Young people should know about history, warns Herminio Martínez, former child refugee from the Spanish civil war

Herminio Martínez, niño de la guerra

Herminio Martínez

By Bárbara Mulberry, El Colectivo Londres Magazine *

CHILDREN’s eyes record images that adults can’t see, enriching our understanding of history. Herminio Martínez was one of the young Basque children who in 1937 arrived in England after fleeing from the Spanish civil war. Their eyes saw everything. Now Herminio has recalled the story of his childhood, a story shared by many others who left Spain and came to Britain in search of a home.

“I live near Highgate cemetery. Do you know where it is? And do you know who is buried there?” This was how Herminio gave me directions when we arranged our interview, and his cosy flat is indeed just a stone’s throw from where Karl Marx lies.

Herminio was one of the 4,000 children who on May 21 1937 boarded a ship to set sail for Southampton. “It was a terrible crossing. We were 4,000 children in a ship for 400 passengers. I was seven and my brother 11. We slept on the floor. We ran into a storm in the Bay of Biscay and that was a horrifying situation, rolling on the floor, throwing up, and many kids crying out to go back to Bilbao with their parents…”

They arrived on May 23. Hundreds of people were waiting to welcome the children as the Salvation Army band played. But neither Catholic Church nor British government were so exalted. “The British government didn’t like us; it had refused to accept civil war refugees after signing a non-intervention pact. It said helping children meant there were fewer people to feed in Bilbao, and in this way they could better resist the franquistas.  So that would be to go against the pact.”

Herminio highlights the English people’s solidarity. “A support movement

Barco La Habana

Barco La Habana

 emerged among all English people, from workers to aristocracy, and set up a committee to help Basque children. Duchess Atholl was the president while Lady Cecilia Roberts ran a foster home in northern England.”

Then, Herminio explains, the Franco government started demanding the children be sent back. “In many cases the claims were false,” he says. “In the end, about 440 children were not demanded by anyone, some because their parents had died or were in prison and some others, like in my case, because their families didn’t have the resources to support them – my mother had five other children to feed.

“Some of us were taken in by British families. I was taken in when I was 10 by Methodist Christians from the Midlands. I started to go to school with them and to learn English. They were good to me but they had financial problems and they gave me back to the foster home.”

Suddenly, Herminio seems to need an answer before continuing with his story. “Are you Catholic?” he asks. When I reply that I am, he says: “Look, 100 teachers, some auxiliaries and 15 priests arrived with us from Spain. When some children were repatriated, the Catholic Church in England thought the priests should also return to Spain, even though some of them were in danger. I have a letter from a priest called Orbegozo, begging the bishop for a job here in England because someone had told him he would be killed if he went back to Spain. But the bishop’s answer was categorical: ‘Go back home!’”

I ask what happened to the priest, and discover that Orbegonzo did indeed return to Spain, but nothing more is known of him.

Herminio speaks an excellent Spanish: rich in vocabulary and with an accent made in Spain. His knowledge of the history that he lived through is understandable, but the rest… who brought up him?

“I was in eight different foster homes and with all these travels was impossible to bring up. And I also began to work when I was 14. Our upbringing was terrible, but on the other side we were lucky. We spent a lot of time with young Republican intellectuals who had arrived in England when the war finished, people such as Luis Portillo (father of the Conservative politician Michael Portillo) and the journalist Marcelino Sánchez.”

“What did they live on?” I ask. “From the little money they earned to stay with us. And from some casual work: peeling potatoes, washing dishes…” War, even when it doesn’t ruin lives, interrupts careers. Luis Portillo, for example, had been Professor of Civil Law in Salamanca since 1934, but war turned him into a poorly-paid potato peeler.

The intellectual and political activity of these young Republicans included Herminio and the other children, who grew up under the influence of publications such as Mundo Obrero (Workers’ World) or El Socialista (The Socialist). “The English press, for example The Daily Herald, also reported the Spanish situation. Sometimes there were even demonstrations and protests outside the Embassy’s door.”

Juan Negrín

Juan Negrín

Herminio also remembers with special affection Juan Negrín, the last Republican president. “He was very good to us. He founded the Hogar Español (“Spanish Home”), a centre where refugees were taken in. We organised some parties, meetings and cultural activities. Negrín set up grants so that Republican youngsters could study too.”

Herminio also remembers another side of the Civil War: Republican soldiers who had crossed to France. “Their lives were hugely difficult. They had to join the French army in order not to be repatriated to Spain, where they would have been put in prison or killed. The French army used them as shock troops against Germany.”

Our interviewee is a mine of memories, and we move forward in time to the 1960s and 70s and economic migration from Spain. “Spain’s poorest arrived to survive as they could. They did the jobs the English people didn’t want: cleaning, food industry, agriculture… They didn’t have a choice because the British government forced them to accept any job for five years and thereafter they could do whatever they wanted.”

“What is the difference between that generation and yours?” I ask. “War children had a bigger cultural development. Economic emigrants were illiterate. Even now there are some of them learning to read and write in the adults’ social centre where we meet up.”

The young Spanish professionals who have arrived in London in recent years certainly can read and write, but Herminio believes we lack other qualities.  “You are materialist and you don’t have the cultural basis you should have. We are richer in experiences, while you are not open-minded. You have no political interests. At university you learn without asking yourself what you are studying. Today’s young generation should know history. They should know what happened.” His tone of voice is firm yet friendly. I observe him in silence and can see how he frightened away evils on his own. “Many pages of our history have been torn out but now they are starting to be known.”

* This article has been translated and adapted from the original, which appeared in El Colectivo Londres Magazine. To read the full version in Spanish, click here.


May 20, 2010 Posted by | History | Leave a comment

Moor to it than meets the eye

La Alhambra

“THERE’s no fate worse than being blind in Granada,” a Spanish saying goes. But not all eyes can read what they see.

Granada’s incredible Alhambra, probably the most famous monument in all of Spain, has long been an object of fascination for historians, writers, artists and people in general.

Yet this beautiful palace-fortress still hides thousands of secrets, in particular the Arabic inscriptions that were written centuries ago. In fact, efforts to translate and interpret these inscriptions began almost as soon as the last Moors left Granada in 1492 after the Catholic monarchs completed the Reconquista of Spain.

Just nine years later, in 1501, a translation institute was established in Spain. Naturally, much of its work involved translating the Arabic left behind by centuries of Moorish rule.

Ever since, countless experts and visitors have been trying to decipher the meanings of the inscriptions which cover so many of the Alhambra’s walls, roofs, arches and other features. Foreign travellers, in particular the British artists of the 18th century, also attempted to study and catalogue the many thousands of verses and sayings.

Unfortunately, these works either failed to truthfully represent what was found, or covered only small parts of the Alhambra. In other cases, sadly, the work was lost.

Now experts from the School of Arabic Studies at the CSIC (Spanish Higher Council of Scientific Research) are compiling and studying one by one every single inscription that is found in the Alhambra. They reckon there are about 10,000 of them.

Alhambra wallOne of these experts, Juan Castilla, visited the Instituto Cervantes London to talk about the project, called Corpus Epigráfico de La Alhambra. The event was part of the seriesDeciphering the Alhambra’ organised by the Instituto Cervantes in London and Poet in the City.

Interpreting these inscriptions is a long and difficult task. As Castilla points out: “Even Arabic people can’t read what the inscriptions say.”

One of the challenges lies in the fact that there are different styles of Arabic writing found in the Alhambra. There are two basic types – one without marks, küfi, and another with marks, nasjí. “In the Alhambra we can find both, but also a mix of them, so three types of writing in total,” Castilla revealed.

That goes some way to explaining why this work is so hard, as does the fact that one of the functions of such Arabic writing is ornamental. It’s a challenge just working out what is ornamental and what is word.

Interestingly, while it is widely held that Islam prohibits images of humans and animals, Castilla contends that: “This is not really true. Islam doesn’t promote such images, but that is not exactly the same as to prohibit.”

Castilla ended his lecture by showing examples of these inscriptions,

Palacio de Comares
Palacio de Comares

complete with translations and interpretations, which can be viewed and studied on a comprehensive and interactive DVD.

So far, the CSIC team have studied 3,116 inscriptions found in the Palacio de Comares. Now they are working in a second phase that includes the study of one of the most famous parts of the Alhambra, the Palacio de los Leones.

“In 2011, or 2012 at the latest, we hope to have concluded the study,” assured Castilla.

While the CSIC seeks to end our blindness in regards to the Alhambra, the Instituto Cervantes-Poet in the City series continues with a concert celebrating the music and poetry of the medieval Islamic mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabí. This concert takes place at Canning House on Wednesday June 23 (6.30pm) and tickets cost £10 (£6 for members). Click here to book.

May 17, 2010 Posted by | Books, poetry and theatre, History, Instituto Cervantes en Londres | Leave a comment