THE last Spaniard to have survived the Nazi concentration camps in World War II has passed away.
Juan Romero died peacefully surrounded by family in his hometown of Ay in France, a stunning north eastern village that the 101 year old had called home since the 1980s.
Born in Torrecampo, Cordoba, in 1919, Romero grew up in humble surroundings on a farm, but an overwhelming drive to end the economic hardships in Spain at the time led him to join the General Union of Workers.
At just 17, he fought with the 33rd Mixed Brigade as a volunteer in Spain against Franco’s fascist army.
In 1939, he crossed the border into France only to be sent to an internment camp at Vernet d ‘Ariege along with thousands of compatriots fleeing Franco after the civil war.
He enlisted in the French Foreign legion, fighting against the Nazis before being captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Luckenwalde, Germany.
Talks between Franco and his German allies led Romero being exploited for cheap labour and he was transferred to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp where he would spend two years between 1940 and 1942, along with 7,500 other Spaniards.
Speaking on his time in the camps, he relived his days working at a granite mine for 12 hours a day: “When the day ended, we would carry a stone up the stairs, and they were not small…The SS were criminals. Every day the carts arrived from the quarry full of the dead,” he said.
Through a stroke of luck, he was transferred yet to a slightly less hellish field job, under the command of fellow Spaniard Cesar Orquin.
He was treated to better food and better conditions before a serious work accident left him unable to continue.
He recovered and was assigned to his final post as a Disinfection Guard.
He would collect the clothing of newly entered prisoners and wash and disinfect them.
Romero survived only by finding small amounts of food in the pockets and by keeping a strong will to keep fighting.
He was eventually freed in 1945 by American soldiers, and returned to France, unable to return to his home country as it was still under the dictatorship of Franco and his regime.
In the years following, Romero would go on to marry, have children and build a successful Champagne winery.
He was recognised for his sacrifices and efforts by the French government who gave him the Legion of Honour among multiple tributes, as well as hero status.
However it would not be until May 5 this year that the Spanish government would do the same, with vice president Carmen Calvo finally drawing up the texts to officially recognise Romero for his services.
“We will never do enough, we will always be indebted to the Spanish antifascists who paid with their lives. Eternal gratitude from the Spanish democracy,” said Calvo as she visited the 101-year-old.
Romero was one of only 1,300 Spaniards to survive Nazi Germany out of a total of 7,500 who entered the camps throughout the war.