Wednesday, October 5

Memory of the Spanish civil war

Every summer I spend a few days in the family home in a Sevillian town crossed by the mightiest Guadalquivir. It is the house in which my parents live now, but within its thick walls there is a memory of the many other lives that inhabited it. Every summer, as if I couldn’t help it, I immerse myself in books that tell stories about the Spanish Civil War, about the postwar period and the Franco regime. Summer for me still has that halo of childhood when I would sit at the door of this same house with my grandmother, with my aunts and my mother, with the neighbors, and the talks would go on until well into the morning. Most of them have already died, my grandmother Eugenia, my aunt Carmen, but their memory is still alive in me. To some it may seem like a nostalgic trip, an impossible trip to a past from which nothing remains. For me it is not like that. Quite the contrary: a necessary exercise in memory and commitment. It is not only my personal memory that is at stake, but the collective memory of the entire Spanish society.

As I said, every summer I return to the family home, which was the house in which my maternal family lived during the July 1936 coup. My great-grandparents, Asunción and Pepe, lived here with their children Eugenia, Carmen, Manolo, Francisco and Pepe. And Lupe, my great-grandmother’s sister, came to live with her daughter because she became a widow very young and the war left the two sisters even more alone with several children in her care. My grandfather was elected mayor just in the last democratic elections, in February of that same year. I always say that my great-grandfather Pepe was the last Republican mayor of Alcalá del Río and I say it with pride and fascination. The members of that local government suffered different fates, they were assassinated or managed to flee like my great-grandfather, at least for a while. This story, that of my great-grandfather mayor and everything that happened to him and his family for being redsI have heard it since I was a child in the mouths of my grandmother and her sister. Each one had a version of it, each one added details that had to do with their own experience, with the different ages they were then, with their way of seeing the world. I listened to them every time, learned them by heart and added details and variations because they never told it the same way. They are gone, but the story still lives through the memory of those who heard it and I ask, I ask my aunt, my grandmother’s eldest daughter, my mother’s sister, to tell me. I strive to remember them because more than memory, we live in a forced collective oblivion that from so much wanting to erase our most recent past —fragmenting it until it disappears, ignoring it as if it were legends of old—, the only thing that is going to achieve is that history repeats itself .

These days I have taken in my hands a book that, without being perfect, has offered me a small inventory of lost fragments of our history. The book is The Spanish Civil War in 100 objects, images and places, edited by Antonio Cazorla and Adrian Shubert and in it eleven different researchers with their own voices and visions tell us a hundred stories of the war and the Franco regime from objects, images and places. Seeing each of its pages where there are objects as disparate as a grenade, a plaque or a ration card, I have thought of the objects and places of the Civil War of my own family. Those fragments have helped me recompose my own.

Of all the memory that this book keeps, there is something that has especially caught my attention, a piece unknown to me until now in this impossible puzzle: the figure of the “godmother of war”. The photograph is of a letter, something that, at first glance, would go unnoticed. I imagine the thousands and thousands of letters that would cross the peninsula from one end to the other. Writing, after all, was an exercise in survival, a way of holding the thread of life. This letter was written by the Republican soldier Antonio Castillo on October 19, 1937 from the Granada front. The photo is small, reproduced in black and white, the letters appear to be just smudges on the page. A letter written eighty-five years ago, creased right down the middle as if it had been stored like this, folded in half all this time. I had to stick the page to my nose to be able to decipher Antonio’s handwriting which, in spite of everything, is beautiful and clear and reads thus: “My distinguished comrade: whoever has the audacity to write to you without knowing you is a soldier who, having had references by a countryman of his that in that town there is a pretty and nice girl. I wanted to have the pleasure of greeting you, although not if you will know how to give this letter the character of disinterested curiosity that I want to put in these lines. Since here at the front one feels that one lacks friends with whom to maintain regular communication that helps one to spend some time thinking about something other than the war and more than my case because of my condition as an escapee from Granada, it makes me not having any relative my isolation is doubly tragic. Therefore, I have a…”. And so it ends. The correspondent on the other side is María Luisa, one of those girls, “godmothers of war” who, voluntarily, offered to correspond with the militiamen who were at the front.

Anyone can have an item they’d like to see on these pages, a Civil War story of their own. All Spanish families have their own, you just have to scratch a little, ask, overcome the fear of silence. Many will never meet because no one asked, because fear extended its roots like a hundred-year-old tree through memories, and many people who never spoke took their stories to the grave. The generation that experienced the most terrible violence is disappearing, has almost completely disappeared. And memory in Spain is a bargaining chip for politicians. “In Spain there are many places without memory and many memories without a place,” says this book. No matter how many books there are about the Civil War, no matter how much some insist that we turn the page, justice has not yet been done. There are sons, daughters who do not know where the body of their parents is, there are grandchildren who undertake labyrinthine searches that never end. Search is inherited, memory is inherited from generation to generation. It is more difficult to get institutional support to open a grave than to dig in the ground with your own hands. How can future generations learn about justice, solidarity and equality if we do not know our past? Here writes a great-granddaughter who is still trying to piece together her story, our story. Not in vain, most of the people who from the historical memory associations try to do the work that the State does not do, are children, grandchildren, nephews and great-grandchildren like me.

I would like to have a photograph of the noodle machine that my great-grandfather made in the Ranilla prison to get some money or of the apron with multiple pockets that my great-grandmother and her sister hid under their skirts when they went to black market after the war at the port of Sevilla. So many, many stories that could be in a museum so that we could all remember together, recompose the puzzle and that lie in the gutters, in the ravines, on the walls of the cemeteries, in the drawers of the dressers and in the memory of the dead.