Monday, February 24, 2014

La División Nueve enters Paris!! An unknown historical episode for the Spanish class

Some years ago we had one presenter in my school in Spain who was an an old man who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. His main aim was to share his life experiences during and after the civil war. It was the first time that I heard about the concentration camps in Southern France that held around half a million Spanish citizens in very harsh conditions in the beginning of 1939. When World War II broke out some months later, most of these people who fought for the Republican government in Spain were offered 3 alternatives: to be sent back to Spain and stand trial, to build trenches and walls to protect the  French borders in the Maginot Line or to join La Legion Étrangere and fight the Nazis as a separate unit.

Our presenter in the school, as most of the Spanish refugees, joined the L E. He told us what it was like to be in a second war. Some months later, he was taken prisoner by the Nazis and sent to a work camp in Central Europe. Conditions were terribly harsh and the prisoners had to work long hours producing boots and uniforms for the German army. There are two things that stayed in my mind about his experience: one was the extremely harsh treatments that people of other races received (since they were deemed even more 'inferior' than the Spaniards). He recalled how the Hungarian gypsies in the camp were treated with particularly harsh methods. Another memory was that it took him two years after leaving the camp to start gaining weight, because his body had been so worn out.

When they were set free in 1944, he returned to his old battalion and continued fighting until the end of the war in 1945. It was the first time I heard about the stories of the Spanish exiled in Europe after the war and their involvement in World War II.  After Hitler´s defeat, they were ignored by the Allies, by France and naturally, by the Francoist regime in Spain. To make things even more devastating, the Allies' promise to rid Spain of Franco was never fulfilled. For 60 years their story was forgotten and they never got any recognition. People from lots of nationalities fought against Hitler but the Spanish republicans were the only ones who had no country to go back to.

In the 1990's people in Spain started to wonder about the fate of these people and their role in World War II. This way, to the astonishment of many Spanish people, we discovered that the Spanish soldiers from la Division Nueve were the first allies to enter  Paris and reach Paris city hall.

In 2010 French film director Alberto Marquardt produced a documentary about two of the last survivors from la División Nueve, Manuel Fernandez and Luis Royo. In the documentary, both remember their incredible experience as teens living in the Spanish republic to becoming adults through the turbulent Second World War. Through this short time span, they lived through the Spanish Civil War, being exiled in early 1939, being imprisoned in the concentration camps in France or in Northern Africa, and entering Paris as the liberators in August 1944.

In the Instituto Cervantes' website in Paris we have the opportunity of following the division Nueve's footsteps and experiencing their entrance into the city hall in Paris on August 24, 1944. It was the Guadalajara tank that reached city hall first. The website also includes links to websites and articles related to this historical events. Rutas Cervantes

A novel that recreates all this historical period very accurately is the best seller, Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis in its English version) by university lecturer and writer Javier Cercas. The author mixes fact and fiction to recreate the life of Antonio Miralles, a fictional Republican soldier who saves the life of Sanchez-Mazas, one of the founders of the Falange political party. Sanchez-Mazas recalled this episode in his life years later when a republican soldier spared his life .

After the war, Miralles would follow the same fate as our aforementioned heroes: living in concentration camps, and 5 more years of war in campaigns in Northern Africa and  with La Nueve against the Nazis. 50 years later a journalist (the novel´s author) contacts him to learn more about his episode with Sanchez-Mazas. Miralles is now an old man who lives in a seniors' home in France and he recalls his experiences to the author. Although this story is similar to the story of  Manuel Fernandez and Luis Royo depicted in the documentary produced by Alberto Marquardt, the novel depicts these experiences through the author's eyes. As this novel is fictional, the different layers that the author adds to the story may make history even more multidimensional to young people.

The novel´s language is quite complex for secondary students, this should not be a mandatory reading but to be recommended to students with a good command of the language to enhance their learning. No matter if you read the Spanish or English version of this novel, it will prove very fascinating if you are genuinely interested in the Spanish Civil War. We can also show the adapted film produced in 2003. There are quite a lot of activities available online about the film that we can use:
In my next post I will speak about the recently published graphic novel, Los surcos del azar, by Paco Roca . The story goes back to the same events and shows the life of another of the republican soldiers who took part in the liberation of Paris.