A tin of sardines from 1938 has just been unearthed. It’s so perfectly preserved that we can still see its original pink paint and decorative lettering, reading, ‘Sardinas en Aceite puro de oliva español (Sardines in pure Spanish olive oil).
“It’s one of our best finds,” explains Luís Antonio Ruíz Casero, an archaeologist from CSIC leading of a team of eight, who have been excavating the site for three weeks. “Thanks to the new Historic Memory Bill (2021), we were able to apply for and receive a grant of €10,000 to investigate, excavate and study the site. We’ve found many objects, including shoes, medicine bottles, bullet casings and barbed wire, but cans of sardines and tuna are numerous.”
The pink sardine tin, opened, peeled back and now packed densely with soil dates to the year before the Spanish Civil War ended, when the town of Guadalajara – once a Republican stronghold – fell to Franco’s troops following the famous Battle of Guadalajara in March 1937. Republican soldiers were captured, forced to build the cells that would hold them, and then imprisoned for weeks or months.
Around 30 narrow barracks made of stone and cement appear on both sides of a small road which, at one time, were believed to have held between four and five thousand prisoners. Underneath dense foliage and low-hanging oak trees, fist-sized stones line footpaths between each barrack. “Between 1937 and 1939, around one million Spaniards were held in Spain’s 300 Francoist concentration camps – that’s one in every 20 Spaniards,” explains Luis.
The barracks are so well built that they remain completely intact minus the roof – archaeologists believe this means the roof was made from organic matter or a tarpaulin, therefore exposing the prisoners to outside temperatures: freezing in the winter and extremely hot in the summer. “They held them as if they were cattle,” says Luís.
Knowing how prisoners lived is one of the objectives of the project. With this site being one of the best-preserved concentration camps in the country, it’s perfect for research.
Fragments of old beer bottles, hundreds of cans of meat, fish, vegetables, condensed milk, and tomato sauce have also been found. “This is proof that Franco’s army were fed generously,” explains Luis, who also commented on the tin of tuna from Argentina, which he believes belonged to the Republican army. The prisoners themselves didn’t receive such generous helpings of food and so were likely fed with what had been confiscated from them when they were captured.
Built in stone, the structures retain a large part of their walls, yet there is very little documentation about this specific camp. A lot will have been destroyed by Franco’s troops after the war and also lost during the transition to democracy as part of the well-known ‘Pact of Silence’ in 1975.
Credit for the ‘discovery’ of the site has been given to two local researchers and history buffs, Alfonso López Beltrán and Julian Duenas, who found the exact location and contacted the team of archeologists. But, in the nearby village of Ledanca, just a mile south of the site, a local bartender running the no-frills bar on the ground floor of the town hall, has known about this site and the history of the area all his life.
As he poured me a coffee, I ask him to expand. “The people in this town, I think there are around 100 of us, have always known that those buildings were concentration camps. Some of us played there as kids. It was the only transit camp in Spain, where prisoners were processed and held temporarily before being sent to either another prison, or to forced labour camps, or killed.”
Meanwhile, the mayor of Jadraque, the town of 1,400 inhabitants within which the site lies, claims to have known nothing about it. He told Euro News: “No one in the town imagined that there could be up to 5,000 prisoners of war in this concentration camp, nor the extension [of it]”.
You can see from a map documenting all known Francoist concentration camps in Spain that they were abundant. Almost everyone across the country had one on their doorstep, yet they’re surprisingly poorly documented and this can be explained by local repression – fear during the dictatorship that if you kept these memories alive, you would be detained or even killed.
Most trauma sites from the Spanish Civil War were either reforested – made invisible and silenced – or returned to their original state. Having already been football stadiums, schools, monasteries, or bullrings, as soon as the war was over and the dictatorship began, Franco was keen to return these spaces to their original use and pretend like nothing had happened.
Undeleting decades of information is a huge task, but, underneath the oak trees, the evidence is there. Finding a site like this – one of the most extensive and well preserved we’ve seen so far – is an opportunity for the country to unravel its past and ensure that – not just Spain, but the world learns from past mistakes, and can finally heal.
While the dig sites have been covered up until further funding comes in, the rest of the site is freely accessible and open to the public.
- The location can be found here: Barracones de la Guerra Civil
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