The man believed to be the last surviving member of the 35,000 International Brigades volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight against Franco’s fascist rebellion has died in France at the age of 101.
Josep Eduardo Almudéver Mateu, who was born on 30 July 1919 in Marseille to Spanish parents, was 16 and living in the Valencian town of Alcàsser when Franco’s coup triggered the Spanish civil war.
After lying about his age to enlist in the republican army, Almudéver was wounded and sent home when his true age emerged. Undeterred, he used his French nationality to join the International Brigades so he could carry on fighting.
When the brigades were disbanded in 1938 and many of their fighters sent home to the 80 countries from which they had come, Almudéver chose to return to Spain.
Following Franco’s victory in April 1939, Almudéver was arrested and was among those sent to the dictator’s concentration camps. At one, the Albatera camp in Valencia, he and others were forced to watch their comrades being shot and wonder when their turn would come.
“It was a criminal place,” he told elDiario.es in a 2016 interview. “People there died of hunger, of stomach problems, of everything.”
In an interview with El País, he said the sound of gunshots and the cries of the dying had never left him.
“I don’t know why, but they always made me watch when they shot people who had tried to escape from the camp,” said Almudéver. “Never, in all my life, will I forget the screams of the people who were shot.”
When the camps were closed down, he spent three years in various prisons before being released and joining the guerrilla fight against Franco. He fled into exile in France in 1947 and did not return to Spain until 1965. His death, in France on 23 May, was announced on Tuesday.
The regional government of Valencia, which honoured Almudéver two years ago for his part in fighting for democracy and freedom, paid its own tribute to him on Tuesday.
The regional president, Ximo Puig, described Almudéver as “a Valencian who fought for the democratic convictions of all his people”, adding: “The last international brigader has said goodbye to us at the age of 101. Alcàsser, Europe and democracy will always remember you, Josep Almudéver Mateu.”
The Spanish communist party noted that the “last international brigader” had been tireless in his efforts and had “fought fascism and for democracy until the end of his days”.
Speaking at the ceremony where he was honoured by his native region, Almudéver remained keen to dispel the notion that the 1936-39 conflict had been a domestic war. Pointing to the military involvement of both Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy – not to mention his comrades in the International Brigades – he said: “The biggest lie is that it was a civil war.”
Almudena Cros, the president of the Association of the Friends of the International Brigades, described Almudéver as a “bloody-minded, incredible person” whose death marked the end of a chapter in living Spanish history.
Cros told the Guardian Almudéver was delighted to have lived long enough to see Franco finally exhumed from his mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen two years ago.
“I called him and he was so happy. He was laughing and saying ‘We’ve finally done it! Some small justice had been done.”
Cros said she hoped the testimonies of Almudéver and his fellow brigaders would live on after their deaths.
“We have them on tape, but being able to see him and hug him and shake his hand and to hear him sing the songs he sang on the front – all that’s gone,” she said.
“He was the last man standing who had seen it with his own eyes and you could see that in him. But we have to pick up where he left over and continue his battles. It’s our duty to them. They never really saw justice.”
Almudéver is survived by, among others, his 104-year-old brother Vicente, who also fought in the republican army.