Looking for relatives of Vicente Villena Chacón

Born in Malaga, he was a baker and had a son. When he was sent to the Neuengamme Nazi concentration camp he left a watch and a ring, and experts are now trying to trace his family


His name was Vicente Villena Chacón. He was born in Malaga on 10 December 1919, was not married and had a son. When he disappeared, in the Neuengamme Nazi concentration camp, he was 24 years old. And that's all that is known about him.

The trail began to disappear from the moment that he passed through the doors of that old brick factory built 30 kilometres from Hamburg which was converted into the biggest concentration camp in north-west Germany. It is also one of the least-known.

The trail came to an end at 9.53 on an unknown date during 1944. That's the time shown on his wristwatch, with its white dial and silver metal strap; the one the Nazis forgot to destroy when they fled from the Neuengamme camp, which is now waiting to start ticking again in the hands of one of Vicente's relatives. With it are a handful of yellowed documents and a ring, which is probably gold, engraved with a V embraced by another symbol which has yet to be deciphered. Just like the rest of Vicente's life.

«We have no other information about him. A month ago, going through some archives in Bordeaux, we discovered Vicente's existence and that he had been born in Malaga. Everything else is unknown,» says Antonio Muñoz, a researcher at the Social Sciences Institute in Lisbon and visiting researcher at the Rovira i Virgili university in Tarragona. Two years ago he joined the Arolsen Archive as a volunteer. It is a centre of documentation about the Nazi holocaust in Germany which is trying to piece together what happened to thousands of people like Vicente, from items they left behind. This research, which is almost forensic, has enabled about 20 Spanish families to find out what happened to their relatives. «Some of them didn't even know that their relatives had been in a concentration camp,» says Muñoz, who is hoping the few threads which have been found so far about Vicente's story will lead to further information.

They can only hypothesise about Vicente's earlier life, based on some police documents. Because of his age (24) he «probably» fled to France after fighting in the Civil War. A police record from Bordeaux dated 21 May 1944 identifies him by name and origin before he was locked in a train convoy heading for Germany with 2,003 men of 17 different nationalities. Like Vicente, 194 were Spanish. Three, in fact, were from Malaga: Rafael Aguilera Calle (born 25 August 1914), Francisco Rodríguez Espada (17 December 1907) and José Torres Nieto (13 February 1913).

Extreme conditions

The conditions of that journey to the horror of Germany were so extreme that of the 2,004 who were being transported, 838 died on the way, 163 disappeared and 189 are identified as 'Situations non connues' (situacions unknown). 814 arrived at Neuengamme. One of them was Vicente, as shown on his arrival form at the camp, on 24 May 1944. Behind him were three days with no food, no water, no space and no hope. The testimonies which have reached historians confirm that most Spanish inmates had previously fought in the Civil War, were linked with anti-fascist, communist and anarchist movements, and they were labelled by the French authorities as 'undesirable foreigners'.

In the convoy, which consisted of 20 wagons, they had to take turns to take naps, standing up and holding onto the bars of the small windows. Anyone who fell was almost guaranteed to die. When they asked for water, the German guards pointed directly to the prisoners' urine buckets.

At the Neuengamme camp, which held around 500 Spanish prisoners, living conditions were not much better. Once there, the SS divided the prisoners among some of the 85 labour sub-camps, depending on their professions. The last document remaining about Vicente is, precisely, from that moment: Prisoner number 32,008. Profession: baker.

«Could he have been sent to work in the kitchens, because of that? We don't know. Often, it made no difference, they might as well send you to dig ditches,» says Muñoz. He is unable to confirm whether Vicente was one of the 9,500 prisoners who, after the factory was destroyed, walked to the Sandbostel camp in what were known as the 'death marches'. Nor does he know whether he might have survived. There are just his belongings: a few documents, a ring and a watch which stopped at 9.53 and now awaits a new home with Vicente's family. And with it, comes his memory.