Francesc Boix: The Man Who Stole Photographs from the Nazis
Ben Mannings explores the extraordinary life of the Spanish photographer who smuggled photographs out of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
October 26, 2018
Above the door of house No.17 on Calle Margarit, Barcelona, there hangs a plaque. Discreet and unassuming it reads:
Francesc Boix I Campo, photographer, fighter against fascism, prisoner of Mauthausen and the only Spaniard called to give evidence at the Nuremberg Trials against the military leaders of the 3rd Reich.
This plaque is one of the very few existing memorials to the extraordinary life of Francesc Boix, and its subtle placement and unostentatious lettering means that most passers-by probably miss it. The understated plaque reflects how history has not paid sufficient homage to the memory of a man who risked his life to preserve the truth of Nazi war crimes. Boix had a short but intense existence in which he experienced the Spanish Civil War, French concentration camps, Nazi concentration camps and post-war exile.
Whilst he should be revered for his photography, it is the bravery which he demonstrated when stealing photos from the Mauthausen concentration camp that we must emphasise in posterity. Boix’s valour to provide us with photographic evidence of Mauthausen allows us today to view it (and other Nazi camps like it) for exactly what they were. His commitment to the truth means that the crimes perpetrated in Mauthausen can never be disputed and hopefully will never be repeated. For this, history owes him a great debt, and he deserves to be remembered far more widely than he is now.
Born in Barcelona in the working-class district of Poble Sec, Francesc Boix came from a modest family. His father, Bartolomé, was a tailor, but in his spare time collected old cameras. Bartolomé’s fascination for photography would inspire in his son a passion for taking pictures that would define the course of his life.
From an early age, the young Francesc would use his father’s cameras to capture the life around him developing his photos in the makeshift darkroom set up in the family kitchen. Inseparable from his camera, Boix soon grew to be skilled photographer and his aptitude behind the lens meant that by the time Civil War broke out in Spain in June 1936 (when Boix was just 15) he was already an adept photographer. Swept up by the currents of opposition to Franco’s coup Boix joined the United Socialist Youth (JSU) to work as a photographer with the Communist press on the Aragon and Segre fronts. At the age of just 16 he had his first photos published in the Unified Socialist Youth Magazine (Juliol). His work with the Communist press drew him close to the JSU cause and he became close friends with its leading figures Gregorio and Joaquín López Raimundo.
After spending almost a year documenting the gruelling conflict Boix became compelled to fight and in May 1937, just 17 years old, he enlisted in the 30th division Spanish Republican army. In the army he fought on the fronts of Teruel, Huesca, Balaguer, Vilanova de Meià and Villanova de Barca as well as at the decisive Battle of Ebro where the Republicans were conclusively defeated.
Defeat in the war was a devastating blow to Boix and in 1939 he fled Spain as part of the mass exodus known as La Retirada which saw an estimated 440,000 republican refugees cross the border into France. Rather than being welcomed by the French as their Republican brothers, refugees were forced into overcrowded camps often without food, water or sanitation. Boix was interned in the concentration camps of Argelès-sur-Mer, Vernet d’Ariege and Septfonds, where Republican exiles endured insufferable conditions and many died of the cold, hunger or dysentery.
To escape the unbearable conditions of the camps, Boix enlisted with a group of ex-republican fighters known as the 28th Company of Foreign Workers or CTE (Compañía de Trabajadores Extranjeros) who were allowed to leave the camps in exchange for carrying out forced labour. In September of 1939 they left Septfonds heading north on a 500 mile journey to Combrimont, where they would help construct the Maginot line.
When later recounting this journey, one of Boix’s fellow workers, Ramón Bargueño, lamented how Boix would spend long periods of the expedition north playing the harmonica, repeating over and over again a loose interpretation of the Bolero de Ravel, the only tune he knew. As they walked for mile after mile Boix’s Bolero would have been a haunting ode to the hardships of exile and the uncertainties of the purgatory which Spanish republicans found themselves in. The period between the end of the Spanish Civil War and before the start of the Second World War was a strange void of time. Republican exiles didn’t know if the impending European conflict would bring a triumph of democracy over fascism, or of fascism over democracy and nor what either outcome would mean for their futures.
Germany’s invasion of France meant the worst for Boix and when the French lines were overrun by the German Blitzkrieg in May 1940, the 28th division of the CTE were quickly captured and taken to a Stalag (German prison camp) in Belfort France. The ideologies of the Spanish republicans made them natural enemies of the Third Reich, and this had been assured by the Spanish Foreign Minister and Nazi-admirer, Ramón Serrano Súñer. Súñer travelled to meet Hitler in order to officially renounce the citizenship of the Republican exiles and ensure the Nazis treated them as stateless citizens who could be worked to death.
Being captured continued the sequence of forced relocation for Boix and after the Stalag at Belfort he was moved to another one in Besançon, before then being transported to the XI-B Stalag in Fallingbostel Lower Saxony. Finally, from Fallingbostel Boix was transferred with 1,506 other Spaniards to the Mauthausen extermination camp in Austria, where he arrived on 27th January 1941.
Mauthausen was one of the most brutal Nazi concentration camps and was kept for only the most ‘Incorrigible Political Enemies of the Reich’. Over 8000 Spaniards ended up in Mauthausen and two out of every three of them were worked to their deaths in quarries, munitions factories or assembly plants.
Having picked up some rudimentary German in the Stalags, Boix was used as a translator and his cheeky and endearing personality meant that he soon became a favourite with the guards. This allowed him special privileges and he was able to work in the photography laboratory as part of the camp’s ‘identification service’. The Nazis systematically took photos documenting every prisoner, death, and high-profile visit to the camp and Boix’s job was in the darkroom, developing the negatives of the photographs taken by SS officials.
After Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, it became evident that the Nazis were no longer winning the war and the SS began destroying photographs which provided evidence of the atrocities committed inside the concentration camps. It was at this point, and with indescribable fortitude, that Boix alongside fellow Spaniard Antonio García took it upon themselves to start making copies of the negatives of these photographs. To keep the copies inside the camp and hidden from the guards was too dangerous and so Boix and García smuggled them out through the use of Spanish youngsters working in the outside quarry nearby to the town of Mauthausen. As discreetly as possible the young Spaniards would pass the negatives given to them by Boix and García into the garden of Anna Pointner, a farmer and resident of the town. Pointner, who prudently was wary of house inspections by the SS, concealed the negatives inside the stones of her garden wall and here they remained until the end of the war and the liberation of the Mauthausen camp in May 1945.
The preservation of these negatives, right under the noses of the Nazis was an act of great heroism. Everyone involved was cognizant of the fact that if found out, they would most certainly face death and torture not only for themselves, but for anyone even associated with them. However, history has proven it to be a risk worth taking. Boix, García, Pointner, and the Spanish youngsters succeeded in saving 3000 photographs from Mauthausen and these were later to serve as irrefutable evidence placing certain Nazi war criminals at the scene of these abhorrent camps. Camps which at trial they had claimed to know nothing about.
Boix became the only Spaniard to testify at the Nuremberg trials, in January 1946, and later on at the American war trials at Dachau between March and May of the same year. His photos were integral in demonstrating that leading Nazi officials were both aware of and complicit in the genocides taking place in camps like Mauthausen and his testimonies were ultimately crucial in the conviction of high-ranking Nazis which included Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Albert Speer.
Sadly, neither the end of the war, nor his leading role in the war crimes trials could bring Boix the freedom to return home. Franco’s governance after 1945 assured that those who had fought against the dictator would face punishment or death if they returned, and it was for this reason that Boix, like so many other Spanish Republicans, moved to Paris.
This time they were given the warm welcome they had been denied in 1939, and armed with his in-demand photos, Boix found employment as a photojournalist working for various publications linked to the French Communist party which included ‘Regards’, ‘L’humanite’ and ‘Ce Soir’. During this time, he made an array of photo reportages capturing the efforts of the Spanish Communists in France to mobilise support against Franco. Through the medium of photography Boix continued to his battle against fascism.
Stirred by his career, Boix continued living life at an unrelenting pace and as a reporter he travelled to Algeria, Prague and Budapest covering an array of political and sporting events. His job also took him into contact with other prominent exiles including the leaders of the Spanish Communist party Dolores Ibárruri (la Pasionaria) and Santiago Carrillo, as well as Pablo Picasso. This new life, however, was to be short lived.
In July 1951, just 6 years after the end of the war, Boix died of tuberculosis. A disease he probably contracted during or as a result of his time in Mauthausen. He was 30 years old.
After his death, Boix faded into historical obscurity. Any form of honouring him would have been forbidden under the Franco regime, and whilst his photos and those he stole from Mauthausen were often published outside of Spain, more often than not they were done so without proper accreditation. In this way, the story of the man behind the viewfinder slipped into oblivion and Boix became just one more character that history left behind.
Fortunately, as the tide of historical memory has begun to turn in Spain, the story of Francesc Boix has gradually been revisited more and more with its dissemination becoming ever wider. Opposite his old house, there is now a library, set up in the old Falange headquarters, named after him and decorated with large prints of his pictures on the walls. In 2002 Benito Bermejo published an excellent book on Boix’s experiences called ‘El Fotógrafo del Horror’ (The Photographer of the Horror) and today on the 26th October 2018 there is set to be a film released – El Fotografo del Mauthausen – based on the extraordinary events of his life. Whilst there has been almost no historiography on Boix written in English, hopefully the film will provide the necessary impetus to help bring his story into the wider public and international domain, so we can ensure that this courageous photographer from Poble-Sec is remembered how he deserves to be.
The bravery Boix showed to preserve the truth, even in the face of the most extreme adversity, has made sure that the events which occurred in the abhorrent camp of Mauthausen will never be forgotten. For that reason the debt history owes him is eternal and it is the least we can do to ensure that Francesc Boix himself, is never forgotten.
Bermejo, Benito, El Fotógrafo Del Horror: La Historia de Francisco Boix y Las Fotos Robadas a Los SS de Mauthausen, Segunda edición revisada (Barcelona: RBA, 2015)
Lloyd, Nick, ‘Capturing Evil – Francesc Boix’, Barcelona-Metropolitan.Com <https://web.archive.org/web/20120305022846/http://www.barcelona-metropolitan.com/articles/capturing-evil/>
Lloyd, Nick, Forgotten Places: Barcelona and The Spanish Civil War (Barcelona: Create Space, 2016)
Torran, Rosa, Mes Enlla De Mauthausen, Francesc Boix Fotograf (Museu d’Història de Catalunya, 2015)