In the early hours of 23 May 2015 Eduardo Escot Bocanegra died at home in Rosny-sous-Bois in France of heart and lung failure. He was 95 years old and one of the last Andalusian and Spanish republicans deported to the Mauthausen camp. His death represents a huge loss in that it flags up the final extinction of eye-witnesses to the ghastliness of the Nazi concentration camps. And the question still lingers as to whether society and state institutions gave these victims their due.
Eduardo Escot was born on 16 December 1919 in Olivera in the highlands above Cadiz, into a “very impoverished, illiterate” farm-labouring family. But those circumstances (widely shared by many another in the farming village of Olivera, by-passed by even the most basic cultural amenities) did not prevent the boyish Eduardo from displaying a great appetite for study.
“I started learning the trade of shoe-maker but I always had this tremendous appetite for studying as much as I could. I took classes under a very interesting teacher by the name of Don José Sepúlveda; the fellow gave night classes and he was shot on the very day Franco’s troops entered Olivera. Shot that very day near where he lived. And there was another teacher, too, and he too was shot. So both the teachers I had at the school were shot.”
The second teacher to whom Eduardo was referring was Antonio Juarino and he, like his colleague, was a member of the Republican Left (Izquierda Republicana). The local incident was no freak, for, as the army revolt spread school-teachers proved to be one of the main groups slated for repression. The right to learning, to human and intellectual development, had been one of the main demands coming from the progressive organisations that had made such headway in the areas around Cadiz ever since the late 19th century. The social change they yearned for began with the self. In that respect, education was the most effective weapon against the poverty in which much of the population of Andalusia was trapped. Eduardo Escot fitted the profile of the self-educated, socially committed individuals from an early age, as so well described by Juan Díaz Del Moral, among others, in his irreplaceable History of Andalusian Peasant Agitation. Individuals with a tremendous sense of human dignity, individuals thrown up in lots of Andalusian villages under the sway of the libertarian ideal.
“At the age of 15 and 16 I was already reading the works of Victor Hugo in my home village … And at that age, each night at home, in the kitchen of my parents’ home I would read from the newspapers while at least 15 other people listened.”
Eduardo developed a social conscience early on. The suffering and impoverishment of his family surroundings struck him as intolerable and he did not see them as necessary parts of the human condition. “Olivera was a village awash with poverty, where you could only eat on tick. I rebelled against the degrading poverty in the village. The ideal came along later. I was turfed out of the cobbler’s workshop where I was apprenticed, for being a revolutionary.” Those were the circumstances that led to his joining the CNT in the spring of 1936. At that point he had the chance to make the acquaintance of a prominent anarcho-syndicalist leader who inspired his deepest admiration. This was Ángel Pestaña, CNT veteran and founder of the Syndicalist Party. He saw him twice, at a talk Pestaña gave in Olivera in relation of the Popular Front election campaign in February 1936 and again in Seville, some months later, in a rally in the bullring alongside other leading anarcho-syndicalist speakers. Despite his youth, Eduardo served on the local defence committee that was formed on the very day that the army revolted against the republican government. The Civil Guard in Olivera sided with the golpista (coup-maker) rebels and took on the defenders of republican legitimacy.
“I was sixteen and a half years old when the Uprising started, but, in spite of that, at the age of sixteen and a half, as of 17 July, when it broke out, I was on the village defence committee. I was present at the meeting with Olivera’s mayor, José María Sánchez Reviriego, a republican mayor, to decide what was to be done about the revolt and, even as we were assembled there, the Civil Guard commander made a phone call and told the mayor. ‘Look, I’m about to place my troops in strategic positions as a security measure.’ And, after hanging up, he looked at us and said: ‘No, no … no troops. I don’t want to see troops.’ In spite of which orders from the mayor, out they came, firing shots into the air.
There was some shooting; three perished on our side. It seems the Civil Guard sustained one or two wounded, I cannot be certain. Two people fell down dead at my side and I dodged the bullets, I got away, got away from the shooting.
In the workers’ districts we held them off for a few days but then we had to clear out. I hid out on a small farm up in the mountains for seven days along with a socialist friend from Olivera before we fled for Ronda.”
The situation in the Sierra de Cadiz was very fluid as most places were under the control of the Civil Guard who were backing the rebels. However, republican column setting off from Ronda brought some pressure to bear, managing to overrun Olivera for a few hours on 27 July and inflicting eleven losses on the rebels. Next day, Gómez Zamacola’s rebel column entered the village. Ushering in a period of terror that stretched over several days and resulted in (documented, so far) ninety five deaths on the republican side.
In Ronda Eduardo Escot joined the ‘Ascaso’ Column led by the Seville CNT member Manuel Mora Torres, fighting in a number locations in the highlands. From there he moved on to Malaga where he witnessed the notorious “rout” that resulted in tens of thousands of people trekking along the highway to Almeria under shelling from land, sea and air by the rebels and their Italian and German allies. He then joined the regulars with the rank of signals lieutenant, serving in the 598th Battalion commanded by his friend Manuel Mora Torres. He spent a few months in Madrid as a student at the Palacio Real Military Academy. Then he was posted to the Jarama front and then to the Extremadura highway. His final tours of duty were on the Aragon and Catalonia fronts. In February 1939 he crossed the French border into exile along with a massive column of demoralised men and women. “The reception we received on entering France was appalling.”
The Barcarès concentration camp is where he was placed for a number of months until he was conscripted into the Foreign Labour Companies. Come the German invasion of France in June 1940, Eduardo’s company was very soon in captivity in the city of Belfort. After spending several months as a POW in Stalag XI-D near Hamburg, on 27 January 1941 he was deported to Austria and to Mauthausen which was known as the “Spaniards’ camp” and there he was given the registration number 5151 that he was the carry sewn into his striped uniform which has survived. Eduardo toiled for some months in the notorious quarries in Mauthausen central camp, the scene of the cruellest tortures and bullying the SS could inflict on the deportees-turned-slaves and turned into real human wretches, many of whom would meet their ends in the crematoria. In the summer of 1941, Eduardo was transferred to Bretstein where a small camp had been set up occupied wholly by Spaniards. Located in a mountain valley in Austrian Styria, far from the mother camp, Eduardo Escot and another two hundred Spanish republicans were to labour in ghastly conditions due to low temperatures and short rations, on the construction of an Alpine highway. A year after that he was assigned once and for all to the Steyr sub-camp, working on car construction for the Third Reich. His physical condition had deteriorated considerably, as had that of most of the deportees, so that he weighed only 35 kilos when US troops entered Steyr on 5 May 1945.
Eduardo rebuilt his life in exile in France in the town of Rosny-sous-Bois near Paris where he was housed along with another 18 Spanish deportees. It was in Paris that he met his wife, Aimee, with whom he had two children. Initially he turned to his cobbler’s trade, only to wind up working for an advertising agency. For some years he kept up his connection with the CNT in exile, holding a number of offices. He was a member of FEDIP (the Spanish Federation of Deportees and Political Prisoners) as long it was up and running. He made three trips back to Mauthausen and was one of the inspirations behind the memorial to be found these days in Bretstein in Austrian Styria where there is a sad and moving tribute to Andalusian and Spanish republicans. In March 2007, at the instigation of commemorative groups, the town of Olivera paid an emotional tribute to him and two other Olivera natives Cristóbal Raya and Pablo Barrera (both of whom perished in the Mauthausen camp). Another plaque recording their names was unveiled at the La Cilla Cultural Centre in the presence of Eduardo and of relatives of deportees, friends and residents. On 19 March that year, the Cadiz Provincial Diputación honoured Eduardo Escot with the Gold Shield for his human rights work.
The death of Eduardo Escot advances the fading away of a generation unique in contemporary history, one that well encapsulates the foothold and vigour enjoyed by the libertarian ideal and cultural in Andalusia. His life story touches upon all the great dramas of the 20th century: poverty, emigration, repression, war, exile, deportation, slave labour, genocide … as well as embodying the great ideals of justice, equality and freedom. Eduardo Escot was always ready to speak out to make a reality of the so called Mauthausen “Survivors’ Pledge” which calls for remembrance of the victims and of the duty to remember. His testimony – in the documentary Memoria de las cenizas (Memory Out of the Ashes), dealing with the Andalusians in the Nazi camps (https://vimeo.com/68386604) - will stand as a warning sounded against repetition of the grave mistakes of the past that seems always to lie in wait for humanity. Hence the pointedness of his legacy. Never again! May he rest in peace.
Ángel del Rio, Andalusia delegate of the Amical Mauthausen
From: (adapted) from Rojo y Negro digital, 25/05/2015. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.