In just a few icy days in February of 1939, approximately 500,000 refugees hiked from Spain to France, fleeing the invading army as their own side lost the Civil War. France, swamped with people they neither wanted nor were prepared to accommodate, panicked. Refugee families were separated and soldiers had to turn over their weapons as all were packed into hastily assembled concentration camps throughout the south of France. Conditions were terrible, and disease and hopelessness ran rampant behind the barbed wire. This was the Retirada.
Only a year later, France fell to Hitler’s forces, and the southern regions where the Spanish refugees settled were organized under the collaborationist Vichy regime. Primarily leftists, the Spanish Republicans were now seen as political opponents of the regime, and persecution increased. The concentration camps that were built to house the Spanish were used to collect Jews, Roma, and other undesirables. Over 9,000 Spanish refugees were sent to extermination camps in Nazi Germany, while many who remained in France were conscripted into force labor. However, most remained staunchly opposed to fascism, and many Spanish refugees of the Retirada filled the ranks of the French Resistance. Still others joined the Free French Forces that would help liberate France in 1945.
Over 70 years later, the legacy of these refugees is largely forgotten outside of the southernmost parts of France, where their descendants remain and keep the memory of the Retirada alive. However, images of this period abound, reminding those who see them that despite the humiliation of defeat and difficulties of statelessness, the refugees of the Retirada refuse to be forgotten.