Recreating a Family’s Lost Holocaust History, Step by Step


That afternoon we headed out to what remains of Barcares, now an abandoned, overgrown field filled with unclaimed internment camp artifacts. I walked along the straight rows of what looked like the cement foundations of a barracks and picked up a bullet casing and one of the many rusty barbed wire. Across the road was a large metal arch commemorating the Spanish Republicans once interned there, and beyond that were the same silvery waves my grandfather described in his letter. A barely there man in a bikini ran down the beach with a rainbow kite trying to catch the wind. You could have easily walked past the stage without a second thought.

The next morning, I took the first step of the actual ascent. For the first hour or so, Mrs. Arran and I shared the path with children, grandparents, and people of all ages on the popular hike up to the 13th century fortress of Fort St. Elmo. But as the day trippers descended, Mrs. Arran and I continued our ascent and barely saw another soul until we arrived in Spain.

As the climb grew steeper to Puig de Sallfort, a flat mountain peak, Mrs. Arran told me stories of previous hikes she had led along the Chemin de la Liberté where hikers in poor shape had to be rescued. This “walk,” as she called it, to my dismay, was so much easier, lower, shorter.

We rushed down the last few meters of the mountain in the afternoon to Refugi Coll de Banyuls, a first-come, first-served “refuge” that offered nothing but a roof over our heads and slats. of wood on which to lay sleeping bags. We were greeted by Mr. Prime, who had arrived with beer and bags of Indian spiced dehydrated chicken and rice. (The refuge can also be reached via a dirt road.) I did a few down dogs at Mrs. Arran’s insistence that my muscles wouldn’t cramp overnight and fell asleep to the sound of the mice scurrying nearby.

The next morning I came across a plaque nearby commemorating the Spanish soldiers who had escaped from these mountains to France, with a map detailing the various routes taken, written in French, Spanish, Catalan and English. A few meters away was a large stone with words engraved in French, a “tribute to the thousands of Republican men, women and children… who had to go into exile after three years of war against Francoism”, according to a translation. “They were the forerunners of the anti-fascist struggle in Europe.”

That last sentence was the only mention of any other continental fascism. While there was plenty of information to be had about those seeking refuge in France, there was none about those fleeing danger within the country‘s borders. The same mountain trails that had been traversed from south to north in 1939 were taken from north to south barely a year later. Different dictators, different directions.

Our second day’s hike from Coll de Banyuls to Coll de Rumpissa was so steep that Ms. Arran walked in front of me and Mr. Prime behind. We climbed boar droppings until the well-marked trail gradually disappeared and we had to use our hiking poles to steer clear of thorny branches. The long sharp thorns tore my pants and carved bloody scratches into my skin. Desperate to feel like I had discovered a truth, I convinced myself that these were the same wild plants that scratched and bloodied my father’s legs. The magical thinking didn’t stop there.


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