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A Secret Archive: On the Mexican Suitcase | The Nation

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A Secret Archive: On the Mexican Suitcase

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In the exhibition catalog, Brian Wallis describes the controversy over Robert Capa's most iconic photograph of the Spanish Civil War, Falling Soldier, as the primary motive behind the search for the lost negatives. The picture shows a solitary Republican soldier at the moment of getting shot and falling to his death on a hillside. Since the 1970s a fierce debate has raged as to whether the picture was staged. "It was in an effort to answer such charges—or at least understand that photograph more fully—that Capa scholar Richard Whelan and I set out in 2006 to try to find the picture's missing negative," Wallis writes. The curators did not find the lost negative to Falling Soldier in the Suitcase, but breathtaking images of Catalan orphans, the battles of Teruel and Ebro and especially of the Spanish exiles in concentration camps in France suggest that the emphasis placed by Capa's defenders and accusers alike on a single image's provenance has overshadowed the groundbreaking and courageous aspects of his work.

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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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Capa left Spain in July 1937, shortly before Taro's death. Heartbroken by the loss, he returned in late December, covering the battle of Teruel, a last-ditch Republican counteroffensive that briefly recaptured this provincial capital from Franco. The many rolls of film devoted to the battle show Ernest Hemingway smoking with Republican officers, a group of soldiers on a stairwell of a bombed-out building and two old women, one with a cane, dressed in black and walking arm in arm along a mountain pass. There is a photo of a dead Republican watchman in a tree, apparently electrocuted and caught among wires and branches fifteen feet in the air. Capa took the picture from a low angle, a favorite position of his, against an open expanse of sky. His compassion is most palpable in his widely published portrait of a man with an extinguished cigarette in his mouth, carrying his son, whose leg is wrapped in a bloodstained white cloth, to safety.

Among the images in the Teruel rolls are many pictures of Republican refugees, who app  ear frequently in all three photographers' work, from the beginning of the war until the end. All three seemed to have a special feeling for them, but Capa's pictures of the refugees are more frequent and profound. When he was 17, Capa was briefly arrested and beaten by the Hungarian secret police for his leftist activities. Two months later he fled Hungary and settled for a short time in Berlin. While there, he took to photography as a way to try to make a living. After the Reichstag fire he fled again, eventually settling in Paris. Like Chim and Taro, Capa changed his name (he was born Endre Friedmann) partly to conceal his émigré past.

In the beginning of 1939, with the Republic's defeat inevitable, thousands of Republican exiles, fearing Franco's retribution, began fleeing the country. Most of them traveled to France, where they were interned in concentration camps near the Spanish border. Remedios Oliva Berenguer, now 92, was 20 when she left her home outside Barcelona with her family. "We left at 11 pm and got to Figueres at 6 pm," she said recently from her home in France.

There were bombers overhead and the road was full, full, full with people, with cars, with animals. We didn't want to leave because the bomber planes were overhead. There was also a castle in Figueres, and it was being bombed nonstop.... We didn't want to go to France. We wanted to go to the countryside, to stay with farmers in the Spanish countryside.... Trucks came for the women and children, but the trucks would arrive already full. People were so afraid they would jump on the trucks anyway and just hang from the sides. We crossed into France on February 7. It was about 6 pm that day. We all slept in the truck. We woke up the following day. We were about twenty-five kilometers from the border. It was sunny. The road was filled with people, filled with police, and they stopped us. We couldn't go through. There was nothing there for us at the Argelès camp. No bathrooms, nothing. They did not expect us. Nothing was prepared, no planning. We then saw a truck arrive with bread. People just flocked to it. There was no organization. So they just tossed the bread out like we were dogs. They threw it on the ground and we picked it up. Then other trucks came with rolls of barbed wire, and we didn't know why. We were thousands standing about, thousands. In the beginning, at the Argelès camp, there were about 75,000 of us. It was just the sand and sea. We were at the edge of the sea. So they constructed a barbed-wire fence along the side of the road to pen us in. The fences were at least two meters high. We knew we were among the first to arrive, but by the end we knew we numbered at least half a million people.

In March 1939 Capa journeyed to Argelès-sur-Mer, the camp where Oliva Berenguer and her family were interned, to document the fate of the exiles. His negatives show refugees living in threadbare tents under the open sky and men crouched on the ground eating meager rations. At the nearby camp at Le Barcarès, Capa photographed several men trapped behind a barbed-wire fence speaking to a passer-by on the other side. Later, he shifts his attention to a dozen men lying on the ground, huddled together for warmth near the camp's outer fence.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II the male prisoners were allowed to leave the camps to join the Foreign Legion or enlist in work brigades. Still others escaped. During the war, thousands of Republican exiles continued their fight, with the French Resistance and the Free French Forces. In all, an estimated 15,000 Spanish exiles died at the camps in France and 10,000 more died after they were deported from France to Mauthausen and other Nazi camps. As the civil war scholar Paul Preston notes, Franco encouraged Hitler to deport the Republican refugees to the German camps.

A significant percentage of the refugees emigrated to Mexico, the only country besides the Soviet Union to aid the Republic. During the war the Mexican government, though poor, sent arms to Spain as well as food and other humanitarian aid. "It's not for no reason that the Suitcase was in Mexico," Ziff told me. After Franco's victory, Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas agreed to accept an unlimited number of refugees provided their transport and accommodation were paid for. Republican relief organizations worked together with Mexican officials to bring them. Some 25,000 Spanish exiles eventually resettled in Mexico, their presence, like the negatives, preserving a fragment of the Spanish Republic.

After describing her journey, Oliva Berenguer recalled some of those who weren't fortunate enough to make it to Mexico or survive the French camps. "There were mass graves filled with people who disappeared from the countryside," she told me. "We had a neighbor who stayed behind in Spain. We later learned what happened to this man. He was about 58 years old and was a poet and a worker. He had a poet's soul. Of course he was a Republican. His sons had left to fight. I think he lost two or three sons. And he was executed in the Montjuïc castle in Barcelona. He was killed simply because he was a Republican. He was against Franco and wrote poetry favoring the Republicans. He was just a man, who was 58 years old, and was executed."

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