Neus Català obituary: Dogged anti-fascist, resistance fighter and Nazi camp survivor

Català led 182 orphans across snow-covered Pyrenees to safety in France

Neus Català (100) poses for a portrait on    July 12th, 2016 in Els Guiamets, Spain. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

Neus Català (100) poses for a portrait on July 12th, 2016 in Els Guiamets, Spain. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

 

Neus Català 
Born: October 6th, 1915 
Died: April 13th, 2019

In early 1939, when General Francisco Franco’s troops invaded Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, Neus Català led 182 orphans in her charge out of the mayhem and across the snow-covered Pyrenees to safety in France.

It was just one episode in a lifetime of anti-fascist resistance that Català, who died on April 13th at 103, would demonstrate.

She then fought with the French Resistance against the Nazis but was captured by the Germans and deported to the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp in northern Germany.

From Ravensbrück, Català was transferred to the Flossenbürg camp, where she was part of a forced labour group that quarried granite and sabotaged bullets and bombs while working in a munitions factory.

Long after the war was over, she tracked down other survivors of Ravensbrück, gathered their remembrances and published them in the book Resistance and Deportation: 50 Testimonies of Spanish Women (1984). The European press reported that at the time of her death she had been the last living Spanish survivor of Ravensbrück.

“Neus Català dedicated her whole life to explaining the horror of what must never happen again,” Quim Torra, the president of Catalonia, said after her death. Torra said she was “a clear voice for freedom and against barbarity”.

Grape harvest

Neus Català (nay-OOS cat-a-LAH) was born on October 6th, 1915, in Els Guiamets in Catalonia, Spain, where she was raised. Her father, Baltasar Català, was the town barber and also cultivated olives and grapes with the help of his wife, Rosa Palleja.

She began working in the fields at 14. During the grape harvest, she showed early signs of her willfulness, demanding equal pay for girls, which she succeeded in winning.

With the advent of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, she became active with a communist youth group in Catalonia and moved to Barcelona to study nursing, earning her degree in 1937. Her hope was to work in a hospital, but she was put in charge of an orphanage.

In early 1939, with Franco’s forces moving in, Català, at the age of 23, rounded up the orphans and marched them over the Pyrenees. In France, she found shelter for them and helped place them in foster homes.

She soon put down roots in France in the Dordogne region and married Albert Roger, a French citizen. When Hitler invaded France in 1940, she and her husband became active in the French Resistance. Català quickly evolved from being a Spanish exile to becoming an active partisan.

She and her husband helped captured Resistance fighters escape and gave them refuge. She would hide messages, falsified documents and even weapons under her headscarf or in baskets of vegetables and carry them daily by bicycle or bus through Nazi checkpoints.

And she was armed. “We women were not assistants,” she wrote at the age of 97 in her memoir, Testimony of a Survivor (2012). “We were fighters.”

In 1943, the couple was exposed and arrested. Català was held and tortured in Limoges and in 1944 was deported to Ravensbrück; her husband was sent to another camp.

Concentration camps

Ravensbrück was built for women but was no less lethal than other concentration camps. In all, more than 132,000 women and children were incarcerated there, with an estimated 92,000 of them dying by starvation, execution or illness.

At Flossenbürg, in Bavaria, where about 30,000 prisoners died, she worked in an arms factory.

“We used sabotage to produce about 10 million faulty bullets and thousands of unusable artillery shells,” she said in a 2013 interview with a Spanish trade union magazine. “We threw everything into the production line – flies, cockroaches, oil, our own spit.”

By the time the camp was liberated in 1945, she was near death. “We were just skulls with eyes,” she told the magazine. “I was a bag of bones.” Her husband had died.

With Franco still in power in Spain, she went to the home of her parents, who by then had settled in France, as had roughly half a million other self-exiled Spaniards.

She rebuilt her life and went on to marry Felix Sancho, a Spanish exile, and to have two children – a minor miracle considering the injections that women in Ravensbrück were given as part of medical “experiments” to make them stop menstruating so they could not reproduce.

Furious that Franco had not been overthrown along with Hitler and Mussolini, Català resumed her anti-fascist work, acting as a messenger for the Spanish Communist Party’s underground network.

After her husband – and Franco – died in the 1970s, she moved back to Catalonia. Several years later, she moved back to Els Guiamets, the village where she was born and where she died. Her daughter, Margarita Català, announced her death.

In addition to her daughter, her survivors include her son, Luis.

Even at the age of 100, she continued her work in the Communist Party and, over the years, received many awards, including the Croix de Guerre from France.

– New York Times