Spain loses an irreplaceable piece of its history. There are none left. 75 years and five months after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the last Spaniard who lived through that hell and who could tell about it has died. The Cordovan from Torrecampo Juan Romero Romero undertook his last trip last night from the French town of Ay, where he had resided for seven decades. He was 101 years old and leaving behind a life full of suffering, commitment and the fight for freedom. A life in which he obtained the recognition of France. A life in which he had to wait 101 years for his country to honor him and treat him for what he was: a hero.
A life of struggle
Born in April 1919 in Torrecampo (Córdoba), Juan Romero grew up in the bosom of a humble family of farmers. The desire to end the enormous economic and social inequalities that prevailed in that Spain led him to join the General Union of Workers. Despite the fact that he was only 17 years old when the military uprising against Republican democracy took place, Juan volunteered to fight the fascist troops. As part of the 33rd Mixed Brigade, he fought in the Sierra de Guadarrama, Brunete, Guadalajara and Teruel. Especially hard for Juan was the battle of El Ebro, in which he had to cross the river in a small boat while Franco’s soldiers fired at him from the shore. Many companions died. Juan was injured but, after recovering in a field hospital, he returned with his brigade. Faced with the already unstoppable advance of Franco’s soldiers, Juan crossed the border into France in February 1939.
The French authorities interned him, along with thousands of compatriots, in the concentration camp of Vernet d ‘Ariège. Despite the bad treatment received by the Gallic authorities, Juan decided to enlist in the Foreign Legion to return to fight fascism in the coming war against Hitler. This second contest did not end well for the Cordovan fighter either. In the summer of 1940, Nazi troops captured him and sent him to the prisoner of war camp set up in the German town of Luckenwalde. In that compound, in which human rights and international conventions were more or less respected, the rest of the contest should have passed. However, the conversations between the Franco regime and its Nazi allies brought about a dramatic change in the fate of all Spaniards who, like Juan, were in those camps for prisoners of war. The Gestapo set about identifying them, one by one, and sent them to concentration camps to be exploited for work and exterminated.
In the anteroom of the Mauthausen gas chamber
Juan Romero was one of the more than 7,500 Spaniards who, after having been part of the French Army, entered Mauthausen-Gusen between 1940 and 1942. Another 1,800 compatriots, men and women, would be deported to other Nazi concentration camps for belonging to the resistance. Of the 7,500 in Mauthausen, about 5,200 were only able to get out of there through the chimney of the crematorium, turned into smoke and ash. Juan had strength, intelligence and, above all, a good dose of luck that allowed him to survive.
The first slave labor assigned to him by the SS was in the fearsome granite quarry where the Spaniards spent nearly twelve hours chopping and moving stones. Every minute was horrible, but Juan remembered what the worst moment of the day was: “When the day ended, we would climb a stone up the stairs, and let it not be small … The SS were criminals. Every day the carts arrived from the quarry. full of the dead. ” He did not end up in one of those cars because, after several months of extremely hard work, he was transferred to a group that worked outside the field and was led by the Spanish kapo César Orquín. Better treated and with a little more food, Juan regained strength until, one day, he was seriously injured after suffering an accident at work. The prisoners knew that the Mauthausen infirmary was a veritable slaughterhouse. The SS doctors were rushing to give deportees injections of gasoline into the heart that were no longer going to be useful for work. Juan was lucky again and, with the help of some Spanish nurse-prisoners, he re-established himself.
His next and last assignment in Mauthausen was at the so-called “disinfection command”. Their mission was to collect the clothes of the prisoner expeditions that arrived at the camp and, on large stretchers, take them to the building where they were washed and disinfected. Juan did not die of hunger because he and his comrades in command always found some food in the pockets of those clothes. Physically it was not particularly hard work, but it was psychologically so. Juan had to contemplate, especially in the last months of the war, the groups of prisoners who were sent to the gas chamber: “If there were groups that arrived and instead of going to the shower they stayed outside, that was very bad … Those were going directly to the gas chamber. ”
Nightmares until the day of his death
The Cordoba fighter could never forget those groups that were heading, without knowing it, towards the slaughterhouse. Of all of them, each time he remembered those years, one especially marked him: “A group came to the field, there were men, women, very young children. There were 30 or 40. We were about to leave; we waited for them to enter, they passed in front of us and a little girl smiled at me … the little girl, the poor, ignorant one, I didn’t know that I was going straight to the gas chamber. And that hurt me a lot. I’ve seen many groups, but that little girl, the little girl who gave me a smile … Even now, at night, I remember her a lot. ”
When American soldiers arrived in Mauthausen on May 5, 1945, they physically freed the prisoners, but no one was ever able to free their minds. Memories of what they suffered in the camp, of the murdered comrades, of the atrocities they witnessed haunted them for the rest of their lives. To this trauma, in the case of the Spaniards an added drama was added: they could not return to their homes because Spain was still in Franco’s hands. Juan rebuilt his life in France. He settled in the town of Ay, married, raised a family and developed his professional career in a Champagne winery.
Like the rest of the Spanish survivors, Juan took years until the French state recognized him a status similar to that of the French deportees. From the eighties, especially, he was already considered a hero and treated as such. He received all kinds of tributes and decorations such as the prestigious Legion of Honor. Very different was the attitude of Spain. During the dictatorship, they tried to erase and distort the history of Spanish deportees and deportees. Oblivion and falsehoods that were maintained during the Transition and that have lasted until very recently.
The tributes of his homeland have come to Juan at the last moment. It was on May 5, a few days after he turned 101, when the Council of Ministers approved a text in which he recognized his figure. A recognition that the First Vice President personally transferred to him last August. Carmen Calvo moved to the town of Ay to tell his face what Juan had waited for years and years: “Thanks for your life“. Calvo thanked him for having fought against Francoism and for having defended democracy in Spain and throughout Europe: “We will never do enough, we will always be in debt to the Spanish antifascists who paid with their lives. Eternal gratitude from the Spanish democracy.” Juan was very happy that day and those who loved him affirm that this final recognition has allowed him to leave in peace.
With the death of Juan Romero, the last Spaniard deported to the Nazi concentration camps disappears. The nearly 4,000, including a minimum of 300 women, who managed to survive the barbed wire of Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Ravesnbrück, Sachsenhausen, Dachau or Auschwitz have been leaving for the last 75 years. Almost all of them died forgotten, ignored, without having been recognized by the Spanish State. Now they are history.
Vicente García Riestra, an Asturian survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, voiced what Juan Romero and the last handful of Spanish deportees who were still alive felt then felt in 2017: “We are a species in danger of extinction. We are called to disappear. And what are we going to do. Life is like this. ” Life is so.