know anything about the third, Saint-Martin.

Thanks to the French funeral law, as early as 1939, the first burials were done well: in decent, identified graves. But at age five, all of the unclaimed remains went to an ossuary. On it, some of the original tombstones are still preserved, which were in another part of the cemetery, without explaining who they were or why those people with Spanish names ended up there.

For Oliva, this memorial desert does not occur only in Perpignan but throughout the French territory. “It is part of a memory that does not interest them”, he says and adds that “from here neither has been done what should or could be done.” With the material they have, one could, for example, propose a memorial, make a map with the location of the original graves, the names, their biographical data. It could be recreated over space, memory could be made alive, made present, made visible, made an orchard, less desert.