Posted: Wed Aug 26, 2009 10:25 pm Post subject: Spanish Civil War
Franco's last victims search for solace The children of Republicans ‘stolen’ from their parents in the Spanish Civil War fight to find their relatives Graham Keeley
27th Aug 09
Uxenu Ablana grasps the rails of the rundown house that once was like a prison to him. He breaks into an irreverent version of Cara al Sol (Facing the Sun), one of the songs drummed into him as a child when he lived at this former orphanage. It is a bitter-sweet moment. This was the marching song of General Franco’s dictatorship. For Ablana, the song symbolises a youth lost to the dictator’s regime. “My life stopped in 1936,” he says. “They robbed me of my childhood.”
Now 80, Ablana is one of an estimated 30,000 “stolen children” of Franco’s Spain. These sons or daughters of Republicans were taken from their parents during and after the Spanish Civil War in a sinister programme under direct control of El Caudillo. Many were too young to remember who their real parents were. Others were lured back from exile under the pretence that they’d be reunited with their families, only to be sent to live with adults sympathetic to the regime. The children’s identities were changed so that they could not be traced.
Emilia Giron was persecuted by the Nationalist Government as it searched for her brother-in-law, a guerrilla. One of her sons, Jesús, was taken from her in jail, shortly after he was baptised, in the early 1940s. For 67 years, she searched fruitlessly for Jesús. In an interview with Spanish documentary-makers before her death last year, she said: “I know I gave birth to him. They took him to be baptised but they never brought him back. I never saw him again.”
This campaign of indoctrination was the brainchild of Antonio Vallejo-Nágera, the head military psychiatrist. Vallejo-Nágera believed Marxism was a mental illness that needed to be eradicated from Spain. A prominent psychiatrist in the 1930s, the manual of his theories, The Eugenics of Hispanicity, sealed the fate of a generation of innocents, such as Ablana.
Today those innocents are pensioners, many still desperately searching for parents, brothers, sisters — and their own identities — before it is too late. When Ablana returns to the orphanages where he spent his youth in Pravia, northern Spain, painful and vivid memories flood back. His mother was tortured to death by Franco supporters to gain information about his father, who was sentenced to death, reprieved, then jailed. His crime: lending a car to officials from the Republican Government.
Ablana was thrown into orphanages from the age of 5. He spent 13 years being abused by priests and indoctrinated with propaganda from the Falange, the right-wing party allied to the Franco regime. The aim was to transform him from the son of a “red” into a follower of the regime. “The priests would beat you if you wrote or ate with your left hand. They thought it was a sign of being a red,” he says.
Ablana was denied toys and made to clean shoes while the orphaned children of Franco supporters played outside. Then there was the abuse. “One priest told me to take my trousers off, he said he was going to clean my feet as Christ did. But his hands carried on up,” he recalls.
He escaped from an orphanage at the age of 18 and was found by his father. But after years apart, the two were distanced and soon lost touch. He became a travelling salesman, married and has children. But today he is still marked by what he suffered more than 70 years ago.
Antonia Radas, another victim, finally got to know her mother, albeit briefly. The two had been separated when her mother Carmen was forced to give her up after being jailed for her husband’s Republican links. Radas lived a comfortable life surrounded by lies; her adoptive parents told her that her real parents had abandoned her. Her name — Pasionaria Herrera Cano — after the communist civil war leader — was changed to stop her from being traced. “My new parents kept telling me that my real parents were undesirables and had sold me. It was poisonous,” she says. Mother and daughter were reunited through a TV show in 1993. Radas shared 18 months with her mother before she died.
Now a frail 75, Radas, from Málaga, has mixed feelings about the reunion with her. “We had time to get to know each other. But it has been difficult to deal with what happened to me,” she says. “My mother was destroyed by the pain caused by not being able to be with me. She lived for 60 years with my photo under her pillow.”
Others, desperate to find loved ones, embarked on searches, using DNA tests to find their families. María José Huelga, 84, paid for tests on five women in France, Belgium and Spain, to find her sister, Maria Luisa. She is still looking.
After Franco’s death in 1975, much of Spain’s past was brushed under the carpet. The new democracy wanted to ensure the transition from dictatorship did not falter. An amnesty law ensured those guilty of crimes committed during the Franco’s reign couldn’t be brought before the courts.
As countries such as Argentina and Guatemala dealt publicly with the fate of those who disappeared during their dictatorships, Spain stayed quiet. It is only relatively recently that the fate of victims such as the stolen children has come to light. As the mood in Spain changed, campaigners asked questions about the generation of “disappeared”. People such as Emilio Silva, who at the start of the decade became the first person to search for the body of his grandfather, shot and buried during the civil war. He inspired others to embark on similar quests. Now barely a week goes by without a mass grave being reopened.
Paul Preston, the British historian who has written a book called The Spanish Holocaust, says: “We know the names of 101,000 people. But there are at least 30,000 mass graves across Spain.”
Despite changes, many believe Spain has a long way to go and early judicial efforts to give coherence to the campaign have hit the buffers. Two years ago, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister, introduced the Law of Historical Memory, which offered redress to victims or their relatives who were killed or “disappeared” during the Civil War and its aftermath. The law ordered the removal of symbols celebrating Franco. But the legislation failed to satisfy campaigners, who said it did not go far enough. For those on the Right, such as the opposition Popular Party, it served only to open past wounds.
Then, earlier this year, the Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, who rose to fame when he tried to arrest the Chilean dictator General Pinochet in 1998, launched an investigation into the fate of the “lost children”. But just as Spain seemed about to confront this dark chapter, Judge Garzón was forced to concede jurisdiction of the case to lower provincial courts. They are unlikely to pursue such a complex and controversial case.
Campaigners, however, refuse to give up. They are to take to court the case of Beatriz Soriano Rui. In 1964 she was taken from her mother while still in hospital and disappeared. Her sister, 44-year-old Mar Soriano Ruti, says: “I hope one day to set eyes on my sister.”
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