Wednesday, October 27

What did children draw during the Civil War?


To safeguard the lives of children during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the republican authorities developed massive evacuations to colonies located on republican soil or abroad. In these oases of tranquility, children lived, studied, played, sang and drew their experiences throughout the conflagration, such as cinemas and theaters.

In the book Childhood in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) (best monograph in Social Sciences in the XXIII National University Edition Awards) we have analyzed the drawings of the republicans’ children for two reasons: absence of children’s drawings made under Franco’s protection and greater military suffering.

Childhood and war

The fight started, everyday life disappeared and the childhood, along with the rest of the citizens, had to adapt to the warlike environment: food shortages, increased diseases, suffering from the bombings, enlistment of their parents and older siblings, execution of family members by the opposing side, closure of the schools, irreparable physical injuries, flight from home with their parents to zones without war or mass evacuations of children to colonies designed by competent organisms.

To prevent disorganized flight of families from combat zones, the republic designed an evacuation protocol with the intention of controlling the transfer to the colony and its operation. The colonies they depended on the International Brigades, the central government, political parties and unions attached to the Republic.

But before the uncontrollable advance of the Francoist army, the republican authorities, helped by foreign organizations, had to plan expeditions to France, Belgium, Great Britain (England), Denmark, the Soviet Union, Switzerland or Mexico, mainly. Czechoslovakia and Sweden also collaborated, but ruling colonies on French soil.

Children’s drawings of war

All children’s drawings are unrepeatable and universal. They are brushstrokes worth analyzing because they show the observer the autobiographical consequences during the war. Sometimes it is easier for children to draw than to verbally narrate their own experiences.

During the Spanish war, the combatants and the civilian population suffered directly from the aerial bombardments that viciously bit the cities flown over. For this reason, the Spanish Civil War was transformed, worldwide, into the first modern war drawn by children. And, in some cases, the children became war reporters, whose scenes are worthy of being studied by historians, military, psychologists, educators, health workers.

Much publicity has been made of the photographs of the war reporters who covered the Spanish conflagration (Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, Agustí Centelles), but it must be emphasized that they limited themselves to pressing the shutter button on their cameras. Instead, the children had to retain the events in their memory to draw them, which meant greater difficulty and psychomotor and cognitive effort.

The number of themes in the drawings was vast: aerial bombardments and artillerymen, combat fronts, ambulances, hospitals, queues to get food, corpses scattered on the ground, collapsed buildings, etc. They even drew their evacuations, the impact of music and the everyday media: the press and the radio.

The drawings achieved three objectives:

  1. Lessen the impact of war on the child’s mind.
  2. Soften foreign public sensitivity towards the civilian population.
  3. Get money from the sale of the drawings exhibited in international exhibitions (New York, Boston, etc.) with the intention of remitting the proceeds to the Republic for the benefit of children’s colonies.

Drawn cinemas and theaters

In 32 drawings we have detected the presence of the funniest attractions for children: the cinema and the theater. But sometimes these rooms are surrounded by the destructive spiral of war.

Some cartoonists did not take the precaution of detailing the place where the cinematographic or theatrical functions were carried out. On the other hand, others did write it down and we can distinguish the Gran Metropolitano Cinema-Theater, San Carlos Cinema, Montecarlo Cinema, Sales Cinema or Gran Vía Cinema in Madrid; the Echegaray Theater in Onteniente (Valencia) or the Cinema Snt. Esprit in Bayonne (France).

The children were also interested in drawing theatrical performances in schools, commercial halls and foster homes, the latter far removed from the family and the din of war. On some occasions, they enjoyed the evening applauding the performances of their colleagues; in others, they became protagonists themselves by playing various roles throughout the show.

With these festivals two purposes were achieved: to entertain children confined in times of war and to collect money from spectators with the intention of defraying part of the expenses of the colony or other children’s institutions.

‘Cinemas and stalls in the village’

At the age of 14, Juan Ezquerro Ruiz was evacuated from his city of origin and housed in the Children’s Residence in Onteniente (Valencia).

The title of this drawing is “Cinemas and posts in the town” and it shows the daily life of the town square. In it you can see a large park with the café-kiosk, the candy stall supported by two trestles, the potato shop, the musical temple and the lime-plastered bench with the curvilinear backrest. In the background you can see the headquarters of the National Labor Confederation-International Workers Association (CNT-AIT) and the Echegaray Theater. If we compare the drawing with the photographs, there is no doubt that this child photographically drew the Plaza de Pi y Margall (today, Plaza de Santo Domingo).

The poster that appears hanging from the facade of the cinema shows the center court of a circus. After various inquiries we discovered that the only circus film of the time in which a performance similar to the one depicted appears happens in the Soviet film The circus by Grigori Aleksándrov from 1936.

School and cinema bombed in Lleida

Gonzalo Fernández’s drawing lacks information: age, date of drawing, place where it was made and identifications of the school and cinema. But he had the initiative to write the bombing action: “Fifty children killed in a school in Lleida. Brutes! Cowards! Murderers!” The picture is terrifying; It narrates the aerial bombardment and machine-gunning of the civilian population by crews who acted viciously and without compassion in an open city, without aerial or artillery protection.

According to Gonzalo, the school and the cinema share the same façade, but the reality is that both places were not correlative. Detecting the drawn and bombed cinema has been impossible because throughout those nine air attacks all the rooftops of Lleida’s cinemas were machine-gunned and destroyed. As the scene drawn lacks a date, we cannot firmly affirm the identity of the cinema. We can only assume, with certain reservations, that it is the Victoria Cinema-Theater, bombed on March 27, 1938, six days before the Francoist army took over the city (April 3, 1938).

Final thoughts

There is no more attractive school activity for children than to take a page torn from their notebook and start drawing. When the war children who were evacuated from their homes arrived in the colonies, they spent a lot of time drawing. They did it at all hours, encouraged by their tutors or teachers. Some, impressed and frightened by the events they experienced, drew these experiences and their tears, as if they were aviation bombs, fell on the paper, moistening the scene.

I wish to state that by reading this article the reader is paying homage to childhood. For this reason, the drawings deserve silence, compassion, respect, affection and tenderness towards the children of war; they were not to blame for anything. His parents limited themselves to embracing only the red, yellow and purple colors of the Republican flag.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. You can read it here.



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