The Forgotten People

Nancy Macdonald’s book Homage to the Spanish Exiles,* on the refugees of the the Spanish civil war, is the story of a vocation—a calling, such as came to figures in religious history. It was a surprise to read in it that the organization she founded, Spanish Refugee Aid, got started only in 1952; one had had the impression that Nancy Macdonald and a small committee in the Union Square neighborhood had “always” been helping Spaniards. That is, the hundreds of thousands of Republicans left over, as it were, from the Spanish civil war when it ended in 1939 with Franco’s victory, turning what was a trickle into a tide of refugees that poured over the border into south-western France. I remember our first leaflet—“Forgotten People”—written by Dwight Macdonald but with many editorial suggestions from the rest of us, who wanted to do something to help, and I would have dated it much earlier, perhaps 1948. I am mixing Spanish Refugee Aid up, evidently, with the package fund of Dwight’s magazine, politics, which it grew out of and which Nancy had done most of the office work for.

The politics clothes barrel (Dwight insisted on the small p) was famous in our circles of the Forties and early Fifties: old clothes were collected from sympathizers by Nancy and her helpers for mailing (after due cleaning) to needy European intellectuals. But anyone who wanted a suit of clothes or a jacket could buy one from the barrel, and the money—more efficiently—be sent in its place to Europe. The barrel’s contents could be inspected in the politics office or in the Macdonald apartment.

There was a time, as I recall, when Dwight dressed almost exclusively from the politics barrel, choosing various plaids, stripes, and checks he found there that suited his Scotch taste. I remember in particular a suit donated by C. Wright Mills, which Dwight was greatly taken with—a perfect fit and without a sign of wear. I see it as a three-piece gray tweed, belted in the back like a Norfolk jacket. But I may be confusing things, and maybe it was not even Dwight but another of our contributors who bought the C. Wright Mills suit and wore it with pride. There were women’s clothes in the barrel, too—I certainly gave quite a few—but for some reason there was less demand for them than for the old suits, shirts, jackets, and ties of male intellectuals.

In any case, that was long before Spanish Refugee Aid, though already, of course, some Spanish refugees were among the recipients of funds, food, medicine, clothing collected by Nancy for politics. Two things happened in 1952: the magazine, which had stopped publication in the winter of 1949–1950 but still dreamed of resurrection, definitively ceased to exist (hence no more barrel from 1951 on), and Nancy, still aid-oriented, decided to concentrate on the Spanish victims of Franco. With Spanish Refugee Aid launched that year, the material character of the articles sent changed to reflect the situation of the donees. Though our committee continued to send CARE packages and other food gifts, as in the days of the barrel, when our shipments had been going to Germany, Italy, Austria, France, destined for another type of refugee (they were mainly from the east and known as “displaced persons”), we were now sending sewing machines, hearing aids, crutches, eventually an electric wheelchair—no longer goods to be consumed but work tools for survival at the bottom of the economy. These came to include transistor radios and a saxophone. And, though Nancy continued to collect and ship clothes, the emphasis was now on warm clothes for heatless winters, and these were sometimes bought new over there.

The slogan used by Dwight, “Forgotten People,” was true. Until Nancy’s mailings—signed by James Farrell, by Dwight, by Hannah Arendt, for a couple of years by me—began to reach their natural US public of liberals and politically interested people, the Republican veterans of the Spanish civil war surviving in France had simply dropped out of sight, as far as the world was concerned. History had “passed them by.” The last the world heard of them was probably Koestler’s Scum of the Earth. Thanks to that book, it was vaguely understood by more alert liberals that remnants of the Spanish Republican army had been interned in French camps where conditions were far from good. But what had happened to them afterwards no one seemed to know. The comfortable idea that they might have been “absorbed” by the French economy hardly fitted in with the reality that, like many war veterans, large numbers of these were war cripples—legless, armless, blind, deaf, tubercular. Among the stories told in interviews with exiles in Nancy Macdonald’s book, perhaps the worst have to do with incompetent surgery, above all, with amputations. Here is Gomez, an aviator:

I woke up and found myself in an operating room (I didn’t know it was one) and I saw four candles [whispering]. Naturally I knew that when there is a corpse there are four candles put by it [laughing]. I opened my eyes and saw these things and said to myself ‘But I’m not dead yet, what are these candles doing?’ And I felt as if someone was sawing wood, and it was my legs they were sawing. I didn’t know because I had been given a spinal anesthetic…. They amputated like a butcher cutting up meat in a butcher shop. The way they cut the hoof of a lamb. Like that!…

But there was a doctor who was nice, Dr. Olivarez, an honest man, a man who didn’t amputate a leg until he saw it dropping off. And the other doctors in the hospital treated him as if he were crazy, until in the end he was locked up like a madman. These others amputated arms and legs and everything.

Then, later, in France, under the Vichy government, on the Mediterranean:

I was in despair and didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to return to the interior and I said to myself that no matter what happened I would go to Spain. So I wrote to the Consul and asked to be admitted but was refused…. With all the uncertainty I decided to go to the hospital and have my left leg reamputated; that is to say they fixed up the stump. I didn’t really need it but we were to be evacuated and I needed more time to make a decision. I said ‘My leg is hurting me.’ So I entered the hospital of St. Jean in Perpignan and they reamputated my left leg. In Spain they had amputated roughly but I could have borne this all my life. But I needed time, because the Spaniards (all of us) thought that once the war ended in France, our problem would be settled.

Well, I spent four months there because the reamputation didn’t go well.

In America just because no one seemed to know what had become of them after 1939, Nancy’s appeals were welcomed. As checks were mailed in or cash pulled out from a pocket or handbag, people expressed positive gratitude for having been told about these forgotten people and hence given a chance to “remember” them materially. Gratitude is an unusual response to a charitable plea, but that is how it was and continued to be with Spanish Refugee Aid (or “Spanish,” as the refugees called it—“Spanish has sent me eyeglasses”). Mysteriously, year after year contributors “discovered” the Spaniards and wrote in to thank our committee for the opportunity of helping them.

This was one of several peculiarities of Nancy’s organization, the greatest of which, for a charity, was its extremely low overhead. An abnormally high percentage of the money sent in went to the recipients. I forget now what the figure was when we made the calculation during one of my years on the board, but it was something like 75 percent—unheard of. Our greatest outlay, I think, was for postage, and Nancy managed to save even on that by the policy of “adoptions.” In “adopting” a refugee, the contributor took on the postal expense of helping him; moreover, adopters, who signed up on a regular basis, did not have to be solicited by mail, like the rest of us, for an annual contribution.

Nancy’s vocation or “calling” to these Spaniards must have carried with it a natural gift for low overhead—a gift she had already exercised as business manager of politics and, before that, of Partisan Review. This, in turn, was related to a native simplicity and directness characteristic of Nancy, of her committee and those who worked for it, in New York and in France, and finally of the recipients themselves. One could see that from the letters they wrote and the kind of requests the letters contained—for seeds, for instance, or that saxophone. The instinctive attraction she soon noticed in herself—and describes in her book—to anarchist and other libertarian groups is evidently related to a straightforward, open, direct mentality—low overhead. There is a sort of innocent logic typical of libertarian natures when they deal with property relations (the thinking is based on the help-yourself principle, both receiving gratis from a common store and contributing, through work or a surplus of goods); this logic creates bonds, as if by natural selection. A good example may be seen in the interview with the CNT sailor Mariano Fuente when he tells how his group organized the town of Puigcerdá on strictly libertarian principles:

Antonio Martin was what other groups would call the leader of the CNT in Puigcerdá. He was the first to come out in the street with his pistol and he was the man who went first everywhere, like a lion, without fear. He faced all the dangers and responsibilities in the first moments and later. That is why he was named Governor….Antonio Martin had no bad habits; he didn’t smoke or drink. He was what is called a sober man but he was tolerant of others and not a fanatic. He was always dressed as a simple militiaman in blue overalls, with a leather belt across his chest to hold his pistol. His boots were the ones he had before the revolution. He wore a ring with a fake diamond on his left hand—his chauffeur had one too—and a watch in the pocket of his overalls—no other luxuries…. He was paid like all of us, thirty pesetas a week, which he gave to the landlady of the house where he lived…. There were weekly meetings of the militants of Puigcerdá and those who came from France, where he answered questions…. He answered and promised to do the possible….

The revolution in Puigcerdá consisted in municipalizing the land that was not owned directly by families, the houses that were not lived in by the owner, the hotels and restaurants, the coffeehouses, the workshops and the factories, like the canned milk factory, the sawmill, the textile factory, etc. All these working places were collectivized directly by the workers and they were responsible to their unions. Nothing was left to chance. Everyone was guaranteed a living according to the size of his family. Even those who had been punished by the revolution…were allowed to take out weekly that same amount allowed to other families. The municipality took charge of everything to do with the health of the people…. We created a big cooperative for all sorts of food. The tailors were municipalized and when anyone needed a suit, he received a ticket for it, and the municipality paid for it as well as for other personal effects.

It was inevitable that “Spanish” would be on the side of the POUM, the CNT, the FAI, Orwell, Camus rather than on that of the freedom-detesting Communists and their allies who were the bureaucratized Socialists of the Republican government.

To illustrate the libertarian strain in Nancy’s own nature I can cite a small episode from my personal life that had nothing to do with Spain but only with a piece of furniture. In the late Forties, when Bowden Broadwater and I bought a farmhouse in Rhode Island, we owned very little to put in it in the way of chairs, tables, and so on. At the same time, through some deaths in her family, Nancy had come into possession of some nice antique pieces, and to her mind this coincidence spoke with an irrefutable logic: I must take some of her things. There was a desk, in particular, a fine piece of eighteenth-century American cabinet-making, in cherry, if I remember right, with many compartments. I also seem to remember a Sheraton-ish sideboard, not mine, that we had in the dining room, but that may have come from a different source besides not being as nice. When I try to analyze Nancy’s motives in shipping that desk to me (we were friends but not close friends), it seems to me that they were twofold: she was killing two birds with one stone, helping us out and giving it a good home. It was a loan that I was to keep as long as I had a need for it.

The desk stood for a number of years in a prominent corner of the house on Union Street, Portsmouth, and was invariably admired by anybody versed in eighteenth-century furniture—evidently I had not realized how good it was. The time finally came when I had to give it back (we sold the house), and Nancy took it away with the same placid good nature she had shown in giving it in the first place. The anarchist maxim that the coat I wear is not really mine as long as someone lacks a coat was reflected in her matter-of-fact attitude throughout that transaction, while on my side, I confess, I hated to give it back, having come to feel that I owned it even though I knew better.

When I think of Nancy’s destiny and the role of Spaniards in it, I say to myself that maybe there were other needy libertarians in the world that she could have felt “called” to help. Yet only on Spanish soil would such large groups of them have collected; there are historical reasons for that, but, as always, there is also a mystery. Bakunin’s doctrine arrived in Spain by some kind of miracle, like the scallop shell of Saint James the Greater washing up at Compostela. In Nancy’s own story, I see, chance played a considerable part, as commonly happens in stories of vocations. A predilection for Spain went back to courses she took at Vassar with Agnes Rindge—she was an art major, and Miss Rindge had a strong liking for Spanish art. So, immediately after graduation, Nancy and two classmates, following Miss Rindge’s indications, traveled to Spain, starting with Burgos and its cathedral—the apogee of Spanish Gothic. Being at that point totally apolitical, she scarcely knew that King Alfonso had fallen and been replaced by a republic during her junior year, to the great excitement of Miss De Mayo of the Spanish department. Nancy knew no Spanish; at Vassar, if I remember right, the language she took was Italian.

Nonetheless she found Mallorca that first year, returned to it briefly the next year on a trip she made with her mother, and again on her honeymoon with Dwight. They spent three months on the island; by that time, I suppose, she was “hooked.” In a couple of years, however, the uprising of the generals under Franco occurred, the civil war began, and she was cut off from Spain, though not, as it turned out, from Spaniards, for forty-five years. The first Spanish refugee she helped was a POUMist militant, Juan Andrade, who had been jailed by the Vichy government in Montauban for maintaining an illegal organization—that was in 1941. When the Nazi occupation finally ended, in 1945, there would be many other POUMists needing help. The first portable typewriter, like the first spring swallow, was sent and the first money for drugs—insulin.

Homage to the Spanish Exiles mingles reporting, reminiscence, extracts from letters, taped interviews, and constitutes a remarkable history of the Spanish civil war, much more evocative than such respected “objective” histories as Hugh Thomas’s and, as far as I can judge, very accurate in dates, order of events, leading “personalities,” political interplay of groups and factions, estimated casualties. Here for the first time I have read about the Spanish Republicans in the French Resistance and in the Nazi deportation squads.

At Mauthausen there were about seven thousand Spaniards from 1940 to 1945…. The Spaniards, arriving on the 6th of August, were the first group coming from outside Germany. Those in the concentration camps at that time were Germans, mostly common criminals, but also the old German Trade Unionists and Communists; that is to say the first fighters against National Socialism. Most of the latter were from Munich and Bavaria. I knew and was close to them and I have a very good memory of them, because they were brave people…. Despite one’s political opinions, to be just I knew them as honest men…. For example, I knew Novotny, who is president of the Czech Republic, and at that time he was working as an individual in the camps; Cyrankiewicz, who is head of the Polish government, lived in the same conditions…. I knew all these people and I tell you at that time I considered them good fighters….

From the month of August 1940 until the 3rd or 4th of March 1941 I was like everybody. I worked in the quarry; I carried up stones on my shoulders. In these conditions I realized that if I wanted to leave the camp, I must make a special effort. I saw that the only thing to do was to learn German. I said to myself, you must learn German. If you speak German, you will be able to defend yourself better.

I learned while carrying stones. At that time one went down to the quarry and one carried stones. One carried them up, one carried them down…. Well, there was a German next to me and I asked him to tell me how to decline—to have, for example. Then he said to me: “Ich habe, du hast, er hat.” So I carried the stones and I recited as if I were reciting a prayer. And that is how I learned the essentials of the German language. And…they allowed me to be an interpreter.

Of course it is “one-sided” in that the interviewees belong or belonged for the most part to libertarian organizations—a few are nonpolitical. There are no spokesmen here for the Communists or for Largo Caballero’s Socialists, to say nothing of Franco’s people. Yet the tone, as the reader can hear, is curiously free of bias; the chief feeling expressed is, simply, grief: many of these men break down and cry as they speak. Nor is humor lacking; one of the book’s charms is the sense of amusement at a bitter human comedy that it conveys. A good example can be found in the very first interview, the one with Juan Andrade, who was still locked up as a POUMist in a government (Republican) jail in Barcelona while Franco’s troops were approaching the city and the population was fleeing toward the French border. His jailers, from the warden on down, were eager to join the exodus and save their own skins. Not wishing to release the prisoners (illegal!), they hit on the simple expedient of moving the jail with the prisoners in it closer to the frontier. In the end, with the help of the prisoners (an example of Kropotkin’s mutual aid), they moved it twice, by truck, until it was practically in France. Spanish logic or is it Latin?—I can imagine it in Italy. Naturally this could not be effected without the cooperation of the prisoners, who went through the forms of letting themselves be installed in the new place of confinement—in both cases a disused factory—a jail in name only since they were now free to move around as they wished. Their only worry was to be careful to avoid a swarm of Communist troops, who had arrived at the frontier, too—to them a familiar menace.

This amusing account jibes precisely with awful stories I heard in Spain itself thirty years later, of Anarchist prisoners in Catalonia deliberately left under lock and key by their jailers (who had themselves run off), to be captured and usually executed by Franco’s troops—I had asked why you did not hear of Anarchists any more, and that was the answer in a nutshell. For a sense of Spain and Spaniards in the civil war and its aftermath there could be no better introduction than the story of “Spanish”—Homage to the Spanish Exiles.

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    To be published by Human Sciences Press in March.