Recreating a Family’s Lost Holocaust History, Step by Step

That afternoon, we drove to what remains of Barcares, now an abandoned, overgrown field full of unclaimed internment camp artifacts. I walked along the straight rows of what looked like the cement foundations of barracks and picked up a bullet casing and one of many rusted twists of barbed wire. Across the road was a large metal archway memorializing the Spanish Republicans once interned there, and farther out, the same silver waves my grandfather described in his letter. A man in a barely-there bikini ran down the beach with a rainbow kite trying to catch the wind. You could have easily driven past the scene without a second thought.

The following morning, I took the first step of the actual climb. The first hour or so, Ms. Arran and I shared the path with children, grandparents and every age in between who were taking a popular hike to the 13th-century fortress of Fort Saint-Elme. But as the day-trippers made their way down, Ms. Arran and I continued our climb and barely saw another soul until we arrived in Spain.

As the climb got steeper up to Puig de Sallfort, a flat mountain top, Ms. Arran told me stories about previous treks she’d led along the Chemin de la Liberté where out-of-shape hikers had to be rescued. This “walk,” as she called it, much to my huffing and puffing dismay, was so much easier, lower, shorter.

We flung ourselves down the afternoon’s final mountain meters to the Refugi Coll de Banyuls, a first-come-first-serve “refuge” that offered only a roof over our heads and wooden slats on which to lay sleeping bags. We were greeted by Mr. Prime, who had arrived with beer and bags of dehydrated Indian-spiced chicken and rice. (The refuge can also be reached by dirt road.) I did some downward dogs on Ms. Arran’s insistence so my muscles wouldn’t cramp up overnight and drifted off to sleep to the sounds of mice scurrying nearby.

The next morning I came across a nearby plaque memorializing the Spanish soldiers who had escaped over these mountains to France, with a map detailing different paths taken, written in French, Spanish, Catalan and English. A few yards away lay a large stone with words engraved in French, a “tribute to the thousands of Republican men, women, and children … who had to go into exile after three years of war against Francoism,” according to one translation. “They were the precursors of the antifascist struggle in Europe.”

That last sentence was the only mention of any further continental fascism. While there was plenty of information to be had about those seeking refuge in France, there was none about those fleeing the dangers within the country’s borders. The very same mountain trails that had been crossed from south to north in 1939 were taken north to south just one year later. Different dictators, different directions.

Our second day’s hike, from Coll de Banyuls up to Coll de Rumpissa, was so steep that Ms. Arran walked in front of me and Mr. Prime behind. We climbed past wild boar droppings until the well-marked trail gradually disappeared and we had to use our hiking poles to whack aside thorny branches. The long, pointy spines tore my pants and dug bloody stripes into my skin. Desperate to feel as if I’d uncovered some truth, I convinced myself these were the same wild plants that scratched and bloodied my father’s legs. The magical thinking didn’t stop there.

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