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Juan Romero, one of the last Spanish Republican fighters

Stéphanie Trouillard, FRANCE 24 | Juan Romero at his home in Aÿ, in the Champagne region of eastern France.

He was one of nearly half a million Republicans who fled to France at the end of the Spanish civil war. Juan Romero was then deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Germany during WWII. Now aged 99, he shared his experiences with France 24.

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Juan Romero has lived many lives. As a Spanish republican fighter, refugee, legionnaire, concentration camp prisoner, and, finally, a naturalised French citizen, he has borne direct witness to the turbulent history of the twentieth century.

As he contemplates his 100th birthday next month – sitting peacefully at home in the small town of Aÿ, amidst the vineyards of France’s Champagne region – he does so with his memories intact. “There were many, many horrors,” he says in a slightly shy voice, tinged with an unmistakable Spanish accent.

In February 1939, Romero was one of nearly 500,000 Spanish Republicans who sought refuge in France after General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists won the three year-long Spanish Civil War.

After growing up in a small town in the southern province of Andalusia, he took up arms in July 1936, in response to Franco’s military coup against the Second Spanish Republic. “They killed a lot of people – my neighbours, good people,” Romero recalls. “I was young, and, along with some friends, I immediately left home to fight.”

The Romero family | Juan Romero wearing the Spanish Republican army uniform, November 1936.

War, exile, and more war

At just 17, Romero was plunged right into the civil war: “It was hard. I fought in the Battle of the Ebro” – in Catalonia in 1938, the longest battle of the conflict, and a heavy defeat for the Republicans. “There was a machine gun on one side, and I fell into the water, but I was lucky; others drowned”, he says. “A shell landed right next to me, and if it had exploded, it would have torn me to pieces,” he continues.

But when the capture of Barcelona presaged an imminent victory for Franco’s Nationalists in January 1939, Romero was forced to seek refuge in France. The French authorities put him in the Vernet camp in the Ariège region, just across the border from Spain.

>> Read more: The painful past of Spanish Civil War refugees in France, 80 years on

The conditions were appalling. Nearly 12,000 Spanish Republicans were crammed into dilapidated shacks: “There were many of us, and there wasn’t even a toilet – we did it in front of everyone,” Romero recalls. “I didn’t want to stay there.”

To escape the camp, he decided to join the French Foreign Legion. After a few months in Algeria, he returned to France as the Second World War broke out. But then in July 1940, surrounded by German forces, he was taken prisoner in the Vosges region of northeastern France.

The Romero family | Juan Romero wearing a deportee uniform.

The hell of the Nazi concentration camp

Along with numerous comrades, he was sent to a stalag, a prison camp in Germany. Although he was now thousands of miles from Spain, his past soon caught up with him. As a former Republican combatant, he was transferred to Mauthasen concentration camp in Austria in August 1941, with 7,000 of his exiled compatriots.

“Franco told Hitler that we were Bolsheviks,” Romero says. “Of 21 Spaniards in my group of legionnaires, we were reduced to three.”

He still struggles to understand how he survived: “I was lucky to be part of a group that looked after the deportees' clothes, otherwise I’d have been [doing hard labour] at the quarry every day. There, if you were tired and you couldn’t walk, the SS would shoot you. But in the laundry room, they left us alone, and sometimes we’d find something to eat in the pockets of the clothes.”

Romero would rather not dwell on this period, and is even less inclined to play the hero. He's still haunted by the four years he spent at Mauthausen. One episode in particular sticks in his memory: “A group of Jews entered the camp, and I saw a young girl pass by. She smiled at me; the poor thing didn’t know she was going to the gas chamber. I would have hugged her, but if I did, the SS would have sent me in there as well,” he says in a quavering voice. “I'll never forget that moment. It really troubled me; they killed them every day, but that poor kid was innocent.”

Stéphanie Trouillard, France 24 | Bernard Romero (R), Juan's son, and Patrick Sanchez (L), the son of another Spanish Republican fighter, either side of a plaque in honour of the former Republican combatants who settled in the town.

‘I always had hope’

On May 5, 1945, Mauthausen was finally liberated by American troops. Romero was one of 2,000 Spanish Republicans who got out of there alive. After his repatriation to France, he spent several weeks in a reception centre in Aÿ, before being sent to the Lutétia hotel in Paris, which hosted returning deportees.

A decree by Franco stripped Romero and all of his former Republican comrades of their citizenship, so he was unable to return to Spain. He terminated his contract with the Foreign Legion and decided to stay in Aÿ, where he had made friends, who suggested that he work in the vineyards.

Romero subsequently met his wife, a French woman, with whom he went on to have four children, and became a naturalised French in 1953. But he had to wait until 1960 before he could go back to Spain and be reunited with his family there.

Nevertheless, he never went back to Andalusia for good. He settled in Aÿ along with twenty other Republicans who had been deported to Mauthausen, forming a group of Spaniards who made a lasting impression on the town. A plaque in their honour was inaugurated at the Aÿ War Memorial in early February, and their children now keep their memory alive.

“This plaque is important because it shows the names of people who fought for what they believed in,” Patrick Sanchez, the son of one of those Republicans, told FRANCE 24. “Those people who couldn’t go back to their country made a life for themselves here – and despite all the horrors they’d experienced, they wanted to live.”

Eighty years after fleeing Spain, Romero is one of the last witnesses of these events. As his centenary approaches, he continues to enjoy every minute. At the end of the interview, he insists on bringing out the champagne. “I always had hope,” he says before bringing the glass to his lips. “That’s what kept me going.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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