An article by Jordi Martí-Rueda
28 October 1938. Barcelona had been a city at war for over two years and had experienced everything. It had seen how its citizens and government forces, together, had defeated a military coup. It had experienced a revolutionary uprising and seen bullets whistling from barricades put up by antifascists to barricades raised by other antifascists. And it had taken in thousands of refugees, families and children fleeing from the front lines.
But living in a city at war means, above all, going hungry and looking at the sky in fear. Because, although the front was far away, Barcelona was constantly being shelled from the sea and bombed from the air. Thousands had died from the bombs dropped by fascist planes, and hardly any were soldiers. Even today there are stone walls in the Gothic Quarter, around the cathedral, that preserve the wounds opened by shrapnel. To protect themselves, the city’s inhabitants had stained window panes blue to hide the lights at night, and they had burrowed underground to build over 1,300 shelters that offered them protection when the air-raid sirens sounded. They had lived through all that on an empty stomach and, as if to sum up the convulsions and strange things that can happen in wartime, one evening, a few hours after fascist planes had bombed the city again, nature stamped a huge aurora borealis on the sky, causing an initial scare.
However, on 28 October 1938, the city bid farewell to the survivors of the International Brigades, and the men and women of Barcelona were able to take to the streets with peace of mind. That day, the Republican army assembled the best of its air force over the city, to protect an event that was meant to be unforgettable. Since the start of the war, around 40,000 people from every continent had converged on the Iberian Peninsula, attracted by the urgent need to defeat fascism. A quarter of them would never go home. In September 1938, the Republican Government had ordered them to be withdrawn from the front, in the vain hope that Franco would follow suit and withdraw his German Nazis and Italian fascists.
It was not the first time that the brigadistas had walked through Barcelona. Fanny Schoonheyt, from Holland, was there before the coup on 18 July, 1936. That day, wearing civilian clothes, she had taken part in the fighting against the rebel officers. Emmanuel Mink, a young Polish communist and an athlete in Antwerp’s Yiddisher Arbeter Sport Klub, who had come to take part in the People’s Olympics, had swapped his sports clothes for those of a militiaman. Soon after, Hans Beimler, a former member of the Reichstag, founded one of the first international units, the Thälmann centurion.
When the International Brigades were set up, in October 1936, Barcelona became an obligatory transit point for volunteers who were crossing the border. The first American brigaders, who would form the Lincoln Battalion, marched through in January 1937. The following year, a building in the Horta district housed the central offices of the International Brigades, while various flats in the city housed offices and the headquarters of international medical units. The Irish nurse Hannah Ormsby threw herself out of the window of one of those flats to escape a fire. And like her, other brigaders would die in the city, most evacuated from the front lines to medical points in the rear, such as the Vallcarca Military Hospital.
So 28 October was not the first day the brigaders were in Barcelona, but for many it would be the last. Between 200,000 and 300,000 Barcelona residents packed the Diagonal and Passeig de Gràcia to see them off. The pictures show the unarmed brigaders marching on a carpet of flowers and under a shower of paper bits. Flags and banners evoking the names of the battalions. Children who had climbed up the lampposts in Plaça de Francesc Macià to get a better view of them, and women with young children who have broken the protocol to hug and kiss the men marching by. And the platform with the authorities, presided over by Lluís Companys, Juan Negrín, Manuel Azaña and Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria.
Memory would recall it as the biggest popular demonstration that took place in Barcelona during the war. But, as is usually the case with goodbyes, it was not a very happy one. Because, as many would remember, the joy of knowing they were alive was mixed with the sadness of saying goodbye to a people who were losing the war, with the pain of abandoning them in defeat.
The future was not bright for the brigaders either. Some would suffer persecution and repression in their own countries, while the Nazi concentration camps or those in France awaited others. For many, it would be a continuation of the war that had begun in 1936: with the Allied armies, in the ranks of the French resistance or the partisan guerillas..
They were workers, nurses, doctors, students, writers, sailors. Most had arrived in the Peninsula without ever having touched a firearm but, now they were leaving, it could be said they were the best prepared soldiers, doctors and nurses for fighting fascism in Europe. They were neither extraordinary beings nor from another world, they were people who, in extraordinary circumstances, had taken extraordinary decisions.
There is an anecdote that illustrates this. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. Either way, when he was an old man, George Sossenko, a former French brigader, liked to recall it. Amused, he would relate the words he had heard a Barcelona man utter as he watched the brigaders pass by that 28 October: “After two years, they have learned to fight”, he reflected. “But they haven’t learned to parade.”
Jordi Martí-Rueda is a writer and a historian. In 2014 he published Tocats pel vent. Cinc històries humanes de les Brigades Internacionals i la Guerra Civil (Pagès Editors), which received the Liberisliber Prize for non-fiction and was translated into Spanish as Cinco rebeldes (Editorial Milenio). In 2020 he published Brigadistes. Vides per la llibertat (Tigre de Paper), which was translated into English by Pluto Press (Brigadistes. Lives for Liberty) and which the historian Paul Preston described as “an extraordinary book”. In 2021 he published Swing, swing, swing. Vides de jazz, rebel·lia i ball,, a collection of intertwined narratives that tell the stories of musicians and dancers from the jazz and swing era, with the Afro-American community’s struggle for emancipation as a backdrop. Since 2018 he has been working at the Directorate-General for Democratic Memory.
THE WORKING PROCESS
Two motives that were on our list of priorities have, in some way, precipitated and conditioned going ahead with the project on the International Brigades’ passage through Barcelona. On the one hand, we wanted to bring the Brigaders’ project to Barcelona–as residents our wish was for it to pass through the city as the Brigades did– and on the other hand, from Murs de Bitàcola we wanted to begin developing its pedagogical side in collaboration with the teaching community.. Regarding the former, in collaboration with the Friends of the Brigades association Amical de les Brigades, we had been searching for possible mural sites for a very long time. Due to the city’s complexity and the fact that it would have been very difficult to find a way of intervening in the places and settings where the International Brigades had been, we opted for one which, while not being very significant in terms of their passage or having an image of that, would be consistent. That’s why we chose a site next to the train station Estació de França, almost as if it was a continuation of the Espluga del Francolí mural, since it follows the route taken by the brigaders when they withdrew. Aware that the event we were illustrating took place practically on the spot where Passeig de Gràcia meets Avinguda Diagonal, and knowing that it was practically impossible to carry out this intervention there, we finally opted for this location which, although it did not seem to us to be very rigorous in historical terms, did not appear to be inconsistent either. Obtaining the permits and finalising the intervention has been a long and difficult process. What’s more, this is a project that stems from personal motivation, not a commission. Therefore, we undertook the project more as an act of militancy, with no funding until the European Observatory on Memories finally gave us the support and necessary resources to go ahead with it.
Besides this, we were also very keen to work with Quatre Cantons secondary school. The timing was perfect and we had to make the most of the opportunity to do so this year, which meant we had a very tight schedule with little time to spare, putting us under a lot of stress. However, it has been a great intervention and a great collaboration that we are sure will allow us to go further in future education projects and to have this initial project as a pilot test for this type of collaboration, which we will no doubt be able to repeat and keep improving on.
As regards the composition and the images we selected, it was also thanks to the first project in L’Espluga del Francolí that we had access to Henry Buckley’s entire photographic archive. It seemed to us that it was almost a matter of poetic justice to work with the images of this journalist and it was worth doing so on this project in Barcelona. This conditioned how we approached the work, as some of the photographs, such as the one of the brigaders’ parade through the city streets, had a very low resolution. . That is why we decided to turn this mural into a diptych, in which we wanted to incorporate not only images of the brigaders themselves but also another, more artistic and higher quality photograph that attached importance to the people of Barcelona who attended this farewell to pay tribute to the brigaders.. As the two photographs have very different qualities, despite being taken by the same author, we have tried to ensure a more or less balanced final result. When choosing the colours we chose to intervene as little as possible in the original reference work, and for that reason painted with a scale of greys, to which we only added an ochre tone to some of the lighter colours to make them a little richer, while always trying to respect and be as faithful as possible to the original photographs.
This has been a project in a very unusual part of Barcelona, where we mingled with groups of tourists who were constantly asking us questions, as if we were a tourist information point: where is the beach, where can I see a Gaudí building, and so on. On a totally different level, we also made contact with students at the school next to the spot where we were painting, which was nice as they finally paid us a visit to see what we were doing. It’s great to meet teachers who are aware of what’s going on around them and make the most of it to take it into the classroom or, in this case, bring the class out onto the street. Finally, we were also able to see how necessary this project is: we could count on the fingers of one hand the people from all those on the street who came up to us to comment on the mural, who recognised the event and what we were illustrating. The rest only saw a reproduction of an old photograph. We hope that with the QR code which gives access to all the material we have produced, this intervention will not just be an artistic one in people’s eyes but will allow this episode to become more widely known, because it has been made very clear to us that it is still largely unknown to the general public. All this comes just after local and regional elections that have left a political landscape in the city and throughout the Spanish state with some very significant changes and an undeniable shift to the right that has encouraged us and reaffirmed our certainty that this project is more important than ever.