Skip to main content

Neus Catala, 100, poses for a portrait on July 12, 2016 in Els Guiamets, Spain.David Ramos/Getty Images

In early 1939, when General Francisco Franco’s troops invaded Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, Neus Catala led 182 orphans in her charge out of the mayhem and across the snow-covered Pyrenees to safety in France.

It was just one episode in a lifetime of anti-Fascist resistance that Ms. Catala, who died on April 13 at the age of 103, would demonstrate.

She then fought with the French Resistance against the Nazis, but was captured by the Germans and deported to the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp in Germany.

From Ravensbruck, Ms. Catala was transferred to the Flossenburg camp, where she was part of a forced-labour group that quarried granite and worked in a munitions factory.

Long after the war, she tracked down other survivors of Ravensbruck, gathered their remembrances and published them in the book Resistance and Deportation: 50 Testimonies of Spanish Women (1984). The European press reported that at the time of her death she had been the last living Spanish survivor of Ravensbrück.

“Neus Catala dedicated her whole life to explaining the horror of what must never happen again,” Quim Torra, the President of Catalonia, said after her death. Mr. Torra said she was “a clear voice for freedom and against barbarity.”

Neus Catala (nay-OOS cat-a-LAH) was born on Oct. 6, 1915, in Els Guiamets in Catalonia, Spain, where she was raised. Her father, Baltasar Catala, was the town barber and also cultivated olives and grapes with the help of his wife, Rosa Palleja.

She began working in the fields at 14. During the grape harvest, she showed early signs of her willfulness, demanding equal pay for girls, which she succeeded in winning.

With the advent of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, she became active with a communist youth group in Catalonia and moved to Barcelona to study nursing, earning her degree in 1937. Her hope was to work in a hospital, but she was put in charge of an orphanage.

In early 1939, with Franco’s forces moving in, Ms. Catala, at the age of 23, rounded up the orphans and marched them over the Pyrenees. In France, she found shelter for them and helped place them in foster homes.

She soon put down roots in France in the Dordogne region and married Albert Roger, a French citizen. When Hitler invaded France in 1940, she and her husband became active in the French Resistance. Ms. Catala quickly evolved from being a Spanish exile to becoming an active partisan.

She and her husband helped captured Resistance fighters escape and gave them refuge. She would hide messages, falsified documents and even weapons under her head scarf or in baskets of vegetables and carry them daily by bicycle or bus through Nazi checkpoints.

And she was armed. “We women were not assistants,” she wrote at the age of 97 in her memoirs, Testimony of a Survivor (2012). “We were fighters.”

In 1943, the couple was exposed and arrested. Ms. Catala was held and tortured in Limoges and in 1944 was deported to Ravensbruck; her husband was sent to another camp.

Ravensbruck was built for women, but was no less lethal than other concentration camps. In all, more than 132,000 women and children were incarcerated there, with an estimated 92,000 of them dying by starvation, execution or illness.

At Flossenburg, in Bavaria, where about 30,000 prisoners died, she worked in an arms factory.

“We used sabotage to produce about 10 million faulty bullets and thousands of unusable artillery shells,” she said in a 2013 interview with a Spanish trade union magazine. “We threw everything into the production line – flies, cockroaches, oil, our own spit.”

By the time the camp was liberated in 1945, she was near death. “We were just skulls with eyes,” she told the magazine. “I was a bag of bones.” Her husband had died.

With Gen. Franco still in power in Spain, she went to the home of her parents, who by then had settled in France, as had roughly half a million other self-exiled Spaniards.

She rebuilt her life and went on to marry Felix Sancho, a Spanish exile, and to have two children.

Furious that Franco had not been overthrown along with Hitler and Mussolini, Ms. Catala resumed her anti-Fascist work, acting as a messenger for the Spanish Communist Party’s underground network.

After her husband – and Gen. Franco – died in the 1970s, she moved back to Catalonia. Several years later, she moved back to Els Guiamets, the village where she was born and where she died. Her daughter, Margarita Català, announced her death.

In addition to her daughter, she leaves her son, Luis.