Late May 1945. Less than a month after US troops had liberated the Nazi concentration camp in Mauthausen. The Spanish survivors had made it their business to bring to book or arrest those inmates whose hands were stained with blood from their service as kapos. Despite wearing the same striped uniforms as their comrades, many of these SS helpers had been even more bloodthirsty than the Nazis themselves. The kapos saw to the maintenance of discipline inside the concentration camp and supervised the slave labour. When it came to mistreating and murdering people they had carte blanche. They were shown no mercy when the war ended. Only a handful of them managed to slip away. The rest were beaten to death by their fellow prisoners or handed over to the Allies to face trial.
But not every kapo had behaved like a criminal. Lots of prisoners used their privileged positions to save lives. On the other hand, other “deportees sporting Nazi braid” had played a less clear role. So, back in the day when the memory of the almost 5,000 Spaniards to perish in Mauthausen-Gusen was being honoured, one man, one name was the centre of controversy – César Orquín Serra. This Valencian anarchist was accused of all sorts of criminality by some Communist Party-connected deportees. But his reputation was defended by other countrymen who had worked under his orders and who ascribed those accusations to the long-standing political rivalry between communists and anarchists. Orquín ended up getting offside and settled in Argentina, although the dark rumours surrounding him outlived him. “César was the most important deportee in the whole of Europe. He was directly responsible for the fact that three hundred Spanish republicans survived in the Nazi hell” – states Carles Senso, who has just co-published with fellow historian Guillem Llin the book César Orquín Serra: El anarquista que salvó a 300 españoles en Mauthausen.
“To claim that he was the most important one is not something we are claiming by way of validating our research and this book, but simply an act of historical justice. But for the accusations tendentiously levelled against César Orquín, all doubts would be dispelled because no one managed to labour so directly to save the lives of his countrymen or pulled it off on such a scale.”
Anarchist until his dying day
The book offers us lots of information about its novelesque protagonist, starting with his date of birth which it places in 1914 and not, as hitherto, in 1917. The unacknowledged son of a Valencian aristocrat, he was not ignored by his father who advanced generous sums of money to render his life a little easier. This enabled him to acquire a decent education and to mingle with intellectuals and artists such as the dancer and flamenco singer Carmen Anaya. Orquín was drawn to the anarchist ideology, to which he would remain faithful for the whole of his life.
As Senso and Lin have been able to show, in 1936 Orquín signed on as a volunteer to defend republican democracy against the Hitler- and Mussolini-backed military revolt. César joined the Lincoln Brigade, made up mostly of US fighters. He served there as a political commissar, being the only anarchist to achieve that rank in a unit made up of communists and socialists. And it was there that he had his first run-ins with the most orthodox Stalinist policies. A clash that was to linger over time.
After Franco’s victory, Orquín followed the usual trajectory of the Spaniards who finished up in Mauthausen: he had crossed the border into France, been locked in the French concentration camps, joined one of the French army’s Spanish Labour Companies, been captured by German troops, dispatched to a POW camp and finally, as a result of exchanges between the Franco regime and the Nazis, been deported to a concentration camp. “His lineage had led to his learning German” – Senso points out. “Within a few months he had persuaded the SS to let him command a team assigned to working well outside of Mauthausen.”
The Senso-Llin book has this to say of the gestation of that historic commando: “On 6 June 1941, 1611 prisoners were allowed to venture beyond the impressive and depressing walls of Mauthausen concentration camp to go to Vöcklabruck. Every one of them was a republican, every one a Spaniard.” Orquín could never have dreamt that this bunch of starveling desperadoes under his orders would go down in the history of the Spanish deportees as the César Commando. Further Spanish prisoners made their way from Mauthausen out to Vöcklabruck. In the end, the commando came to number between 360 and 400 men. “In 1941 the death rate in the camp stood at 60%” – Senso points out – “yet not a single prisoner perished in Vöcklabruck.”
A hero not a thug
César Orquín was so much in favour with the SS that he was allowed to share a bed and a barracks with his girlfriend. Over the ensuing years the group’s fortunes varied. In May 1942 they were ordered to relocate to Ternberg to work on a power station. The conditions there were harsher and work accidents claimed the lives of between 12 and 14 prisoners. Two years after that the commando was further reassigned and would settle in Redl-Zipf, where no lives were lost.
During his years in captivity, César Orquín had several encounters with some of the communist prisoners running the clandestine organization within Mauthausen. These clashes ensured that, after the liberation, the Spanish CP was to accuse him of the deaths of many Spanish deportees. Those who had worked under his command were quick to come to his defence. “After another kapo gave me a beating, César personally came to my defence”, remembered Barcelona native José Alcubierre. His companion in misery, Luis Estañ, even justified the blows he had taken from the Valencian: “Sometimes, when he was cursing and doling out slaps, I realized that this was all a show for the benefit of the watching SS who trusted him and that we were no worse off. On one occasion he gave me a slap that sent me spinning over four or five metres. And in my heart of hearts I thanked him for it because the sergeant in charge of the kitchen had caught me pilfering potatoes and was coming for me; and people like him thought nothing of finishing you off. César, spotting this, stepped in, grabbed me and started to give me a dressing-down in German … And stopped the sergeant in his tracks.” The Murcian deportee Francisco Griéguez offered this summary of the differences between staying in Mauthausen-Gusen and joining César’s Commando: “Under Orquín we were somewhat better off than in Mauthausen, were not so ill used and were allowed to rest at night.”
Evidence like that proved decisive and no firm charges were brought. Even so, Orquín opted to get offside and moved away to Argentina where he resided up until his death on 14 February 1988. According to Carles Senso, the research that he and Lin have carried out puts paid to the accusations levelled against him once and for all: “There are objective data available that flatly refute what the communist discourse had to say about Orquín. We are talking about facts versus opinions. In the book we publish a full list of the members of the outside commandos led by Orquín and finding a death among those so listed is an exception.”
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.