On October 6th, Dr. Sara Brenneis, Professor of Spanish at Amherst College in Massachusetts, was invited to the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies to give a talk on her book Spaniards in Mauthausen: the Representations of a Nazi Concentration Camp. I had the opportunity to sit with her (virtually) for a fascinating conversation, as she discussed her work on the interplay between fiction and history in 20th century Spain.
Tibisay Navarro-Mana: What sparked your interest in Spanish history, and specifically the experience of Spaniards that were deported to Mauthausen?
Sara Brenneis: My interest in Spanish history blossomed when I lived for a year as an undergraduate student in Madrid. I was an exchange student living with a host family, and I just remember being really intrigued by the conversations around the Francoist period.
I was living with two younger hosts; one of whom was gay and had a partner, which sparked a lot of conversations about the transition and Spain opening up. On the other hand, I would hear from my host mother about the dictatorship, and I just became fascinated about that period of Spanish history.
All this was before the law of historical memory. So you could still see monuments dedicated to Franco, and he was still on the currency, the peseta. So that was what opened me up to Spanish history. Then, when I was working on my dissertation, my advisor suggested that I read Montserrat Roig’s Els Catalans als camps Nazis (Catalans in Nazi Concentration Camps), and I was fascinated.
I was surprised that I didn’t know anything about the history of Spaniards having been deported to Nazi Concentration Camps, given that I have been studying the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship, so I was surprised and at the same time, incredibly fascinated with what happened to these men and women.
During your talk, you focused on the representation of victims through literature or through art, specifically the drawings in their memoirs. How do you think that adds, or even changes, the learning of this history as opposed to more traditional or official narratives? Do you think these cultural representations bring a different perspective?
I firmly believe that art, literature, drawings, photographs, film, and narratives actualizes what we think of traditional historiography. It is something that I have been working with since I was in graduate school. We can read the historiography; we can learn about the facts, the data, but its representation in fiction provides an idea of the personal side of the experiences.
Literature and other forms of art sometimes take some creative liberties with history, but I personally don’t think that the fact that people write fiction about historical events or make fictional films necessarily detracts from our understanding of history. I think you need to be a critical consumer of these different materials to separate fact from fiction, but for example, novels such as Joaquim Amat-Piniella’s K.L. Reich were written based on the author’s own experience. He consciously wrote a fictional account, but what happens in the novel (the details and the context) is all historically accurate. It just gives us a different lens through which to view the history of Mauthausen.
Can you speak more about historical memory in Spain and about the different organizations that work in trying to keep this memory alive?
Sure, it has really become a groundswell of what I would call grassroots movements. Amical de Mauthausen, for example, the main organization that works with Spanish survivors and family members of victims of Mauthausen, has been around since the 1960s. It was formed in 1963, and it was an illegal organization until Franco died. There are other organizations that are just loose groups of family members and relatives of people that were deported to Mauthausen. They have been the impetus for people in Spain to read about or to see small monuments that commemorate the victims of the concentration camps.
Most of these projects have not been funded by the government, but by individuals who are interested in seeing this historical memory transform the Spanish landscape, so you can see monuments dedicated to people that were deported from Spain. These organizations fill in where the government has been lacking. Because of different political ties that have been going on in the last decades, there has never been consistent funding for any commemoration or memorials for Spanish deportees, and here is where these grassroots organizations fill in. They are the ones who take groups of high schoolers to Mauthausen every year, who organize talks by survivors and family members, and who do presentations in schools. I think this has made historical memory is visible in Spain right now.
So the lack of support, lack of funding, or even an official narrative that still allows debates on whether or not Franco’s dictatorship was good or bad. Unlike other countries that had totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, in Spain we don’t see the rejection to that ideology from the government, and that must be really hard on the victims of the Civil War and the post-war repression.
Exactly, it is terrible — especially this debate on whether Francoism was good or bad for Spain; or the ongoing debate where some people feel like talking about this period of time means the opening of old wounds. And for the victims, survivors, and their families, who need to have their suffering acknowledged by the state, it is not about opening old wounds, but about healing.
It is healing through the acknowledging of what they and their family went through, what the country went through, and also the acknowledgement that the Spanish government was complicit. We can draw a specific line to Franco and his regime and how they disavow themselves of the Spaniards that were sent to Mauthausen. There is a direct line — an uncomfortable connection — but it is one that has to be acknowledged for Spain to move forward and to move towards a healthier relationship with its historical memory. Other countries in Europe have already grappled with this: in France, in Germany, these debates have already been settled, and in Spain they are still ongoing.
Both victims of the Civil War and the Holocaust are passing away. How do you think this will affect the historical memory building moving forward?
Unfortunately, it really depends on these survivor and family member groups to keep this issue in the public discourse. […] now that we don’t have these survivors to talk to and listen to their first-hand accounts, we are still even more dependent on the kinds of cultural representation that I have been studying. Now we have to depend on all these other groups and all these publications that are trying to tell us these stories in a kind of post-memory world.
Do you think that official recognition from the government is necessary for both these organizations and the family members of the survivors?
I think it is definitely a step in the right direction. The previous law of historical memory didn’t even mention the deportees to Nazi camps; it was based entirely on victims of the Civil War and the Francoist regime. At the least, acknowledging the existence of Spanish victims of Nazi violence is an important step. Any move that the government makes to acknowledge people that have been silenced or forgotten is a positive step.
In terms of the work that I do, one of the benefits is the reorganization of the archive — making more archival material [available] to scholars and to students. To understand more about the history and the individual stories, we need access to the documents, and there are small steps that they are taking with the law that would be very beneficial. Poco a poco! (little by little).
Yes, when I was in school, I never learned about the deportation of Spaniards to Mauthausen.
Yes, exactly and the pedagogical materials are there: novels, movies, memoirs. As I said in my talk, there were Spaniards deported from every single region in Spain without exception. That means that every school curriculum from each region could find someone from that region that was deported to Mauthausen, and that would be a great gateway to learning about that history. If high school and college students can begin to learn about this history, it could have a huge impact on understanding not only the Civil War or the Second World War, but the different issues with fascism, refugees, or economic crises that are present today.
You mentioned that you just published a book this year about the intersections between Spanish history and the Second World War.
Yes, it is a collection volume on Spain, the Second World War and the Holocaust that we just published in April, called Spain, the Second World War, and the Holocaust: History and Representation. Dr. Gina Herrmann and I worked for almost a decade to bring together a collection of different essays and articles from an international group of scholars, all of whom are working on aspects related to Spain’s presence in the Second World War. We have perspectives from different countries and from different fields, and we are hoping that the book is a good resource for people that do not know much about how Spain fits in the bigger picture of the Second World War and the Holocaust but want to learn more.
** Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity **
Tibisay Navarro-Mana is a PhD student in the History Department at the University of Minnesota. She is an international student from Spain, and her research interests focus on the politics of historical memory after a period of mass-violence and genocide. She is interested in exploring collective and individual memory in Spain and Germany after the Spanish Civil War and the Holocaust, respectively.