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The refuges who escaped the Nazis via Málaga

The Docfield Festival in Barcelona uncovers the unknown escape of thousands of French via Málaga port during the Second World War

It was Christmas 1943 when Europe entered the fourth year of the self-destructive II World War. Spain presumed neutrality without belligerence, but also hid her sympathies for the Germans who had supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

Jacques Leonard

Occupied France was split between Nazi collaborators and those in the Resistance, and many French then escaped over the Pyrenees towards Spain. Here, they were not exactly welcomed with open arms, but the dictator Government at least granted these refugees tickets to board a liberty ship from Málaga

The exhibition in Barcelona has uncovered this chapter in Spanish history thanks to the French photographer Jacques Leonard, who portrayed in thirty prints the fleeing French escaping from the Nazis via Málaga port.

‘The images show youngsters showing their identity cards, name and surname, a first order source which illustrates French refugees leaving Spanish ports’ explained the Catalan historian Josep Clavet, a specialist in the odyssey of refuges passing through Spain during the war, and who considers these images are ‘probably the only graphic material which has been hidden for decades and forgotten by Spain’.

All the images were part of an exhibition ‘Fugitives, 29 December 1943’ which form part of the program for the Festival of Documental Photography Docfield in Barcelona, on display in the Marc Domenech gallery.

Of the thirty negatives discovered, some 20 correspond to Málaga, with pictures taken inside the Málaga bullring showing columns of those in exile waiting for the ships to take them over to Africa. A wait of some several days, showing plates of food prepared for the refugees. At night, they slept on straw mattresses, according to witnesses collect by Clavet from the hidden collection of the French reporter.

‘Apart from exceptional portraits, the images hold something more than documental value, capturing the humanist view of Leonard’ sustains the coordinator of the exposition, María Planas, who declared herself to be ‘fascinated’ by the black & white images.

The Frenchman arrived in Spain in 1940 searching for locations for a film by Abel Gance on Cristóbal Colón, but the arrival of war halted the plans. He then obtained collaborative work with Spanish film producers and in 1952 he made Barcelona his home, where he fell in deep love with Rosario Amaya, a gypsy model used by painters. Then he embarked on a career of a professional photographer starting with the gypsy community, for which he was recognised.

‘This is surprising as these images were taken in 1943 before he became professional’ noted María Planas, who manages the Jacques Leonard fund, which forms part of more than 18,000 negatives collected years ago by the Barcelona Photographic Archive.

The reporter confessed to his sons that during the II World War he was collaborating with Spain via the French resistance, although they were unware that their father reached Málaga to portrait the exodus of his compatriots from the Nazis. Images charged with humanity, one showing a refugee with his dog with a Red Cross badge who had provided wooden shoes for some of the expatriates.

Jacques Leonard

The very Leonard published an article in 1957 relating this episode and gave thanks to the 20,000 women, men and children who had managed to escape the brutality of the Second World War, most taken over 13 exhibitions which left Málaga for Africa. Decades later, with peace across Europe, these images are the prologue to the internal history of exiles searching for their futures. Tragically such migrations have reversed in direction.