Joan Català Balañà (1913-2012) One of the finest people-smugglers (‘passeurs’) who helped dozens flee the Nazis via Andorra and elsewhere in the Pyrenees during the Second World War. His life story is the stuff of movies. Born on 21 February 1913 in Llavorsí (Lérida province, Catalonia). During the Spanish Civil War he fought with the anarchist Durruti Column (26th Division) and later, in 1937 operated as a guide and spy in the Alt Urgell area, working for the SIEP (Servicio de Información Especial Periférica/special services unit) with the Aragonese Francisco Ponzán. In March 1939, following the Francoist victory, he crossed into France where he was held in the Le Vernet concentration camp (Ariège department) but soon escaped to Andorra.
Catalá worked as a smuggler, but he soon met up again with Ponzán and began working for the Allied secret services. Captured in Cadiz in 1940 he was jailed in Madrid’s El Cisne prison from which he escaped to Andorra, subsequently embarking on intense activity as a smuggler of foreign refugees, escapers and evaders. A great hill-walker, Catalá’s preference was for courier work. In 1941 he was recaptured in Barcelona’s Estación de Francia escorting two US airmen, but he escaped on his way to trial and returned safely to Andorra. Not that any of this interfered with his regular trips carrying papers and documents for the CNT.
His umpteenth escape came in December 1942 after he was captured while rendezvousing with an unsuspected Francoist informer. He was recaptured a few days later but a clerical error allowed him to slip out of Lerida prison. At the request of the British Consul he returned to smuggling people out of France via the town of Oceja. His preferred stop-over prior to embarking on a crossing of the Sierra del Cadí near Manresa was the Jaume d’Alp hotel. On other occasions, Catalá crossed the border via the Alt Emporda district.
As WWII drew to an end Catalá still possessed the maverick nature that was so perfectly captured by the title of his autobiography El eterno descontento (Forever Restless). In 1944 he had been arrested in Adrall and sentenced to 12-years prison sentence in 1946 – of which he served less than one, breaking out of Carabanchel prison in March 1947 and escaping to France where he was arrested yet again for having no papers, although he was subsequently released, mainly due to his wartime record.
His irregular circumstances in post-war France meant meant he had a thin time of it. In 1951 he and a number of Spanish anarchist comrades were arrested, accused of involvement in a post office van robbery in Lyon in which a guard was killed. He served 15 years in French prisons after which he settled in Andorra — eventually, in Seu d’Urgell. On 11 April 2010 Joan Catalá Balaña received a warm tribute in recognition of a life-time of libertarian activism. He passed away on 14 October 2012 aged 98.
– The Colectivo a les trinxeres / cnt (Madrid) No 394, November 2012