October 7, 2022

from Casablanca to freedom

Maria Traspaderne |

Rabat (EFE).- «We have left the war, the hell of the concentration camps and hunger behind us». Begoña was 19 years old when she started a new life far from death. He shared decks with another 750 Spaniards fleeing two wars on the last ship of exile, which sailed from Casablanca to America 80 years ago.

It was September 22, 1942. The Portuguese steamer «Nyassa», with 850 refugees on board, mainly Spanish Republicans but also Jews, sailed to Mexico and from there to New York, along the route through the Caribbean that led to thousands of people to freedom.

The historian José Luis Morro has devoted five years of his life to composing stories such as Begoña’s to solve the puzzle of the Spanish maritime exile, in which the Casablanca ships are an essential piece.

«For the Spanish and European exile, especially after 1940, Casablanca will be enormously important. Along with Lisbon, it became one of the two ports of hope for thousands who managed to leave for America and get from Canada to Argentina,” Morro told Efe from his home in the Spanish city of Segorbe.

Aided by “The Mexican Schindler”

Until June 1940 it was relatively easy to take a ship to America to escape World War II, but from that date things got complicated with the signing of the armistice that marked the submission of France to Nazi Germany.

Departures from French ports were prohibited, except for exceptions dictated by the shipment of food to French colonies and bilateral agreements allowing refugees to board to countries such as the United States, Argentina or Mexico.

Then began a route to America through Casablanca, converted into the city of refuge that inspired Michael Curtiz’s film of the same name. Under a French protectorate, hundreds of refugees waited for their moment to set sail, coming from Europe and labor camps in Morocco and Algeria.

The Alonso family, aboard the Portuguese steamer «Nyassa». EFE/Family of Begoña Alonso

Morro says that from June 1940 to September 1942, between 3,000 and 5,000 Spaniards boarded those ships through Casablanca, not counting thousands of Jews.

Among the passengers were intellectuals such as Max Aub, who traveled from an Algerian countryside in September 1942, diplomats and republican politicians, in many cases aided by the then Mexican consul in Marseille, Gilberto Bosques, “the Mexican Schindler”, whom he was given. them a visa to travel to his country.

Those who left the Gallic ports boarded after being locked up in camps in Vichy France and were lucky: they managed to get safe conduct and paid, yes, large sums because the tickets had quadrupled their price.

“The Journey of Freedom” by Begoña

The routes passing through Casablanca departed from Lisbon and the south of France and reached the Caribbean before departing for Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Mexico or New York.

In Mexico, Morro recalls, about 20,000 Spanish exiles arrived. Among them Begoña Alonso, one of the passengers of the «Nyassa». He tells it in a diary he left in 1990.

After leaving Bilbao for France in 1937 with his parents and three sisters fleeing the Spanish Civil War, being arrested by the Germans in Brittany and spending two years in Gallic concentration camps, they managed to embark for Morocco and from there to Mexico. he calls it ‘The Journey to Freedom’.

«In the end they told us that the ‘Nyassa’, a Portuguese ship, and therefore neutral, was already waiting for us. And luckily it was, because when passing the Canary Islands a German submarine came out,” he says about the beginning of the journey.

It was the last collective shipment of refugees to America, a route later frustrated by the Allied landing in North Africa and the choice of many Jews in Israel as their final destination.

“The journey took a month, as the ship was old and sailed slowly. But the journey was a joy,” Begoña writes, as they ate “sugar, pastries” and “white bread” after years of malnutrition.

800 “novels” aboard the “Nyassa”

The ships to freedom, says Morro, who has spoken to dozens of exiled families, were a “microcosm” of “stowaways, births, courtships, marriages, divorces and funerals.” Each person had a story, “a novel,” he says.

Also traveling on the final leg of the “Nyassa” was Pedro Tordesillas, a prisoner in a Moroccan concentration camp that built the trans-Saharan railway that would supply minerals to the Nazis.

He got money from his family in Spain and escaped: he bought two camels, hired a guide and arrived in Casablanca “drinking the urine of animals,” Morro says.

The passage included Dominican diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa, the womanizing son-in-law of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, a “gentleman very well dressed in a coat and hat,” a female passenger recalls.

They all experienced the ‘fiestas’ that Begoña tells in her diary. “The machinists sang fado for us and played guitar. The sea, always like an oil raft. So we were happy. We almost didn’t want to get there.”

But they arrived. And the first thing that caught their attention in Veracruz were the colors of the harbor, of the suits, of the fruit, of the houses, Morro says. “From Spain and Europe in black they came to a country in color”.

Web editor: Rocio Casas

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