“Ay Manuela, Ay Manuela,” they chanted. Hy Wallach was horrified. He had just arrived in Spain from New York to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. As instructed he had told nobody at home where he was going. Now he heard a crowd of strangers calling out what sounded like his name. Were his family searching for him already? It was not until later he realised that it was a song and nothing to do with him. He used to tell the story as a joke against himself. He talked a lot about Spain but when he talked about his own emotions he usually made it into a funny story.
His daughter Nancy and I are walking along the edge of the Mediterranean at Segur de Calafell. The water is warm but there is quite a sea running, sometimes my trousers are splashed and I have to step back. Nancy was the first person I met from our party. She is very senior in the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Association. We get on at once, laughing as we recognise our common culture, though her family came to New York from a shtetl and my mother’s from the highly assimilated Jewish community in Frankfurt. It seems that there are certain ways of being a left wing secular Jewish family and that ours adopted similar styles. She asks if I remember that scene in Annie Hall where he contrast the two families, one shouting and interrupting all the time, the other polite and dour. By this time she and I are talking through one another like long lost cousins, raising our voices, waving our arms. She tells me I look like her friend, Helen; she reminds me of the best people I grew up with. . She tells me about the arts focussed primary school where she used to work, it sounds terrific. These days she is a fine artist, working in batik.
Her father was captured in the Battle of the Ebro and sent to the notorious San Pedro prison. I ask if she knew about Clive Branson, who was there as well. My mother’s best friend was his wife, Noreen. We talk about how they survived, mentally as well as physically, in that prison, or should it be called a concentration camp? They were kept alive for exchange with Italian prisoners, but the US prisoners did not know how long they would have to wait. Hy became a gambling man. He hoped it would increase morale. He predicted that someone would be released on a particular day. They had little money, few possessions, but the stakes were high. If he guessed wrong, he promised to push a coin across the floor of the filthy latrine – with his nose. The day was drawing to a close and he was getting ready to pay up, when at the last minute, the orders came for the man to be released.
The prisoners ran an underground newspaper there. They even had the University of San Pedro she says. “Of course,” she says “it was all led by Communists.” “Of course,” I agree. We establish that both our parents were in the Party. “Red nappy baby.” I say. She immediately comes back with “Red diaper”, the US equivalent.
Other prisoners have educated one another in captivity. On Robben Island tour guides point out the quarry where the men studied for their O’ Levels when the guards weren’t watching. I also think about Midge Gillies book about British POWs in the Second World War that she called ” Barbed Wire University”. We wondered if it just happen spontaneously in each place, and how the later groups might have learned about the earlier ones.
We talk about Clive’s paintings and his daughter’s. One of Clive’s hung on the sitting room wall in the house I grew up in. Nancy has seen them at the Tate. I describe some of Rosa’s pictures and her earlier embroideries. There was a fabric collage of enormous red and orange birds. I have not seen or thought about them for thirty years but I remember them clearly, or think I do.
It feels as though Nancy and I have friends in common, though Clive died before she or I were born. Neither of us believes in a supernatural after-life. The secular atheist ghosts of her father, my mother and Noreen walk comfortably with us along the sea-shore.
(The blog will be in chronological order but the trip was so busy that the events I describe here actually happened on 15th October, except of course those that ocurred in 1938)