Surrounded by Danger

 

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Interbrigadist Hospital in Mataro, now a school.

On the 6th and 7th April 1938 the whole hospital of Benicasim was evacuated. Convalescents were sent to Barcelona and the wounded transferred north to Mataro by train, lorry and ambulance.

The move to Mataro was precipitated by the Nationalist advance towards the eastern coast of Spain, which threatened to cut Benicasim off from the Republican government in Barcelona. The Republican administration had been forced to move east from Albacete to be in safer Republican territory.

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We too made the journey north to Mataro, conscious that we were edging ever closer to France, our days in Spain, like Alice’s, were running out. We arrived in Mataro under threatening grey clouds, which soon turned into pounding rain. In 1938 when Alice arrived in the town, her dark clouds were as much metaphorical as literal, for it was obvious that the Republic’s days were numbered. Before evacuating Benicasim, they had seen the flights of Italian aircraft from Majorca heading over the beach towards the Spanish mainland, sometimes they would strafe the beach or drop an ordnance as they headed for their true destination.

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Fishermen’s houses in Mataro

Like Benicasim, Mataro too is on the coast, but when Alice and the others arrived, the coast was not a pleasure beach but lined with small fishermen’s houses. The hospital, a large building, formerly used as a Catholic school and monastery, was outside the town, surrounded by countryside. Whereas in Benicasim, the railway brought the wounded directly to the hospital, in Mataro, they needed to be transported up by tram or lorry. Now, the building is once more a school and in the midst of the newer part of the town, as Mataro has grown into a thriving industrial city. We were there to meet Josep, a retired teacher and committed researcher, who is uncovering the work of the hospital and international brigades. He is also a proud Catalan, campaigning for Catalonian independence. His interest in the hospital came through his grand-parents. His grandmother worked at the hospital and she and her husband also had three of the nurses as lodgers, sharing one large bed. Luckily as they worked in shifts they were rarely all in it at the same time!

We accompanied Josep into the school, it was the day before term started and the teachers were in but not the students. We had to leave by 12 as the school was closing for all the teachers to go to mass and then they would be going out for lunch together, so different from our own training days! Josep explained that the chapel, which was at the entrance to the school, was used as a triage centre by the hospital. We walked around the original staircases, saw the original water fountains in the courtyard, visited the canteen, still being used for the same purpose and then went down into the basement which had housed the kitchen and stores and where some of the original tiles still graced the walls. I imagined Alice down there, taking deliveries through the roadside door that led directly to the basement.

Josep explained that the hospital had housed about 800 patients, many with beds in the corridors as well as in the classrooms-cum-wards. The hospital was desperately short of everything, but nevertheless had more food and supplies than the residents of the town. His grand-mother was grateful for the food she was given there by the patients, who shared what was in their rations, as they knew they were better off than the citizens of Mataro.

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Memorial at Mataro Cemetery

After leaving the school, we made our way through the pelting rain up to the cemetery to see the memorial to the international brigades, it was large and undamaged, perhaps a sign that Mataro is still a socialist town. The place where the bodies were actually buried, however, was unmarked, next to another patch of land housing the dead from the Nationalist side, who were overlooked by a large cross. Josep wants a large plaque on the outer wall of the school, but he is encountering some resistance to this. He is welcomed into the school to show people round and visit, but he has not yet been able to talk to the students. One of the history teachers is interested in the subject and some students have written papers on the role of the school in the civil war, but always, he says, from a Nationalist point of view.

Two days later we visited Vic, Alice’s final placement, and by then the weather had reverted to hot sun and blue skies. There, we were met by Manel, a police officer with the traffic division, who has become a committed campaigner for the memory of the international brigades. His family had no personal connection with the hospital, unlike Guillem’s and Josep’s, but he became interested one year at All Souls in the town’s cemetery when a young woman asked him in English for help finding the grave of Kevin Rebbechi. Finally they found the name, covered in moss, on a memorial to members of the international brigades, more of a headstone with a list of names than a memorial, as no mention is made of the international brigades. Thus began a long relationship between Manel and the Rebbechi family, as he started to research the history of this man and his town. He has now written a book, Looking for Kevin, about his experiences.

Manel had arranged for us to park outside town and he drove us to the cemetery where the spark for his own interest in the subject had first been lit. We saw the very small plaque with Kevin’s name and some of the others from the international brigades, now cleaned and easy to read. A tree had been planted and another small plaque with a poem, but still no mention of the brigades. The men had been buried in an unmarked patch of ground, as in Mataro. Here, however, rather than looking bleak under grey skies and pouring rain, it was a peaceful scene with two brown rabbits quietly nibbling the short grass.

The Cemetery in Vic

From there we went to the hospital, again located in a Catholic school, this time attached to a convent. The building dates from the late 17th century and the adjoining church is the only one left standing by the Republicans. By the time Alice got there, it was one of the last outposts, well defended by a small airfield and impossible to bomb from the sea, as it is in the mountains 60 kilometres inland from Mataro. All the wealthy and powerful people had long since deserted the town, the poor who remained had, to quote Manel, “no food, no drink, no water.” There was no mains water in the town anyway, it all had to be collected from the wells. As a result, typhus was rife and whereas the international doctors knew how to avoid it and treat it, those in the town did not. Although the hospital was better off than the townspeople, it had no morphine and the operations were carried out under the light of a single bulb held aloft by one of the nurses. The day we visited, the school term had started and when we first walked out into the courtyard it was obviously break time and the courtyard was filled with teenagers chatting peaceably. It seemed a very long way from the cries of wounded men and the terror of knowing that everyone’s days of freedom were numbered.

There were no more illusions by the time Alice was in Mataro and Vic. Danger was on all sides; the inexorable advance of Franco’s troops and the cruel reprisals that faced every town that was overrun were well-known. There were two choices, stay and fight with certain knowledge of defeat or escape over the border. Once the town was taken the rich would return, the Nationalists would take charge and the priests would have the power of life and death, they could say who had been on which side and the wrong decision would bring death. However, Franco was not the only threat to the international brigadists; there were threats from their own side. Andre Marty, a French communist and member of the comintern, had been designated “Inspector General of the International Brigades”, also nicknamed the “Butcher of Albacete”, he had been determined to root out any sedition in the ranks of the international brigades, in particular any Trotskyists or anarchists.

It was through him that Alice, Dora, Vlasta and Helena were all accused of undermining morale, first in Benicasim and then also in Mataro and Vic, where they were kept under surveillance and had their post intercepted. They were accused of having stolen some preserves, of which crime they were later acquitted, but these same accusations resurfaced ten years later when they were imprisoned in Czechoslovakia. Many pages of interrogation focus on Spain and those final weeks; the Soviets had very long memories and very detailed records.

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Alice, Vlasta and Dora on the beach at Mataro.

Alice was lucky, she decided to leave Spain in July 1938, those who left much later had an even more difficult time. We too, were about to leave, but before we did, we sat and chatted with Manel over a coffee. He alone in Vic is uncovering these stories and although the schools know him well and welcome him in to talk about road safety, he is not welcome to talk about the town’s history. The book he has written is not approved of by his superiors, but that is not stopping him. His next project is to memorialise the Spanish refugees who escaped into France and were then shipped to concentration camps, primarily Mathausen.

As we drove away, two sentences of Manel’s stuck with me, “People of Vic no talk.” and “Spain can never bury her dead.”

6 thoughts on “Surrounded by Danger

  1. Liz – One more thing (at least): Vic was also plagued by typhoid fever (along with typhus) and sabotage (swastikas graffitied onto walls). I include this in my book.

    Favor: Alice’s geni.com profile does not include a photo of her. Can you send me a nice one – OK if others are in it – to post there?

    Many thanks,

    Judith

    >

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  2. I wonder why there is such general resistance to talking about and exploring the Civil War years. Is it seen perhaps as shameful and uncomfortable by association, risking the rekindling of factions and therefore (further) social unrest? Ironic in a way that those hospitals are now schools, where one would have thought learning about and from the past would be pretty important.
    I think about the changing process of ‘coming to terms with the past’ in post-war Germany, but can’t quite give Spain the same spin.
    Anyway, your trip is clearly proving immensely fruitful and rewarding in rounding out Alice’s time there.

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  3. I find it shocking that so long after the Second World war, after the death of Franco, there is still resistance to acknowledging, let alone confronting, this important part of Spanish history. And particularly depressing that the three women were possibly as much in danger from their own comrades as the ‘enemy’. S

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  4. You convey a vivid sense of raw memories simmering just below the surface, Liz. I agree with Lynda’s comments that Germany seem to have done much more than Spain in acknowledging past trauma. You are certainly meeting some brave and principled people trying to do just that. Thank you for recording these encounters in such detail.

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    1. I think the fact that Franco remained in power for so long after the end of the war made a huge difference. Hitler was defeated and committed suicide and so Germany was able to draw a line under what had happened, change and look back with more clarity.

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