Return to the Land of Milk and Honey

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July 8th 1938 in Port Bou. It is 9 o’clock in the evening, and and the night is already dark. The sky is gray-black from the clouds. A strong wind blows, even out to sea; everything is dark and evil. The large waves in the bay at Port Bou are whipping against the gray rocks with huge force, creating wonderful music. The storm is coming. Below are three figures who look to heaven. At the top of the twisting path there are six comrades. Five men and one woman.

The woman was Alice and these are her own words (via Google translate and some tidying up), describing the final exodus from Spain, as Franco’s troops overran the territories of the Republicans and the Communist Party ordered a withdrawal. The three figures below are the Spanish comrades who escorted them close to the border and waved them a final anxious farewell. Her male companions on the twisting path were an Englishman, a German and two Hungarians, father and son – almost the opening line of a joke. Perhaps a joke only someone with an appreciation for the black humour of Eastern Europe would be in a position to appreciate. The final member of the party was a Spaniard, guiding them up the rocky mountain to the border.

In February, when I first wrote about Alice’s escape from Spain, I only had a small part of her memoir, I now have it all, and crossing the border was just the beginning.

She describes the climb up the mountain, following their Spanish guide:
I can barely keep up with him. It is dark night, we cannot see anything, we skim about bushes, stones, ditches. I fall twice, my knee bleeds, but I keep on my way, we have to meet a friend at the frontier, we could lose our way. We reach the first houses of Cerbere. Street lamps dazzle us, we haven’t seen this much light for years. We hurry up into the village.

But she and the older Hungarian are slower than the others, his young son, Tibor, has disappeared from sight and they aren’t sure where to turn. Their Spanish guide is coming back towards them, he shows them the way, but he has to return the way they have come and slips down the mountain back to the darkness that awaits him. They follow his directions and come out on to a street. They see their companions, but they aren’t alone. There are five shapes in the darkness. They have walked straight into the hands of the French gendarmes and it is too late to turn back.

Instead of spending that first night away from the war enjoying the bounty of peaceful France, they spend it in cells, the four men in one and Alice alone in another. The morning brings breakfast, white bread, soup and cheese, delicacies after the year in Spain but they have no appetite. Worse than contemplating her own fate, Alice worries for her German and Hungarian comrades, will they be sent back to Hitler and Horthy?

The morning also brings a change of scene; the prisoners are to be taken to prison in Perpignan for entering France without a visa. They are to travel by train and the four men and Alice are escorted to the station, where their arrival causes a furore. Tickets are bought for them by one of the gendarmes, who is then forced to explain to the train driver what their crime had been:

He tells him that we have crossed the Spanish-French border without the prescribed papers. And then we are surrounded by passengers, excited and outraged, “Can’t you release them? They helped the Spanish people, gave their lives for an idea, and you are still punishing them! If they were fighting fascists you should accept them with open arms!”…..The gendarme, desperate to get his charges away on the train, screams in reply, “What is Spain to them?” We say to him that if Spain falls, one day France will fall as well.

The crowd bursts into conflicting arguments, and finally the “prisoners” are bundled onto the train where they continue to be the centre of attention.

The final leg of the journey is an escorted march through the streets of Perpignan to the jail, watched by the respectable citizens of the town who assume they are “a horde of robbers”.

Alice spends a month in the prison in Perpignan and describes her experiences there in great detail, almost relishing the adventure. Reading her account it is impossible not to keep thinking about the later months and years she will spend incarcerated in her own country, suffering not just the everyday privations of loss of liberty but the physical and psychological torture designed to break her spirit. Perhaps even worse, will be finding out that some of the very comrades alongside whom she worked in Spain, were the ones responsible for putting her there. She neither wrote nor spoke about those later years of imprisonment.

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