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Return of Personal Effects to a French Family

The International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen could welcome an extraordinary visitor today. In the company of his family, François Gimeno from Rennes, France, received back the personal effects that had been confiscated from his father in the Neuengamme concentration camp in May 1944: a signet ring with his father’s initials and a wristwatch. “I was a bit scared of coming here”, said Gimeno. “For two nights, my concerns have kept me awake. But it was the right thing to do.”

Never did he expect to come across personal objects while pursuing research on his father’s persecution fate, Gimeno said. “Doing a Google search on the internet, my son José Camille discovered the ITS list of personal effects.” The list shows the names of 2,800 former prisoners from the concentration camps in Neuengamme and Dachau, whose wallets, watches, letters and photos still have to be returned to the families of their original owners. When they discovered the list, the Gimenos embarked on  a long car journey to pick up the keepsakes of their father and grandfather in person and to see the ITS archive. Aside from the effects, the family received copies of documents relating to José Gimeno’s fate.

Born in Fresneda, Spain, in 1915, José Gimeno had taken the Republic’s side and as an anarchist fought against Franco in the 1930s. In 1939 he fled to France, where he was interned one year later, first near Toulouse and then at Lorient in Brittany. “From here he managed to escape in 1942. We do not know, however, what happened to him before his deportation to Neuengamme. We presume, though, that he had gone underground”, his son François reported.

At length the Gestapo got hold of José Gimeno in Rennes in March 1944 and deported him to Germany. In Watenstedt, a branch camp of Neuengamme, the Spanish prisoner had to produce grenades for the German Army. When the branch camp was evacuated on April 7th, 1945, he was transported by train to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. It was here that, on his liberation in June 1945, he wrote a letter to his parents, which has been kept to this day. In this letter he informed them that he had survived and had had to spend some weeks in a hospital. “We found some few papers and letters in my mother’s estate in 2002”, related Gimeno. “My father has never spoken with me about the time, and my mother had nothing to tell. She endured much during the war and became more and more frightened the older she grew. So, cloak of silence covered everything.”

In July 1945 José Gimeno returned to France and stayed at Hotel Lutetia in Paris first. Subsequently he went back to Rennes, got a job as a construction worker, started a family and fathered late, at the age of 46, his son François. In 1970 France naturalized him. Only then could he safely travel to his home country Spain, which was under Franco’s reign still, and could take his father in his arms again. The Franco regime had jailed his father for ten years, his mother had died early. “Spanish guards kept a sharp eye on the border”, recalled François Gimeno who was nine years at the time. “Nevertheless I could come to know my grandfather for a week then, before he died that same year.”

The relationship to his family in Spain has remained strained to this day, narrates Gimeno. “The rest of the family had taken Franco’s side and never questioned nor reassessed the past.” In his heart of hearts his father had remained Spanish, and he had educated him to be a political person. “Actually it was a stroke of good fortune that he was not deported to the concentration camp until 1944, because Spanish inmates kept together in the concentration camp and supported one another.” So his father had had a chance to survive, though his health continued to be weak and he died at the age of 62. “This is hard to bear”, said his son. “People have no memory. They do not learn from the lessons of history. In the end, this is a purely personal matter.”