FOR many, Valle de los Caidos is an enduring symbol of Franco’s cruelty. But one night in 1948, it was the scene of a daring escape plan that defied his regime.
Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz was a 20-year-old student in Madrid’s Republican resistance. In 1947, he and 12 others were condemned by a military court to eight years of enforced labour.
He was sent to one of three work camps at Valle de los Caidos and forced to build the monks’ monastery. Another camp of prisoners excavated the church crypt.
“This was very dangerous because the excavation was done with dynamite,” Albornoz told the Olive Press. “Most of the deaths came there.”
Albornoz worked on the monastery with 150 other prisoners. A brigade of Civil Guards controlled the camps.
“Three officers were stealing food that was sent to feed prisoners,” he says. “There was a lot of corruption.”
By the time Albornoz arrived at Valle de los Caidos the spirit of fellow prisoners, many of whom had endured up to 15 years in captivity, was shattered.
But emboldened by youth, Albornoz and a friend, Manuel Lamana, made a brave bid for freedom.
“We got in contact with exiled colleagues in France,” explains Albornoz.
“We told them we would do our best to escape, but they must provide us with documents to get to the border. Our friends provided us with clean clothes.
“We organised our escape very well and met up in El Escorial. There was a car waiting with a friend of ours who had come from Paris, and two girls driving.”
One of the foreign female drivers, Barbara, was Norman Mailer’s sister. An American car was picked so as not to arouse suspicion.
Previous escapees were caught when they returned to their home villages, so the group embarked on the perilous drive to the French border.
“We were stopped from time to time by the Guardia Civil and the police,” says Albornoz. “But the fact you were free, in a car and surrounded by friends gave you the support to be less frightened.
“When you are in that situation you are always concerned about what to do next. Only afterwards you begin to be frightened.”
Once Albornoz reached the Catalan border, he crossed the Pyrenees on foot. From France. he fled to Argentina where he remained in exile for decades, an implacable enemy to Franco’s dictatorship.
He became a history professor and was Director of Instituto Cervantes for six years. But almost 70 years since he fled the hated camp, Albornoz remains defiant about Valle de los Caidos.
“Some believe it has to be blown up. I wouldn’t mind that,” he says.
“Others think that it has to be respected like the concentration camps of the Nazis.
“It’s a memorial to Franco. It’s not like Arlington cemetery in Washington. It’s very selective. It’s for the ones who brought a civil war to Spain.”