It is impossible to know how many lives were saved by Albert Le Lay, the head of French customs in the Spanish frontier railway station of Canfranc in the Pyrenees during the Second World War – partly because he refused to say.
But as the documentary The King of Canfranc, which gets its premiere today, reveals, Le Lay operated both as Resistance spy and as what the local media have dubbed “A Spanish Schindler”: assisting numerous Jewish refugees escape from the Gestapo by hiding them in trains and simultaneously covering his tracks by overseeing the importation to France of wolfram and gold, vital for the German war effort.
Once the war was over, Le Lay refused all honours and told his family never to speak of his activities. But one of his grandchildren Victor Fairén broke the “pact of silence” about the man nicknamed “The King of Canfranc”, which has led to the making of the documentary by directors José Antonio Blanco and Manuel Priede.
During their research, Blanco and Priede came across a notebook in which Le Lay wrote down the donations made by refugees he had assisted and which he used to build a school in Canfranc – and the many letters of appreciation from as far afied as Japan and the United States.
Discovered by the Gestapo and forced to flee, Le Lay finally died quietly in Saint-Jean-De-Luz, France, in 1988. “He never sought honour or glamour,” Le Lay’s grandson said, “and I understand that.” However, his story will now be told.