On Montjuic, a majestic mountain overlooking the sea in Barcelona, is situated the most fashionable cemetery in the city where prominent business people, high government officials and members of the nobility are buried. Everybody knows where it is.
On Sundays and holidays Rolls-Royces and Mercedes-Benzes fill the lanes around the burial plots. On a sheltered side of the same mountain is an area most people know nothing about. It looks like a collapsed quarry, a flat field surrounded by rock and sand faces where lie, or are memorialized, veterans of the International Brigades, the soldiers from Spain and many other countries who fought against Franco in the Civil War.
There is also a monument to Lluis Companys (pron. com `ponch ) who was once President of Catalonia. On the opposite side of the wide field is a monument to the victims of the Holocaust placed there by the Jewish community of Barcelona. Our host and guide, Gabriel Jackson, who once taught history at Knox College, took us there on a sunny morning in April. Not a single person nor car was to be seen. The atmosphere was one of perfect calm and peace. Our conversation was interspersed with long periods of silence.
On April 14, 1931, the Spanish Republic came into being and on April 12th of the same year a municipal election was won by the Republicans a victory which practically everyone at the time accepted as a plebiscite, against the monarch of Alfonso XIII. The Spanish Civil War which followed is a story personally remembered by many in Spain and by now known to all. Catalonia, to which George Orwell paid homage, was thought to have been a stronghold against Franco and his Fascist forces supported by Hitler and Mussolini.
The names of many Catalan soldiers who fell in that war are engraved on a line of pillars at the top of a long staircase leading to the cemetery. Along one border of the field is a monument in Japanese style a rainbow arch rising from a reflecting pool to President Companys, who escaped to France at the collapse of the Republican resistance. There he was arrested by the Nazis when he went to visit his retarded son in the hospital and returned to Spain where Franco had him shot.
We wandered among the graves of the old veterans. The names were Spanish, Catalan, German, Israeli and English. I failed to find an American name. Everyone in Spain nowadays is quiet about the founding of the Republic and about this cemetery because the Right doesn't wish to remember them and the Left doesn't want to rock the boat.
Jackson thinks this silence is wise because the present monarchy represents, in fact, the triumph of the democracy the Republic hoped to bring to Spain.
The Holocaust memorial consists of a group of stones roughly cut from the mountain and placed in irregular rows before a larger central stone. Each bears a too-familiar name: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Birkenau and Treblinka. On the larger stone is a message condemning the racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism that caused such inhumanity. The inscription is in Hebrew, English, Catalan and Spanish. It is a moving memorial, placed there by the Jewish community of Barcelona, which numbers only about 7,000. Their message deserves litanying repetition: No Oblidem. Do Not Forget.
Last November the veterans of the Spanish Republican Army held a reunion 60 years after the war, which included members of the International Brigades as well as many sympathizers. In all there are about 1,000 members of the Brigades still alive, 200 of whom are Americans. The average age of those who came to Barcelona was 83 years.
We asked our friend Gabe, who is the most distinguished historian of the Spanish Civil War, how many Jews were in the Republican Army. He told us that the International Brigades numbered about 40,000 of whom it's now estimated that about 20 percent were of Jewish origin, but mostly, in fact, not religious. At the time they didn't identify themselves ethnically but rather as "workers," "students" and "seamen." Three decades later the vogue of ethnicity combined with the desire to rebut accusations that the Jews hadn't physically resisted Hitler, led to research to find out how many Jews had served in the Brigades.
On the days of the reunion in November, perhaps the last triumphant celebration of the Left in the 20th century, this silent, peaceful, overlooked cemetery was mobbed to overflowing with veterans and well-wishers.
Many things came to mind during our visit. Though the United States is now a vast superpower, it was not altogether evident in the late 1930s and early 40s that western democracy would triumph over the forces of dictatorship. Those who lie in the Montjuic graveyard and those remembered there, whether they died in battle or in extermination camps, went to their deaths striving for a noble ideal whose success was by no means clear at the time. As the lucky ones who have lived to the end of the century, we can depart with the knowledge (not certain to them) that they have not died in vain.
The young men from Europe and America who gave their lives in the struggle against
Fascism were idealists all. Many were socialists and communists. Many were like
Hemingway's Robert Jordan, (in For Whom The Bell Tolls) who felt that the loss of
liberty anywhere was the loss of liberty everywhere. They died, as the Spanish say, full
of illusions. They were young, innocent, and caught up in a historic moment whose far
reaching implications they could not foresee, but who, even at this remote time, deserve
our homage in the tear we shed that day in April on Montjuic.