|La mujer que acompaño a Vicente de Ametzaga Aresti|
SPANISH CIVIL WAR
The rebel General Mola announced by radio “If surrender is not immediate, I
will raze Vizcaya to the ground until nothing is left…” And they began with the bombardments in Vizcaya, in the town
of Durango, the same day. This was
the first use in history of aerial bombardment of an undefended civilian
population. In less than a month
Guernica was the target, and then Bilbao, including the neighboring towns of Las
Arenas and Algorta.
April 26, 1937, the sacred town of Guernica, of great significance for the
Basque people with its Casa de Juntas and its legendary oak tree, was bombed
from the air, leaving a balance of one thousand dead, seventy percent of its
buildings destroyed, and twenty percent uninhabitable.
Mercedes and Vicente were that day in the nearby town of Mundaka having
lunch with the mayor after inaugurating an ikastola (Basque language school),
and they saw with great concern the German airplanes fly overhead.
The mayor gave them as a gift a laying hen, a very good gift in those
days of such food scarcity. When
Mercedes returned to Las Arenas the town had been bombed and all the lights were
out. Ama feared for her family.
“The town looked like the entrance to death,” ama tells us in her
memoirs. When she arrived at Las
Mercedes Street, she saw their piano hanging out a hole in the wall of their
apartment. She climbed the stairs
greatly distressed thinking of her elderly father.
She saw the destruction of the bomb that had entered the apartment
through the balcony, burning the rug and some furniture, but these were of less
importance since her father and siblings were unharmed.
the alarming news of the bombings so close ama and aita decided to be married by
the civil authority on May 14, 1937, a step necessary for their church wedding,
planned now for some time.
Iron Belt, a system of fortifications formed by bunkers, trenches, and tunnels
constructed around Bilbao finally broke under the incessant bombing and
undermined by the treachery of the engineer who designed it, who went over to
the rebels and delivered the plans of the city’s defenses to the enemy.
March 21, 1937, Palm Sunday, there were more than 100 explosions in Las Arenas.
They heard many of them while they at Mass in the chapel of the Divina
Pastora school. Two months later
there were rumors of an impending bombing of the town.
On June 13, 1937, Portugalete was bombed.
In June 1937 four tremendous explosions of dynamite blew up the hanging
bridge that connects Las Arenas with Portugalete.
(The bridge was rebuilt and finally placed in service again on June 19 of
Maria Luisa of the Divina Pastora school, our mother’s (and my) teacher wrote
about these events: “The night of the 14 and 15 we heard such terrible
explosions that it seemed as if half the town had been blown up, and the shaking
was so much that it made us fall to the floor at the same time.
We went down to the basement without lights and trembled at what had
happened. They had blown up the
Bridge of Vizcaya… and some of the sisters could see the burning of the
Parish.” Later in the bomb
shelter “with having eaten and frightened to death, we heard nothing except
bombs and cannon fire. Two
militiamen came to the shelter carrying pistols and told us we had to evacuate
to Santander or Bilbao, and that they were going to blow up the entire town.”
(Lopez, p. 102.) By June 17
the offensive was from Portugalete and we all had to evacuate.
Las Arenas and the chalets that remained were converted into army
barracks. On June 13 Portugalete
was bombed by 21 German trimotor Junkers, which dropped their bombs on the
burning petroleum deposits.
dawn on June 14 aita startled ama with a call before 6 am to let her know that
he was coming to Las Arenas. They had to marry because it was dangerous for him
to stay and he had to escape. Ama, with her generous temperament, rushed to her
small suitcase to start packing some of the summer suits her sister Julie had
finished sewing for her, but there was no time or place to carry everything, so
she had to leave behind many things. It
was hard for her to go, but with her little bag at dawn he went to church. Aita
was waiting for her and the pastor.
flowers, no music, no family or friends, but she accepted it all without
complaint for the uncertain future beside the man she loved. At 6 am the pastor
of Las Mercedes, Father Manuel Escauriaza, married them in the sacristy of the
Parish Church of Las Mercedes, which would be bombed, burned and destroyed by a
Malatesta battalion two days later at 3 am on June 16, 1937. The newlyweds said
goodbye to their families and undertook the journey that took them into exile.
the church they rushed to Portugalete which was on fire. Her first moments of
her married life were moments of sadness and desolation around them. Before her
eyes was a desolate landscape. The
beautiful village of Las Arenas was in ashes and the famous Vizcaya Bridge now
lay in ruins. On the boat, they crossed the Rio Nervion full of twisted pieces
of metal that had fallen into the river, and escaping from the soldiers who came
behind them burning houses to leave the village in flames. On the other side of
the estuary picture was not better. More
than once they had to hide in the sewers for with the dawn the air strikes were
repeated. They began to climb the slope, exhausted and hungry.
On their way, they saw in the distance Juanito (aita’s chofer) in the
car the government had sent for aita. He had come for aita to bring him to the
Hotel Carlton, where the government was meeting. After leaving his brand new
wife in the Carranza hostel, in the largest valley of Biscay, aita and Juanito
continued to Bilbao to the meeting at the headquarters of the presidency of the
President (Lehendakari) with Basque Government advisers and ministers. The hotel
where she was staying was too dangerous, located at a crossroads and next to the
telephone headquarters so the guests were urged to hide in the mountains. Her
sister Juli, who had reunited with her, and ama spent two nights hiding and half
lost in the mountain. This is the way she spent the first two nights of her
days later aita arrived with a government motorcade to pick them up and continue
on to Santander. On June 19 Bilbao fell to Franco's troops. After the fall of
Bilbao, the Basque Government and tens of thousands Basques moved to Santander,
a province controlled by the Popular Front.
After so much misery that the people had gone through in the town was
added the pain of what they had lost and the shortage of food, especially bread.
Lola and her elderly father evacuated to Santander as best they could.
situation was chaotic in Santander. The
confessionaries from the church were being used in streets for the police to
control traffic, and the chapels were used as theaters. The hotels were full
with no place for anyone. Our father had been appointed director of a colony of
Basque children. He was in charge
of 500 children to provide accommodation in Santander and search for a boat to
leave with them from this city. Aita was now acting on behalf of the Basque
president. The lehendakari asked
him to speak with the provincial governor and in the meeting he asked the
governor for accommodations for the children and he got rooms in the Hotel Real.
This hotel was built in 1917 and it was located in the most privileged of the
city, 500 meters from the beach.
our parents they offered accommodation at the convent and church of Santa Lucia
which was built between 1851 and 1868 by the Salesian Sisters Royals. Now it was
taken by the military. Although they were put in the room of the Abbess, when
they turned off the light they heard the noise of hundreds of bugs filling the
walls and the bed and made it impossible for them to stay. They went to the
train station at 2 am and there on the benches of the platform they waited half
asleep as four hours later the train would arrive bringing the children and
their teachers. This is the way they spent their dilated wedding night.
20,000 Basques children between 5 and 10 years had to leave their parents and
their land to go to countries like Denmark, France, England, Mexico, Sweden, and
the Soviet Union, places of different cultures and languages. The children went
to these countries as refugees from the Spanish Civil War because of the
desperation of parents after the terrible bombings of Guernica and Durango. By
1937 over 200,000 Basques went into exile because of the war. Aunt Lola, her
father and Aunt Antonia had fled with them to Santander, but ama could not find
her father to give him a final goodbye.
War brings destruction and dire consequences not only those who are struggling and their families, but also to those fleeing from it, going into exile trying to save their own lives. War of any kind is at a great cost, and its consequences do not end with the last shot but remain as an echo in subsequent generations. In the case of our family history, we became eternal migrants due to two wars, the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Everyone in our family has been and continues to be, whether we want to or not, a victim of Franco and Hitler
On June 22, 1937 our parents embarked on a
small French steamship, the Plus-Vernet,
with a physician, 23 teachers, two cooks and assistants, two nurses, three
priests and other helpers, and 500 children. Thus our parents began their
journey into exile. Their destination was St. Jean Pied de Port (in Basque,
Donibane Garazi), the old capital of Basse Navarre, France in the Pyrenees, next
to the Nive River, just 3 miles from the border. Twenty four hours later the
group arrived in Bayonne and traveled by train to their destination.
they got off the train and walked to the fort in Donibane Garazi, the people
shouted "Gorriak" because of the reputation of the Basques to be
communists. All of them were housed in an abandoned medieval fortress that was
called The Citadel, without lights, water, bedding or blankets. In 1628 the
French government to improve defenses constructed this fort and in 1680 added
the walls to south of the River Nive. The Citadel is on the highest ground in
the city. The fort had not been open for 20 years, since the Great War
(1914-1918), and was the place where German soldiers were held as prisoners of
war. It was dirty, cold and dark, inappropriate to house 500 frightened
children. The job of the adults was made twice as difficult as they tried to
make a better place to give confidence to these children. Ama soon turned the
cold and desolate place into something that resembled their distant homes, and
with their capable hands they sewed curtains and bedspreads. Everyone had a
special job. Ama was in charge of caring for and decorating the church of the
colony. She was the sacristan, in
charge of having everything ready for the priest, the altar cloth, candles, the
missal, and flowers every day. They
decorated the large church, where they celebrated Mass every day. In the
afternoon they prayed the rosary outside in the courtyard.
They divided the group into two and prayed in Basque and Spanish.
January 1938, six months after arriving in France, aita was sent to Barcelona,
but before he left the two went to Paris. Ama decided to live with her sister
Juli. She was a dressmaker and designer of haute couture, and lived in the Rue
Bonaparte # 18, District #6 in a bohemian neighborhood two blocks from the river
Siena. Ama was four months pregnant with her first child. Aita faced much hunger
and danger in Barcelona, and ama went to speak with Aguirre and Leizaola to get
aita reassigned. In April our father arrived in Aguirre’s car in Paris.
He had been appointed Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Culture,
working for Jesus de Leizaola in the Basque government delegation. The Basque
president, his ministers and aides would soon form the Basque Government in
exile headquartered in Paris, at # 11 Rue Marceau.
1938 when our parents arrived in Paris the city was not the sparkling global
center of culture that it had been before.
Now the environment was not hospitable due to the rapid growth of
refugees. For half a decade, refugees from all Europe had gathered in Paris:
Republicans from the Spanish Civil War, Jews escaping from Poland and Germany,
Russian writers and other intellectuals, and thousands of others.
ama prepared with enthusiasm and love a complete wardrobe for their first child.
On May 7, 1938, at 9 pm I was born in the Clinique de Vincennes, 36 Cours de
Vincennes. Ama's obstetrician, the famous Dr. Fernand Lamaze was already waiting
for her at the clinic. (Dr. Lamaze was years later (1951) the founder of
painless childbirth.) When the
doctor examined her he was not optimistic and he told aita that he would
"not be able to save the child but the mother is not in danger." But
it seems I had other plans. One
could speculate that in the hands of another less experienced obstetrician my
birth could have ended tragically. It was a long and difficult labor.
At 9 pm Dr. Lamaze appeared sweaty and still in his scrubs to tell aita
that "we have saved the child, a girl, healthy and strong, and almost 4
kilos." I was put in a crib
next to ama in the room. Ama had always wanted her first child to be a girl and
was happy looking at the new member of the family.
The two proud parents forgot for a moment the shadows of war. Now they
felt less like immigrants with a French daughter.
baptism took place in the oldest church in Paris, St. Germain des Pres, which
dates from the sixth century. It
was a Benedictine abbey and the church was built to save the relic of the Cross
brought from Spain in 543. At the time the church was so powerful, both
religiously and culturally speaking that it became like a village within the
town. It seems Romanesque, more like a medieval fortress. Ama described it in
1938 as a wonder, but when I visited Paris with my daughter Anne Miren years
later I found it empty and dark. It seems to be used now for Sunday concerts.
parents wanted me to be baptized with the name Miren Escarne Joana but they
could not give me a name in Basque for both political and religious reasons, so
they named me in French. I was named after Marie Mercedes Jeanne in honor of ama
and our grandmother, but at home I was called Mirentxu.
February 1939 the Second World War seemed imminent, but the Parisians and the
French in general seemed unworried. They felt confident in the defenses of the
Maginot Line, a line of fortifications, concrete tank obstacles, machine gun
posts and other defenses that France built along its borders with Germany and
Italy before World War II. It was the largest military defense line built in the
modern world and consisted of 108 forts up to fifteen miles away each other,
many small forts, and more than 400 kilometers of tunnels.
mid-August the Basque government sent aita to London for a few months to inspect
colonies of Basque children in England. He called ama constantly and he wrote
every day, until one day he suggested that she meet him in London.
Ama got a Basque friend who was a nurse living in Bayonne to take care of
me. For my parents these two months was their real honeymoon because they were
married in the midst of bombing and war. They returned to Paris happy to get
home. Meanwhile at home we followed the daily routine, and our parents let
themselves be carried away by the optimism that surrounded them.
always liked to get up early, straighten up our house, make the lunch meal, and
then at mid-morning go shopping or walk, and in the beautiful city there was
much to see and do. In this city people worshiped babies and they stopped
traffic to give way to a mother with her infant. In stores salespersons
carefully looked after the baby while the mother was shopping; bus drivers
helped her up. When ama took me to walk in Chaillot Park close to home, aita met
with us when he left the government’s offices at noon. He had always liked
babies and to have his own was very special. He spoiled me a lot and spoke to me
affectionately in Euskera, and ama said that as soon as I learned to walk when
aita got home I recognized the bell went to the door to greet him with his
slippers. He fed me every day with pleasure and wrote a poem dedicated to that
task that he had imposed on himself.
weekends they chose to go for a walk in quiet areas, "breathing fresh
air” as aita liked to say. They
frequented the gardens of the Tuileries, near home, the Bois de Boulogne to the
west of the city, with lakes, waterfalls and gardens with majestic trees where
the French monarchy went hunting. This
was the place that inspired famous painters such as Monet and Van Gogh.
They also went to the Bois de Vincennes to east of the city, to its zoo,
sports fields and velodrome and racetrack. These two huge parks are the two
lungs of Paris.
visited museums. Ama was an art enthusiast.
They visited the wonderful churches that were close, like the Madeleine
and the de Chaillot which was our parish. In the latter were held elegant
weddings, and ama accompanied Aunt Juli to get details to design her dresses.
Her fashion design business was enjoying a good clientele and made them forget a
little the bad news they heard on the radio. The Basques were optimistic,
although they began to talk about going to America (by which they meant the
Western Hemisphere). The government was in Paris by now, so they were not
thinking about leaving.
the eve of World War II and ama was expecting her second child, Paris was
mobilized. Everyone fled to the
countryside; no one wanted to stay, fearing tears gas after the experience of
the last war. Ama told me that when the sirens sounded they had to flee to the
shelter. They had to go with flashlights because Paris, the City of Light, was
dark and we had to put on the gas masks, but it seems that I was terrified and
crying, and I struggled to keep them from putting it on me.
Inside the house they had to install double curtains for light not to
pass to the outside.
family members left behind, they later learned that his mother Maria, our
paternal grandmother had been evicted from her home for "having criminal
children who had caused the ruin of Vizcaya." Our maternal grandfather also lost his home and
furniture, but his skillful daughter Lola found a way to replace their losses,
although he never got to live in the "Casa Grande" again and with the
same luxuries as before.
late August 1939, ama’s physician, Dr. Lamaze, told her that he had been
called to military service and they had to find another doctor and maybe another
hospital. They thought about going to Roseraie Hospital in Biarritz. The
Roseraie was the pride of the Basque government-in-exile in southern France.
The wonderful hospital, with 500 beds, located in a private villa in
Biarritz. More than 800 wounded Basque soldiers were treated at this facility.
It also took care of refugees for free, and hundreds of children were
born in this hospital.
War II started on 1 September 1939 with the invasion by Germany of Poland and
ended with the surrender of Germany and Italy on 7 May 1945.
It was the largest and bloodiest armed conflict in world history.
The armed forces of seventy countries participated in air, naval and
ground combat, and killed about sixty million people, most of them civilians.
This war was a global military conflict involved most of the nations of the
world, including all the major powers and caused the mobilization of over 100
million military personnel making this the most extensive war in history
and ama bought tickets to go on the train on September 2 in early morning, but
when they got up ama began to experience labor pains. They called the hospital
and were told that it would close the next day. Aita went to street to hail a
taxi while ama was sitting on the steps of their apartment building, but no one
stopped. They were all in a wild
flight to leave Paris. But a driver of the Basque government, Rafael Picavea,
who was passing through the place, took them to the clinic on time. My sister
was born two hours later. She was baptized at the clinic because of the
emergency, and was given the name Miren Begoña de la Paz, and they put her in a
room covered with cork. Sirens could be heard throughout the night, ama told us,
and they were unable to rest or get much sleep.
the autumn, people returned to Paris, but the city was still dark, and they had
to go on the street with flashlights. Paris looked sad and people concerned
about the uncertain future.
14 June 1940 the Germans entered Paris. The Maginot Line did not cover the area
chosen by the Germans for their attack was through a wooded and mountainous
region primarily in Belgium and Luxembourg, and they then spread out into France
in valleys carved by rivers of fast currents. This was difficult terrain in
which to mount large scale military operations. However, in the First and Second World War the Germans were
successful in crossing through the Ardennes to attack the relatively weakly
defended area of France.
As the Germans occupied France, they now also built the "Atlantic Wall,”
which was like the Maginot Line. This wall was constructed around the Atlantic
coastline of France but the Germans likewise found these defenses useless when
the moment arrived, because the Allies found a way to invade France through
Normandy. This was due in part to
the effectiveness of the Basque agents. From 1940 to 1945 the Basque resistance
was involved in activities to contribute to the Allies in the fight against
Germany. The American Consulate in Bilbao became the clearinghouse for
intelligence data that the Basque messengers obtained in France by submitting
information about German operations and bases. One of the most extraordinary
efforts of the underground was one in which the Basque agents cooperated with
the French maquis to remove sand from various parts of the beaches of Normandy
and put it in bags and to be smuggled across the border to Bilbao and then to
England. There experts could
analyze the sand density and identify the best beaches for heavy vehicles during
the invasion of France in 1944.
was now a dangerous city. Jesus Leizaola asked aita to go to Bordeaux to find a
house where they could transfer the Basque government. Aunt Juli took me with
her to Biarritz; ama and aita took Begoña with them to Bordeaux
million people were now on the roads out of Paris; six million of these were
French. People piled up in a chaotic manner in overcrowded villages to the south
and west. Conditions were
unbearable with the heat, crowds and chaos.
France was lucky to have escaped a major epidemic. In retrospect it
appears that the dangers and problems in staying to face the Germans were less
than the risks of facing the road. Schools, hospitals and prisons were
evacuated. Initially the evacuation was principally by train but they were
filled quickly and the trains were targeted by enemy aircraft. The best way to
escape was by bicycle because it was easy to avoid the crowded roads; Bordeaux
was nearly 600 kilometers from Paris. At this time conditions were total chaos
and the Germans bombed the city before occupying it. Our parents realized that
nothing could be done and they returned to Biarritz on a train.
Since trains were so crowded, there was no room for furniture, and they
had to leave their luggage on the station platform.
All their other things were removed from the home of Paris. Ama hated to
leave it all there but there was no other choice.
1 April 1939 Franco announced "The war is over" with the victory of
nationalist side and the defeat of the Republicans. There now began one of the
most harrowing consequences of the Civil War: the exodus of thousands of people
fleeing the persecution and revenge of Franco.
Forced to live in foreign lands was how our parents faced World War II.
they arrived in Biarritz, the city was full of Germans, and the idea of being
turned over to them was disturbing to aita. It was known that a certain
Basagoiti was sent by the Germans to Spain. Luis Companys, a Catalan politician
and lawyer and leader of the political party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya
(a pro-independence party, declared illegal by Franco in 1939), was delivered by
German agents and sent to Spain and there was arrested and executed on October
with this news aita decided to leave France and go to England, but after waiting
for several nights for a boat and getting nothing he decided to take the train
to Marseille and wait for a ship to get out of France. But for this he first had
to report to the German Kommandatur, the German military headquarters in
Biarritz, for permission. In the
words of ama, "aita was scared to death," but they gave him the pass
without problems and he could get a train to Marseille. Meanwhile ama, my Aunt
Juli, my sister and I stayed in Biarritz.
I) Vida de Mercedes Iribarren de Ametzaga -Gure Ama - Tributo a nuestra Ama, por Mirentxu Ametzaga
II) La mujer que acompaño a Vicente de Ametzaga Aresti - por Xabier I. Ametzaga
III) Mis manos quieren hablar - mi poema a mi Ama - por Xabier I. Ametzaga
IV) Publicaciones en Internet relacionadas
|Vicente Ametzaga Aresti - His Biography and his works Published on Wikipedia
Mercedes Iribarren Gorostegui - La mujer que acompaño a Vicente de Ametzaga - published on Wikipedia
Xabier Iñaki Ametzaga Iribarren - Information published on Wikipedia