The Woman Who Defied Franco and Hitler

I have always admired strong women. I come from a long line of them, my female ancestors were farmers and ranchers’ wives, immigrants, wives of military men and many had upwards of five to ten children. They didn’t have easy lives, but they stood up for what they believed in and they believed in the power of women. It seems that, even today in the 21st century, women are still discovering their own power. Their power in voting, buying and building communities. Todays women are almost shadows to those who came before us, and we need to remember how powerful women are when we lift up and support each other.

 

Family and Franco

Today I want to share with you the story of another powerful woman, as there have been many stories already shared in this blog. Her name was Neus Catala. Neus was born in Els Guiamets, Spain on October 6, 1915. Els Guiamets is a small area just south of Barcelona and not far from the southern French border. Her parents Rosa Palleja and Bahasar Catala, were part of a free-thinking family.

In 1929 at the age of fourteen Neus demanded that women working the areas grape harvest be paid the same amount as a man doing the same work. It is not known if she succeeded, but it took a lot of moxie to ask for that in a time before women’s liberation.

By the 1930’s Neus joins the communist youth, she remained a card carrying communist her entire life. Her beliefs reinforced by what she would witness under Franco and Hitler. In 1936 when the Spanish Civil war began, Neus moved to Barcelona and became a nurse, receiving her diploma in 1937.

When Barcelona fell to Franco’s fascist troops in 1939, she was in charge of the Les Acacies Orphanage in Premia, a town just to the north of Barcelona. She was tasked with caring for one hundred and eighty orphaned children, most whom were victims of the civil war and had lost their families. To keep the children safe and out of the hands of the Franco regime, Neus lead the children on a daring escape!

Through snow and falling bombs, Neus led the children across the Pyrenees mountains and into France. Hitlers war was yet to enter France, thus for awhile she and the children were safe. She led them just beyond Toulouse, and into the small town of Carsac-Alliac.

 

Neus in Ravensbruck.

Taking on Hitler

Once settled in Carsac, Neus began working with the resistance. It was already clear that Hitler would not stop with Poland, he wanted all of Europe under his control. She worked tirelessly with the resistance and eventually became the leader of her group.

After the war, Neus was quoted as saying “in the civil war and the second world war, we women were not assistants, we were fighters”. As the second world war raged on across Europe, Neus continued her fight against the Nazis, but found time to marry a man named Albert Roger, a French citizen. Together they worked against the Nazi’s. Neus would often carry weapons, false papers and coded messages through Nazi checkpoints, using her charm and wit to successfully evade capture.

She could not evade capture forever. In November of 1943 she was arrested by the Gestapo. After her arrest she was taken to Limoges where she was tortured and interrogated. A few months later, in February of 1944, she became prisoner #27534 in the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp. In Ravensbruck she witnessed the deaths of her friends. The seven women she shared a hut with, were all killed. Sometime between 1944 and 1945, she was transferred from Ravensbruck to Flossenberg, where she was forced labor to mine granite. She also worked in an ammunitions factory where she sabotaged bullets and bombs. After Flossenberg, she was sent to Bergen-Belsen.

She was released at the end of the war from Bergen-Belsen and shortly thereafter, her husband passed away.

 

Neus, daughter Margeritte and niece Rosana. 1957

Post War Life

After the war Neus moved on with her life, she remarried another Spanish exile named Felix Sancho. They had two children together, Margarita and Lluis, both of which surprised her as she had thought that the medical experiments, she underwent in Ravensbruck had left her sterile.

After the Franco regime fell in 1978, she and Felix returned to Spain and settled in Rubi, near Barcelona. She devoted her time to leading anti-fascist movements, including the Amical de Ravensbruck, an anti-fascist group of Ravensbruck survivors. She spoke to children at school about her experiences where she was known for her directness and passion.

She also tracked down other Ravensbruck camp survivors and collected their stories into a book, Resistance and Deportation: 50 Testimonies of Spanish Women. The book was published in 1984.

In 2010 she suffered a bad fall that sent her to a convalescent home in her home town. While there she worked with Carme Marti on a novelized version of her life called Un Cel de Plum (A Leaden Sky) that was published in 2012.

Neus was also widely honored Catalonia, 2015 was Officially Neus Catala Year.

Neus receiving one of her accolades.

Neus passed away at the age of 103 on April 13, 2019. She was the last living survivor of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Her obituary was carried by the Washington Post, New York Times and The Gaudian newspapers. Throughout her post war life, she received several commendations from various groups:

2005 Creu de Sant Jordi

2006 EUiA Alternative Prize

2007 Prem. Dignitat of the Comissio de la Dignitat

2014 Gold Medal for Civic Merit of the city of Barcelona

2015 (the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Ravensbruck) Centennial Medal of the Generalitat

Throughout her life Neus fought for what she believed in. She risked her life so that others could be free and live their own lives, she fought to make sure orphaned children were allowed to grow up and become free citizens to make their lives an example of her courage. We should all be as courageous as Neus and the other men and women whose stories I have told and will continue to tell in this blog.

 

It takes great courage to stand up and say that something is wrong, but it takes even greater courage to fight against it. It doesn’t matter if the fight is a protest march, a letter writing campaign or a sticker on your car bumper, it takes great courage to stand up for what you believe. In America we talk a lot about people’s rights, I was always taught that my rights ended when they infringed on someone else’s. I often wonder what this world would be like if we all started just respecting each other, loving each other and learning how to live and support each other in positive ways. We will never fully agree on each other’s beliefs or ideals, but we can learn to live and love each other and build a better world for all of us.

I hope that you have enjoyed this blog and will share it with your friends and family. I will be back in to share more stories of courage and strength with you, until next time!

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