La Despedida: A Lost Memoir of the Spanish Civil War | The Nation


La Despedida: A Lost Memoir of the Spanish Civil War

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Like Guernica, Segura endured a massive, unanswered aerial bombardment, another casualty of the Republic's outmatched forces. Barsky ordered Neugass and other members of the medical team to exhume civilian bodies from the ruins to prevent an outbreak of the plague. While sifting through the rubble, Neugass saw a farmer and his wife kneeling on the floor, staring at their bloodstained infant child. "The child had been suffocated," he writes. "Major B.'s [Barsky] hands can do many things but they cannot repair death. Remembering his first and useless instructions, the mother again and again breathed into the lips of what had been her daughter." Within a month, after a harrowing retreat through fascist territory in which he was nearly killed, the exhausted and emotionally drained Neugass decided to return home to "write what I had seen in Spain."

About the Author

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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Two years ago, in the New York Sun, Ronald Radosh disputed that the Lincoln veterans went to Spain to save its democracy. "The kind of republic the volunteers sought was a prototype of what the Soviet Union created at the end of World War II," he wrote. But the effort to disparage the vets' motives began even before Barcelona fell to Franco. In January 1938, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to FDR's attorney general, Homer Cummings, detailing the warnings of a confidential source regarding the volunteers. According to Hoover, the source told him that the Communist Party was sending men to Spain "to train such individuals in the art of military science so that they can be returned to the United States to lead the vanguard of the revolution in this country." Hoover concluded by urging Cummings to inform Roosevelt of this secret plot.

After the war, the Lincoln veterans were labeled "premature antifascists" by the US military and Hoover's FBI, and countless vets were harassed at work or at home by FBI agents. In the early '40s Edward Barsky started an organization aimed at aiding the hundreds of thousands of Republican refugees who were living in concentration camps in southern France. At the time, the United States was anxious to solidify its bond with the anticommunist Franco. Barsky was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he refused to comply with the subpoena, partly on the grounds that the hearing could expose the names of the refugees. In 1947 Congress held Barsky in contempt; after a series of court battles he was sentenced to six months in prison (he served five) and temporarily stripped of his medical license. The Supreme Court upheld the sentence in an 8-1 decision.

For the Republican refugees, the Supreme Court's ruling was simply a continuation of the West's abandonment of the Spanish Republic. A German officer with the International Brigades described the scene of the refugees' arrival at the French border:

That afternoon the Republican troops came. They were received as though they were tramps.... The Spaniards were asked what was in the haversacks...and demanded that they should be opened. The Spaniards did not understand. Until the last moment they persisted in the tragic error of believing in international solidarity.... The dirty road on which the disarmed men stood was not merely the frontier between two countries, it was an abyss between two worlds. Under the eyes of the Prefect and the generals, the men of the Garde Mobile took away the bags and bundles containing the Spaniards' personal belongings and emptied their contents into a ditch filled with chloride of lime. I have never seen such anger and helplessness as those of the Spaniards. They stood as though turned to stone, and they did not understand.

For the vets it was difficult to leave Spain to the ravages of Franco. Garzón's judicial order accuses Franco and thirty-four accomplices of the disappearance and systematic killing of more than 114,000 people between 1936 and 1952, many of them interred like Lorca in fosas comunes. Franco also sent an estimated 1 million political prisoners to jails, concentration camps or to work on forced labor battalions. Like Neugass, Matti Mattson, a 92-year-old former ambulance driver with the Lincolns, knew it was just the beginning. "We said, Just wait, there's another one coming," Mattson told me recently. Mattson left Spain in November 1938, when all the International Brigades were sent home. "It was very tough because the war was still going on and the prime minister decided if he sends us home maybe the Italians and the Germans will be sent home as well," Mattson said. "We had lost a lot of territory and retreated all the way in the Aragon. Republican Spain had been severed in two parts." On April 1, 1939, Franco announced the end of military hostilities. The same day, the United States, which like the other Western democracies remained neutral during the war, recognized Franco's government.

Last October, around the time of the publication of War Is Beautiful, Mattson returned to Barcelona for the seventieth anniversary of his departure, the day the Republic called La Despedida, the farewell. At his small, tasteful apartment in Brooklyn, he showed me one tangible provision of the Law of Historical Memory, an application for Spanish citizenship offered by the Spanish government to all surviving members of the International Brigades. But Mattson's eyes glowed much brighter when he recalled La Despedida: how the International Brigades marched on the Diagonal through the city and how he heard La Pasionaria's famous speech urging the volunteers to come back "when the olive tree of peace is in flower." He recalled it all with extraordinary vividness, especially the gratitude of the Spanish people for the precious gift of solidarity. "I never saw anything like it," he said. "People lined up on the sidewalks. All the balconies were full and the windows were full and women had flowers--they'd come running out and give you flowers. After a while there were so many flowers that you couldn't take any more--the flowers were all over the street. It was paved with flowers."

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