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ASYLUM: Crossing the Pyrenees, 2/4



In my correspondence with Marie-Rose Ourabah, daughter of François and Hélène Tosquelles, I asked her to tell me the story of how her family escaped Spain after her father was sentenced to death by Franco in 1939. In this post, I share the second part of the story, concerning what happened after he escaped, leaving her, with her mother and grandparents, to survive under Franco's regime.


Cher Ben,

I have just seen your site with your writing about Hélène and François Tosquelles. It is really something that the story of their life can be read in England! Time and places connected so quickly. A snap of your fingers! It is magic! They never thought it was possible and neither did I. I believe that there are invisible threads that link beings together; sometimes they skip time and space. This is how my husband and I recognized each other... But then, I digress. Let us return to our subject, namely the passage of the Pyrenees of Elena and the child.

In 1936, when F.T. was appointed to a post in Sariñena, on the Aragonese front line [in the fight against Franco's fascists], my mother and I went to live with his parents who ran a haberdashery in Reus. We occupied a room on the first floor, with a small alcove for my bed.

My mother supported us by selling things they had bought after their marriage and through sewing work. Reus being under blockade, everything was scarce so, at her own risk, she crossed the lines to get supplies. She was well received in a village in the hinterland, Binefar, because the priest had recommended her to his flock. Brother of the chaplain of the Pere Mata Institute, he had consideration for F.T., as a fellow humanist. So, Hélène came back to her in-laws loaded like a mule.

She heard behind her back the two women, the mother-in-law and her sister, denigrate her and whisper that of course she was the priest's mistress. Very pleasant to hear. It should be understood that the relations were not very warm towards Hélène. With the grandfather it was passable but the grandmother never missed any occasion for annoyance. What did she blame Hélène for? First of all, she was not from Reus, she wasn't Catalan but Spanish. But above all, François had not asked his mother's permission to marry. A supreme affront!

My mother told me that she had offered to sew little dresses that could be put on sale at the haberdashery store. It would be a plus but grandmother categorically opposed it; she would never allow this stranger to get involved. My mother said: "Basically it was a good thing, because if I had invested myself in this work, I would have had difficulty leaving them and joining your father."


Grandmother cried, kissed me, moaned and said something I did not understand about dying without seeing me again. It was all very strange.

My father had arrived at Saint-Alban by this time and Doctor Balvet accommodated him as a Spanish refugee and a doctor. François began sending postcards from the asylum, with notes on the village and the surroundings, so that my mother could get to know the area. And, as they had agreed, she began to prepare for our departure with the utmost discretion.


[A postcard with annotations by Francois Tosquelles]


All of Spain was under the thumb of Franco. Maman played the role of the abandoned wife caring for her child while, at the same time, building up the financial means to pay a trafficker who would smuggle us into France. On the sly she sold their furniture stored with the grandparents to a trustworthy person, who would only come and pick it up when he received the signal that we are safe. She made small numbered parcels with linen and personal effects, so that her father-in-law could send them later.

After my mother’s death I found in her papers a Safe Conduct certificate dated October 1940, issued by the town hall of Reus, which allowed the holder to go to Barcelona with their family. One night my mother came to wake me up and dress me. She took me to my grandparents’ room. My grandfather was standing at the foot of Grandma's bed. He was wearing his suit. My grandmother was lying down and sitting at her bedside was her sister, Tià Sisca, in a shirt with her nightcap on her head. Grandmother cried, kissed me with wet kisses (yuck!), moaned and said something I did not understand about dying without seeing me again. It was all very strange.

We travelled to Barcelona, ​​to her sister's house, and stayed there a while longer in order to increase the savings by sewing and cooking (for fascist generals, who congratulated her on her talents as a cook. Had they known!).

And from there my memories have great gaps. For example, I remember staying with my aunt, and having been ill there. My cousin Eduardo distracted me with picture books and my older cousin Marie-Teresa nibbled my cheeks, saying she was going to eat me raw... But was it during this stay, or before? I do not know. Always one night... One more night! So, there, I am going to leave you, to spare the suspense ... The continuation of the soap opera soon.


Tomorrow, in Part 3, Helene and Marie-Rose face the dangers of the mountains on foot and discover what it means to seek refuge in a foreign land.

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