Tuesday 27 January 2009

Madrid Holocaust Memorial

Today, the 27th of January 2009, is Holocaust Memorial day. It is a day we should remember, for fear of history ever repeating itself, the terrible ethnic cleansing policies of the Nazi regime in Germany.

You might ask, what has this to do with Spain? Spain was neutral during the Second World War and allowed many Jews escaping from German occupied France to pass through to Portugal on the way to a new and free life. But the atrocities of the Nazi regime were not only directed towards Jews.
It is true, Spain does have a history of Jewish persecution. The expulsion of the Jews and Moslems from Spain in 1492 is a defining moment in the formation of the country. But by the same token there is hardly one European nation that did not at one time or another persecute Jews or some other minority race.

It is not wrong to be reminded of this.

In the north-west of Madrid is the city’s newest park: the Parque Juan Carlos Primero. Sprawling over 220 hectares it is an eclectic mix of lawns, gardens, lakes, olive groves, concrete and steel. Still looking very new, it will be generations before it matures into a Retiro or Casa del Campo. Spread over rolling land it is a place of surprises. There is something to amaze or amuse around every corner, over every hill. It’s a great place to walk, to picnic – or cycle or jog if you are of an athletic mind.

Sitting high on a slope, but almost hidden in a small copse of trees is a strange construction. Made of rusting steel and thick, heavy, two metre long railway sleepers at first sight one assumes it is just another of the somewhat avant-garde artworks that decorate the park. It is more than that.
A plaque some metres away informs:
Monument in memory of the victims of the holocaust.

In memory of the six million Jews assassinated during the holocaust by the barbarian Nazis, as well as for the Spanish victims, the gypsies, and other groups equally murdered in the extermination camps
. The inscription includes the word Shoa. (“ShoÅ”, also haShoah (Hebrew: השואה), Churben (Yiddish: חורבן) properly means “catastrophy, calamity, disaster, and destruction”, but is the accepted Hebrew word for the holocaust.)

Then passing the plaque one steps up on to the railway sleeper platform and gazes around. In the centre stands a rusting spike, some ten metre high. It has Hebrew letters cut into its sides. To your right several tens of sleepers stand upright. They have rudimentary eyes and mouths drilled into their top ends. To your left is a crude sculpture, also constructed from the same sleepers, of a mother carrying a dead child. The upright sleepers stare silently at you, watching you, witnessing your every move. The head of the mothers screams towards the sky asking, “Why?”

The watchers have no answer. They are us. The world who watched and let this happen. The mother curses not us, but God, feeling this to be her own personal crucifixion on the cross of man’s inhumanity. Why, oh why, has He forsaken her?

Returning to the plaque you might be puzzled. The extermination of the Jews in the death camps you know about. You might even know that the Nazis considered the Gypsies as less than human and also deserving of extermination. But who are the “other groups”? And what Spanish victims? Spain was a neutral country.

The Nazis believed in the dictum: If you are not with us, you are against us, so political opponents of their regime also faced extermination. They include such diverse groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, Homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war and Spanish Republicans.

At the end of the Spanish Civil War half a million of the losing Republicans fled across the Pyrenees to France. They hoped for refuge. They didn’t get it. They were first placed in internment camps which were no different to concentration camps. They were forced to work as members of the Compagnies de Travailleurs Étrangers, or companies of foreign workers. When Vichy France was overrun by the German occupiers many of them were forced to work for the “Organisation Todt”, the arm of the German regime that built the Atlantic wall, the long line of sea defences that was meant to protect France from Allied Invasion. Eight hundred Spanish workers worked on Alderney in the occupied Channel Islands. Many died there.

Because of their anti-fascist or Communist political affiliation 30,000 were sent to work camps deep in the heart of German occupied Europe. These were the “Red Spaniards”, or Rotspanier. The most notorious of these was the camp at Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria.
The Rotspanier arrived in 1940 and were systematically worked to death. By January 1945 only 3000 of the Spanish remained alive. Of these, 2163 were killed in the next three months.
The cuts in the steel form the Hebrew word "Yizkor", which means "Remember!". It is also the name of a prayer for the dead.

I have no room to write more. Others have written volumes. The fate of Spaniards at the hands of the Nazis is well documented. It is a fascinating, but sombre history.

So remember them today. And some day go to the memorial in the Parque Juan Carlos. At first you will wonder, then you will be moved. The power of the monument is that you will, no matter that it wasn’t you personally that committed these atrocities and it all happened before you were born, feel a little guilty. The guilt of a world that let this happen.

You will remember the millions who were carried away on those tracks those wooden logs supported. You will feel the pain of the mother and her dead child. You may even shed a tear.

And you will say, “Never again”

I would like to thank Sharon Edvy in Israel for help in translating some of the Hewbrew inscriptions.


  1. Absolutely, the world must say "never again." Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  2. I had no idea at all about the fact so many Spaniards were killed by the Nazis. Thanks for the educating and inspiring post.

  3. I shall certainly go and visit the park on my next visit to Madrid. What an extraordinary story.

  4. When Germans occuppied France, Franco's regime was asked by Hitler what to do with those republicans, and Franco stated that they weren't Spanish and than he didn't want them repatriated, so Hitler was allowed to do whatever he wanted.

  5. I have just read Victoria Hislop's The Return about the Spanish Civil War. One of the characters escapes to France and is kept in one of the internment camps there. The description of this place is vivid and depressing

    Josie Bland

  6. Hi,shalom from Uganda