Tuesday, October 15, 2002

A Basque Pilot in Estonia

This information comes to us thanks to Basque Diaspora:

Benito Agirre, the pilot that never was

It happens that there is a Basque plane pilot buried in a town in Estonia, and there is a street named after him in that town. But the grave and the street bear a false name. There was never a pilot named so... but, yes, there was a true Basque pilot buried there, just that he was named otherwise... He was a young man, named Inazio Agirregoikoa. He was a natural of my hometown, Eibar, and he died at the age of 21 fighting the nazis as a pilot of the Soviet Red Army.

This is his story. The story of a son of the Basque diaspora buried in the most unexpected of places...


It happens that I have a friend in Estonia. A country in the Baltic, independent from the USSR since 1991. This man, Peeter Päll, is a linguist and works in the division of placenames of the Estonian Language Institute, sort of official academy there.

He is an expert in the field, and has a degree of official responsabilities also. Many issues about what should or should not be the official placename of Estonian places come to his desk and he investigates and informs authorities about those issues.

One day, he came to me with an interesting query. There was a Spanish pilot buried in a town in eastern Estonia, in the town of Mustvee, and he had a street named after him. The name of the street was in a cyrillic and russian form, and due to law changes, it had to be officially converted to the latin alphabet. My friend Peeter suspected that the "spanish" name sounded Basque, and consulted me about if that was true, and, if that was the case, which could the correct spelling in a latin alphabet form be.

It seemed that the man buried was named Benito Aguirre or Ignacio Benito Aguirre. As it was written in Russian, a direct Russian --> Estonian transliteration would have given Benito Agirre. My friend wanted to know which could be the best form to recommend for the street, Benito Agirre or Benito Aguirre. I told my friend that, being Agirre a Basque name, spelled as Agirre would be more correct. However, I promised to investigate to find out who Ignacio Benito Aguirre was, if he was Basque or not, whatever I could find...

In the meantime, in November 1999, the story of Benito Agirre and his street appeared at a Estonian newspaper, the Postimees. It is still online.

As it is told in that article, this was a fighter pilot of Spanish origin recruited by the Red Army and based in Gdov (on the other side of the Lake Peipsi) who returned from a mission on 9 March 1944 and was shot down near Mustvee.

As he was chased by the local police (Estonia was then occupied by Germany) he shot himself and was buried on the Mustvee cemetery. In 1965 a local school activist rediscovered the story and proposed that his name be remembered by giving it to a new street in Mustvee. So it was done and it is still there, puzzling some of the local inhabitants.

By the way, this article brought also an angry response from another reader who reminded that just on 9 March, 1944 there had been a terrible bombing of Tallinn during which a third of the city was destroyed by the Soviet air force. But we do not know if Agirre had taken part in it.

The story caught my attention, and as I had promised to search for the identity of that Benito Agirre, I did so.

The search produced no results. I contacted the association of Veterans of Spanish refugees gone to the Soviet Union and there was no Benito Aguirre, neither Ignacio Benito Aguirre in the archives or people lists. Yet, it must be that name that the pilot must have at his grave, as it is the one given in the Mustvee street...

So, who was Benito Agirre?

As a matter of fact. There was never a Benito Agirre in Estonia. The man buried in Mustvee is Inazio Agirregoikoa. Full name in spanish spelling: Ignacio Aguirregoicoa Benito, being Benito the 2nd family name.

I searched some books and bibliography and finnally found the correct reference in a rather suspicious edition, a neofascist looking spanish book:

- Españoles en la II. Guerra Mundial, El Frente del Este - editor, Ricardo Recio Cardona; Ediciones Vandalia, Madrid, 1999 (ISBN 84-930581-0-6). - (Spaniards in
World War II, The Eastern Front)

The book lists a list of Spanish soldiers dead in the ranks of the Red Army during the war. And there he is, Ignacio Aguirregoicoa Benito, born in Eibar in 1923 and dead in Tallinn (sic) in 1944.

So, he was a natural of my hometown, Eibar. The book also mentions that he was part of the first pilot crew formed with spanish pilots. Other basques were with him at the crew, as for instance, another natural of Eibar, Jose Luis Larrañaga, also born in 1923 and also dead in combat.

Three other people from Eibar died also in the war, all three in the Leningrad front...

Estonians or Russians or whoever buried the pilot, not accustomed to double family names as they are used in the Basque Country or Spain, misspelled the name, cutting the long and unpronounceable Aguirregoicoa to Aguirre and converting the 2nd family name, Benito, into a given name, quite understandably, because this Spanish name was well known throughout all war fronts thanks to Benito Mussolini (who, in turn, was given this Spanish name, Benito, in honour of the Mexican revolutionary, Benito Juarez; you know, Mussolini's father was a pro-revolutionary leftist).

I collected the new information, and sent it back to Estonia to my friend Peeter. He contacted the same journalist that wrote for Postimees, Juhani Püttsepp. Now Püttsepp works for another paper, but he seems to have been interested in this... And so, he published it in the Ekspress, last Thursday. There it is, online.

Now they know in Mustvee, thanks to the article, that the man buried there is not Benito Agirre, but Inazio Agirregoikoa. Will they change the name of the street? I don't know.

Personally, I have promised my Estonian contacts that I will try to convince the Town Council of Eibar to do something about it. There were many people from Eibar that went as child refugees in the Soviet Union in 1937... Five of them died fighting the Nazis. One of them has a street named after him (despite being an incorrect name)... I think Agirregoikoa deserves a true lasting homage. That could be a symbol for many others.

In Eibar, nowadays, will anyone remember Inazio Agirregoikoa. I want to find out about him also... There´s no Agirregoikoa in the local phone guide... But other "child refugees" may well remember him.

We'll see what's the output of this. The adventure of Inazio Agirregoikoa hasn't ended yet. That article in Estonia was just another chapter. I wish we can give a nice final chapter to this story.


.... ... .

No comments:

Post a Comment