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Mexico’s forgotten WWII hero

7 August 2007

Ever since I read a short article on Gilberto Bosques and posted the translation, I’ve been hooked. I can’t hope to compete with Steven Spielberg, but I’ve been wondering if the German industrialist shouldn’t have been known as the “German Bosques” instead of the mostly unknown (there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry on him) Bosques being know, if at all, as the “Mexican Schindler.”

Bosques, who had participated in the Revolution of 1910, had already done service as a solider, legislator and newspaper editor when he joined the Mexican diplomatic corps. Serving, not as ambassador, but only as Consul, of what was until 1942 a neutral country, he played an amazing, and unique, role in World War II.

Although he set out originally to rescue the Spanish Republicans (Mexico in all but name was a open ally of the Republic in their losing war against Franco) — and did so — he also managed to arrange for the exodus of the Jews and materially assist the anti-Nazi underground in France, Italy, Yugoslavia and Austria.

Personally, he is credited with saving somewhere between 30 and 40,000 people from extermination. But, almost no one has ever heard of the guy.

John Todd, Jr., sent a link to a short World War II oral history prepared for the Mexican Foreign Ministry and reprinted in the July-August 2003 Revista casa del tiempo (published by Universidad Autonomia de Mexico).

I’ve been having great fun translating it into English. Bosques rambles a bit, but then he was 96 when he sat down to record his statement, and he was talking about events nearly 50 years in the past. The memoir only deals with the period from the Fall of France to his exchange with German POWs in Mexico (the Mexican diplomatic corps and their dependents were prisoners of war from May 1942 to August 1944), and not with his second historical mission, to Cuba during the fall of Batista and through the Cuban Missile Crisis. While U.S. historians sometimes at least mention Mexico’s role as a back-channel negotiator with the Cubans, it was Bosques’ personal relations with Fidel Castro and Che Gueverra that allowed the situation to be resolved without arms.

I’ve found SOME information on Bosques wartime service published by the International Raul Wallenberg Foundation, and bits and pieces here and there. Between the Wallenberg material, and some general material on Mexico’s contributions to what they call “the war against the nazi-fascists” (Mexican historians tend to see the Spanish Civil War as part of the same struggle), the edited translation from Bosques is enough for a small booklet of maybe 24 pages.

I should have it available by September. I need to cover at least a few expenses, so I’ll put it out as an e-book for now, with a nominal cover price (20 -25 pesos) hoping that it is pirated by the “right sort of people.”

Here’s a rough cut of Bosques on how he stretched the definition of diplomatic asylum to cover the needs of the time:

The measures we took for the immediate relief of Spanish refuges were insufficient given the huge flow of exiles. The consulate arranged with the Marseille prefect to rent two chateaux, which we turned into asylums.

The Reynarde Chateau was a huge property, with an enormous expanse of grounds. It had been used by the English forces as a rest camp. They built the cabins which we later used. After the English fled, the castle had been occupied by a Vichy youth organization, fascists naturally, who destroyed everything they had. We repaired the building and – with the Prefect’s authorization and permission from the landlord – set to improving the property. The property already supported flocks of sheep and woods. We raised sheep, cut timber in the woods, built workshops and even installed a theater in the castle. On the other property, Chateau Montgrand, we were also careful to obtain authorization before making necessary alterations.

Thus, there were two places in Marseille, at Mennet and Sulevin where there was shelter for people in great danger. In Reynarde there were between 800 and 850 people, all of whom were in the greatest need of protection. To the consular community in Marseille, it represented an important test of the right to protect refugees. There were college students, magistrates, men of letters, business leaders as well as farm workers and factory hands. They all needed protection, were all dispirited, and were all in need of protection. To lift their fighting spirit, they organized an orchestra, and enjoyed the fiestas. They staged plays like La zapatera prodigiosa of Federico García Lorca and others Spanish dramatists. There were also sports leauges, a ballet, libraries, workshops, an infirmary and even an art gallery.

Montgrand housed 500 women and children. They had good food, and whenever possible, we provided a special diet, including things the French weren’t getting. There were playgrounds for the children, a medical corps of well-qualified pediatricians and a school. We looked at it as a rest home for the mental and physical recuperation of woman rescued from concentration camps. In the end, they all recovered, breathing hope, tranquility and optimism.

To provide this kind of assistance, we needed the support of a corps of outside employees. We only had thirty people in our own offices. We put Dr. Luis Lara Pardo in charge of health matters. We obtained permission from the French authorities to give medical attention in the rooming houses and hotels, were we had more Spanish refugees. We paid the hotels and rooming houses based on the number of families staying there. We also sent medical workers to the concentration camps and nurses to other parts of France. Our medical service counted on a corps of professionals, mostly Spaniards, to oversee the corps, infirmaries at Reynarde and Montgrand.

Along with this, we set up a law office to defend those people who the Spanish Government sought through diplomatic means to extradite. We counted on the services of a French lawyer, a former government minister, who gave us great service, and was exceedingly generous, especially in regard to his fees. We were assisted by a number of distinguished Spanish jurists. Out of ten extradition requests handled by us, we won ten.

We soon realized we also had to set up an employment bureau, because they were drafting the Spaniards into forced labor companies. We managed to get the French authorities to accredit our office to classify workers. At the time, there was a general mobilization in France, and manual laborers were being called up. So, if we could provide occupations for the Spaniards, they would not be sent to work camps in France or Germany. At the same time, to help the internees already in the French concentration camps, who were practically incomunicado. This called for unusual measures.

With the camps practically cut off from the outside world, we found alternatives. We managed to get some people out by providing transit visas to Mexico, or by transferring them to work at our facilities outside Marseilles. Since we didn’t have photographs to document some of these people, we set up a hidden studio in the consulate, where we processed the photos whenever we could get a person into the consulate – and prevent the authorities with coming up with some some pretext for postponing exit visas.

Getting prisoners out was laborious. They could leave via Marseille or Casablanca in Africa, but we had to get them there. It complicated things. We also needed to provide medical aid in the camps, and medicines, and sometimes monetary aid, were sent. We had to pay ransoms for some children, orphans for the most part, who were around the camps, living in deplorable conditions. In the winter we took in children who had frozen feet. Others were anemic. In the Pyrenees , we opened a rehabilitation center for these children, staffed by medical personnel, nurses and administrative staff. Mexico paid the expenses for supporting the eighty children, providing for their special diets and medical resources.

Well, as you can see, there was constant work, and no time for normal rest. All the employees contributed their concerted efficient and gave commendable service in performing the tasks at hand.

And he was just getting warmed up!

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