The idea of Franco as the savior of the Jews was a propaganda campaign devised by the regime itself, a "false myth" from the humanitarian point of view, built to place Spain in the new international context after World War II, and not precisely because compassion towards the millions of lives that were exterminated during the Nazi Holocaust. Moreover, in 1941 the dictatorship ordered Spanish diplomats to be "passive" in the face of anti-Semitic measures by the Germans. With the international conflict tilted in favor of the allies, Franco himself reaped the fruits of the ambassadors who had dangerously rebelled against his mandate and took credit for the efforts that managed to protect numerous Jews, even rewarding their timely disobedience.
When the regime finally decided – now it is – to facilitate the escape of the Jews across the Spanish borders, it did so for diplomatic reasons, trying to avoid reprisals from the victors of the war, and even with somewhat perverse criteria. The persecuted had to cross our country "as light passes through glass", without leaving a trace, with no option to stay. Moreover, there came to be economic interests towards the wealthiest Sephardim, since the possessions of the Jews of the Spanish past were the assets of the State itself, of the imaginary Sepharad. A tortuous escape plan for the 35,000 fugitives whose salvation would end up on the dictator Franco's list of achievements. Until now.
The story that emanates from a novel investigation, based on unpublished documentation from the consulates, unhesitatingly brings down Franco's poster as a benefactor of the Jewish cause. This has been defended by César Rina Simón, professor of Contemporary History at the University of Extremadura, in the activities carried out in Zamora around the figure of the poet León Felipe, one of the first Spanish voices to turn up the volume in the face of the Holocaust tragedy .
The conclusions - which place the dictator's strategy in the diplomatic and political sphere, and not in the charitable sphere - are part of the study shared by Rina with Professor Enrique Moradiellos and fellow historian Santiago López Rodríguez, whose research has led to the recent publication from the book The Holocaust and Franco's Spain (Turner).
The work shows that talking about Spain and the Holocaust is a complex issue. As César Rina explains, the anti-Judaism that had germinated in Europe in the 19th century —and that would end anti-Semitism and the Nazi genocide in the 20th— "arrived late in Spain". Among other things, because of the underlying imprint that the Jews had left after their expulsion by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492. In fact, the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera issued a decree in 1924 to grant Spanish nationality to Jews who could prove their Spanish ancestry , a measure that, given the difficulty of the tests, would only end up benefiting some 2,000 people.
But that "philosephardism" expired at a stroke with the arrival of the Second Republic in 1931. The most reactionary parties accused the Jews of being behind the new democratic regime, through the masonry and of communism. "That propaganda created a ferment: the Republic was not a national government, but an international regime at the service of the Jewish cause." So the military uprising of 1936, continues Professor Rina, "would not be a civil war, but a struggle for national liberation, for independence, a religious crusade against foreign domination."
A fictitious speech, but believable. After all, there were no longer any Jews left in Spain to be able to answer it. That did not free General Franco from having to juggle to put out fires: while his military proclaimed the anti-Jewish cause, the imminent dictator reassured the Jewish bankers of Tetouan, financial support of the uprising.
In 1939 the offensive against the Jewish people went up a notch. Nazi Germany passed the bill for his support for the Francoist uprising and asked for greater involvement in their cause. A commission assumed by Ramón Serrano Suñer, Franco's brother-in-law and head of foreign policy, while Franco avoids making a public statement. "At that time —between 1939 and 1942— we found documentation confirming the Spanish diplomatic collaboration in the persecution of the Jews. In 1941, Suñer ordered the ambassadors to be passive in the face of the anti-Semitic measures of the Nazis, not to oppose them", specifies Rina Simón.
A new international context is guessed and Spain has to please everyone. Hence, Franco adopted a "chameleon policy" to always be with the "winning horse." To please Nazi Germany, the dictatorship positions itself against communism; in the European war, it manifests an "absolute neutrality" avoiding confronting Churchill's Great Britain, and on the Asian front, Spain sides with the emerging power of the United States against Japan.
But how could Spain erase its anti-Jewish past, now that Germany was beginning to lose the war? Literally erasing it. "Franco's speeches were revised to remove all elements that refer to anti-Judaism." But there is more. In the final stretch of World War II, the Allies force the dictator to facilitate the escape of the Jews through the Pyrenees, the natural border between the country and France subjected by the Nazis. The dictator turns the demand into an alleged personal crusade: he allows the entry of the Jews in exchange for not remaining in the national territory and begins to recognize the role of the diplomats who have put their position at stake in confronting the Holocaust: Eduardo Propper, Julio Palencia , José Ruiz Santaella, Sebastián Romero or, the most popular, Ángel Sanz Briz.
Hence the myth was born. Franco took credit for having saved 35,000 Jews. "Today, we know that the dispatches sent by the dictator to the ambassadors said the opposite: he did not save them, although he did not persecute them either," argues the professor from Extremadura, César Rina. "Sanz Briz, for example, was forced to say that the steps he had taken to save the Jews were Franco's internal orders," he exemplifies. The documentary evidence that is now coming to light leads to that variable geometry of Franco in the face of the Holocaust. "The position was a myth as a humanitarian salvation, it was taken for a diplomatic issue and thinking about international politics," concludes the historian.
So was Franco anti-Jewish? "In what year? That would be the right question," answers the researcher, who points to the series of articles against the Jews that the general signed under a pseudonym in 1949 in the Francoist publication Arriba. In his opinion, "after having reviewed all this documentation, I believe that Franco was a profoundly anti-Jewish person, with a conviction inherited from nineteenth-century National Catholicism, but he knew that he should limit his statements in certain contexts."
While the dictator Franco meandered through a complex political labyrinth to consolidate the regime, in Spain the first voices denouncing the Holocaust appeared in the literary territory of poetry. A decade ago, Professor Sultana Wahnón identified in a poem by the Zamoran author León Felipe the first allusions to the Holocaust, without express terms about the genocide, the Auschwitz camps or Anne Frank, but with metaphors referring to the Jewish people and the Old Testament. : Job, God the Father or the very suggestive expression "Himalayas of ashes".
Those verses were entitled Let me speak again and were included by León Felipe in his work Ganarás la luz, from 1943. "It could be the first poem alluding to the Holocaust in Spanish poetry. I felt very honored to see that this theory has been accepted on the Leon Felipe Foundation and that has given rise to an exhibition", says the professor of Theory of Literature and Comparative Literature at the University of Granada.
To find the first unequivocal references, you have to go back a little in time, to the 1960s. Then, León Felipe dedicates a section of Oh, this old and broken violin! to denounce the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. On the other hand, Professor Wahnón specifies, Max Aub will be the author who would dedicate the most creations to this subject. "It is logical if we take into account that Aub, in addition to being a republican and socialist, was Jewish," she clarifies. Other writers, such as Jorge Guillén or Rafael Alberti, would also commit themselves to the cause.
In any case, Spanish creators were not the earliest critics in Europe. "There is a small difference with European writers: the great literature of the Holocaust in the 1940s is the work of Jews, above all, of the survivors: Primo Levi, Paul Celan... or Anne Frank herself."
Sultana Wahnón explains that "the Spanish Jewish communities in Ceuta, Melilla, Madrid or Barcelona were small, and did not have the weight of the European ones". Yes, there were, points out the professor, "fire warnings" in the thirties. "They were intellectuals who confirmed that what was said about what was happening in Germany was true, as in the case of the journalist Manuel Chaves Nogales or the poet Antonio Machado."
Beyond the impeccable aesthetics of the exhibition A collection of tears. León Felipe and the Holocaust gathering, the sample that inspires from Zamora the debate on Spain, Nazism and the Jews unfolds the story of several significant characters in the denunciation of the genocide, whose lives opportunely intertwine as in a game of sleight of hand. The testimonies of him, which were silent among the materials of the legacy of the poet León Felipe, now come to light to tell an exciting story in several acts.
A preserved engraving refers to the multifaceted figure of the Spanish María Teresa Toral, a committed defender of the republican cause, imprisoned three times and saved from the death penalty, in extremis, due to pressure from the United States. The intellectual she emigrated to Mexico in the fifties and there, using her knowledge as a scientist and chemist, she experimented with her great passion, engraving. In the Aztec country, she met other exiles, such as León Felipe, whose poem Auschwitz inspired an etching that is now part of the exhibition.
Second act. In 1965, Toral created another engraving on the Jewish theme entitled "Shadows of Terezín", based on a poem written by Pavel Friedman, a concentration camp inmate outside Prague. Upon seeing it, a Ukrainian musician and conductor of Jewish origin was hypnotized, and decided to compose the piece Balada de Terezín, whose manuscript stave is also part of the exhibition. It was about Lan Adomián, whose admiration for that etching went much further. Determined to meet the author, Adomián would end up marrying María Teresa Toral. Both share with León Felipe that imaginary "Holocaust gathering" closing a magic circle.
The curious thing - underlines Alberto Martín, curator of the exhibition - is that the montage has given up including the still painful photographs of the Nazi Holocaust that we all have in our retinas. Instead, explains the coordinator of cultural activities of the León Felipe Foundation, the room is "a space for reflection", almost in darkness, with a predominance of black and white. The texts and photographs of prominent creators who wrote against Nazism, from Dámaso Alonso to the Cervantes Joan Margarit Prize, round off this new look at an inexhaustible theme.