A group of soldiers walk toward a fighter jet that is in mid-flight. A line crosses the map of Spain indicating the long journey that took a prisoner from Barcelona to the small Pontevedra town of Oia. A pig’s head on a tray seems to hint at the desire to face a monumental feast. A calendar from May 1939 with the days crossed out under a text that reads: “Freedom month”. A phrase that reads: “Here came the day 12-2-39 Eugenio Blanco”. The phrase is completed by a fellow in captivity with a very different letter: “Here came the day 12-2-39 Eugenio Blanco and left pal graveyard on 4/16/39 “.
Part of the history of the Francoist concentration system was captured on the walls of the Santa María de Oia Monastery through the graffiti made by the prisoners. In this monumental building, erected in the 12th century, Franco established one of the 300 concentration camps that were operational between 1936 and 1947 and through which nearly a million men and women passed. Oia came into operation as early as 1937, although it was two years later when it reached full capacity, reaching more than 3,000 captives within its walls.
The living conditions were terrible: mistreatment, hunger, lack of hygiene and diseases that became fatal due to the absence of doctors and nurses. “It was terrifying because we had an exanthematous typhus epidemic. Those young boys died … very many,” recalled prisoner Josep Subirats. “There was no toilet, it was a ditch. And the poor man who was there, a soldier came, kicked him and threw him into the ditch with all the crap,” recounted Francisco Miñarro, another of the forced ‘guests’ of the monastery. None could forget, especially, one of the Francoist officers who served as the head of the concentration camp: Maximino Pérez Varela. The captives baptized him as “Captain Chestnut” because he fed them, almost exclusively, with that fruit. Eduardo Pérez Míguez, who in those years was an altar boy in the monastery, witnessed that black period: “I saw food being made hundreds of times, if you can call it that. That was black water. I was throwing some chestnuts! not many! The one who got a happy era “. At least 24 prisoners starved to death between March and April 1939 alone.
Anguish, wishes, complaints and pleas on the walls
In June 1939, the dictator decided to close the concentration camp and transfer the prisoners who were still living there to other areas. From that moment the building remained abandoned. A Galician family bought it in 1945 for 60,000 pesetas (just over 350 euros). For decades a small area was enabled as a private home while the rest of the monastery was deteriorating. Very few knew the secret that housed the first floor of the western wing of the so-called Patio de los Naranjos. On the peeling, damp walls they resisted the simple drawings, calendars, and phrases the prisoners had painted. These works of incalculable historical value seemed doomed to disappear. Already in democracy, various associations unsuccessfully requested the Xunta de Galicia to intervene to guarantee the conservation of the paintings. The fate of the ‘guernicas’ was at the mercy of the criteria and the whim of the various companies that, successively, acquired the property to carry out hotel projects that never came to fruition.
Fortunately, the current owners were aware from the beginning of what they were dealing with: “We acquired the building in November 2004 and in 2005 we had already started the restoration work on collapsed roofs, including those that should protect the walls from written “, remarks Xoán Martínez, general director of the monastery. Its objective was and is to remove Santa María de Oia from the state of ruin in which it is located and rehabilitate it as a hotel that especially exploits its nearly 1,000 years of history: “Sustainability must not only be economic. It must go in all directions achieving social, cultural and environmental sustainability while maintaining coherence with its history, “says Martínez. The company has already invested 5 million euros, but the project has not just taken off: “The biggest challenge is bureaucratic complexity and the involvement of so many institutions … the Oia Council and five entities dependent on the Xunta.”
Museum and cultural space
While waiting for permits that never came, Martínez decided to advance, at least, in the museumization of the monastery: “The writings and drawings were photographed and recorded, oral testimonies were collected and contacts were maintained with the university academic world. Those relationships were enriched with the contacts and visits of survivors or their relatives, who gave us priceless experiences. ” At the same time, the Friends of the Monastery of Oia Cultural Association (ACAMO) carried out an extraordinary analysis of the drawings that were reflected in the book. With another look, horror in the Spanish civil war in the Oia Monastery.
Finally, in March of last year, we proceeded to extract the drawings and display them. In November they were exhibited for the first time to the public, but, after the forced stoppage caused by the pandemic, since July 1 they have been exhibited in one of the rooms of the monastery itself. Initially, there are 16 showcases divided into four thematic blocks in which the visitor immerses himself reading testimonies from prisoners and residents of Oia. In the block “The War” you can see war scenes, especially aerial battles. In “El Tiempo” calendars drawn on the wall by prisoners are displayed to account for their days in captivity. “Los Pensamientos” allows us to get to know some of the captives’ fantasies: succulent dishes, sports cars, scenes from the longed-for everyday life … The last series, “Las Palabras”, brings together some sentences written by the captives. They record his arrival: “Here came the day 12-2-39 Antonio Cubero, natural from Valenzuela (Córdoba) and 29 years old”; express their misery: “Here is paying everything that the greatest unfortunate of this life reveals (sic) …”; or they try to make merits to regain freedom: “Up Spain”.
In the warehouse there are many other works that will gradually be incorporated into the exhibition. They reflect female figures, tables full of food and sad messages: “General Franco, don’t give us more chestnuts”, “We will see (sic) the exit when I see it”, “This is where the day passed on 12-2-39 FAI comrade Fernando Barnet and he left forever. ”
The exhibition with the ‘guernicas’ of the prisoners is only a small part of the guided tour of the monastery. For about an hour and a half its ten centuries of history are traversed while walking among courtyards, cloisters and monumental rooms. The cultural focus of the project also includes the celebration of concerts, conferences and exhibitions.
It is a small part, but it is the most problematic. Although the historical description of what happened is done with absolute objectivity, there have already been some cases of visitors expressing their contempt for prisoners. These specific problems have not led Xoán Martínez to reconsider the need to maintain the exhibition: “We have an obligation to defend and show this heritage even if we do not have public support. The writings are a unique testimony of a key stage in the history of Spain. What we do is show them within the historical context of the monastery, along with other elements from other times also very relevant. We protect and show what came into our hands. By pure responsibility. From there, each one can draw their conclusions ” .