The Black Legend of Andorra

I stumbled across the legend of Andorra for the first time when I was investigating the routes across the Pyrenees taken by fugitives fleeing from Nazism. In case you don’t know it, Andorra is a tiny little country like Lichtenstein or Monaco situated just in the middle of the French-Spanish border. Gifted by a wonderful mountainous landscape, now it is a prosperous shopping paradise and ski area.

Andorra in the Pyrenees

The legend about Andorra was nourished by veiled allusions that never resulted in any name in particular. The allusions circulated sotto voce, at times with a certain knowing ghoulishness, as when an Andorran girl whispered to a friend of mine who was gliding across the white mirror of the Pas de la Casa on his skis,

“Hey, do you know you’re skiing over bones?”

All the rumours pointed in the same direction: that during the tragic years of the Second World War, when thousands of victims of Nazism defied the elements and crossed the Pyrenees, some of them came up against something in Andorra that suddenly interrupted their flight. Something very shady. There were tales of murders and massacres. Of long-forgotten mass graves. Of dead people who were still lying under the rocks and snow. Of Jews. Of gold and jewels purloined from the desperate. Of unscrupulous guides who murdered or abandoned those who had trusted them with their lives.

Andorran landscape

In those days the lives of many people had no more value than the soles of their shoes. Unscrupulous guides there must have been all along the Pyrenean mountain range. But for some reason the black legend seems to dog the small Andorran territory in particular.

Without a press and cut off by the snow for most of the year, the extreme ideologies that left their mark on the 20th century, whether left-wing or right, had no opportunity to take root in Andorra, which during the war maintained its neutrality. It was the foreigners with their strange languages who came down the mountainside from time to time, exhausted, frightened and hungry, who would remind the Andorrans that on the other side of the imposing wall of rock a savage war was dismembering Europe.

In Andorra smuggling, be it of goods or of people, was not a crime and was possessed of a long tradition. But before the war this activity did not prevent it from being a notoriously poor region, except for the odd hereu or pubilla who was lucky enough to inherit a herd of goats or a good field of tobacco. All the above had nothing to do with the touristic and commercial Andorra that emerged later on and which defines the image of the Principality today. In fact, the country’s sudden economic rise has helped foment the Legend, which is to a large extent nourished by the fabulous fortunes that some Andorran families amassed during the war itself. Fortunes that, according to the persistent rumours, in some cases had come from the plundering of the Jews they were meant to guide.

Andorra today

The publication in 1977 in the Spanish magazine Reporter of the salacious article by Eliseo Bayo, “The killing of Jews on the Spanish border,” helped foment the legend.

Eliseo Bayo, Reporter

In his lengthy article, Bayer claimed to have found some of the wells into which the fugitives had been flung, indicating locations, providing names, showing skeletons, and causing a huge ruckus that shook the whole of Andorra—to the extent that the Andorran police embarked on a vast operation of collecting examples in the Principality and throughout the whole of Spain. At the time it was the only measure the Andorran authorities adopted. They never went in search of the mass graves nor did they test the veracity of the article, even if only to disprove it.

In his article Bayo stated that “a fear of reprisals means that those who know something keep their mouths shut.” According to various sources, the guide that showed the graves to him and his team in 1977 appeared dead at the foot of a cliff shortly afterwards.

Andorra was one of the few European territories that the war totally bypassed. Could it be that it was precisely here that the killing of innocent civilians was systematized? And if so, how many dead people are we speaking of? Two Belgian couples, who’d been murdered near Estany Negre, as the former smuggler Quim Baldrich said recently in the Channel 33 documentary Boira negra? “We screwed the women and then killed them,” the perfidious guide admitted to him at the time. In the same programme another two ex-smugglers, Enric Mélich and Joan Català, offered similar testimonies.

Notwithstanding the time that has passed, the black legend goes on casting its sinister shadow over the valleys of Andorra. And this despite the fact that the Andorran historian Claude Benet has long clamoured for a thorough investigation of these rumours, if only to scotch them once and for all:

The time has long since passed to try and find the guilty parties, but it could still be ripe for history to unearth certain truths. Almost all the democratic countries have made, or are making, a great effort at consciousness-raising through programmes to recovery historical memory, and notwithstanding still strong susceptibilities and ever prevailing fears the silence about these facts is now intolerable.

Claude Benet, 'Guies, fugitius i espies'.

Intolerable because, among other things, the sinister black legend also unwittingly ends up besmirching those who do not in the least deserve it, like the extraordinary heroes in the Principality who out of ideological conviction or pure humanity risked their lives smuggling fugitives across the mountains, men like Francesc Viadiu, Francesc Areny Naudi, the aforesaid Baldrich, Mélich and Català, or other lesser known figures like Josep Ibern, Salvador Calvet or Joan Peremiquel.

There is a crying need to investigate things more fully. If the legend is true, there must still be anonymous graves in the mountains, graves that deserve a more dignified fate. And if the legend is false, the truth will help us have done with it once and for all.

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