Sunday, 21 September 2014

Back to Wales from Spain:  
Modernity overlays a strong historical memory  in Wales

Vast spaces dominate the train station and  airport coming home. We pass shopping centres, highways, roundabouts- all of these artefacts of modernity covering the past. In Wales, as in Spain, we see that cultural history may be appropriated - Welsh ladies in quaint costumes from a bucolic fantasy past made for the tourist market.  But the Welsh  also know and remember who they are, cherishing  the experiences  still available within living memory. It has many memorials to their International Brigaders who died in Spain, as well as the Basque children who came to the valleys as refugees during the Spanish Civil War.

At Big Pit museum in Blaenavon, created on the site of a coal mine, Wendy's husband Ray spoke about the 1984-5 Miners' strike.
 He held an audience mesmerised with his description of life as a boy miner, leaving school at 13 1/2 to go underground. He described the harrowing death of his mining partner in a roof fall, and of a Bevan boy sent underground during the war, whose mother thought her son would be safer than in the army. He told of the cheers of joy as the men working in  the pit learned that Labour had won a landslide victory in the 1945 general election.; of the profound impact on people's lives of the creation of the National Health Service;  and the calculated attack by Margaret Thatcher on British trade unions. We were hearing history from someone who had lived it.

These shared memories are cherished and preserved, as the old buildings and local sites are preserved, because they have become part of who the people are, their identity.

The International Brigades Archaeology Project showed us that, however much memory may be buried, the strata can and will be uncovered, through the commitment to historical truth that the team has shown.

Best wishes to the volunteers still digging away on site. We offer some additional verses  to Viva La  Quince Brigada to remember the time we shared:

   En el  viejo pueblo Codo,
rumbala rumbala rum- ba -la
   En el  viejo pueblo Codo,
rumbala rumbala rum- ba -la
   Ni tenemos ni legumbres,  (vegetables)
   Ni  "wi-fi",   ni senales*         * (phone signals)
   aye Carmela!

   En el frente de Belchite,   rumbala rumbala rumbala..  
   En el frente de Belchite,   rumbala rumbala rumbala   
    A tasty dish of cold sardines
   a loaf of bread . ..    .cada dia! *         (every day)
    aye Carmela!
Our thanks, from Wendy and Elaine, to Alfredo and Sal, and to all our new friends in Spain for the fascinating discussions,  new experiences and unique opportunities we found there.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Recovering memory in the Spanish Civil War

     " Let every pain be token,
      the lost years shall be found "......Tom Glaser,  The Whole Wide World  Around

The winning side in any war controls the story. Franco and the Falangists in Spain have tried to erase the memory of the Republic and replace it  with their own version of history: fallen Catholic martyrs, massacred priests , and the "Reds" ("los Rojos", spat out as a term of abuse) destroying Belchite. Franco's dictatorship continued to kill republican civilians  as enemies of the state, not only during 
 the war, but as late as the 1950's . A large number of mass graves in Spain remain unmarked.

Since Franco's death, there has been a growing movement to find these dead. Some of the archaeologists in the International  Brigades Archaeology Project, who organised the dig we participated in, have  been actively involved in uncovering this past. They told us of villages whose residents, for the first time in more than 60 years, could point out the places where people had been killed and buried. Some unmarked graves had become places of veneration, which were not ploughed, but might be marked by a cross cut into a tree. Although the Francoists may have built roads or houses over the mass graves, people continued to leave flowers on the site, or scatter the ashes of the newly dead to join those parents or brothers or uncles buried there.

When professors from the university came to gather testimonies, the village hall  would be filled with those anxious to take part; and the archaeologists would find five hundred lined up to give DNA samples. For the first time, people were able to speak about the events of seventy  years ago; and to speak  in front of  ten, or a hundred people,  was a political act which took some courage.  Francisco  showed us a letter from a Francoist asking for forgiveness for his involvement in the killings.  Photos taken during the exhumations reveal a man hiding behind a tree as the team worked, still afraid; and  villagers crowding around the excavation site, while the son of an executioner stands to one side, apart from the others.

Those who had lost loved ones improvised mourning rituals during the opening of the mass graves  They might sing or read from the bible. When the bodies were removed and the grave stood empty, it gave the archaeologists an eerie feeling, as if the story was about to be repeated-  the people shot and tossed in again. In one photo, relatives had volunteered  to lie in the grave in the same position as the skeletons,  to reconstruct how they had fallen.

Primo Levi, a concentration camp survivor, said: "If understanding is possible, remembering is a duty".  One can sense in the team the passionate desire to be a part of this important reconstruction of historical memory.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Button and bullets

Field-walking on Thursday  : Belchite

Seventy-seven years after the noise, smoke, confusion of the battle here, the archaeologists and descendants walk under a peaceful blue sky ; in a long line across the ploughed field. Looking down, every few paces we find a piece of pottery, shrapnel or a button,  and mark it.We are doing field walking, then a search across the same area with a metal detector. We find a bullet, a coke can.

 Des, from Ireland, finds the big discovery, a hand grenade. He tells me digging brings you much closer to the land than being a tourist. What you find or don't find tells a story: after a battle, Republicans picked up metal because they needed to re-cycle it into new bullets. A mug he found in a trench made that connection to a person.

In this short week we have felt a bond grow, working with people from all over. Frieda from Glasgow lost her grandfather the retreat on March `1938, and the sacrifice changed her family. It was quite a long painful time before he was listed as "died in Spain".  Penny's Greek Cypriot father came to the States, then went to Spain as a volunteer to repair trucks. He came home but never talked to his child about Spain. Hardworking Louis (who biked through Khazakistan) and Morgan come from opposite ends of Canada, Sue and Bethan share the experience and stories of many digs they've been on.

Tonight we had our last dinner at the cafe, before we come home and they stay on another week.
After paella of rice with mussels and calamari and other mysteries, Wendy jokes ,"Oh look I found a bullet in my paella-Oh, no, it's a shell~!"

The boy from the Basque country sang his national song, and we replied with "Valley of Jarama",  and then sang our departure, from a song of the Internationals..."We will leave fight on other fronts"
"Ya salimos de Espana, por luchar en otras frentes"

Wednesday, 16 September
In the early morning light, Codo's streets are empty. Only the chattering of birds, and the distant tinkle of bells on the herd of goats walking to pasture. An old woman in a pinafore sweeps the  street in front of her house and disappears. All through the hot afternoon, the streets are silent. In the bar, there are few customers ; only a spaghetti western on televison, whose dry landscape seem very like Spain.
The clock tower strikes the hour, then strikes again four minutes later- all through the day and night.
And the older people look,and return a cautious, "Hola", after they have gone past. We wonder, does history sit heavily here?

We started digging early today, high on the plateau above town,with the sparse ground dampened by last night's thunderstorm and rain. The previous day's diggers had been forced to wrap bandanas around their faces to keep off the fine dust blowing in eyes, nose and ears, whipped up by the wind. Today, a mechanical digger made good progress clearing debris from the trenches; while we volunteers scraped the floor and walls of the sheep shelter. Traces of several cooking fires were found, along with fragments of glass and coal, to add to the remnants of meals found earlier- a few lamb bones and barley.

The journalist Alvaro Minguito and his cameraman David Fernandez interviewed the volunteers to find out why we had come to spain to take part in the project. In Belchite we  talked in the ruins of the town about our uncle Sidney Shosteck's death there. Elaine spoke of how his going to Spain had influenced our family; in our grandmother's grief, and the silence and loss of  family history caused by the McCarthy era in the US.  In the fifties, Brigaders such as Sidney were marked "premature antifascists" and fear for our father's job  cut us off from our mother's communist relatives.

Sidney was always there in the background, unspoken and unknown but someone whose deeply held convictions and desire to make the world a better place  served as a model for us.

Wendy described how we  reconstructed Sidney's story like a jigsaw puzzle from photos, letters, and newspaper clippings, . In the past  20 years, she had been privileged to meet many Brigadistas, and hear their moving testimony.

 The narrative now was given shape by being able to identify the streets Sidney walked down.Our job when we return will  be to fill out the picture.
In Belchite we laughed and sang with the 2 journalists. A very moving moment came when we stood  in a bombed out church. Near here, German planes had flattened many houses. We sang "Gehat hob ikh a heym", a deeply felt song of loss of home, written in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto.

"Once I had a home to comfort me..
the years I spent to build it, in one breath,
to rubble smashed it in a moment's time"

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Monday and Tuesday of dig, September 15 and 16

How do the team decide where to look and when to stop? We have moved on top of a plateau with an incredible view. The line of sight on the top of El Saso takes in a view of Codo, Belchite and beyond , and the road where the Lincoln Battalion advanced and retreated.  The artillery shell we saw lodged high in the side of a church in Belchite  came from this hilltop. We can see the hills spurs of Mediana where we dug Saturday looking for evidence of the British Battalion.

In  this site the leaders are uncovering with labor and backhoe a series of pillboxes and fortified positions, showing how the fight in Spain in the 1930's, often seen as a precursor of WW2, was at its start fought with the old tactics and tools of WW1 . Research had uncovered the plans for these defenses, made by an enthusiastic German engineer for the Nationalists.

Archaeology seems to me like a calculated treasure hunt. The trained eye see possibilities, adapts theories according to the evidence, digs, and sometimes finds nothing. But even finding nothing tells you something. Bethan from Wales described the great excitement in uncovering objects. Someone will ask : " how did you find that?"  and Bethany replies, " I worked my ass off digging all day!"

On this site they had found rusty springs, evidence of mattresses laid on the roof against mortar fire. Lamb bones from cooking or barley used for coffee  tell them about the soldiers who briefly stayed here. While most of the team continued digging, Elaine,Wendy and Gary set off with Sal half a  mile across the  fields full of rocks and stubble, to another site on the edge of the plateau.

Wendy, "Draw Me a Line" is an artist by trade. She was recruited to sketch a plan of  the building and bunker now used as a shelter by a farmer.  Gary "The Ruler" from North Dakota is a seasoned and lean  battlefield buff. He was eager to get in and discover passages in the bunkers. He has become The Ruler, because he knows his stride so well he can accurately pace off distances, and we use his pace and his height to measure  meters for Wendy's drawings. Elaine the Eraser looked after the elusive rubber when it bounced away in the rubble. It was like being back at work in her retirement: at home out in the wind and sun on top of the world,  measuring, recording and ending up with a drawing that can be used.

Above: respite from the sun;
below: the Popaloo in the field
The whole landscape is an artifact, whether we can see it or not. All of the tiny pieces connect to tell a forensic story. We can't dismiss the importance to the story of a  single bullet or a barley grain, in the same way that our little toe is vital to the whole body.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Old and New Belchite

Sunday 14 September

On the doorway of  St Martins' church in Belchite one of the last inhabitants wrote a touching farewell message : "Village of old Belchite, you will no longer hear children playing and singing, or  the traditional jota dances of our fathers". Its people were moved to the new Belchite in 1954, and the ruins left as a monument to the fallen Catholic martyrs on his side, a propaganda tool which children would brought to see.

Belchite was a name familiar to our family for many years as the place where our uncle Sidney Shosteck died. We made up our stories based on the few scraps left to us; a newspaper article, a few pages of diary, a letter. We made assumptions which we had to discard: Sidney buried in the olive press; leaving roses at the town fountain. We imagined a scenario where Sidney walked through the town gate, following a tank, and was shot from the church tower.

Now we learned that the Lincoln Battalion approached the fascist holdout in the church from the opposite side of town. We saw the building used first as a hospital, then as  the Falangist headquarters. This was where a fascist prisoner was leading a tank, followed by Sidney, when he was shot in the head from a high vantage point. It was clear that this must have been either the clock tower, or one of the buildings near it.

One of the archaeology team pointed out the house from which his family had been removed to the new Belchite, in the 1960's. Old Belchite had been a settlement from Roman times, where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together . It is so ironic that Franco was unable to succeed without involving the very people he wanted to remove from Spain.

As we went out the gate we met an Aragon fiesta party with women in traditional dress. It seemed an odd place to celebrate. A man asked us, "where are you from?"
-"Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales.".
He said emphatically, "NO, United Kingdom!"
Clearly he was strongly against the devolved powers and regional identity which threatened  Madrid's centralized control.  We have had many discussions amongst ourselves about this, as Scotland's referendum about independence will be held this Thursday.

 Interesting layers of graffiti - fascist, Anarchist, for Aragonese independence-on the walls  of the abandoned city showed the politics of the Civil War was still a burning issue.

The programme of  talks, and the various perspectives of the volunteeers  coming from diverse cultures and political angles, have provoked many stimulating ideas. Francisco Fernandez considered the effect of  war on contemporary society; the mass graves created not by war, but repression; counting some victims, and not others. The process of grieving was allowed f Nationalists but not Republicans, and  even today is a contentious issue. The poignant photo of Maria throwing flowers from  the side of the highway built over where her father died showed the continuing pain of loss.

General Franco declared he was "building a new Spain on the bodies of the fallen". He meant, only the winning side.  The fear created by decades of oppression is still felt over the issue of exhumations of Republican dead, which are not officially recognised. The bereaved often had to create rituals when these mass graves from the Civil War and after, were finally uncovered.  Only in the past decade could this digging for historical truth have occured.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

-First impressions of the project:
Volunteers and professional archeologists are staying at two Spanish Tourist board hostels. Almost 35 years after the dictator's death in 1975 , his traces remain; in the name of the street, Franco Street; in the Falangist symbol adorning a wall. The 12 volunteers come from
Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, the US and Canada: a diverse group coming to the project from many different angles.

 Saturday, 13 Sept:
We drove into the dusty hills to search out the evidence  left  by the British Battalion who had dug trenches here to stave off an advance.  In this arid isolated spot we were asked to imagine the barbed wire, the deep trenches, the mortar rounds . All over the hillside were bullets and metal objects on the ground or just below, traces of a few days of combat.  

Below the hill, was a Popaloo dry toilet, and a canopy for respite from the fierce sun . We followed a path up through thorny bushes to the top of the spur of hill  which gave an amazing view  of the countryside. Our job was to search with a metal detector. When it beeped,  we would scrape the surface to find German bullets fired from a mile away, bits of wire, pieces of metal ammunition boxes.. The trained archaeologists could see small anomalies on the hillside, which were then marked with a colored stick,. But in a short time, we could begin to sees objects lying on the ground.

After a break of crusty bread and lovely tomatoes, salami and fruit,  the positions of the finds we had marked were recorded calling out to a staffer with a transom on the next hill. Elaine was astonished at the detail of data: identifying each tiny piece of metal, each twist of wire... and giving it a number and location. Meanwhile Wendy was sweating at the top of the hill , cheerfully shoveling,carefully scraping in a trench, volunteers calling out for an identification when they found something they hoped was of interest.

Elaine was amazed that such seemingly unimportant objects could tell archaeologists a story: Russian bullets from 1917, German machine gun casings, a jug, ammunition boxes and unexploded mortars.

Through repetitive work in the sun and dust  personal and national histories are uncovered.
An International Brigader from Wales, Alun Menai Williams , was asked: What was Spain like?
 He replied , "I can't tell you- I only know the taste of the soil when you have your nose six inches from the ground, crawling".    But modern scientific techniques help put all the little pieces  together for a view a little
further off the ground.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Wendy & Elaine check the map the night before
Alan Warren has kindly sent this link to Bob Merriman's diary of 1937, with a description of Belchite and Sidney Shosteck's death there.

Saturday, 6 September 2014


On this dig in Belchite, we hope to recover some of the story of our mother's brother, Sidney Shosteck,who died there in 1937. Memories of the Spanish Civil War have been buried both in Spain and our family.