17,000 kilometers to collect the ring and watch that the Nazis took from a Spanish prisoner



The doorbell rings insistently. It is the house of a Spanish family: the Montes. It has been 60 years since Manuel and his wife Herminia left their homeland and settled in this country looking for a better future for their two children: Mari Trini and Manuel.

They were part of the so-called 'Operation Kangaroo', agreed between the Franco regime and the Australian authorities. The oceanic country needed labor and its government was looking outside its borders for workers who were "white and Catholic." The precarious economic situation in Spain led nearly 8,000 compatriots to pack their bags and move forever to the other end of the planet.

It's been a long time, too long. Manuel is now 88 years old and lives alone since Herminia undertook her last trip. He lives alone, but his children are very aware of him. In fact, he has no doubt that the one knocking on the door is the oldest, Manuel. What he does not imagine is the news that he is about to give him.

Gabriel Álvarez Arjona still does not believe what he is seeing. Several US military vehicles have just entered the field. The nightmare is over. Gone are 24 months of captivity and two great wars. It had all started nine years earlier.

The Franco uprising surprised him in his hometown, Madrid. Gabriel did not hesitate to leave the painter's brush and enlist as a volunteer in the MAOC, Workers and Peasants Anti-Fascist Militias, to defend republican democracy and prevent the capital from falling into the hands of the rebels. Three years of fighting later, Gabriel was forced to flee to France along with half a million other Spaniards.

After going through several French concentration camps, the man from Madrid managed to settle in the town of Le Mans, where he resumed his work as a painter-decorator. The peace barely lasted a year, because in June 1940 the city was occupied by Nazi troops. Even so, Gabriel continued to exercise his office until in May 1943 he was arrested by order of the French collaborationist authorities. In the police report he was accused of being the soul of a group of agitators, financed by Mexico, which included Spanish communists and anarchists from Paris.

The testimonies and documents he presented to try to refute the charges were of no use to him. He was considered an enemy and a danger to the Reich. In November he was sent to the Voves internment camp for political prisoners, a facility directly controlled by the collaborationist Vichy government. Living conditions were not excessively bad and the prisoners came to organize cultural, educational and sports activities, in addition to weaving a network of clandestine resistance. Thanks to her, several escapes took place that culminated on the night of May 5 to 6, 1944.

Forty-two inmates fled through a 148-meter tunnel that they had been digging for three weeks. Gabriel was not among the escapees and he paid a high price for it. The SS took over the camp, closed it down and transferred the prisoners to the Buchenwald and Neuengamme concentration camps. Gabriel ended up in this last enclosure.

There they took all his belongings, including a watch and two precious rings. Later he received the striped suit, an inverted red triangle that distinguished him as a political deportee and the number 32,040. For the next 10 months he suffered from hunger, mistreatment, lack of hygiene and had to work like a slave. But the worst was yet to come.

Faced with the unstoppable advance of British troops, the Nazis transferred some 9,500 deportees from Neuengamme to the Sandbostel prison camp. A third of them perished on that death march or in the days following their arrival at their new destination. Gabriel was a victim, witness and survivor of that terrible journey.

Jesús and Isabel have been promoting and organizing the placement of stolperstein in memory and tribute to the people of Madrid deported to the Nazi concentration camps. It is about some cobblestones, crowned with a golden plaque with the main data of the victim, which are placed on the sidewalk, in front of his last known address.

Knowing that the Arolsen international archive, the most important on Nazi repression, preserves the personal belongings of some Spanish deportees, Jesús and Isabel decided to collaborate in delivering those belongings to the heirs of the Madrid prisoners. Coordinated with the historian Antonio Muñoz, they located the descendants of some of them. However, a search soon became an almost impossible mission. Arolsen had two rings and a pocket watch that the Nazis seized upon his arrival in Neuengamme from a Spaniard named Gabriel Álvarez Arjona.

The investigation into Gabriel always ended up leading them to dead ends. They knew that he had died in France, most likely, in the 1960s, but how to find his closest relatives? In 1939, the man from Madrid appeared in the French registers as a widower without children and there was no evidence that after his release he had had children, so they had to broaden the focus.

Gabriel had two sisters; one had no children, but the other gave birth to a boy and two girls. The path seemed to clear up until the different files consulted revealed that none of the three nephews had had offspring. Everything seemed lost when a document revealed that a niece adopted a child in the post-war period, in 1940. His name was Manuel Montes Expósito and her existence opened a new avenue of investigation to find Gabriel's descendants.

The archives made it possible to reconstruct Manuel's life. He married Herminia Martínez and had two children. However, between 1960 and 1965 the documentary trail of the family vanished. About to throw in the towel, they pulled on Herminia's genealogical thread and found one of her sisters. She was the one who gave them the key: "They emigrated to Australia in the 60s."

Jesús and Isabel shared their progress with other researchers. One of them, Unai Eguia, knew a Spaniard who lived in Australia and who had been an announcer on a radio program aimed at Spanish emigrants. Only a few days later Unai was interviewed in the space Bread and Chocolate, from Brisbane Radio Station 4EB. For a long hour he provided the information he had, spoke of Gabriel, his rings and his watch and called for the collaboration of the Spanish listeners to find Manuel.

Manuel Montes Expósito can hardly believe what his son Manuel is telling him. They are looking for him from Spain to deliver the personal belongings that the Nazis took from his uncle Gabriel in Neuengamme. He never got to see him in person because he grew up in Franco's Spain while his uncle, after World War II, remained in her forced French exile. All of his contact was through postal mail. Even so, a strong relationship was established between the two. That is why he still lovingly keeps the last photograph he sent him from Le Mans in September 1960. On the back, in somewhat shaky handwriting, Gabriel dedicates it to "you Herminia and Manolo with all my heart". The former Neuengamme prisoner was only 62 years old, but the aftermath of his hard life can be deduced in his farewell: "I did not send her (to you) before because (I was) paralyzed".

"I didn't even know that my great-uncle had been in a Nazi concentration camp," confesses Manuel Jr. to Eldiario.es. "My father never told me or talked to me about it until the day I gave him the news that they were looking for him from Spain, through that radio program." The truth is that he did not even know that there had been Spaniards locked up in those camps."

Manuel Jr. was only two years old when he left Spain and his sister Mari Trini a little less than six months. Both have been raised and educated in Australia where, unlike what happens in our country, their recent history has always been studied and vindicated: "At school the participation of Australians in the war is taught. Here it is very important to know There is one day a year in which the victims and soldiers who fell in World War II are commemorated. It is a very big day. But does that also exist in Spain? No?"

Despite the fact that memory begins to play tricks on him, Manuel Montes Expósito is extremely excited to think that very soon he will have his uncle Gabriel's rings and watch in his hands. "He is very excited and so am I," says Manuel Jr. "These events cannot be forgotten. If my father's health allows it, we will travel to Spain in the coming months."

The delivery of personal belongings stolen by the Nazis will not be the only reason for that visit. Jesús and Isabel are organizing the placement of a stolperstein in memory of Gabriel Arjona. A memory paver that will be placed in front of the home where that anti-fascist fighter and victim of Nazism lived in Madrid before beginning his dramatic journey in 1936.

Manuel Sr. and Manuel Jr. will travel more than 17,000 kilometers to pick up a pocket watch, two rings and finally reunite with their uncle Gabriel.



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