It is 80 years since one of Europe’s worst – and least known – refugee crises, but memories of the Retirada (or withdrawal) are still vivid for Madeleine Morena. Her family were among 500,000 Spaniards who fled across the eastern Pyrenees to France when Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces near the end of the Spanish civil war on 26 January 1939, triggering one of the greatest exoduses of modern times.
Photos and documentary footage show the incredible sight of half a million people pouring towards the border towns of Puigcerdà in Spain, and Prats-de-Mollo and Le Perthus in France – women and children, Republican fighters carrying weapons, members of the International brigades. The local French newspaper, L’Indépendant, described “a haunting cohort of civilians, armed soldiers, vehicles and animals”.
“I was six years old when Barcelona fell,” says Morena, speaking in the village of Vinça, nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees. “My father and uncle were Republican fighters so we had to flee our village near the French border. I left with my mother, brother, aunt, and grandparents. My grandfather was furious, saying: ‘Why do we have to leave? I’ve done nothing wrong.’ Everyone was panicking and I was very scared. We knew we were in danger. We just took clothes and a few possessions. I had my doll.
“The roads gave out near France so we had to walk over the Col D’Ares pass. It was bitterly cold and there was snow. We had to abandon our belongings, we couldn’t carry them. We found a hut to sleep in. The man who owned it came. It turned out he was a distant relation and in the morning he took me on his shoulders and we walked into France.”
Numerous events will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Retirada, which came to an end on 13 February 1939 when Franco’s army reached the French border. There will be photo displays on Argelès beach, exhibitions in every village near former camps, lectures, performances, and a new website. But for many years there has been silence and denial.