Madrid Bar hid escapees from Nazis


A BRITISH escape route from Nazi-occupied Europe that saved the lives of thousands of Polish Jews, servicemen and refugees operated under cover of a chic Maderid cocktail bar, according to a new book.
Operating under the noses of the Gestapo and the pro- Nazi regime of General Franco, a network of sympathisers in the Spanish capital provided the last link in a chain that spirited refugees across the Pyrenees and out of the country through Galicia and Gibraltar, the daughter of one of its chief participants says.
Patricia Martínez de Vicente discovered the secret role of her father, Eduardo, the Spanish doctor to the British Embassy in Madrid, when she stumbled across his private papers during a house clearance.
Her book tells how Madrid was a nest of spies, but the British diplomats managed to play an active role in saving Jews and others from the clutches of the Nazis via Embassy, a fashionable place to take tea or champagne cocktails on the Paseo de la Castellana.
At the helm of the escape route was Alan Hillgarth, the British naval attaché, a close friend of Eduardo Martínez, who had grown up in Liverpool, where his father had been the Spanish Consul-General.
The two men would meet at the bar, whose owner was Margarita Taylor, an elegant Irishwoman who moved in the capital’s highest social circles.
“Hillgarth told my father that Winston Churchill had first wanted to establish an escape route for fleeing servicemen, but when he learnt from the Polish authorities in London about the plight of the Jews he told the embassy staff to redouble their efforts,” Señora Martínez told The Times.
“It was my father who came up with the idea of getting them out of Spain through his family home on the Vigo estuary in Galicia. He told Hillgarth that if they could be got to there he could rely upon some local fishermen to row them out to British ships waiting in the mouth of the estuary at night.”
Over afternoon teas, their whispered conversations lost in the chink of martini glasses and the strains of a string quartet, the diplomat, the doctor and the society hostess refined the plan. Refugees arriving over the Pyrenees were being taken by the Spanish Civil Guard to a concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro, near the city of Burgos. The British Embassy pressured the authorities and the camp commander to release into its custody those who were deemed to be at risk of losing their lives through ill-health.
“My father was active in the Red Cross and it was a simple matter for him to ‘invent’ various epidemics and to certify that many people in the camp were at deadly risk,” Señora Martínez said.
“The operation became so effective that all the embassy vehicles and various Red Cross ambulances were constantly bringing people from the camp to Madrid.” Once in the capital, the refugees were hidden by Margarita Taylor at her home above the Embassy bar. When the time was right and they had been given new false documents, the refugees would be brought downstairs.
“Dressed in fine clothes which my father and Margarita Taylor managed to procure for them, the refugees would slip away under the noses of some of the less pleasant clients of Embassy. Margarita was a brilliant actress and she always used to bid them farewell at the door as if they were her oldest friends with a loud: ‘God Bless!’ ” Señora Martínez said.
From there they would be driven either south to Gibraltar or northwest to Galicia, where, after a few days lying low in La Portela, the family home, they would be rowed to freedom.
Señora Martínez has been unable to contact any of the beneficiaries of the escape route, but the former housekeeper at La Portela has told her how it was done. “None of the fishermen who participated are alive today, but their children are and they deserve to be remembered for their heroism,” she said.
Her father fled to England in 1942 with his bride. He was paid a monthly stipend by the Foreign Office, paid under his code number Agent 055, before returning to Madrid in 1946.
“My father never spoke again about the war, he never explained the medals he received from the British and Polish. But I discovered that the plan was based on Churchill’s advice that it should rely upon Spaniards who were above suspicion by Franco’s Government. My father was on the Right and although he finally had to leave because the Gestapo were closing in on him, he never suffered reprisals or recriminations after he returned home.”
  • Embassy, by Patricia Martínez, is published by Velecío.