The three years of the Spanish Civil War, my mother says, were the worst of our lives. But they were nothing compared to what your father, whom I didn\’t meet until after the war, went through. He was twenty-two when the war began, and he was already earning a living as a violinist. He loved music more than anything else in the world.
When the war broke out, he was living with his parents in their apartment in Barcelona–it was normal for grown-up children to stay with their parents until they married. Also living in that apartment were his two younger sisters, and his older brother and his wife, who was from Mexico. Also the maid, whom the family had taken in long ago as a young orphan. And sometime during those years the older brother and his wife had two baby boys, so there were ten people living together.
Your father had gone to a Catholic school and had belonged to a Catholic youth organization. This was enough to make him a target of the anarchists, the Reds, and anybody who wanted revenge for the abuses committed by the Church, the bourgeoisie, and so on. People betrayed each other all the time, from principle, envy, or resentment.
For example, one night the militias came to the house of one of his school friends. He hid under the sofa but they dragged him out and put him on a truck and carried him away to be shot. But he was a very charming man, and he managed to make friends with the guard–offered him a cigarette and chatted with him–and the guard let him jump off the back of the truck and make his way back home in the dark.
Your father\’s brother was safe because he was married to a Mexican woman, and Mexico was on the side of the Republican government. But there is no question that your father would have been killed if people had known where he was, so for three years he had to hide in the apartment. At one point the owner of the building, afraid for his own life if it became known that he was sheltering someone, asked the family to leave. So they moved to a different apartment, and that was the only time, from 1936 to 1939, that your father went outside.
Not only did he have to stay indoors and keep away from the windows, but he couldn\’t play the violin, or even speak in a normal tone of voice. He had to walk as quietly as he could. He was healthy and young and full of energy, and he could do nothing to defend himself or to help his family except to turn himself into a ghost–and paint buttons. At that time, women\’s dresses were decorated with large buttons made of tagua, a plant material that looks like ivory. So your father, who had always been good at drawing, earned a few pesetas painting tiny scenes on buttons.
For three years, crammed together in that apartment, the family starved. We, on the other hand, my mother says, shifting to her own family, were never really hungry, since we lived on a farm. We could grow vegetables–even in the winter there were always cabbages–and my mother kept rabbits and chickens, although the soldiers on the way to the front would often take them. They didn\’t take the pigeons, however, so we ate a lot of pigeon, which nobody liked.
But if you live in a city and there is a war, you are helpless. Food was almost impossible to find in Barcelona. Before going to bed at night your father would drink lots of water at the kitchen spigot, so that his empty stomach wouldn\’t keep him awake.
The war finally ended with Franco\’s \”liberation\” of Barcelona. There was a big parade and your father went to see it with his sister. It was the first time he\’d been outdoors in three years. I guess he was dazed by the sun and the noise, but when Franco\’s car drove past he forgot to raise his hand in the fascist salute. He was immediately picked up and led away to be interrogated. Thousands of suspected Communist sympathizers were being executed by Franco\’s forces in the days after the war, and he would have been too, except that the family mobilized everyone they knew, including one influential Catholic industrialist, to vouch for him, and he was released.
One day soon after that, your father and his brother were out looking for food, which was still very hard to get, and they found (or they may have stolen) a big sack of beans. They were so weak that between the two of them they barely managed to drag it back to the apartment. All the Benejams ate beans for months, which is why, my mother says, smiling, after he and I married we never ate beans again. Or pigeon.
(To be continued.)