Neus Català i Pallejà (1915—2019)

Neus Català i Pallejà (1915—2019).jpg

Neus Català i Pallejà was born in 1915 in Els Guiamets, a village with 500 inhabitants in Priorat, a mountainous wine-producing region west of Barcelona. She was born in October, but her date of birth was registered as June 15 because her grandfather put the wrong date. She sometimes celebrated both birthdays.

Her father, Baltasar Català, was a barber and her mother, Rosa Pallejà, was a housewife. Her parents liked telling stories to Català and her brother, Lluís. A favourite was about Spartacus, the gladiator who took part in the slave rebellion against the Roman Empire that started in 73BC. It was to prove prophetic because Català, in her own way, challenged the might of the Third Reich.Even as a teenager she was imbued with the spirit of woman-to-woman solidarity that would sustain her through her wartime imprisonment, and took part in a women’s strike. “She was very politically independent. She was a natural feminist before these feminist organisations existed,” said her daughter, Margarita Català.When the Second Spanish Republic was declared in 1931, the ripples caused by the arrival of a socialist government reached Català’s remote village. She joined the youth wing of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia, moved to Barcelona and trained to be a nurse.When the country descended into civil war in 1936, she was caring for orphans and children of political refugees at a home north of Barcelona. Three years later, with Franco’s nationalist forces closing in on victory, she took 182 children across the border into France. They were known as the Children of Negrín, after Juan Negrín, the president of the Second Republic, who was forced into exile. She made sure they were adopted.Like many other Spanish left-wing exiles, she joined the French Resistance, through which she met her first husband, Albert Roger. They married in 1942 and their house was used to pass messages, documents and guns, and for sheltering political refugees. “Our honeymoon was to find a place where the Maquis could meet,” remembered Català.Their luck ran out in 1943 when they were betrayed by a local chemist and were arrested by the Gestapo. Both were tortured. Català was sent to a prison camp and deported the next year to Ravensbrück. Roger was sent to Sachsenhausen camp, but later died in Bergen-Belsen.Neus Català felt she was transformed from a human being into nothing more than a number, in her case 27,534, after entering Ravensbrück, a concentration camp that held only women prisoners.

She recalled that her captors treated her as if she was “worth less than a dog or a horse”, yet she refused to let them crush her spirit and lived to be one of the last survivors of the 130,000 French, Polish, Dutch and Russian women who entered the camp. More than half of them died there.Like many women, Català had to undergo humiliating medical checks carried out by the SS medics as she stood naked. They were subjected to gynaecological checks without any of the normal standards of hygiene. She said that if any woman was liked by one of the camp guards, they could end up in the camp brothel, from which no one emerged alive.

When she fell ill, camp medics believed she might have caught tuberculosis. A positive diagnosis would have meant execution. “For a week, before a second check-up, she believed she would die, but other inmates tried to help her pull through by cheering her up,” said a friend who did not want to be named. In the end, it was a false alarm.She had only been in Ravensbrück a month when the camp guards identified her as a “good worker” and sent her to Holleischen camp in the former Czechoslovakia to work in an armaments factory. Eager to sabotage the Nazi war effort, there she formed a group who called themselves the Lazy Commandos. They risked their lives by spitting into the powder used to make bullets and shells, having been told that this would compromise their effectiveness.Català was no stranger to covert operations of this sort, having joined the French Resistance after fleeing Spain when Franco’s nationalist forces won the civil war in 1939. The chance to resume surreptitiously disrupting the Nazi war machine gave her and her fellow inmates the strength to endure their captivity. They were charged with producing 10,000 bullets or shells each month, but claimed to have rendered thousands unusable.By the time the camp was liberated in 1945 she and her comrades were desperately ill. “We were just skulls with eyes,” she later said.

After the war, she returned to France and started her psychological recovery. However, Català was so damaged physically, she had to spend time in two medical homes. One compensation was that it was there that she met her second husband, Félix Sancho, who had also fought in the resistance.She presumed that because of what she had been through in the camp she would never be able to have children, but one day, thinking she had a bad stomach, discovered she was in fact pregnant. Her daughter, Margarita, became a psychologist. The couple also had a son, Lluís, who is the director of a library.From her home in Sarcelles, near Paris, she ran the International Committee of Ravensbrück and made it her job to try to collect the testimonies of all those Spanish women who had died in the camp. Her work was made harder because many Spaniards were classed by officials as French, having fled across the border at the end of the Spanish Civil War. She said later in life that her memories of Ravensbrück were always in black and white, never in colour.After years of campaigning, the German government conceded that part of the memorial at the site of the original Ravensbrück camp should be dedicated to the Spanish women who died there. From a grim prison cell, it became a site of remembrance.She remained a member of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia and continued her efforts to try to undermine the long dictatorship of Franco, which lasted from the end of the civil war in 1939 until his death in 1975.Sometimes she would flit across the border into Spain undercover and was photographed in Barcelona in 1957, strolling along La Rambla with her daughter. She was able to do this because she had French nationality through her first husband. She returned to Spain in 1978.In 2005 Català gained widespread recognition when she published From the Resistance to the Deportation: 50 Testimonies of Spanish Women. It told the stories of Spaniards who first fought Franco, then the Nazis before being sent to concentration camps. The book came just before Spain’s then Socialist government passed a law to grant greater redress to the victims of Franco.“She spent most of her life fighting against fascism, if not on the barricades, then by keeping alive the memory of those who died at the hands of the Nazis,” recalled Elisenda Belenguer, who wrote a biography of Català.Even as Català lay in her rest home days before her death, her daughter said she could be heard singing Italian and Russian revolutionary songs to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Second Spanish Republic on April 14, 1931.
Neus Català, Holocaust survivor, was born on October 6, 1915. She died on April 13, 2019 aged 103

Original article : Neus Català obituary | Register | The Times