In the article you're about to read you'll learn about one of the issues that those who call the shots in Madrid would like for you never to find out.
Without further intro, here you have it:
Without further intro, here you have it:
After Gernika: The Basque Refugee Children, 1937–Present
by Dorothy Legarreta
Dorothy Legarreta, Adjunct Professor of the Basque Studies Program, is currently in Vizcaya on a post-doctoral fellowship to interview Basques who were child refugees.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Basque provinces – particularly Bizkaia – became the proving ground where modern war technology was to be tested. Thus it happened that incendiary saturation bombing and strafing were used for the first time against an “open” or non-military city, Gernika, in 1937. This historic and beloved center of Basque freedom was the target chosen by Franco’s airforce of the newest German Condor Legion planes. After four hours of continuous aerial attack, most of the city was a burning ruin, and many old people, women and children, lay wounded or dead.
The rebel forces continued to blockade and bomb Bilbao and other nearby towns; even outlying caseríos were strafed. Various humanitarian groups formed to help the civilian population, especially the children. The fledgling Basque Republic, through its major political parties, quickly organized the largest evacuation of children in modern times. Beginning in May, 1937, nearly fifteen thousand children, aged three to fifteen, sailed away from their parents and country to France (5,305), England (3,805), Belgium (3,128), Russia (1,489), and Mexico (456 – but in this group were many Catalans). In each country, education and housing were provided, using facilities ranging from private homes in Belgium, group homes in France and England, to large-scale institutions in Russia and Mexico. Basque teachers, aides, priests*, and sometimes even cooks, went with the children and helped them to adjust to their new life as refugees in a strange land. Whenever possible, entire classrooms and political party youth groups went together. Money for the care of the Basque children poured in from humanitarian, labor, political and religious groups all over the world…an international cause célèbre. In a few months, however, this concern for the Basque child refugees was overshadowed by Hitler’s activities in Central Europe.
Shortly after the Spanish Republic collapsed in 1939, World War II began, and France, England, Belgium, and Russia had to fight to survive themselves. Already, many Basque refugee children had been repatriated. Large numbers stayed on, however, especially in France, and there rejoined their families, now themselves refugees. Basques were shot or imprisoned. Families were frequently fatherless. Some remained in the French-Basque provinces; others emigrated to more hospitable Latin-American countries: Venezuela, Argentina and Mexico. The Basque children in both Russia and Mexico stayed or there, since neither Stalin nor Cardenas recognized the Franco regime in Spain.
Surprisingly, this mass exodus of children, some of whom have been in exile for 42 years, has been almost unreported since 1937. One notable exception is “El Otro Arbol de Gernika,” Luis de Castraesana’s fictionalized account of his experiences as a child refugee in Belgium, which was recently televised in Spain.
In order to recover and reconstruct this significant chapter of Basque history, therefore, it has been necessary to use the techniques of oral history, e.g., extended interviews with those who experienced the event. Fortunately, Basques are a very cohesive group, and family ties are maintained in spite of wars, emigration and repression. Furthermore, whenever Basques find themselves far from their homeland, they seek out other Basques and hold informal reunions.
From such family and club sources in Spain, Mexico and England, nearly 100 Basques who were child refugees, or teachers, priests or cooks, have been interviewed thus far. The original plan of the study was to focus on four major issues in the interview.
1. How did the refugees, as children, cope with separation from parents, home and country?
2. Were they able to maintain their Basque ethnic identity and culture while away and later in life?
3. How did the refugee experience affect their lives – general satisfaction with life, economic well-being, marriage, and parenting?
4. How do you think the trauma of child refugees could be lessened, e.g., what would they insist on if their own children (or grandchildren) had to be evacuated?
In addition, many remarkable insights and anecdotes have spontaneously emerged during the interviews, which are well worth reporting.
In general, the Basque children coped quite well with the trauma of separation from parents and home, particularly if they were at least ten or eleven years old when evacuated. They all remembered widely the seasickness (and, often, head lice) suffered on shipboard, the horrible vaccinations, and sometimes quarantine or delousing upon arrival; but also, the white bread and chocolate (after a diet of garbanzos and rice in Spain), and the warm welcomes in England, Belgium, Russia, and Mexico – less warm in France. Their all-important mentors – Basque teachers, aides, priests, and cooks – gave them affection and counsel, and helped them keep alive Basque culture, language, and traditions. All such staff interviewed commented on the infrequency of stealing among the children (though local apple and pear orchards suffered minor poaching), as well as little bed-wetting, in marked contrast to reports on later groups from the Spanish Civil War, the adjustment to a collective life was less smooth.
Published reports on the health of the Basque children upon their arrival in England praise their fine physical condition and their passion for watching everything in sight, including younger brothers and sisters! Fortunately, in France, England, and Belgium, great effort was made to keep family groups together in dispersion to schools and group homes. And in all countries, visits and letters were encouraged among siblings. And, very frequently, the eldest child had been expressly told to take care of the younger ones, and staunchly refused to permit separation even if, as in one family with a paralytic sister, the three children had to live – but together – in an institution for handicapped Belgian children. Another, the eldest, refused a place in a fine English private school in order to look after her three younger sisters.
One event all the Basque refugees remark upon is the fall of Bilbao, which caused near-hysteria among the children. Some of the hundred-odd Basque girls on the Isle of Wight recall their spontaneous pilgrimage, on their knees, to a nearby hill (Mt. Tennyson) to pray that Bilbao would not fall. That day, they even refused the candy given to comfort them!
The role of community volunteers and foster parents was encouraged in England and Belgium and proved very important to the Basque children sent there. Ties remain to this day, with letters, photos, and visits exchanged with “my English/Belgian family.” In France, Russia, and Mexico, greater separation from the host community seemed to occur.
Basque culture, particularly the songs, dances, language, and holidays, went to each host country (except Mexico) with the children and staff. Public programs were put on frequently by the children by England with a small entrance fee collected to help defray the children’s keep. In other countries, there were Basque choral groups and dancers, trained by their priests and teachers. One important side-effect of those presentations was to educate the host communities to the fact that Basques are different from Spaniards.
Educational experiences for the children varied widely, with Russia providing the most thorough technical and professional training. Dolores Ibarruri (La Pasionaria) saw to it that the Basque children did not serve in the military during World War II, and some Basques recall that during the war, their bread ration was 700 grams daily, while Soviet children only received 450 grams!
The great majority of Basque refugees interviewed, including those sent to Russia and Mexico, have maintained some ties with their families in Spain. Cultural ties of the expatriate group vary, but many display the Basque flag, the family heraldic emblem, etc. A minority married Basques. Of those repatriated, all married Basques and are culturally strongly Basque. Some commented that they first learned to speak Basque in the host country, since its use had been discouraged at that time in the Basque Country.
When asked about their general satisfaction with life, most seem relatively content, and all those with families have enjoyed being parents, though they were parentless, themselves, for at least part of their childhoods. Almost without exception, those sent to England, Belgium, and Russia describe their refugee experience as having had mostly positive effects: learning another culture and language, helping them become self-reliant and mature. Those sent to France and Mexico express more negative feelings, and frequently comment that false propaganda, saying Basques were “Red Separatists,” preceded their arrival and prejudiced the host community.
The role of the Catholic Church in the mass evacuation was complex and deserves mention. Though Franco and his rebel forces were the official defenders of the Catholic faith in Spain, the Basque clergy were largely faithful to the nationalist aspirations of the Basque Republic. This caused untold consternation in the official Catholic hierarchy and press, solidly pro-Franco in France, England and Belgium, but obliged, given ordinary Christian charity, to help the very Catholic Basque refugee children.
When the affected Basque parents are asked to discuss the experience of being a refugee child, responses vary widely. Some say their children should have been disposed to die with them – it would have been better than evacuation. Others note that relocation with families having children of their own was best; others, that no child younger than twelve should have gone; most, that the presence of Basque personnel was essential in the readjustment of the refugee children. All say that more love and affection should have been shown to the children: “It’s more important than food, clothes, or a rich foster family.” Some children cried themselves to sleep for weeks; all had a long-standing terror of airplanes; one vomited for months. Few, however, expressed any anger at their own parents for sending them far away, realizing it was necessary at the time.
Many of the spontaneous anecdotes are valuable. Most speak of the terrible years after repatriation, beginning in the concentration camps near the French border; the continuous food shortage during the 1940s when tuberculosis soared in Euzkadi and children stole food from the horses’ nosebags to survive. They tell stories of the repression of all things Basque under Franco. One woman, a child refugee in France, was denounced in 1943 for not wishing to carry the Spanish flag in a parochial school musical presentation and spent six months in jail at age 17. Many express surprise that no one has been interested in the long history of the Basque people.
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