Two Worlds: Meeting Alice for the First Time

French Border Post During Spanish Civil War
1937, Cerbere, France — A French customs post and bureau of the Non-Intervention Committee at Cerbere, on the eastern French side of the Spanish border, during the Spanish Civil War. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS


This week has been a momentous one as far as my research is concerned. Not only have I received over 700 pages from the Czech archives, I have come face to face with Alice and heard her voice for the first time.

Opening my emails after three days away, I was greeted by a wealth of information tumbling out of cyberspace. First, the researcher who has been trawling the Czech archives for me, sent me a drop-box full of documents – 700 – in Czech. I have only just started to read them, with the help of Google translate. And then, an email or two later, in the midst of offers for Black Friday, a relative and fellow researcher, whom I have met through Ancestry, sent me photocopies from a book about the International Brigades in Spain, which include a letter from Alice and a still from an old cine film of Alice on a beach in America.

The wealth of information that is flooding in after just a few months is overwhelming and to see her face after so many years of only knowing her name, is beyond exciting. It is not a great image, a camera phone of a still on a video, but it is so much better than nothing – and she looks a little like me. There is no reason why we she should look alike, we are not related in any way. She has dark hair, as dark as mine used to be, and a parting on the left, like mine. She is in a black swimsuit and her face is turned slightly away, but I like what I can see. And in the book is a brief summary of her life; much of it I knew, but some of the dates of her arrest and release and re-arrest are new and then there is a snippet of information about her life after her release. She worked for a company called KNIHA, which, as the name suggests (if you know Czech), is a booksellers. It seems still to exist online today. I felt emotional when I saw that, it was another connection – a love of books. Silly really, but little details make her feel more like a person to me.

In the same way as the picture I have is at several removes, a JPEG of a still of a video of a cine film, so too are her words. I have accessed them through Google translate of a Spanish translation of her original Czech. Nevertheless, reaching back through those layers is the closest I have come to a direct communication with her, rather than just reading about her in the third person. The letter describes her journey out of Spain, crossing the border into France at Port-Bou and comparing it to her arrival in Spain a year earlier.

Here it is – please forgive any strange expression and remember how many translations it has gone through, including my own tidying up of the expression from google translate:

We climbed to the summit. Up in a terrible wind, which whistled and hissed. From below, the sound of waves upon waves. We were seated between two Spanish friends who looked after the border here. None of us spoke. We all looked at the darkness saying goodbye to Spain. We said goodbye to the country that had become our second homeland. And our mood was not happy at all. How different it was a year ago when we arrived here with a transport of nurses from Begue to Port Bou, and with what joy we arrived, how cordially we were received! How beautiful it was then, the long trip to Guadalajara where, at the Czechoslovak hospital J.A.Comenio, (see below) we met friends and worked so well together!

hospital benicassim

She goes on to wonder whether she will ever again see the friends and comrades she has known and how many of them will even survive. She remembers the beauty of the sanatoria, adapted from the luxurious villas of Spanish upper classes and mentions the mimosa, whose beautiful little yellow pom-pom flowers were also part of the magic of Spring in my childhood. Finally she describes the contrast between the world she leaves behind in Spain and the world that awaits in Cerbere, over the border in France:

We look down on both sides. On one side, Port Bou, Spain; on the other, Cerbere, France. They are two places separated by a tunnel, less than twenty minutes on foot, and what a difference! Here, closed and dark night, there, all illuminated. Here, a miserable life, people living in underground pits ‘safe against bombs’ in which they often find death, there life in absolute peace. Here there is no house that the bombs respect, the town is a real pile of ruins; there, resplendent shops, bakeries with lots of beautiful bread, kiosks with cigarettes in inexhaustible quantity. In Port Bou, the war with all the horrors of daily bombing. In Cerbere, a wonderful land, flowing with milk and honey.

This contrast between countries and between people, who live alongside each other in different worlds is evident still today and it is still impossible to understand. I remember the same feeling when I was a student, ironically, in view of Alice’s allegiance, after having spent a month in the USSR. The day after my return I travelled to Italy and there, was overwhelmed by the profusion of fruit and vegetables on every stall, wanting to embrace them, those soft cheeked peaches, delicate courgette flowers, bulbous peppers and papery purple garlic. And I had only been away for a month, what did visitors from the USSR (if they were allowed to visit at all) think of this profusion of colour, scent and taste, when all they had on offer were a few sad cabbages rolling around the front window of a shop?

And that is only food. Alice was keenly aware of the disparity between worlds; she had been born into a comfortable and well-off family, the centre of the Jewish community in Ruzomberok and yet, she joined the communist party. She spent the summer with her parents in the fashionable Belgian resort of Knocke and left it to volunteer in Spain. She was offered a life of comfort and sophistication in New York and Geneva, but chose instead to stay in Czechoslovakia and fight for her beliefs. Alice’s understanding of the two contrasting worlds fuelled her desire to bring them together, to enable everyone to enjoy a decent life and she paid a terrible price for those beliefs. I am only beginning to understand how far she was prepared to go and how much she would have to endure.



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