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ASYLUM: Crossing the Pyrenees, 1/4

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

During the research for my essay, Asylum, I corresponded with Marie-Rose Ourabah, daughter of François and Hélène Tosquelles, central figures in the work of the Saint-Alban psychiatric hospital during the 2nd World War. During our exchanges, I discovered that Marie-Rose was alive at the time her parents were forced to escape from Franco’s regime in Spain, after her father was sentenced to death for fighting on the side of the republic, in opposition to the fascists. In this post, I share the first part of the story, as told by Marie-Rose in an email, concerning François’ journey across the Pyrenees, the mountain range that separates Spain from France.

Cher Ben,

After the crushing defeat of the Spanish Republicans and the flight to France of so many unfortunate people, in September 1939 François Tosquelles and his friend and colleague Jacques Sauret crossed the Pyrenees via the highest point, the Pic d'Aneto. A passage so improbable that they thus escaped the fascist bombardments which pounded the most used route, towards Le Perthus.

We gave the name "Retirada" [retreat] to this massive exile, an escape made in cold, hunger, fear, sometimes death... My father spoke little about this vertiginous escapade. He quipped as usual. He said that the games he played with his friends had been very useful for him to descend the slopes with his cane, including ‘Little Horses’, a game which consists of stepping over a stick, with a stride like a horse: "Tagada! Tagada!" It was our mother, who he confided in, of course, who told us about the worn shoes, about a gold bracelet that she had sewn into the lining of his coat so that he could sell it for his needs. He asked the first shepherd he found:

“What is that worth?”

“Nothing,” was the reply.

“So, here,” my dad said. And he gave the bracelet to the shepherd.

I've had the opportunity to read testimonies from exiles. They said they had given all they had of value for a little bread, or shelter for the night. This may have been the case for my father and his friend. I don't know, since he didn't say anything about it. They found refuge in a monastery in the high mountains (on the French side) where their feet were taken care of. When they descended into the valley, they met a police commissioner who my father asked the choices they could make:

“Enter into the Foreign Legion,” said the police commissioner, to which François replied that he was no foreigner, since he was Catalan.

“Well, there’s a concentration camp in Septfonds. You can go there,” said the man.

This is how one morning the two Republican doctors presented themselves at the camp gate and quietly waited for it to open. We think we are dreaming, right?!

Later, with the approval of the camp commander and a few people of good will, my father was able to create a psychiatric service at the camp. Taking care of the suffering of others; there is no better way to forget your own. During this time, his wife and daughter lived in Reus, with his father, mother and aunt. She raised the child—me—alone, and provided for our needs through sewing work, through the sale of possessions.

She was waiting for the signal François would send her to organise our own crossing… This will be the subject of another email--you can expect it!

Tomorrow, in Part 2, Marie-Rose describes life in Reus, under Franco's regime, after her father left.

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