Friday, May 05, 2006

An Easter walk to Spain

by Dolly Shaer

During the Easter week-end about 70 men and women went to Perpignan in France and then over the Pyrenees to Figueres in Spain.
The walk was to commemorate and celebrate the way so many of the men and women went to defend the legally elected Spanish Republican government’s fight against the fascist Franco, who was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. They went by train and then climbed over the mountains between France and Spain.
That was 70 years ago in 1936 which was also the year the International Brigades were formed.
The commemoration walk started on Good Friday with a gathering at the National Memorial to the International Brigaders in Jubilee Gardens, London.
We travelled to Perpignan by train as the original fighters did. On Saturday we gathered at the memorial plaque to the Republican fighters at Super-las-Illas on the French side.
A wreath in the Republican colours was laid. There were speeches: one by Serge Barba of the FFREEE (Sons and daughters of Spanish Republicans and Children of the Exodus). This is an organisation of Republicans who fled Spain in 1939 and were never able to return.
After refreshments the walk began. Some walked 10 kilometres and some 15k. A few of us were taken up by mini bus to the frontier between France and Spain at Coll de Mannell.
We had three Brigaders with us: Jack Jones, 93 years old, Jack Edwards 92 and Bob Doyle 90 years old. All of them had gone over these mountains to join the fight.
At the border there is a Monument to Lluis Companys who was the Catalan President during the Republic. He went to France as a refugee and was captured by the Nazis and sent back to Spain and, on the orders of Franco, was executed in Barcelona in 1940. There were speeches and a wreath was laid. We then continued on to Figueres by coach.
On Sunday morning we went to the Castell de Sant Ferran. This is the castle where the Brigaders coming over the mountain were taken after their crossing and started their training. A commemorative plaque was unveiled and a wreath was laid. The plaque is in four languages: French, English, Spanish and Catalan. A meeting was held in the castle with speeches and songs.
At these various places throughout the visit the group was joined by local mayors, dignitaries and representatives of towns and villages and government, who made speeches and welcomed us. There were also representatives of organisations with similar aims as the International Brigades Memorial Trust, the Spanish Amigos and the German Association of the Friends of the International Brigade.
On reflection it is difficult to believe how those men managed that climb up those sheer wooded mountain sides in Alpargatas, in silence joined either by a hand on the shoulder of the man in front or a string connecting each person – in the pitch dark.
It took all night and was fraught with danger. My father had to do it twice because near the top they were fired on and so they had to go down and back up the next night.
I personally found it a very moving experience. The majority of them had never been further south than Brighton; most of them did not speak another language. They had to deal with the CID at Victoria station as they were leaving for their “week-end in Paris” and then the French police through France.
But there are many stories of the French working class showing their solidarity while their governments showed only their Non-intervention betrayal.