We sat on the terrace in the sun, looking out at the crescent-shaped sandy beach that stretched away to the horizon. This was a proper holiday resort; tanned bodies in bikinis lay on loungers under raffia parasols, young men with surfboards climbed over the low sea wall to join friends enjoying a beer. All along the promenade, stalls selling local produce and crafts attracted the sauntering tourists. In the 1930s Benicasim had been the holiday playground of the rich and now, once again, it is a relaxed seaside resort with a dash of class.
In the days before the Civil War, it had more than a dash of class, it was expensive and exclusive. Bordering the promenade was an endless succession of holiday villas, individual and colourful, with painted railings and gates and lush tropical gardens in which hibiscus and bougainvillea bloomed. Each bore a name painted on its bright facade and they were named after the wives and daughters of the families who holidayed there every summer: Villa Isabel, Villa Elisa, Villa Leonor, Villa Victoria. By 1936 the villas stood empty, their owners no longer felt safe in the turbulent political times. Although Benicasim itself was not a Republican town, it was in an area under Republican control and the rich preferred to stay home in Nationalist Castile.
The residents of Benicasim were accustomed to their seasonal life, providing hotels, hospitality and entertainment for their summer visitors, working as cleaners, chauffeurs and chefs. They had learned an attitude of service and deference, and understood the hierarchy of the class system they served. The ladies, in particular, were treated with respect; waited upon and protected.
September 1937 brought dramatic change to Benicasim. An avalanche of foreigners descended on the town, commandeering the hotel, the convent and all the abandoned villas. Now no longer called by genteel female names, they became Villa Maxim Gorky, Villa Masaryk, Villa Pavlov and gained a host of other political labels. Hotel Voramar found itself becoming Hotel Largo Caballero, and when he fell from grace, Hotel Frente Popular. Soon the train that had brought holiday makers right to the seafront was bringing in the wounded and the hotel garage became a triage centre. And the women! Gone were the well-dressed ladies taking coffee; in their place, women doctors, pharmacists, administrators, striding down the promenade from one villa to another, not to visit friends but to check the stores and provisions in one villa, look after patients another, set up the library, organise lectures and Spanish lessons.
Villas that had once been places of fun and frivolity became designated for infectious diseases such as typhus and syphilis, one villa became a prison, another was a pharmacy, a third became the centre for maintenance and supplies. Most, however, were wards or administrative centres run by the different nationalities. Five of these belonged to the Czech Comenius Hospital and two of their villas survive: Villa Pavlov and Villa Masaryk. We were able to stand in front of them and peer through the railings imagining Alice, Dora, Helena and Vlasta there. For this was where they had spent the majority of their time in Spain. Under the directorship of Bedrich Kisch, brother of Egon Ervin Kisch, the Czech section of the hospital was one of the largest and best funded, as a result of money raised in Czechoslovakia and sent to support the international hospital. Here the women lived and worked, enjoying the Mediterranean weather, the profusion of orange trees, the silken sands, even as they worked hard to keep the hospital running and deal with the medical cases as they came in. For much of the time, the hospital had few acute injuries and was an ideal spot for convalescents, or for those needing respite from the front. After the battles of Belchite and Ebro, however, far more of the wounded arrived directly from the battlefields.
We visited in the company of Guillem Casan, a teacher from Benicasim, who has researched the hospital and written many articles about it. He was able to point out each remaining villa and explain its history. A number of the villas have been demolished and replaced by large blocks of flats, but he and others managed to persuade the local council to put preservation orders on the remaining villas and so there are many still standing and adding charm to the promenade for visitors or, more importantly, preserving the historical year when the holiday resort became an international hospital. Preserving that memory has not been easy; throughout the Franco years it was impossible and even now, many either don’t want to remember or are afraid of what will be uncovered. Two years ago, Guillem and others managed to get a memorial erected to the international brigades, it looks much older than its two years. He explained that it regularly gets graffitied with the words “Sons of Stalin” and has to be scrubbed clean.
It is difficult to reconcile the high ideals and humanitarian concerns of those who worked in the hospital with the realpolitik of Stalin and his use of the Spanish Civil War to create a bulwark against capitalism, only to abandon the Republicans to Franco when he wanted to keep the Western democracies onside. Alice, like so many of her compatriots and co-interbrigadists was a loyal communist. Yet for them, involvement in Spain would result in prison or death. Those who survived the war, and later the internment camps in France and North Africa, were returned to fascist countries like Germany, Italy or even Hungary to face an immediate sentence. Others, like Alice, returned safely, but after the war found their own communist governments turning on them, on Stalin’s orders, and arresting the interbrigadists, accusing them of Trotskyism or Imperialism or both. The gentle beach of Benicasim seems light years away from the bleak prison walls in which they would find themselves.
We wound our way back through the week-end crowds to the Hotel Voramar, now having reverted to its pre-Republican name, and walked along the low wall where Helena, Vlasta and Dora had posed for their photograph. The photograph, which was used on the flyer for last year’s exhibition about the international brigades, shows the three young women in their white hospital uniforms, two doctors and a pharmacist. They were then and would remain Alice’s closest friends, like her, still full of idealism and belief in a better future. As we settled for a farewell beer, I asked Guillem how he had become involved in researching the international brigades hospital. He explained that his father, a young boy of seven at the time, had made friends with some of the interbrigadists and they had encouraged him to use their library, which he had loved. As an adult, he trained as a teacher, but his first love was books so he had switched careers and opened a bookshop. Guillem heard his father speak about those times and the story he heard was different from the official version spun in the years of Franco’s dictatorship. Now he is reviving and restoring that story, making it available to his fellow citizens and those of us from further afield who benefit from his knowledge.
For more information about the consequences for Alice, Dora and Vlasta see: A Tale of Two Photographs