Tag: Basque refugee children

September 22, 1956: First ship to repatriate Basque refugees from Soviet Union sets sail

On September 22, 1956 a ship carrying refugees from the Spanish Civil War, principally from the Basque Country, set sail from the port of Odessa in the then Soviet Union, bound for Valencia. Many of the refugees had spent nearly twenty years in exile, and most had left as children.

We have posted previously on the plight of Basque refugee children fleeing the effects of the bloody civil war in the 1930s: on the anniversary of the famous 1937 evacuation from Santurtzi, Bizkaia, on the Basque Children of ’37 UK association, and on the tireless work of individuals like Dame Elizabeth Leah Manning to ensure these children found sanctuary from the horrors of war. Today, however, we remember an equally significant date: that moment, twenty years later, when some of those children, now adults, were allowed to return to the Basque Country, despite the dictatorship in Spain.

While many of the other Basque children exiled in countries like the UK, Belgium, and Switzerland had been allowed to return through the 1940s, those that had been evacuated to Stalin’s Soviet Union were regarded with the utmost suspicion by the Franco regime. Only Stalin’s death in 1953 and the gradual reincorporation of Spain into the international political fold allowed for a slight relaxing of relations between the two countries. This led, in turn, to an agreement on the part of the Franco regime to allow the exiles back, although as noted it was nearly twenty years since many of them had fled.

Despite being reunited with their families, after up to twenty years in exile, readapting to life back in the Basque Country was by no means straightforward for the refugees. For many of the “Russians,” as they were called, life in the Franco regime was hard, and they even ran into hostility and suspicion both on the part of the public authorities and the general public. Some even went back to the Soviet Union, which had in their opinion treated them better.

This date, then, serves to reinforce the tremendous impact of war, violence, and displacement on modern and contemporary Basque society.

If you are interested in the broader impact of conflict on modern Basque history, check out War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott (description and free download here); Basque Nationalism and Political Violence by Cameron Watson; Our Wars: Short Fiction on Basque Conflicts, edited by Mikel Ayerne Sudupe; Empire & Terror: Nationalism/Postnationalism in the New Millennium, edited by Begoña Aretxaga, Dennis Dworkin, Joseba Gabilondo, and Joseba Zulaika (description and free download here); and States of Terror, by Begoña Aretxaga.

Refugees Welcome, 1937

Today we are delighted to include a guest post by Iñaki Azkarraga, a friend of the Center and keen observer of all things Bilbao. Thanks to contributors like Azkarraga and feedback from our readers, we hope to share the many stories and rich history of the Basques around the world. Eskerrik asko Iñaki!

In these times of sad wartime anniversaries, we come across some public gardens in Bilbao dedicated, precisely, to the memory of those people who reflect the best in humanity at the bloodiest of times. I am referring to Dame Elizabeth Leah Manning (1886-1977), an educationalist and sometime member of the British Parliament.

Eighty years ago, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, Bilbao was being bombed and on the point of being occupied by fascist troops. The Basque government appealed for international help in evacuating the refugees accumulating in growing numbers the city. Numerous negotiations were successful and senior citizens, women, and children began to be evacuated by sea to France, Belgium, the Soviet Union, Mexico, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

Some of these states had encouraged a policy of non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War, abandoning to fate a legitimate democratically-elected government. The British government position was paradigmatic in this regard. However, it was British public opinion, horrified at the news breaking about the bombing of civilians, which forced the government to take in Basque refugees.

This is the context in which the intrepid figure of Leah Manning emerged, a woman who stood up to both the British government and her own Labour Party–the cause of the “pro-Communist and anti-Catholic” Spanish Republic was viewed with some suspicion in many quarters in the UK–and became actively involved in the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief,  and presided over by another prominent woman, the conservative Katherine Marjory Stewart-Murray, Lady Atholl. A key factor in Leah Manning’s involvement was the fact that she had visited Gernika two days after it had been bombed in April 1937. This influenced her decision, definitively, to get involved in the evacuation of Basque children to her homeland, jointly with the Basque government’s Department for Social Assistance.

The task was by no means easy. The British government, with the exception of providing an armed escort in international waters for the humanitarian convoys leaving Bizkaia after March 1937, consistently refused to provide any public funding to help settle and support these refugees, entrusting all this to private initiatives. In order to do this, the Basque Children’s Committee was created with the aim of coordinating resources and raising funds through charity collections, donations by well-known people, and so on. Manning and others like her carried out a mammoth task. In the end, a camp was organized in Stoneham, Southampton, to receive 4,000 people. Thus, on May 20, 1937, once the corresponding official British government permission had been granted in extremis, the Habana ocean liner could set sail from the port of Santurtzi destined for the UK, with 3,861 children aboard, accompanied by medical, auxiliary, and teaching staff. This was one of the largest human convoys organized in one go at that time.

Once on land and after several days in Stoneham, the Basque children were sent off to different parts of the UK, in dozens of charitable groups and institutions that would look after them and monitor their health.

Barely a month later, on June 19, Bilbao fell into the hands of Franco’s army and from 1938 on, little by little, most of these Basque children gradually returned home. However, many also stayed on in the UK for the rest of their lives, or only returned as adults, like Raimundo Perez Lezama, who began his professional soccer career at Southampton and was later considered one of the best ever goalkeepers for Bilbao’s emblematic team, Athletic Club.

In sum, this is a story of solidarity and social mobilization during times of war.  Like today, there were refugees fleeing a conflict, but in the face of little action on the part of governments, they found a fitting response on the part of civil society and in the necessary leadership that, through people like Leah Manning, was capable of raising the humanitarian cause over any other consideration. I hope these words serve as a suitable tribute to this courageous person.

http://www.basquechildren.org/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leah_Manning

http://blogs.deia.com/historiasdelosvascos/2012/05/11/la-odisea-de-los-ninos-vascos-en-inglaterra/#more-102

https://errepublikaplaza.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/los-ninos-de-la-guerra-las-evacuaciones-infantiles-de-1937/

http://www.elcorreo.com/alava/sociedad/201705/07/ocho-dias-para-acoger-20170505173326.html

 

 

Santurtzi honors Basque refugee children on 80th anniversary of their evacuation

May 24 saw an emotional act marking the 80th anniversary (May 23) of the evacuation of more than 4,000 Basque children from the port of Santurtzi in Bizkaia as a result of the impending fall of Bilbao to Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War.  The act was organized by the Santurtzi City Council and Gogora: The Institute for Remembrance, Coexistence and Human Rights.

At around 1 pm the sirens of war once again symbolically sounded out in Santurtzi, as official representatives and the general public awaited the arrival of a group of people, all in their 80s and 90s and all former niños de la guerra,  aboard the Txinbito boat. As the senior citizens stepped ashore, local schoolchildren released a sea of white balloons as the public applauded.

Check out the BCA ’37 UK website, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of those children evacuated from the Basque Country.

Images courtesy of the BCA ’37 UK website.

See, too the following articles:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/22/the-reception-of-basque-refugees-in-1937-showed-britain-at-its-best-and-worst

https://theconversation.com/the-blockade-running-british-women-at-the-forefront-of-basque-evacuations-77676

British Peace Museum Hosts Basque Exhibition

The Peace Museum in Bradford, Yorkshire, is the only museum dedicated to the history and stories of peace, peacemakers, and peace movements in the UK. It is currently hosting an exhibition titled “Los Niños Vascos: Basque Children in Yorkshire 1937,” which opened on February 18 and runs until March (see a report on the opening event here).

Huddersfield plaque 2

Plaque commemorating Basque refugee children in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England. From the website of the Basque Children of ’37 Association.

The exhibition has been produced by the Basque Children of ’37 Association UK and tells the story of child refugees from the Spanish Civil War who were evacuated and brought to Britain. The opening event also included a screening of The Guernica Children, a film produced in association with the BC’37A and an informal Q/A session with Carmen Kilner of the Basque Association.

There is a short but moving account of the opening in local newspaper Telegraph &Argus: “Spanish Civil War Refugee is Guest of Honour,” which tells the story of Maria Luisa Incera, who escaped from Franco’s bombing of the Basques in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and fled to England as a refugee before settling and making a life for herself.

The latest book by the Center’s Xabier Irujo, Gernika, 1937: The Market Day Massacre, details the events that prefaced the need to evacuate children from the Basque Country during the Civil War.