A Secret Archive: On the Mexican Suitcase | The Nation


A Secret Archive: On the Mexican Suitcase

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While most of the clergy in Catholic Spain also cast the war in religious terms, and overwhelmingly sided with the Fascists (the Primate of Spain, Cardinal Isidro Gomá, claimed the Republic was "controlled by the Semite International"), the Basque clerics, who shared their compatriots' desire for greater autonomy, were a notable exception. In January 1937, in the Amorebieta Cloister, southeast of Bilbao, Chim shot a remarkable series showing Basque monks opening their refuge to Republican soldiers. The series includes several images of daily life inside the cloister: a monk conferring pleasantly with four Republican militiamen in the courtyard, soldiers setting up a radio transmitter and practicing formations and, most beautiful, a solitary monk studying a book in a small room with sunlight flooding through the window.


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Dan Kaufman
Dan Kaufman is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He has written previously about the Spanish Civil...

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Chim's work photographing the Basque clergy's peaceful existence within the Republic was meant to counter the widespread belief that the government was inherently anticlerical. In the early months of the war, irregular militias killed several thousand clergy in the Republican zone (though few of these killings occurred in the Basque region). The Republican executions were a brutal and indiscriminate response to the church's centuries-long alliance with the monarchy, its close fraternity with the estate owners in Spain's semifeudal agricultural system and its fierce opposition to constitutional efforts to limit its power and role in civil society. These extrajudicial killings, however, contravened the government's policy and were publicly condemned by the Socialist leader Indalecio Prieto. Republican President Manuel Azaña and Prime Minister José Giral reorganized the judicial system, establishing popular tribunals in an effort to stop the killings. By October 1936, they had subsided.

The church hierarchy's unequivocal support for the Fascist rebellion was articulated in a pastoral letter written by the Bishop of Salamanca and published in September 1936. The letter described Franco's adversaries as "sons of Cain" and the civil war as a "crusade in defense of religion, the Fatherland, and Christian civilization." A year later, in response to the Nazi bombing of Guernica, which killed and wounded thousands of civilians and shocked many Catholics, Cardinal Gomá released an open letter to bishops around the world intended to shore up any wavering of Catholic support for Franco. The letter, signed by two cardinals, six archbishops and thirty-five bishops, characterized the Fascist revolt as the only recourse for "maintaining order and peace."

Soon after Chim photographed the Amorebieta Cloister, he traveled to a remote mountainous area near the Basque village of Lekeitio and shot an even more confounding scene: a Basque priest saying an elaborate Mass to several dozen Republican soldiers before they went off to fight. Chim photographed the scene from four different angles, but the most arresting image, published prominently in Regards, is photographed from above. The camera looks down on a priest behind a makeshift altar leading Republican Catholic soldiers though the sacrament with a pastoral setting as his backdrop.

Despite mitigating factors like Azaña and Giral's efforts and the loyalty of the Basque Catholics to the Republic, let alone the question of whether the destruction of cities like Guernica by aerial bombardment was justifiable to "maintain peace" in Catholic theology, the Vatican staunchly supported the Fascist insurgency. In August 1937 Rome accepted Franco's diplomatic emissary, granting the insurgency de facto recognition. Following the Republic's defeat, Pope Pius XII, who was later accused of remaining silent while millions of European Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps, gave a radio address describing his "immense joy" with the Fascist triumph.

While the Pope's radio address emphasized the Republican killing of Catholic clergy, he failed to note a different crime against the church. In October 1936 Fascist forces executed by firing squad sixteen Basque priests. The Pope's address also made no mention of the 500 Basque clergy driven into exile by Franco and his accomplices. For them, the loyalty of the Basque Catholics was an international embarrassment that needed to be punished severely. Neither the Vatican nor the Spanish clerical establishment publicly condemned the murder of the Basque priests.

Remarkably, that silence continues today. Three years ago, Pope Benedict beatified 498 priests, nuns and other religious Catholics killed during the civil war, but none of the Basque priests were among them. As El País and the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, a Spanish human rights group, have documented, the list included clergy who were openly supportive of the Fascist uprising and in some cases aided it.

* * *

The photos by Gerda Taro in the Suitcase reveal a passionate, fearless photographer whose wide-ranging coverage—trench warfare, peasants harvesting wheat, an international writers conference in Valencia—gives a sweeping picture of life inside the Republic. Taro, whose given name was Gerta Pohorylle, and was the daughter of Polish Jews, fled her native Germany in 1933, after being arrested during a Nazi raid. She moved to Paris, a refuge for many Eastern European émigrés; she met Capa in the fall of the following year, and the two fell in love. During a summer holiday in the South of France, with Capa's encouragement and tutelage, she began shooting photographs. When the pair returned to Paris they shared an apartment and formed a loose-knit creative partnership. Taro, who also worked as an editor at a photo agency, acted as Capa's manager, and the two developed various projects for collaboration.

Their most ambitious, and last, would be covering the civil war. Capa and Taro first traveled to Spain in August 1936, as freelancers without an assignment (Taro had yet to be published). Their appearance in the Suitcase begins picking up in February 1937, with a detailed look at the Republican defense of Madrid. Taro focused on the neighborhood around the university, and her attention to granular details—sandbag barricades, men positioning themselves in makeshift trenches—conveys both the anxiousness of the moment and the city's bleak ambience. (She also captured a surreal image of a large brown bear sitting above a trench as two Republican soldiers talk obliviously.) At the beginning of her brief professional career her work was often uncredited. Later, she and Capa shared a credit, and three months before she died Taro began using only her name for some assignments. Mainly for this reason it has been difficult to determine the authorship of some of her works, but by piecing together her travel itinerary, among other clues, Taro scholars and ICP curators have done a painstaking job of establishing her contribution.

Shortly after photographing the university district, Capa and Taro photographed a nearby area newly decimated by German and Italian bombers. Taro's images of what had been a densely populated neighborhood include a young woman collecting firewood among the rubble and two horses grazing in a street of ruins. Mainly her photos show the effects of the bombings on the faltering buildings. Three months later, in Valencia, Taro photographed the human casualties of Fascist air raids. She begins with a small crowd of desperate faces pressed up against the metal gate of the city morgue. She then moves inside the morgue and, in images that evoke Goya, lays bare the human face of saturation bombing: a middle-aged man, his head and face bleeding, lies unattended on a marble slab; a child lies on the floor, her summer dress splattered with blood; and most haunting, a man lies on the floor, partly covered in a blood-soaked white sheet, with a yearning expression frozen on his face.

The war's fateful role as a precursor to World War II is vividly captured in Taro's account of the Valencia morgue. It was confirmed during the Nuremberg trials when Hermann Göring, the Reich commissioner for aviation, testified that he urged Hitler to give Franco military support partly "to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect." Göring's "technical" experiments would take the form of the first use of carpet-bombing on civilian populations. The Fascists targeted dense cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia in order to inflict the maximum amount of terror and civilian casualties. That the Nazis were simply preparing themselves for the next war was something lost on few. The headline in Regards over Taro's Valencia pictures read "Dress Rehearsal for Total War."

Two months later, covering the Battle of Brunete, outside Madrid, Taro was run over by an out-of-control Republican tank in a chaotic retreat. She died hours later. Her spare, elegant tombstone, designed by Alberto Giacometti, read "Gerda Taro, 1911 [sic]–1937, photojournalist for Ce Soir, killed July 25, 1937 on the Brunete front, Spain, in the line of duty." In 1942, during the Nazi occupation, the inscription was replaced with a concrete block noting only her name and date of birth and death. She was the first female photojournalist to die on assignment.

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