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Camps Organisation of resistance Transnational Resistance

Escape from the prison of Castres

A spectacular feat happened on the eve of 16–17 September 1943, in the small town of Castres in southwestern France. From a high–security fortress prison, an international group of 34 inmates escaped. Primary organizers of this breakout were four Yugoslav communists and veterans of the International Brigades from Spain: Ljubomir Ilić, Vlajko Begović, Guido Nonveiller and Milan Kalafatić.

 

The largest group of escapees were international volunteers from Spain. After the defeat of the Spanish Republic in 1939 they had crossed the Pyrenees to France where the authorities had interned them as “dangerous foreigners” in concentration camps. One of these camps was in Le Vernet, and from there a group had later been transferred to the prison of Castres. There was also a smaller group, called “the Allies” by the communists. It included French resisters and several British pilots whose plane had been shot down and who had been captured, but were then hidden from the Germans by the Vichy authorities. In fact, this prison was a well–kept secret of the Vichy regime. The inmates’ formal address was still at camp Vernet.

 

The prisoners were kept in strict isolation, but they were not mistreated. Nonetheless, when one German communist was taken away and handed over to the Gestapo, the internationals decided to attempt a breakthrough. But after years of internment, their fragile physical state allowed for only a limited set of meticulously planned actions. At first, the group secured support among other inmates across ideological lines. Afterwards, they studied the inner workings of the prison and tried to soften the stance of the guards by earning their trust: they’re just waiting for the war to play out, they would often say.

 

A special opportunity came when Nonveiller, while exchanging letters with his supposed “aunt”, Mrs Podvoletzky from St. Claude – a supporter of the interned interbrigadistas – managed to insert ciphered messages, which she eventually picked up and responded to. Through this channel, the group managed to secure support from the FTP–MOI resistance movement and their contacts in Castres. Mrs Podvoletzky even sent a tiny map hidden in a single bean. Finally, during shift hours, the inmates attacked the unarmed guards, one by one, as they came in. They locked them in, changed clothes, and found their local contact (an immigrant Italian shoemaker), where they spent their first night in freedom, before continuing further…

 

The four veterans assumed leading positions in the FTP–MOI. Ilić became their commander for the “Southern Zone”. Begović became their chief commissar, while also working with armed groups in Marseilles and Lyon. Nonveiller was the interregional commander for Saint–Etienne, and later he became the technical chief of the “Southern” FTP–MOI. Kalafatić, for his part, was one of the commanding officers of the international “Maquis” around Toulouse.

 

Vladan Vukliš

Sources used
  • Vlajko Begović, “Bekstvo iz zatvora Kastre”, in: Španija 1936–1939, ed. Čedo Kapor (Beograd: Vojno–izdavački zavod, 1971), IV, pp. 206–231.
  • Guido Nonveiller, Sećanja jednog građanina dvadesetog stoleća, I (Beograd: Nadežda Nonveiller, 2004).
Further reading
  • Jonny Granzow, 16 septembre 1943, l’évasion de la prison de Castres (Villemur–sur–Tarn: Editions Loubatières, 2009).
  • Olga Manojlović–Pintar, “Jugoslovenski interbrigadisti u Francuskoj tokom Drugog svetskog rata”, in: Transnacionalna iskustva jugoslovenske istorije, II (Beograd: INIS, 2019) (Cyrillic), pp. 123–152.
  • Vladan Vukliš, “Brigadistas, Maquis, Partisans: Yugoslav Veterans of the Spanish Civil War in European Resistance Movements”, in: Wer ist Walter? International Perspectives on Resistance in Europe during World War II, ed. Elma Hašimbegović, Nicolas Moll and Ivo Pejaković, Sarajevo 2024

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