After our previous posts about the events of the Dutch 322 squadron in England we will take you back to the continental exodus of refugees. It is now Christmas 1942, exactly 75 years ago, and we are at prison of war camp Miranda de Ebro at the foot of the snow covered Spanish Pyrenees.
1. Some of the sleeping facilities at camp Miranda de Ebro in Spain, Christmas 1942
Shortly before, in November 1942, Vichy-France (the free southern zone of France) was occupied by the Germans. As a result, hundreds of refugees in the area fled across the Pyrenees to ‘neutral’ Spain without the necessary visa they had been desperately waiting for.
Unfortunately Spain’s neutrality turned out to be a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothes due to ties between the fascist Spanish government and the Nazi's. Once on Spanish soil, having braved the snowy mountains on foot, the refugees were soon arrested by the Spanish police, the Guardia Civil, who patrolled the Pyrenees’ border areas traveling on donkeys. These vigilant policemen, with their peculiar trapezium shaped hats, had one simple mission: to pick up all foreigners without proper papers, handcuff and chain them and put them on a train to Miranda de Ebro, situated in the barren northern plains of Castilia.
By the end of 1942, the number of detainees in Miranda (among whom our 17 year old father) had risen to a record number of over 5000. Although Miranda was not a death camp, conditions were atrocious and many suffered or even died from malnutrition or diseases.
The white concrete barracks were bulging with prisoners. There was a lack of everything: sleeping places, blankets, medication and latrines. At mealtimes the meager distribution of food caused a strong competition between the many different nationalities. The Spanish guards, though not intentionally cruel, did not shy away from beating up everyone who stepped out of line.
2. Washing facilities at Miranda de Ebro
Escape from this camp was not an option due to severe security measures. There was a legal way out of this camp through mediation by diplomacy and the supply of visa. Unfortunately for the Dutch prisoners the Dutch government-in-exile in London was not very pro-active or creative in this respect. Whereas the British military attaché weekly managed to set free English, Canadian and South-African detainees, for Dutch citizens many months went by without a single detainee being released.
Adopting a fake Anglosaxon identity was therefore common practice among refugees. Historian Fernàndez Lòpez:
‘The number of prisoners with exotic names and without knowledge of the English language who claimed to be French Canadians was indeed fenomenal.’
For example, our dear friend, Dutch Engelandvaarder Charles Bartelings (now 96!), called himself Charly Brooks.
Still a growing adolescent, our father became more undernourished than most of his fellow inmates. But just like the others, he adopted strong and creative survival strategies as will be revealed in our future book. Last but not least there was hope, which makes this a true Christmas story, we think.
'En verder hoorden we niets..'. Nederlandse geïnterneerden van het Spaanse concentratiekamp te Miranda de Ebro 1940-1944. Doctoraalscriptie Nieuwste Geschiedenis VU, Amsterdam - Yap, Ruud, 2004
Historia del Campo de Miranda de Ebro (1937-1947) - Lòpez, J.A.F., 2003
1. Watercolour by unknown artist. Private collection Charles Bartelings
2. Photo source: https://lasmerindadesenlamemoria.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/campo-de-concentracion-de-miranda-de-ebro-1937-1947/