Frontlines

Tears and sweat: the Mac-Paps back in Spain

Eve Drobot October 8 1979
Frontlines

Tears and sweat: the Mac-Paps back in Spain

Eve Drobot October 8 1979

Tears and sweat: the Mac-Paps back in Spain

Frontlines

Eve Drobot

"Franco must be rolling over in his grave,” whooped Johnny Johnson, as Iberia flight 974 from Montreal touched down in Madrid early on the morning of Aug. 27. Johnson first saw Spain one dawn 42 years ago from the top of the Pyrenees. Then 26 years old, he had spent all night crossing the mountains on foot, carrying on his back for two-thirds of the way a young Scotsman who had twisted his ankle on a rock. Johnson was one of 1,239 Canadians who had gone to join

the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war of 1936 to 1939.

Of the fewer than 600 Canadian veterans of the civil war who returned to Canada there are about 150 still alive, and of that number only 30 were in good enough shape physically and financially to make this year’s pilgrimage back to the battle sites. As it was, the air-conditioned bus ferrying the men and several of their wives around made the group look like just another senior citizens’ sun-and-sea tour rather than a delegation of ex-warriors. But they were tourists with a special purpose. “We have come here as a group,” explained Ross Russell, president of the Veterans of the International Brigades, MackenziePapineau Battalion of Canada, “because we are all getting older and we feel we have a responsibility to those comrades who died here.”

The Spanish civil, war began on July 17,1936, when a group of generals (later to be led by Francisco Franco) staged a coup against the duly elected Popular Front republican government. The rebels’ plan was a simple pronunciamento, a military coup, but they had not counted on the strength of civilian resistance. Despite massive financial and military support from Hitler and Mus-

solini, the insurgents did not succeed in capturing Madrid until March, 1939. In those three years, some 40,000 volunteers from Europe and North America joined the ranks of the republican army against Franco.

They considered themselves “premature anti-fascists,” politicized activists, many of them members of the tradeunion movement and various left-wing groups (including the Communist party) who recognized the conflict in Spain as a prelude to a larger war. “I felt we would have to fight fascism sooner or later,” recalled George Taylor of Saskatoon, “and I figured better sooner than later.” The foreigners who found themselves in Spain during those years included Ernest Hemingway, Hugh Garner, George Orwell, André Malraux, the poets Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden and Dr. Norman Bethune.

The returning group of Canadians was hardly an official delegation. At the time of the civil war the Mackenzie

King government, as a member of the nonintervention committee made up primarily of England, France and the U.S., passed the Foreign Enlistment Act specifically to prevent volunteers from going toSpain.That act,which is still on the books, provided for two years’ hard labor and a $2,000 fine for any Canadian serving in a foreign army. While none of those who went was prosecuted under it, the men were never recognized as veterans and to this day are not entitled to pensions and medical care.

“We would like to receive you as citizens of honor,” said the Spanish poet Marcos Ana — himself a former prisoner of Franco and still a member of the executive committee of the Partido Comunista de España — in an emotional welcome in the PCE headquarters on the veterans’ first day in Madrid. “But things are still difficult in Spain and despite Franco’s death, we still have a long way to go. The next time you come, we hope to receive you in the royal palace.”

The following afternoon the men headed out to visit their first battle site. Undaunted by the sign saying entrada prohibida at the edge of a dusty, unpaved road about 25 miles outside Madrid, they clambered slowly up a rocky ridge. It was here that the first Canadians to arrive fought the Battle of Jarama with the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade in early 1937. Bill Brennan of Toronto, 21 years old at the time and straight out of two weeks of the most rudimentary military training, recalled his arrival to help in the defence of the Madrid - Valencia highway: “I was dropped off by truck at the roadside.The

only way we knew it was the front—it was a very movable front—was because of the dead bodies wearing our dog tags scattered by the road.” The trenches they dug are still visible, although now overgrown with wild thyme and rosemary.

This site held almost pleasant memories for the volunteers because it represented one of their few victories. Heavily outnumbered and equipped with only a few machine-guns, they held their ground against enemy aircraft and heavy artillery bombardments. Brennan pointed to the neatly cultivated fields below: “Our water tanks got stuck down there, in no-man’s land. I had the job of taking groups across at night to fill our canteens. We ran the risk of snipers and Fascist patrols but the worst was being fired on by our own men. I guess they were just triggerhappy.”

Their nostalgic reverie was interrupted by the appearance of a Spaniard. After much gesturing and muttering in broken Spanish and pidgin English, it turned out that he wanted to know why they were trespassing on his property. “We are brigadistas,” offered Maurice Constant, not quite sure what sort of reaction this information will provoke. The Spaniard smiled but did not embrace them. It seems he was a colonel with the Moroccan Legion. He fought at Jarama too, but on the other side.

Almost everywhere they went, the vets were reminded that they lost the war. The most depressing part of the trip was a visit to the Valley of the Fallen, a massive crypt blasted into the side of the foothills of the Guadarrama Mountains. Franco had this monument to the Fascists’ dead built between 1942 and 1949, using republican prisoners of war as laborers. The generalissimo himself, who died in 1975, is buried here and, as the Canadians filed past the stone marking his remains, several of the men’s lips were tightly pursed. Harold Sparks broke the tension of selfrestraint by stamping his foot down on the gold lettering; his wife silently took his hand. Bill Beeching of Regina aimed his camera at the sombre gathering. “Look over here,” he said. “I want to record your grief.” “Not bloody likely,” muttered George Solomon through clenched teeth.

But the purpose of the tour was not only to relive memories, both good and bad. The veterans were carrying with them specially made plaques, showing an International Brigades insignia superimposed on a maple leaf and bearing the inscription “Los Canadienses 1979,” to present to various Spanish groups. On the evening of Aug.

30, the Mac-Paps climbed into taxis and headed across Madrid to a large, stuffy apartment where they met with the association of Ex-Presos—former prisoners of Franco and their families. The air in the three rooms quickly became stifling and it was difficult to tell whether it was because of the sweat or the tears. The Spanish government recently passed legislation making republican soldiers eligible for pensions, but the ex-prisoners’ organization is still illegal.

The roasted almonds, the bread and spicy sausages and the plentiful supply of wine were almost ignored as the Spaniards and Canadians threw their arms around each other and kissed. Len Norris of Vancouver managed to quiet down the 100 people present long enough to present the plaque, but it took him a while to overcome the din of applause to get to the real point of his speech: the Canadians have collected $500 to help the ex-prisoners and their families. Gabriel Salinas, a Spaniard who fought at Jarama with the Internationals and who spent 20 years in jail, accepted the money order with shaky hands. The flowery sentiment that the Spaniards had used in all their welcoming speeches until now deserts him; he cuts his speech short with a simple “muchos gracias, compañeros y compañeras.”

The Canadians went on from Madrid to Albacete, the headquarters of the International Brigades, and to Teruel in eastern Spain, where they had suffered their heaviest losses. As the bus wound its way through the mountains to Teruel and flattened out into the valley below, George Fiwchuk of Toronto turned to his seatmate and said, “I’m glad to see that the land is fields again. It’ll make it easier to bury me.” Warned by his doctor not to make the trip because of a serious heart condition, Fiwchuk had insisted on returning to Spain. And in Teruel the warning became a reality; Fiwchuk suffered a fatal heart attack. He was buried in the town’s graveyard, beside 80 Canadians who had lost their lives in the 1937 battle he had fought and survived.

When the International Brigades left Spain in 1939, they were given a farewell by republican-supporter Dolores Ibárruri. Now just retired, at 84, from her seat as a Communist deputy in the Spanish parliament, “La Pasionaria” (as she was called because of her deeply felt orations) had told the departing soldiers, “When the olive tree of peace brings forth its leaves again, come back to us.” For the 30 Canadians, her invitation had been fulfilled. For one, Spain would be his last resting place.