75 years ago: Who Remembers “La Retirada”?


Plage des Elmes at Banyuls-sur-MerAs I sit here today overlooking the dazzling waters of the western Mediterranean Sea at Banyuls-sur-Mer – or Banyuls de la Marenda as it it called in Catalan – on the edge of the moutainous border of France and Spain,  it’s near impossible to imagine the mixture of suffering, hadship and hope that thousands and thousands of refugees from the Spanish Civil War were feeling as they passed through here just 75 years ago.

In an era of 24 hour news and the internet, refugees in their thousands, lost in distant and dismal camps are rarely away from the world’s attention. But it wasn’t always so; even as recently as one person’s  lifetime ago, such a crisis on the French-Spanish border was not well known and now risks being  almost half-forgotten.

Spanish Civil War (2)

Refugees from the Spanish Civil War crowd the roads to Perpignan at Le Perthus, France. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images). 1936

In the first few months of 1939 ; only a short time before Europe awoke with a shock to the beginning of the the Second World War, another vicious conflict between fascism and republicanism was coming to a cataclysmic conclusion.  It was in Spain and after three long years of civil war and devastating battles such as the blitzkrieg bombing of Guernica in April 1937, mass executions, disappearances and other horrors that war entails.   Indeed, it was more than a civil war as German and Italian fascists had come to the aid of  General Franco’s nationalist forces and were learning the militarist trade that would soon be unleashed on their unprepared neighbours just to the north.

But in early 1939, the republican forces were facing a devastating defeat as Barcelona was about to fall  (and Madrid would follow before long) despite the intermittent assistance the USSR provided to the Republicans, the commitment of foreign idealists in the International brigades such as Willy Brandt and Simone Weil and the reporting of Hemingway and Orwell against the background of callous indifference by most members of the political classes in the democracies of western europe and north America.

It was at that time that more than half a million refugees followed the well-worn smugglers tracks across the snowed-in Pyrenees mountains of Spain and France’s Catalan territory bordering the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and the Basque country in the wild and mountainous region at the far east of the Pyrenees on the edge of the Bay of Biscay. Despite the welcoming arms of many of the Catalan and Basque peoples in France, hundreds of thousands of refugees from the execution and persecution at home found themselves suffering disease and slow starvation in hastily-built camps in such otherwise idyllic venues as Gurs, not so far from wealthy Bairritz as well as Rivesaltes and Barcares outside historic Perpignan.

Journalist Raymond Walker risks his life under a hail of bullets dashing across the International bridge from Hendaye, France, to Irun, Spain to save a baby, during the Spanish Civil War. (Photo by Horace Abrahams/Getty Images). 1936

Journalist Raymond Walker risks his life under a hail of bullets dashing across the International bridge from Hendaye, France, to Irun, Spain to save a baby, during the Spanish Civil War. (Photo by Horace Abrahams/Getty Images). 1936

Worse was to follow for some as it would be only months before the nazi occupation of France would force many of these refugee camp residents back  into prison camps in fascist Spain or into nazi work and labour camps as far away as eastern Europe. Many were fortunate to escape with the help of the French camp authorities just before the nazis came to take them over.

Perhaps it is understandable that the stories of  the hundreds of thousands displaced and abused people at the end of the Spanish Civil War was lost and almost forgotten as the world descended into the madness and horror of a new “world war to end all wars”.

And when it was all over – lives had to be rebuilt and the future was what pre-occupied  almost all survivors.  Spain stayed neutral in the Second World War, as it has in the 1914-18 war, and doubtless many there thanked General Franco, with his fascist links, for this small mercy.

But survival can carry its own burdens.  Not only for the thousands of “lost” Basque children sent away from the fighting to “safety” in Britain, central America and Russia; many of whom never returned; but also for those that Franco’s fascist state regarded as enemies and persecuted and hunted down even after the end of the war.

“BEGINNNINGS: Where a Life Begins” is the storyone such damaged Basque family and critical moments in its genetic background in various parts of Spain and at special times in Iberian history. But it is also much, much more.  It’s about survival and about revenge – personal or wild and uncontrolled – and about murder, in its many and varied forms, from in pure self-defence to  murder in defence of one’s home, way of life and all that is the highest in civilized values. All this has been a big part of this family’s lives, moulding their deepest drives since time began. …. ……BEGINNINGS is available on Amazon and iBooks and just about all other retailers.



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