A Spanish Refugee’s Tale

31 May, 1975 – Ceremonial Parade Route – Madrid, Spain – Gerald R. Ford, Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
Many had become refugees from Franco's fascist Spain.
President Ford and Generalissimo Francisco Franco Riding in a Ceremonial Parade in Madrid, May 1975 – photo by Karl Schumacher; public domain

Refugee from Fascist Spain

In 1976, I married an Englishman who had a unique connection to fascist Spain: his uncle was a Spanish refugee who had fled to England because he’d been on Franco’s death list. He had arrived in England at the end of the 1930s just as England was embarking on World War Two. This is his tale.

As I got to know the family better after 1976, I also began to have many much treasured and valued conversations with Uncle P into the early hours of the morning, and often until dawn. The regularity and length of these precious conversations increased after the sad death of his beloved second wife (Aunt E) and as Uncle P approached his 90th year.

I was in a unique position because we had both been brought up as Catholics – he in his native Basque country in Spain and me here in England. But the crucial connection was that I had lived in Franco’s Spain during my gap year.

My husband would go up to bed (he regrets that so much now, because he missed all those important testaments about what had happened during the Spanish Civil War). But, as he didn’t have any particular connection with Spain apart from this one uncle who had married his mother’s sister, somehow he didn’t think to stay and listen.

The Death Squads

I heard about how Uncle P had heard from his friends at work how he was on General Franco’s death list. He knew – because everyone knew – how vital it was to escape from Spain. The family had had their own experience of Franco’s death squads, as his brother, along with hundreds of others, had been herded into a football stadium where they had all been executed by firing squad.

The naked hatred that the entire family felt towards anyone with right-wing politics was palpable and completely understandable in the circumstances.

Leaving Spain

Uncle P was married and had a baby daughter. He begged his wife to escape with him to France and then to England with their baby. She was fearful and anxious. Very few people had travelled outside their own city, let alone their own country, and this was particularly true of working people like them. (This was decades before people went on package holidays to places like Spain or Greece.)

After persistently trying, and failing, to persuade his wife to come with him on his escape to England, he reluctantly, and secretly, left in the middle of the night. His wife promised to look after his elderly mother, who was still grieving for her son – the brother who had faced the firing squad in the football stadium.

They said their painful goodbyes, he to his wife and baby daughter, she to her husband. They promised that they’d see each other after the war, but they never saw each other again.

The Hardships Of the Road To Freedom

Uncle P told me, all those decades later, in those long talks into the night, how they walked in the clothes they stood up in, some with a scant pile of belongings: men, women and children from the Basque country where he came from.

They left the beautiful city of San Sebastián and joined the others fleeing for their lives. He told me that they trudged over the Pyrenees: the old, the sick, people with walking sticks, people of all ages and descriptions, pregnant women, giving birth at the roadside in the bitter cold. They were absolutely desperate to get away from fascism.

Sometimes the babies that were born en route lived, sometimes they died. If they perished, they were buried at the roadside. People collapsed and people died, especially the old or those who were ill. Such was the fear of Franco (and his death squads) that families trudged over the mountains, leaving their families, their jobs, their homes and everything that they knew, to go to different countries that spoke completely different languages. Many people died on the road and were hastily buried on the hillside.

Convent Hospitality

Uncle P told me how often they would stop at convents in the hills and in the mountains. He told me that he would see cemeteries with tiny graves (possibly babies that had been born to the nuns? That is absolutely what the prevailing view was at the time, anyway).  He had more to say about this which deeply shocked both him and me, growing up as Catholics, were both about. I remember what he told me to this day and would be willing to talk about it anecdotally but not commit it to paper.

Internment

When he arrived in England he was interned on the Island of Portland, near Weymouth. This was normal practice. His younger sister had escaped to England with two other sisters, working as a “Signorita”. This was a young woman helper who looked after the children refugees on the large boats that transported these escaping families. She had married an Englishman and this man came to Portland to vouch for him.

So began the long “journey” to acclimatise and become accepted in England, his new adopted country. (I know that the children of his sisters will also have compelling stories to tell, from the perspective of their parents.)

Return To San Sebastián

Many years later, after his second (English) wife – my husband’s mother’s sister – died, Uncle P went to San Sebastián to see what remained of his family. His mother, his wife and his daughter had all tragically died many years before. He never met his daughter again after he left her as a small child. His grandchildren remained in the city. This visit was one of the most fulfilling and emotional moments of his life.

Telling P’s Grandchildren Of His Death

A few years later, after Uncle P died suddenly in his ninetieth year, I had to telephone his grandchildren and tell them in my ungrammatical Spanish (learned by ear all those decades before) how their grandfather had died. I remember hearing the crying and the sobbing down the phone; it was unutterably sad.

I thought of the mother who never saw her son again (now long dead). And of the wife, left in another country to bring up her only child, a woman who could never marry again or have more children. Because under the rule of Franco, Spain was a right-wing, Catholic, very conservative country, and she could not divorce her husband. (This affected Uncle P too because he could not marry until his Spanish wife died. He and his English “wife” could not officially marry until his first wife has passed away – well into old age.)

I thought of the grandchildren who only got to know their grandfather – so wonderful with my children – in the few years before he died, well into his eighties.

I thought of the tragedy of war, the terror of having to leave everything and go to a country where you know no one; of the rupture of leaving those you love and who you may never see again.

But my prevailing thought was the tragedy that so many people do not have the empathy to “walk in someone else’s shoes” or to care enough about someone else’s appalling misfortune. I remember how this country took in so many “Kindertransport” children and so many refugees, as we did in this instance with the Spanish Civil War.

I despair at how uncaring and emotionally brutalised we have become and I wonder when we’ll return to being “human beings”.