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My Mother Says…continued

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Last fall I began retelling here my mother\’s memories of growing up in a Catalan village in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War.  You can catch up on those posts here:

When the story resumes, it is 1936, and my mother is forced to abandon her law studies at the University of Valencia because of the start of the Civil War.  I cannot even begin here to summarize the social, political and economic forces that led to that bloody three-year conflict, widely regarded by historians as a rehearsal for the Second World War.  Suffice it to say that purges, reprisals, summary executions, betrayals, wholesale destruction of centuries of art and architecture, and unspeakable atrocities were committed by both sides–the insurgents led by General Franco, and the communist-backed, democratically-elected Republican government.  If you are interested, George Orwell\’s Homage to Catalonia offers an in-depth, first-hand account of the early months of the war.

I was studying law at the University of Valencia, my mother says.  I was the first girl from my village to leave home to be educated, and I still cannot believe that my mother let me go.  Of course, I was carefully watched.  I stayed in a convent, and every morning one of the nuns walked me to my classes and then back to the convent.

I studied Roman law, canon law, political economy, civil law…but then the war began and the convent was burned and I had to go home.  I was eighteen years old.

The beginning of the war was a time of terror.  As a landowner, my mother continues, my father was at risk of being dragged out at night by anarchists and shot in a ditch, as many were.  But because he had always had liberal ideas, and because as a vet he had often cared without charge for the donkeys and mules of farmers who were too poor to pay, he was always warned when a purge was coming, and he would hide in the fields while my mother stayed in the house to keep it from being burned.  (My mother doesn\’t explain how my grandmother\’s presence in the house would cause it to be spared, but perhaps even the most rabid anarchists had a taboo against burning a house with a woman in it.)

I was afraid every minute of the three years the war lasted.  Summer and winter, night and day, when the planes flew over on the way to the front, we ran to hide in a ditch near the house.  We wore a small stick tied to a string around our necks, and we bit on it when the bombs fell close by, to keep the blast from bursting our eardrums.  My parents, my two younger sisters, and my little brother and I sat in the ditch in a fetal position, so that if we were hit we would be killed instead of maimed…The constant noise from the airplanes and the bombs and the anti-aircraft guns made me feel that I was losing my mind. I would gladly have committed myself to a life of poverty if that could have brought about peace.

I learned very early that all nations are capable of cruelty.  I also learned that human kindness is not defined by political allegiance.  As prosperous, middle class landowners, we were in danger from the communist troops on their way to the front, which was close to our village.  They did take our car, and they demanded wine and chickens.  Their espadrilles were soaked in fascist blood.   But those same soldiers shared their bread with us, and on the eve of what was expected to be an especially fierce battle they helped us to dig a shelter out in the field and camouflage it with branches, so we would not be killed by the retreating communists.  We slept in that shelter for a whole week, in December.

You know what was the saddest thing?  Towards the end of the war, the Republican government was running out of men, so they started drafting fifteen and sixteen-year-old boys who barely knew how to fire a gun, and sending them to the front.  People called them la quinta del biberon, the baby-bottle draftees.

All this time, I kept falling in love with Republican soldiers (not that they ever knew it), even though I knew that they would probably soon be killed in battle.  Of course, my mother reassures me, I had not met your father yet.  He was in Barcelona, and for him the war was even worse than it was for me.

(To be continued)

4 Responses

  1. My mother's sisters are alive and, if not exactly kicking, doing remarkably well, in Barcelona. Her brother died some years ago. They were exciting and entertaining presences in my childhood, and I missed them terribly after we left Spain.

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