Category Archives: Memorials

Unquiet Graves

‘Just a brief photo-stop’ it said on the itinerary. Burial grounds are always on the edge of town, except in places like London where the buildings have overflowed to engulf the ring of grave-yards, asylums and sports grounds that were once beyond the city limits.  Pere parks the coach by the gate of the cemetery, just outside Huesca. We get out and meet Victor Pardo Lancina, a local historian who is our guide for the cemetery and Estrecho Quinto.

The morning is very bright, it promises to be another hot day. The wall round the cemetery is white stucco, interrupted by piers of lighter coloured brick. It looks like the wall of Chy Govenek, where I used to work, a very ordinary wall.

2014-10-18 the wall

The outer cemetery is for outsiders: protestants, free-thinkers, suicides, I suppose still born infants. People who did not want to be buried by the church. People the church did not want to bury. A square space surrounded by that commonplace wall. A red rose straggles across it at one point with a sparse red flowers and few leaves. It wants pruning I thought, it has gone leggy. On the wall beside the rose is a dark metal plaque with some white artificial daisies in one corner

Fermín Galán Rodríguez and Ángel García Hernández, the first Republican Martyrs, were military captains involved in a failed Republican coup on December 12th 1930. They were arrested. After a perfunctory trial they were shot on December 14th. Before his death Angel Garcia made his last confession to a priest. Fermin Galan chose not to, so he is buried out here in the municipal, not the Catholic, cemetery. They have restored his tomb. His name is lettered in gold. A faded silk rose that once was crimson sits at the foot. At the top is a bright ceramic plaque with a tiny flag in the Republican colours, red, yellow and purple. It looks new and a little garish against the weathering stone.

In Franco’s time, Victor Pardo tells Almudena, Fermin Galan’s mother had a cross placed here. When the grave was refurbished Circlo Republicano took the cross away and destroyed it. Almudena, the Art Historian, flares into a burst of righteous indignation. Most of the time she is staunchly anti-clerical, but it seems she is angry about the lack of respect for his grieving mother. The destruction of an artefact, by people seeking to restore memory also disturbs her .If they did not want it here it should have been stored. But Fermin Galan chose not to be buried with the rites of the church; would he have wanted a cross? He is beyond caring, says Almu, the free-thinker, and his mother was not. I think she is right. Who owns this dead man? His family or the Republic he died trying to establish, or today’s Republicans, who he did not know and may not have agreed with?

2014-10-18 who owns the dead

Victor draws our attention to that unremarkable wall. This was where executions took place during the Civil war. Franco’s troops would bring the prisoners here and shoot them. I suppose it was more convenient for burial. Earlier in the war an anarchist militia were encamped in the cemetery. At night they went into the Catholic part of the cemetery. They took some of the bones out of their niches so as to have somewhere to sleep. The fascist newspapers deplored the desecration of the grave yard. Bombing it however, was not in their eyes an act of desecration.

A weight of horror and sadness hangs over the bright walled garden. I have only felt that heaviness once before. My friend Stuart Todd and I were at the Mandela Gate, where the ferry leaves for the Robben Island tour. There was no boat that day, the rain and wind were too bad. We walked round the little museum and watched film clips about apartheid. There was a sorrow in the air that made it difficult to move, that you could almost taste. We brought our own losses & disappointments with us that day, but it had to do with the place as well. The weather is lovely today. The shadows are crisp and the pale walls clear against a cloudless blue sky, but there is the same leaden feeling in the air.

We move into the Catholic part of the cemetery, which is much bigger, as you’d expect in a Catholic country. Straight ahead is a little housing estate for dead people. Roofed buildings face one another across a narrow street. They have put silk flowers in all the front windows, white, purple, blue, green, orange, crimson. I do not find it at all creepy, though it is a bit odd to my Northern eyes. The members of one tribe are always surprised to see the exotic customs of other peoples. Round the corner we find another wall of funerary niches. One is decorated in Republican colours. We walk across open ground where there are tombs and cypresses, more like an English church-yard. Victor stops by an iron cross with a wreath faded to mauve, cream and pink in the Southern sun. There is a mass grave near this spot, he tells us. The authorities have not given permission for exhumation. People have known for many years where their relatives must be, but there is no confirmation, no memorial. And in this country, graves are important. The IBMT visit is the morning of 18th October. Families all over Spain will visit graves to place fresh flowers on 1st November. There will be no family visits on All Souls day for the hundreds of thousands of dead Spaniards who still lie in unmarked mass graves. I am a free-thinker like Almu, I do not believe in a spiritual afterlife. The dead live in the memories of the living, or not at all.

2014-10-18 Housing estate of the dead

We drive on from the graveyard to Estrecho Quinto, the trenches outside Tierz that I wrote about in my last post. After a picnic lunch in the burning heat we visit the Civil War Museum at Robres. There is a machine gun outside. It is on wooden wheels like a farm cart. Inside there is shade and it is cooler. I quietly slip my sandals off to feel the cool tiles under my feet. Almudena introduces us to the guide who seems excited that the ‘hija de Margot Heinemann’ is  visiting. It is a small museum, beautifully laid out. There are a few artefacts, some rifles, hand grenades and posters, secretly stored behind pictures and under mattresses during the 40 years when to possess such things was to risk imprisonment or  worse. Most of the exhibits are panels of text with terrific photographs. In 1936 it seems that every documentary photographer in the world headed for Spain. I would have been happy to wander round, painstakingly mistranslating the Spanish captions to myself but the group decides we will take the guided tour. I pause by a picture of a young woman with glasses and an extraordinary hair do. I discover that she was a woman doctor, the first in Spain and specialised in family planning.

Someone calls me, I go round a corner and there it is. That poem again. Taking up the whole wall this time. ‘A Margot Heinemann’ . I read it to myself, under my breath, I know it so well in English that it is bound to improve my Spanish vocabulary. Before I can finish, everybody wants me to pose for photos in front of it. I have to keep my head low against the wall so I don’t cover up the writing. The posture and my aching feet are  uncomfortable. In the pictures I am wild haired, wild-eyed and grimacing, ‘Like a head on a pike in the French Revolution’ not at all a suitable image for a respected hija. Luckily Marshall took one picture earlier; it is the only one I am prepared to show here.

IBMT Aragon Tour 2014  Robres

The main part of the exhibition shows everyday life in the republic and during the war. The day a library arrived in a small village. The secular schools where girls and boys were educated together. Propaganda photographs of cheerful militianos and militianas on the streets. Uniformed soldiers straggling untidily along dusty tracks. Women and children running. A soldier incongruously driving sheep. An old woman with a ravaged face, weeping.  Lines of refugees climbing the Bolsa de Bielsa. You would not know they were 80 years old except for the vehicles. The houses, the expressions, even the clothes could be contemporary, but the trucks and cars give it away.  One red wall names all those who died in this area in line after line of white print. I try to read them all, but again we have to move on to another room.

That evening we carry on with our conversation about memorialisation at a question and answer session with Victor Pardo and Almudena back at the hotel in Huesca. Amnesty International estimate that only Cambodia has more unnamed 20th century dead than Spain. The historian Professor Paul Preston estimates up to 200,000 of Franco’s opponents were executed during the civil war, and as many again between 1939 and 1945 – more than all the disappeared in South America’s dirty wars of the 70s and 80s put together.

It is 80 years since the coup d’état by Franco and the other Generals that started the civil war They continued to murder & oppress long after they had destroyed the Republic and its elected government. No-one has been charged for civil war and dictatorship-era crimes against humanity.


There were no ‘Nuremberg’ trials in Spain, no committee of Truth and Reconciliation. I wonder what degree of reconciliation is possible without truth. Almudena and Victor remind us that Franco was not defeated, he handed over government to his chosen heir. That heir permitted elections and a Socialist government was overwhelmingly elected. Part of the deal was that there would be no prosecutions no discussions of the past. A pact of silence, of forgetting, of oblivion. All the parties of government signed up to this, including Socialists and Communists. Almudena is very bitter about this, “My generation”, she says,” say that there was no Transition but a Transaction.” She accuses the Socialists of cowardice. It seems to me that if there was a real risk of a further fascist or authoritarian coup, a degree of fear might have been justified and even responsible. It is as important to prevent more repression, imprisonment and ‘disappearance ‘as it is to remember the dead and uncover the crimes of the past. If both were possible both should have happened but were they? Even now there are progressive people in Spain who think the movement for Historical Memory is taking things too far. On my first night in Huesca I met up with my dear friend Elena from Zaragoza. I have known her since I first visited Spain in 2001. Since then she has been widowed, our children have grown up, she has advanced in her career, I have retired. In both Britain and Spain we have had to deal with right-wing governments and austerity. There was plenty to talk about, including the reasons for my visit. Elena is also a historian but her field is the history of science, she is not terribly interested in the history of the civil war. She is a Trades Unionist, a woman of the left. .She had never visited the civil war sites, and was not sure she wanted to. The dead should be named she agreed, but was there any need to take it further? This was such a contrast to Almudena’s passion for uncovering truth, no matter how painful, that I was intrigued. I enjoy being with her and with Almudena for very similar reasons, the warmth of their personalities, their, intelligence, their humour and the enthusiasm they bring to whatever they do. Why do these two wonderful women feel so differently about historical memory?

After I got back from Spain I remembered that Margot could not bring herself to read books about the Nazi Holocaust. ’ I know what happened,’ she said,’ what is the point of upsetting myself? Those books are for people who do not know, or have no imagination’. She never visited Auschwitz. In 1966 she went round Buchenwald . It was just about bearable, she said, because her guide had been a prisoner there himself. On the other hand she and my father watched the BBC series on the First World War, discussing each episode. They had their own, well-polished Second World War stories too, Margot in the Blitz, Des and the Normandy landings; but torture, starvation, killing, dying, extermination and betrayal were not mentioned. The subjects were not forbidden, I think they would have answered if I had asked, but I did not. Perhaps they talked about it when I was not there. Perhaps they chose to forget what was too painful in the past so they could get on with the future.

We could have done with longer for our discussion that evening but we needed to eat, drink and relax. When the small group I was with reached the hotel restaurant they refused to serve us, though some others from our party were already sitting at tables. Perhaps they really were too busy, but we wondered what they thought of our Republican T-shirts in a town where the bitterness of the civil war is still close to the surface, no less intense because it is unspoken. So a few of us; Manus O’Riordan,Nancy Wallach, Marshall Mateer, Pauline Fraser and some others went to a restaurant. The food was good, and so was the conversation, though it might have been even better if we had not been quite so tired. We were not sleeping well through the hot nights and it had been an emotionally and intellectually exhausting day.

Written 16th November-9th December 2014 describing events on 18th October

Further reading

Amnesty International

Giles Tremlett

Helen Graham article on Historical Memory

Paul Preston