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The first Spaniard murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp was from the Costa del Sol

The House of Culture hosts until next February 25 the exhibition Images and memory of Mauthausen, sponsored by the Austrian Ministry of the Interior, the French Amicale de Mauthausen and the Friends of Mauthausen from Spain, with the collaboration of the International Mauthausen Committee, whose objective is to publicize the snapshots that document the reality of this concentration camp and some outside camp, to keep alive the memory of the thousands deported to the camps of the Third Reich.

Its curator, José Manuel Portero, also author of Nazis on the Costa del Sol, offers to Ole Benalmadena an interviewin which he reveals very interesting data that we understand can be erected as a complement to the visit to this remarkable exhibition, which we have the opportunity to have in Benalmádena until next February.

Mauthausen was a small town near the Austrian city of Linz, in the northeast of the country. The region has important granite quarries, which is why the Nazi authorities decided to establish these labor and extermination camps in that place. The prisoner-slaves, with very rudimentary means, without the use of machinery, and in miserable living conditions, had to extract and carve the stone blocks for construction.

They were forced to work until they died due to exhaustion, when not due to torture or physical and mental abuse. Prisoners not suitable for such hard work (elderly, children, pregnant women, babies, sick, disabled…), were directly killed in the gas chambers, among other means of extermination.

In addition, in Mauthausen and in other camps, a considerable number of people were murdered for the simple fact of belonging to a certain ethnic group, such as Jews, Slavs or Gypsies, especially the former (they murdered more than six million Jews).

-Why did the Nazis create concentration camps and what were their categories?

-There were several categories. One was for prisoners who were less dangerous and who, they thought, could be rehabilitated. Another intermediate and a third and even fourth that was for those who thought irretrievable and were destined for extinction.

Politics changed in the camps as the war unfolded. There were times when the extermination camps could not cope and they killed the prisoners by shooting them and even drowning them.

With the generic name of Mauthausen, a series of prisoner concentration camps created in Nazi Germany by the Hitler regime are called, although not all of them were properly «concentration»». The system of camps, as I mentioned, included in addition to these, those of transit, those of prisoners of war and those of extermination, in which many of them ended up becoming.

-In what conditions did the prisoners travel to the camps? because many of them died during the journey…

-They traveled from where they were imprisoned to the fields in miserable conditions. They were put into train cars destined for animal transport. They were totally closed with a small slit to breathe and they were overcrowded. In the zones, for example, destined to do physiological needs, there were children, babies, elderly people… They traveled without water to drink and only in some stations did they water the wagons with water hoses over the cracks… A journey of hours could last days in deplorable conditions, depending on where the prisoners came from, they had to endure hours and hours of suffocating heat or, on the contrary, inhuman cold. Many did not arrive alive at the concentration camp to which they were destined.

-Was there a hierarchy in the camps among the prisoners?

-Yes of course. They were assigned some triangles and, depending on the color, they were cataloged as homosexuals, slaves, common prisoners… Starting in 1940, when the first consignment of Spaniards had already arrived, -who by the way were the ones who helped build Mauthausen- the Nazis asked Franco what they did with the Spaniards and in what category they put them…

– So, did Franco agree with Hitler on the confinement of the Republicans imprisoned in the concentration camps?

-Yes. In fact, as I was telling you, the Nazis asked. And the answer was from Spain that they ignored them. As for the category, since they were not arrested in Spain but normally in France, they were given S for Spanish citizens, but with the triangle relative to the category of enemies of the State. In the year 40 or maybe 41, there is a series of telegrams between the Nazis and Franco asking what they were doing with the Spanish. They even asked if they would return any of the prisoners in whom the Franco regime was interested… you can imagine where the interest came from for them to return to our country -one of them was, for example, the  former president of the Generalitat and other important political positions – and what they did with the others. Finally, Spain literally told them to let them die to their fate.  

-How many Spaniards arrived in Mauthausen? Is there data on Andalusians and specifically, Malagans?

-There were approximately 7,500… it is difficult to quote exact ones. At first the Germans had everything written down (income, murders, natural deaths –according to them, those who killed by exhaustion, hunger or threw themselves at the electrified barbed wire-). But when they realize that the German victory is difficult, Himmler gives instructions to destroy the evidence of everything that had been done in the fields. He even invents a special command to subtract the corpses that were in shallow mass graves to burn them or bury them deeper and plant trees on them to make it harder for them to find them. In short, to hide evidence.

The Reich hierarchs gave orders to the heads of the different camps to make the registration books and other evidence disappear where the identities of the prisoners and the causes of their death were collected. For this reason, the exact figures of those killed in the camps are not exactly known. At the beginning of Mauthausen’s last year of operation alone (January 1945), there were some 85,000 prisoners in the camp. The total number of victims of the Mauthausen complex is estimated between 150,000 and 300,000 dead.

The records are not complete and it has been discovered how the number is increasing.  In 1960 an attempt was made to legalize the Mauthausen memory association and Franco’s regime prohibited it because how could they give the go-ahead for this horror to be made public, which had been carried out with the consent of the regime…

As for the Andalusians, there were about  1,500, and about 220 were from Malaga, of whom approximately  160 were killed there. The Spanish knew how to organize themselves well in Mauthausen and were a reference for other prison communities of other nationalities.

-In your book Nazis on the Costa del Sol, in addition to offering a list of fugitives who fled to our coastal municipalities, you also emphasize the victims who were murdered in Mauthausen and adjoining camps…

-In the democratic period, with the socialist governments, a process of recovering historical memory was carried out for the first time. With the data provided by the different organizations, a database is being created with all the Spaniards who were imprisoned and/or were murdered in the concentration camps.

As for the place of birth, it is not easy to give exact data. When they were arrested, the searches were made mainly by Poles and Germans.  They asked the prisoner where he came from and many did not say the specific city or town, but simply said Malaga.

The subject of the Spaniards in the Nazi camps was dramatic. First they fought against Francoism, the republicans were defeated and many fled to the east. As Franco’s army advanced northward, they were cornered towards France. Before the end of the war, an exodus of Spaniards took place and, many of them on foot, passed the Pyrenees and went to the south of France, among them were numerous Andalusians.

Then, in a blitzkrieg, Germany seizes France and the fleeing Spaniards find themselves forced to fight again, but this time with the French army against the Germans. 

There is a case that draws attention. There was a family from Malaga. Specifically, the father was called José Marfil Escalona, ​​who was accompanied by his son.  He was arrested in France and taken to Mauthausen. He was the first Spaniard killed there.  He died of hunger, exhaustion… With this man an event occurs that will not be repeated. When he died, his companions asked the head of the camp -who according to the existing documentation was a most horrible man one can imagine- to pay him homage.

At the end of the long day of work – we are talking about even more than 18 hours of work in inhumane conditions – when they were reviewing, a Republican army officer ordered the Spaniards to line up and take off their hats… imagine what conditions they were in. He gives them a short harangue and tells them that “as Spaniards they have to show everything they are” and pay tribute to this comrade killed by exhaustion and hunger, José Marfil.

-How was the day of a prisoner in Mauthausen?

-His day to day was the most horrible. They got up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning. They had to run away, and to relieve themselves they had open latrines –a hole in the ground- in their own barracks, in which they slept overcrowded. The bunks, in rows, were designed for one person and slept four or five. With roofs that were made of tin or corrugated iron, they were very cold… When they lined up, the first thing they did was see how many had died that night of hunger, cold, exhaustion, illnesses… or if anyone had committed suicide by throwing themselves into the electrified fences, then run away from there it was impossible.  

In fact, later they changed the electrified fences for a retaining wall that the Spaniards built with subhuman work, carrying blocks of granite in their hands or in a badly improvised backpack. Sometimes they fell, others collapsed from exhaustion or even sometimes, they threw themselves because they couldn’t take it anymore…

As I was saying, after reviewing, they began to work. The food they had was a soup and if there was any punishment, it consisted of leaving them for hours and hours in the open with the temperatures of Central Europe, where they drop to more than zero degrees during most of the year, with snow, rain… obviously without proper shoes – a kind of wooden flip-flops -, with a cloth jumpsuit as the only clothing… If they fell ill, going to the infirmary meant facing the possibility of meeting some sadistic doctor…

-In fact, in your book you also refer precisely to Aribert Heim, known as Doctor Death…

-The Spaniards nicknamed him El Banderillero, for the national holiday, obviously. They also called him The Butcher andDoctor Death. Specifically, El Banderillero was because he and other Nazi doctors with unpronounceable names had the sadistic habit of injecting prisoners with gasoline in the heart to see the reaction of the human body… This was just one of the many horrible practices of experimentation they carried out. To give you an example, there was a Spaniard who had perfect features and what one of these doctors did was cut off his head, empty it and make a paperweight out of his skull. That was another sadistic custom that existed among the SS, asking doctors to make them bags, books, among others, lined with human skin.

-There is talk of the horror of the gas chambers, of the executions, but hunger, punishment and exhaustion due to forced labor also led to the death of thousands of people… A job with slave labor that brought great economic benefits to the Nazis…

-A lot of. For there to be industrial production, labor is required in addition to factories. The Germans stop working and are replaced by prisoners, but in completely slave conditions. The average life of a prisoner in a labor camp was four to six months if they were under 40 years old because if they were older they couldn’t last that long. Only the young survived. The Nazis claimed “salvation through work”, but they meant to save themselves because the prisoners died one after another due to the inhumane conditions they endured. Many German factories were located near the fields because they yielded more that way.

The work in the concentration and extermination camps was not reduced only to that of the quarry. It also extended to the manufacture of chemical products, the production of weapons, parts and assembly of battle tanks or aircraft, for example.

-At present, perhaps there are people who know the concentration camps through cinema and/or literature. Do you think that these genres have done justice to what happened?

-Not at all. Fantasy is mixed with real events. Regarding the rank and file Germans, many were forced to join because if not, they were singled out. Not all German war soldiers were war criminals, for they were the same as those fighting on the other side. Now, the case of the Nazi high command who denied the holocaust and what they did in the concentration camps is another matter.  They cannot deny what they really did. Burning human bodies produces an unbearable smell and doing it in a chain, like in a factory, you can imagine… the nearby towns knew what was happening due to the smell.

-How have photographs like the ones that make up this exhibition come to our days?

-As zones are liberated, the army finds itself with entire barracks of corpses that they haven’t had time to bury or burn, others in shallow trenches, which as soon as it rained were exposed, other times they gassed them in the cars themselves in the They were transferred from one camp to another… The Russians and the Americans were taking photographs of everything they saw, as is usual in armies, but there was also a very important contribution by the Spanish in Mauthausen.

The Germans, on the occasion of that fidelity to leave everything registered, through photographs also kept a record of deaths and other horrors. And in that photographic laboratory in the concentration camp several Spaniards intervene.  In the year 44, when the Germans see the end near, they order that all the negatives be destroyed. Estos españoles tienen el enorme arrojo de esconder todos los negativos que pudieron…  El problema estaba en que en cualquier momento podían descubrirlos en una revisión rutinaria por parte de los alemanes y tuvieron que idear cómo sacar los negativos del campo.

There was a command called Poschachers that was made up of children of republicans, between 13 and 16 years old, who were not considered politically dangerous by the Germans. The Poschachers went out for a few hours a day to work at the quarry of the same name, very close to the town, and they hid the stolen negatives. These guys played a fundamental role so that we can now see these photographs. There were several, but from Andalusia, for example, there was a young man from Almería, Jacinto Cortés, who knows an Austrian woman, Ana Poitner, who was against Nazism, and who helped them by giving them food. It is to this woman that he gives the negatives and she hides them in her garden under some stones. When the war ends they come to light and thanks to these negatives many Nazi murderers could be charged as proof of the horrors they committed in the concentration camps and that they denied.

-The Jews do not like the denomination of holocaust…

-No.  It is a word that was assigned at the beginning to designate the murdered Jews. They don’t like it because the word holocaust means sacrificeand they didn’t understand it as such… they call it a Shoah, a desperate cry, a tragedy, a catastrophe. The Jewish people suffered the murder and torture of almost 6 million people… Men, women, old people, children, babies…

-There are those who complain that the concentration camps have become a tourist attraction, what do you think about it?

-I think it’s great that you can visit them. Everyone who visits it has a creepy memory of them. They return overwhelmed with horror. Visiting them can be a shock to the conscience of what happened and should not happen again. The purpose of visiting them is to see the horror of what happened very recently, we are talking about only 70 years,  and that it cannot happen again. This is the objective of the exhibition that can be visited at the Casa de la Cultura, that we see  what happened so that it never happens again…

-Perhaps for that reason this exhibition is a great opportunity for the students of the institutes of Benalmádena…

-It is that it is no longer just that high school students visit it out of curiosity but that they are going to do so accompanied by a teacher who, before or after seeing the exhibition, has worked in class precisely on the values ​​that the exhibition tries to spread. Especially when in recent times, unfortunately, there are currents that favor this type of hatred.

– Have we managed to learn from history?

-Like everything in life, things will depend on how and who teaches them to you. Here in Spain, the Franco regime was a promoter of the Nazis, not only during the war, but in our country the post-war period was very long. The Amical de Mauthausen association in Spain was not legalized until 1973 and the regime also supported many fleeing Nazis, not only here on the Costa del Sol but in different parts of the country. This protection by Francoism has given rise to many ideologues of Nazism, while they have lived for years and years in Spain, they have freely spread neo-Naziism and its ideals, and that has done a lot of damage in Spain.

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