Half a million people fled Spain in 1939, only to be interned for years in harsh French camps. Survivors now tell of the misery of the Retirada, 80 years ago
It is 80 years since one of Europe’s worst – and least known – refugee crises, but memories of the Retirada (or withdrawal) are still vivid for Madeleine Morena. Her family were among 500,000 Spaniards who fled across the eastern Pyrenees to France when Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces near the end of the Spanish civil war on 26 January 1939, triggering one of the greatest exoduses of modern times.
Photos and documentary footage show the incredible sight of half a million people pouring towards the border towns of Puigcerdà in Spain, and Prats-de-Mollo and Le Perthus in France – women and children, Republican fighters carrying weapons, members of the International brigades. The local French newspaper, L’Indépendant, described “a haunting cohort of civilians, armed soldiers, vehicles and animals”.