dilluns, 30 de juliol de 2007

The Ponzán’s group and Joan Català from Llavorsí

By Josep Calvet

The Ponzán’s group
Francisco Ponzán Vidal was an anarchist schoolteacher from Huesca. During the Spanish Civil War he had worked for the Peripherial Special Information Service (SIEP) of the Republic. The mission of this service was sabotage and spying. He was exiled to France on March 1939. He was interned in the Vernet d’Ariège concentration camp but he escaped. He contacted with the British, Belgian and French secret services to continue the fight against Nazism. He helped politicians, military men, aircrews and Jews to escape. The Ponzán’s group helped nearly 3,000 people to evade and did an uncountable number of mail services, especially for the Pat O’Leary network, one of the most important allied networks in occupied Europe.
The Ponzán’s group had its headquarters in Toulouse (Haute Garonne, France); its members were mainly Spanish anarchists. The most important passeurs were: Joan Català, Floreal Barberà, Agustín Remiro, Josep Ester and Vicente Moriones. The evaders crossed the Pyrenees with a passeur who guided the people to the British Consulate in Barcelona. The Consulate prepared their journey to Great Britain via Portugal or Gibraltar.
Francisco Ponzán was arrested on April 1943. He stayed for a year in prison. The Gestapo killed him 18th August 1944 in Buzet-sur-Tarn (Haute Garonne, France) with another 53 people. He was posthumously decorated by the French, British and American Governments. Francisco Ponzán is a forgotten person in Spain and all his work during the war remains unknown. His legacy is preserved in the Musée Départemental de la Résistance et de la Déportation in Toulouse

Joan Català background
Joan Català Balanyà was born in Llavorsí (Pallars Sobirà, Catalonia) on 21st February 1913. When the Spanish Civil War started he enlisted as a volunteer in the Durruti’s column (26 Divisió) and he went to Aragón. In the middle of 1938 he enlisted in the 143rd Brigade 24th Division of the Republican Army, situated in Alt Urgell, where he became a guide and a spy. He was a member of the Peripherial Special Information Service (SIEP), Francisco Ponzán was his chief. His relationship with Ponzán continued after the Spanish Civil War and survived during the Second World War.
On March 1939 he went to France and he was imprisoned in Vernet d’Ariège concentration camp. He escaped and went to Andorra.

From Andorra to the escape lines
Joan Català became a smuggler in Andorra but he got together with Francisco Ponzán, who already worked for the allied secret services. Joan Català worked as a spy in the Ponzán’s Group. He was arrested in Cadiz when he picked up the fortification maps of the province. He was interned in the Cisne’s Prison in Madrid and escaped in November 1940. He returned to Andorra to work again with the Ponzán’s Group helping the evaders to arrive to Spain. Joan Català was one of the most important passeurs of the Ponzán’s Group. But Català preferred to transport mail rather than people.
On April 1941 he was arrested again in the France Railway Station from Barcelona while he was with two American aircrews. He escaped again. From this moment on, he only transported mail, never people.
He was arrested again when he was waiting for an anarchist who was a police confident. On Desember 1942 he escaped from the Model’s Prison in Bacelona. A few days after he was arrested and moved to Lleida’s Prison. He was liberated on July 1943, thanks to a strange bureaucratic mistake.
Three months before, Francisco Ponzán had been arrested in Toulouse; with Ponzán gone his group had fallen apart too. When Català left the Lleida’s Prison, he went to Barcelona. The British Consulate wanted to create another escape line with Català, to substitute the collapsed group. In the British Consulate Joan received 3.000 pesetas for each person who arrived there. The new escape line had its headquarters in Cerdanya. They moved several Polish military groups with trucks.

The paths
Joan Català crossed the Pyrenees through Andorra or through the French Cerdanya, from Osseja (Alta Cerdanya, France). He always took a look at the escape group: if they were old or young, if they were in a good shape or not, then he decided the path. Jaume’s Hotel in Alp (Baixa Cerdanya, Catalonia) was a place where the evaders could sleep and eat before crossing the Cadí Mountains. They went on foot to Manresa (Bages, Catalonia) resting in several country houses where they were fed and lodged. They took the train in Manresa to Barcelona where they were received by people from the British Consulate in Urquinaona Square.
Sometimes, Català crossed the frontier through the Alt Empordà (Catalonia) because it was easier.

After the Second World War
Català was arrested in Adrall (Alt Urgell) on 25th de June 1944 while he was returning from Barcelona. On December 1946 he was judged and condemned for 12 years in prison. On March 1947 he escaped from Carabanchel’s Prison in Madrid. He went to France where he was arrested because he hadn’t any identification. Thanks to Robert Terres, an important French secret agent he was liberated. Living in France he had a lot of economic difficulties. On 1951, with some mates, he held up a mail wagon. He was arrested and he remained in prison for 15 years. He was freed in 1965. He went to live in Andorra. Now he lives in Seu d’Urgell (Catalonia).