In the present, when millions of refugees around the world suffer rejection and the negation of their most elemental human rights every day, it is comforting to find proof that there was a time when one country, Mexico – using a handful of diplomats led by Luis I. Rodríguez – undertook a series of activities that would protect several thousand Spanish refugees in France during a time of great danger. These activities are set forth in a collection of documents gathered by Ambassador Rodríguez, which have finally seen the light of day, many years after they were written.
Ambassador Rodríguez, a well-known Mexican politician, took over the Mexican Legation in France from Narciso Bassols on instructions from President Lázaro Cárdenas in mid-1940. By that time there had been many displays of Mexico’s solidarity with the beleagured Spanish Republic, first while it was at war and later towards the half million refugees who went to France in the last months of 1938.
Bassols had made sure that a goodly number of these refugees had found protection in Mexico: by August of 1939, 6,000 of them had come here. However, on September 20, it was announced that the arrivals would be suspended. It was argued that the start of World War II made transportation unsafe and that, additionally, money to sponsor this program had all been spent.
It was not until 1940 that the Mexican government reinitiated negotiations to rescue Spanish Republicans trapped in France. The task was urgent and Cárdenas understood this. France had fallen to the Nazi invasion in the spring and had been divided in two, one part occupied directly by the Germans and the other headed by Marshall Petain. Meanwhile, the refugees were defenseless in both parts of the country, especially the one ruled directly by Germany.
On July 23, 1940, Luis I. Rodríguez received the following instructions from Cárdenas: “Urgent you show French government that Mexico will take in all Spanish refugees of either sex residing in France […] If the French government accepts our idea, you will tell them that from the time of their acceptance, all Spanish refugees will be under the protection of the Mexican flag”.
Using every ounce of their energy and intelligence, Luis I. Rodríguez and his colleagues applied themselves to the task of reaching an agreement between Mexico and Petain’s France regarding the instruction that Cárdenas had emitted to help Republican refugees. The French collaborationist government did not object greatly to these Spanish refugees leaving the country. The collaborators despised them and, although they might have been useful in building French fortifications, they were unnecessary after the German invasion. On August 23, France accepted Mexico’s offer and promised, at Mexico’s behest, to respect the freedom of refugees living within their territory and limit extraditions to Spain to those accused only of non-political crimes.
During his stay as ambassador in France, which lasted only a few months, Luis I. Rodríguez and the other Mexican diplomats who worked with him did everything they could to get the greatest possible number of Spanish refugees out of France. Their efforts were not as successful as they expected. The last document that Ambassador Rodríguez received about this matter was dated September 18, 1940. It came from the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, and in it Rodríguez was told that Germany, through the Armistice Commission, had objected to the first group of refugees leaving for Mexico, in accordance with the agreement.
The difficulty of obtaining transportation in wartime and more particularly German opposition to the accord meant that this emigration would be rather small, although, according to the Mexican ambassador, it should have been “the greatest cross-Atlantic [movement] in history”. According to Rodríguez, when the Franco-Mexican accord was signed, there were 100,000 Spanish refugees in France. Of these, only about 4,000 were able to emigrate to Mexico between 1941 and 1942, the year in which all France finally fell to Nazi domination, thus putting an end to the accord.
Even so, Mexico’s support was still felt by many refugees. The importance of Mexico’s placing every Spanish Republican in France under the safety of its flag and promising economic support for those who had none is almost impossible to comprehend. The passage of time has done little to erase the significance of either of these gestures from the memory of many refugees. Years later, one of them, José María Muriá, remembered the day he gained protection from Mexico with tears in his eyes: “For me, this was an extraordinarily courageous act and, as long as I live, I will remember my contact with Mexico. When I was completely alone, with no country of my own or anything else, having a document that said, ‘This person has been accepted into Mexico and has a certain amount of money awaiting him to tend to his basic needs’ was simply magnificent, and no one who has not lived through it can understand it “.
But Luis I. Rodríguez did more than simply carry out his diplomatic mission to the last letter. His generosity went even farther. The documentation he compiled shows how he seemed to reproduce himself in order to handle all the calls that came his way from different places in northern France and North Africa. He answered every call and brought a little hope and human warmth into the lives of every caller. An example of his magnanimity is the way he lovingly cared for Manuel Azaña, ex-President of the Spanish Republic in the last days of his life. Greatly exceeding his strictly diplomatic function, he met with Azaña in Montauban on July 2, 1940. Rodríguez begins the story of this encounter in the following way:
When I saw him, I was shocked. He seemed more like a shadow than a living being. His flesh had been almost totally consumed, he was as pale as a corpse and his eyes, sunken deeply within his head, reflected pain and martyrdom. Without resorting to useless protocol, we emraced each other like old friends […] We looked at each other without daring to break the silence. Only through our tears were we able to comment on the misfortune that ruled everywhere.
The ambassador never left the illustrious Republican until he was buried in France, a Mexican flag draped over his coffin, since Gallic authorities had prohibited the use of the Republican flag, and burial took place only after a prolonged and fruitless quest by Rodríguez to have his body taken to Mexico.
Solidarity at any cost was not the sole prerrogative of well-known personages of the exile. Rodríguez received a communication, shortly after the signing of the Franco-Mexican accord, from a group of distinguished refugees who called themselves an “Advisory Committee”. In this letter, they advised him on how to carry out his task and clearly indicated that, in terms of both economic support and emigration to Mexico, he should select some refugees over others. Rodríguez answered in this way:
“…because of my conviction that ill fortune is common to all Spanish exiles; because of my country’s glorious tradition of never having shown partiality in offering the protection of its flag to those who are persecuted; and ultimately – although this may seem insignificant after all that has been said – because of my own temperament, my democratic leanings and the respect I owe my forebearers, as modest and simple as they were, I cannot allow any political criterion – such as one saying that those who feel more responsible because they occupied important posts in the Spanish Republic should be saved first – to interfere with the task of evacuation. […] All are spanish. All are responsible. All are victims of misfortune, as well”.
But it was not only his solidarity that was inexhaustible. His patience and understanding of the human soul seemed to be without limit as well. He continued to offer all his protection and affection to Azaña’s widow, in spite of the fact that it was she who made it impossible for the Mexican ambassador to effect an action undertaken with a great deal of effort and secrecy, which was to remove Azaña from Montauban and thus give him more security. Mrs. Azaña had accidentally revealed the plan when she sent a bouquet of flowers and a letter thanking, and saying good-bye to, the prefect of the city.
On another ocassion, the ambassador hid a refugee being sought by Franco’s police for over a month in his own room at a hotel in Vichy. But Rodríguez had to travel to Marseille, and the refugee could no longer resist the pressure on him. He decided to call the Franco’s ambassador and hand over to him the documents for which he was being pursued. When he next saw Rodríguez, the refugee told him with tears in his eyes, “I gave myself up, Minister, that is all […] I needed you by my side. Now it is up to you to decide what is to be done with my life”. And the ambassador decided that he would continue to support the refugee.
The documents collected by Ambassador Rodríguez contain valuable knowledge for the history of the Spanish exile and constitute an especially bright moment in the Mexican foreign service. Among other things, these documents detail the process which resulted in the signing of the Franco-Mexican accord of 1940, how the accord was carried out and what its limits were. They also provide valuable data with regard to the desperate situation of the Spanish Republicans in France in the second half of 1940, as well as information regarding two groups or non-Spanish refugees: those who made up the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and another more varied one which included, among others, individuals from the Saarland – an area claimed by both France and Germany for years – and Sephardic Jews who also desperately needed to flee Europe.
However, these documents are much more than a “source” for historical research. They are the annals of exemplary activity on the part of a group of Mexicans, a sorely-needed example for the present, when, as I said earlier, millions of men and women are forced to live in much the way the Spanish refugees did and, just as in 1940, are looked upon with indifference by the rest of the world.
Dolores Pla Brugat
Dirección de Estudios Históricos-INAH
English translation by Marianna Pool Westgaard
Centro de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios
El Colegio de México