SEX, SPIES AND BETHUNE’S SECRET
She was a dancer—tall, Swedish and beautiful—and she was the real reason Bethune had to get out of Spain, as MICHAEL PETROU reveals for the first time
EARLY IN 1937, as the Spanish Civil War raged around the besieged city of Madrid and explosions rumbled in nearby streets, a stunningly beautiful woman walked into the headquarters of the Spanish-Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit and asked to speak with its director: Canadian doctor Norman Bethune. The woman said her name was Kajsa and claimed to be a Swedish journalist. She was thin, with a small face and long, strawberry-blond hair. She stood nearly six feet tall and towered over the doctor she had come to interview. But the two felt a connection and disappeared into a bedroom for two days. Bethune’s young assistant, Ted Allan, stumbled upon the pair naked in bed. Occasionally, Bethune emerged to make his rounds. He said the journalist was conducting an in-depth interview.
Kajsa stayed at the blood transfusion unit for weeks, perhaps months. But she was not the only journalist to visit Bethune. The doctor courted many reporters, and his fame grew. Canadians, reading about his exploits in their own newspapers, were entranced. Here was one of their own, a romantic rogue who ferried blood throughout the assaulted city of Madrid, where the fascist enemy pounded at the gates and civilian soldiers armed with hunting rifles and Molotov cocktails kept them out. The vehicles delivering blood were emblazoned with the name “Canada.” Canadians at home had never seen such overt fervour before, and they liked it. Thousands sent money.
But Bethune left Spain abruptly in early April, 1937. Two years later, he died in China of blood poisoning, serving with Mao Zedong’s Communist Eighth Route Army, which was fighting the Japanese who had invaded their country. The Canadian doctor became a national hero in China and, much later, in Canada as well. Schools and colleges are named after Bethune. Last year, CBC viewers voted him the 26th greatest Canadian of all time.
Despite Bethune’s global profile, the details of his time in Spain, where he first became internationally famous, remain shrouded in mystery. Specifically, why did he leave Spain, a country he once called “the centre of the world,” in its darkest hour, with Madrid surrounded by fascist troops and the outcome of the civil war still undecided?
Today, Maclean’s can reveal the answer to a mystery that has been hidden for more than 60 years, locked up in the secret archives
of the Soviet Communist International: Norman Bethune did not choose to leave Spain. He was forced out by officials in the Spanish government who accused him of treachery and espionage, and of consorting with a traitor and suspected fascist—the Swedish blond journalist and dancer who was his lover.
IN 1936, a Spanish general named Francisco Franco, backed by the armed might of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, led a military rebellion against Spain’s democratically elected, left-leaning government. The revolt began that July in Spanish Morocco and spread across mainland Spain. But in much of the country the people resisted.
They threw up barricades and crashed speeding taxis into army machine-gun nests. They halted the coup d’état, and Spain was plunged into civil war.
For thousands of Canadians suffering through years of economic depression, Spain became a beacon. Fascism was advancing around the world, and the Western democracies were doing nothing to stop it. Benito Mussolini marched unopposed into Abyssinia in North Africa. Adolf Hitler was railing against Jews in Germany. Britain, the United States and France sought only to appease them. But in Spain—finally—workers, farmers, liberals, democrats, anarchists and Communists had made a stand. Eventually, some 40,000 volunteers from all over world, including 1,600 Canadians, flocked to Spain to fight for the Spanish government.
Most Canadians in Spain came from the ranks of those hit hardest by the Great Depression. Some 80 per cent were immigrants to Canada. Almost all were poor. They had spent years riding across the country atop swaying boxcars in search of work in relief camps and on road crews and farms, sleeping in hobo jungles and urban flophouses. Fighting in Spain offered these Canadians both a way out and a chance to fight back.
Norman Bethune was different.
He came from a wealthy family. By 1936, he was already a renowned thoracic surgeon and something of dandy on the Montreal social scene, even though he was both a committed leftist and a closet Communist. But Bethune was stifled and frustrated in Canada. Hazen Sise, a Canadian architect who had been living in London and who worked closely with Bethune in Spain, said that prior to the war, Bethune was “a man with a load of impatience, an angry man contemptuous of a society that seemed indifferent to suffering that he believed could be eradicated by political and economic means.”
Bethune was enraged to see his patients leave the hospital healthy, only to fall ill again because of the grinding poverty in which they lived. He believed that in Spain people were fighting for a society where this would change. Desperate to get there, he appealed to friends for money and he offered his services to the Red Cross, without success. Eventually, Bethune got money from the Committee THE TRUTH ABOUT BETHUNE’S DEPARTURE WAS CONCEALED FOR DECADES BY THE COLD WAR
to Aid Spanish Democracy, a fundraising and lobby group run by members of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Communist Party of Canada. Graham Spry, a leading member of the CCF, was his contact at the committee.
Bethune sailed from Quebec City and arrived in Madrid on Nov. 3, 1936—the eve of Franco’s offensive against the Spanish capital. Waiting for the doctor was Henning Sorensen, a Danish-born Canadian who had gone to Spain as a newspaper correspondent and had promised Spry he would research the republic’s medical needs while he was in Madrid. Sorensen was a leftist, but he was also a perpetually restless type, always seeking out new things to learn and experience. “Maybe I was an adventurer,” he said many years later.
“Maybe I was bored, needed some excitement. I was not Jesus Christ.”
Sorensen had agreed to show Bethune around Madrid. For the next few days, the two visited various hospitals to find out if Bethune could join their staff. None of the doctors could give Bethune more than vague commitments, and most told him to come back later.
At one point, Bethune was offered a job at a military base, but he decided he didn’t like the man in charge. “I couldn’t work with that bastard,” he told Sorensen. “Let’s get out of here.”
It is possible that in the chaos of a city under attack, Bethune was simply unable to find a hospital or medical service that could make use of his skills. But it is also likely that he wanted an assignment with a higher profile and more potential for fame. All those who knew Bethune in Spain describe him as passionate and vain, with tremendous energy and little patience. Sorensen recalls Bethune complaining: “You don’t give me enough importance when you introduce me.”
Bethune eventually found his purpose while sitting across a small table from Sorensen as the pair travelled by rail to Valencia. “Henning, I’ve got it!” he said, slapping the table with his hand as the train creaked and rolled across a landscape covered with grape vines and olive trees. Bethune described a blood transfusion service that would bring blood to soldiers at the front. Previously, wounded soldiers needing blood would wait for hours or days, until they could be transported over broken roads to hospitals far behind the lines. Often they would bleed to death on the way.
The pair quickly got approval from Spanish officials and from the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, which was funding their mission. Then, joined by Sise, they established their headquarters in Madrid and began supplying desperately needed blood to soldiers and civilians in the war-torn city and surrounding
battlegrounds. Bethune even made maps so the work could be done as efficiently as possible.
The Spanish government had already made remarkable advances in blood transfusion work since the outbreak of the conflict. But Bethune crucially perceived the value of bringing blood where it was needed. His blood transfusion unit was mobile, which made all the difference in saving lives. And in a city under siege, the very act of donating blood gave Madrid’s citizens an opportunity to show their solidarity with the soldiers protecting them. The blood transfusion unit became a symbol of their defiance.
But problems soon developed at the unit’s headquarters. Ted Allan, who first knew Bethune in Montreal, says that when he arrived at the unit early in 1937, the doctor was beginning to unravel. Bethune told his old friend that a couple of lazy opportunists or even Franco sympathizers were working with him—and that he had resorted to Scotch whisky as a means of dealing with them. “There were times I had loved him because he had been truly magnificent. There were times I hated him because he hadn’t measured up to my ideal hero,” Allan wrote years later. “I also remembered the night when Bethune, infuriated by the doctor with whom he’d had all the problems, gulped four straight whiskies, got drunk and smashed his fist through the front-door window.”
Problems intensified in March 1937, as the Spanish Republican government reorganized and took control of the many ad hoc groups that had hitherto flourished in the chaos of the war’s early months, including the Canadian blood transfusion unit. Bethune recoiled from the government-imposed control and bureaucracy, which cramped his style and autonomy. He left the unit for days at a time. He fought with top military brass. He sneered at authority. He drank. Despite all this, four of the doctors who worked with him in Spain later remembered Bethune with great respect. He was brave to the point of reckless. And his conviction about the antifascist cause was beyond reproach.
But on April 19,1937, Bethune wrote a letter of resignation to the chief of military health, in which he said he was leaving because the blood transfusion unit was now functioning well under Spanish control, and he was no longer needed. “In view of the fact that the Instituto Hispano-Canadiense de Transfusion de Sangre as conceived by me in January is now operating as an efficient, wellorganized institute, and as part of the Sanidad Militar, it is clear to me that my function as chief of the organization here in Spain has come to a natural end,” the letter said.
Over the years many have questioned this version of events. It made little sense that Bethune would choose to leave Spain with war still raging around him. But the truth about Bethune’s departure was concealed for decades by the Cold War.
THE SOVIET Union, through the Communist International and national Communist parties around the world, organized and funded the international volunteers who fought in Spain—even though many of the volunteers were not Communists themselves. Moscow also exercised enormous influence over the Spanish government, through members who belonged to the Communist Party of Spain. Bethune’s blood transfusion unit contained a Communist cell, and the doctor himself was a member of the party.
When the war ended, hundreds of thousands of documents pertaining to foreigners in Spain, including files on Bethune, were spirited away to Moscow, where they remained locked and hidden from Western scholars for more than 50 years. These archives have now been opened. Together with the archived diaries of Hazen Sise and Henning Sorensen, they reveal the true story of Norman ‘WE ALWAYS OBSERVED HIS GREAT INTEREST IN GOING TO THE FRONT,’ A REPORT NOTED
Bethune’s departure from a country he didn’t want to leave, and a war he would have died fighting.
The first hints of serious trouble between Bethune and Spanish authorities emerge in the diaries of Sise and the personal papers of Sorensen. On April 6,1937, Sise wrote in his diary: “Got Beth to agree to get out.” A similar day-by-day recollection by Sorensen confirms that on the same date, “We persuaded Beth to leave.” Bethune did leave Spain a few weeks later. But he wanted to come back. In May, he tried to return to establish a home for orphans, but he was stopped by Spanish authorities and his Canadian co-workers. By July, Bethune was so determined and desperate to return that he planned to join the International Brigades, a fighting unit, at the advanced age of 47.
But Communist authorities in the Spanish government did not want Bethune to come back.
A Spanish official named Juan Alcientara wrote to his superiors and explained why Bethune must be kept out of the country at all costs. The contents of this letter have never before been published. Alcientara wrote that Bethune had been expelled from Spain “in a clever way,” with co-operation from his Canadian co-workers, so as not to jeopardize funding from thousands of Canadians who were sending money to support Bethune’s transfusion unit.
Alcientara then listed Bethune’s alleged crimes:
“For being immoral, among other things, he frequently got drunk and was never in a condition to lead a mission as delicate as blood transfusion.
“He took jewellery under the pretext that he was going to hand them over... and then said he would sell it in Paris to raise funds for the Institute, without anyone knowing to date what he did with those objects.
“He happily squandered money without thinking that it came from the solidarity that the Canadian proletariat was showing to Spain and that in many cases this involved collecting cent by cent.
“We always observed his great interest in going to the Front whenever there were operations; but never with the good purpose of making transfusions.”
Here Alcientara levels his most damning accusation against Bethune:
“There is much suspicion that Bethune may be a spy according to a report that is already in the Central Committee of our Party and in the Headquarters of Military Health,” he writes. Alcientara finishes his report by noting that Bethune had frequent visits with a “suspicious” woman he identifies as “Tajsa,” but was, in fact, Kajsa, Bethune’s Swedish lover. Kajsa’s name appears on another document, first uncovered by historian Larry Hannant. An unnamed Spanish official suggested Kajsa might be a spy because she made unauthorized trips to the front lines, where she gathered material for detailed military-style maps—an accusation he made against Bethune as well. The report’s author also implied Kajsa had loose morals.
It is tempting to think that this Spanish official might have been simply taken aback by the Swedish woman’s brazen confidence and overt sexuality, and consequently felt justified suggesting she might be a spy. But a report on Kajsa appears more ominously in a file kept by the Servicio de Investigación Militar, the feared Spanish secret police who ultimately answered to the Soviets and who carried out numerous clandestine arrests and murders of politically “suspicious” individuals. She was identified by the full name of Kajsa Helin Rothman and was described as a former opera diva, a former governess in Sweden and now a “Trotskyist”—a label synonymous with being a traitor in the eyes of the Spanish security
services. In case any doubt about her loyalty remained, her secret police file noted that she “had relations with fascist circles in Valencia and Barcelona.”
Kajsa Rothman was, in fact, neither a spy nor a governess, but an entertainer and dancer who toured Europe before her manager ran off and left her penniless. She was working in Spain as a travel agent when the war broke out, and subsequently turned to journalism. But none of this mattered at the time. Spanish authorities viewed her as a possible traitor. And their knowledge of Bethune’s intimate relations with the beautiful Swede would have cast the KAJSA’S SECRET POLICE FILE NOTED SHE ‘HAD RELATIONS WITH FASCIST CIRCLES’
same dark cloud of suspicion on himself.
The Canadian doctor was already politically suspect because of his maps, his drinking and, most likely, his temper. Bethune’s relations with Kajsa sealed his fate.
The most serious allegations made against Bethune, however, are rubbish. He is accused of spying, based on the flimsy logic that he made detailed maps of the front lines, taking careful note of distances and travel times. But Bethune’s job was to get blood to the front as quickly as possible—of course he wanted detailed maps. Lives depended on it. And his lover, Kajsa Rothman, was not a secret fascist. When Franco’s forces won the war, she did not welcome them but fled the country with hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who feared Franco’s reprisals. She found refuge in Mexico and died there 30 years later.
As for Bethune, he loved Spain and cared deeply for its fight against Franco. But in the end he was a victim of the anti-spy paranoia that swept the country in the midst of its civil war. He was passionate, vain, and possibly a drunk. But his only crimes were obsessing over how to get blood to dying soldiers as quickly as possible, and falling for a beautiful and exotic woman.
It is unlikely Bethune’s co-workers knew Spanish authorities suspected he was a spy. But they understood the doctor had to leave Spain. His headstrong independence, passion, and contempt for authority—the very personality traits that allowed him to flourish in the chaos of Madrid under siege—caused Bethune to flounder when he became a cog in a much larger military bureaucracy.
Along with their Spanish hosts, Bethune’s co-workers nonetheless realized they could not outright expel Bethune without risking losing funding from Canada. They shrewdly conspired to remove Bethune from Spain “in a clever way,” as Alcientara said, with a minimal amount of negative publicity and without revealing the real reasons he had to go. That the circumstances of his departure remained hidden for more than 60 years, and that Bethune himself was ignorant of the machinations against him, indicates how successful they were.
SPAIN left Bethune drained and emotionally crushed. In a letter to his ex-wife, he called the country “a scar on my heart.” Clearly it was a scar that never healed. Bethune tried twice to come back— and failed both times.
Michael Petrou is writing a doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford on Canadians in the Spanish Civil War
But the Spanish Civil War also intensified Bethune’s almost
personal vendetta against fascism. Six months after leaving Spain, as he prepared to leave for China, Bethune wrote a farewell letter to “Elizabeth,” a former lover. It seems he was mentally preparing himself for a final and possibly fatal mission. “My road ahead is a strange and dangerous one,” he wrote. “You cannot come with me. I don’t want to attempt in my time—and in my time left—any serious emotional engagement. I am through with such things. Now you can think about me kindly and sweetly. Do so. I loved you once. I have great affection for you now. Remember me as I will you—with quietness and respect.” fïl