Tag Archives: Europe

The fourth man of California

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Comrades, the doors opened, and slavery ended, breaking the heavy chains that oppressed youth. Be rebellious and never daunt before the enemy oppressor”

(The 1938 Fort San Cristóbal escape anthem written by Rogelio Diz Fuentes, Prisoner #1104, and Daniel Robado, Prisoner #1133)

Next May 22 marks the 75th anniversary of the massive escape from Fort Alfonso XII, also known as Fort San Cristóbal, which became one of the largest and most tragic prison breaks, during wartime, in contemporary Europe. However, History has not been too keen on recording this episode compared with similar events. Paul Brickhill’s autobiographical book “The Great Escape” (1950) narrates the heroic prison break of 76 allied prisoners of war from the German Stalag Luft III camp (Żagán, Poland) in March 1944. Fifty escapees were caught and murdered by the Gestapo, and only 3 succeeded by reaching Sweden and Spain, which were neutral territories during World War II. The story was immortalized by the memorable film “The Great Escape” (1963). On the other hand, in the case of the escape from Fort San Cristóbal, 795 people broke free, 206 were murdered, and, coincidentally, only 3 succeeded by crossing the French border. Contrarily, only silence, fear, and brutal repression resulted from this prison break.

Fuerte San Cristóbal / EzkabaAerial view of Fort San Cristóbal-Ezkaba. Image source: Iñaki Sagredo ©.

Located at the top of San Cristóbal or Ezkaba Mountain, a few miles away from Iruña (Nafarroa), the fort was built as a military compound between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Obsolete for its original purpose, the fort was turned into an improvised political prison from the very beginning of the Spanish Civil War until 1945.

Although it is difficult to know the exact number of inmates at the time of the escape, it is estimated that there were approximately 2,487 prisoners from different areas of Spain. Many of them were affiliated to or sympathizers of leftist and nationalist political parties and trade unions as well as soldiers and militiamen, loyal to the Republic and the Basque government. The harsh living conditions within the fort walls, hunger, sickness and the sadistic behavior of some wardens fuelled the prison break with the clear political goal of continuing the fight against the rebel troops. A planned mutiny led by Leopoldo Picó Pérez (Prisoner #319) and Baltasar Rabanillo Rodríguez (Prisoner #1012)—communist militants from Bilbao and Valladolid, respectively—resulted in freeing one-third of the total prison population. Many were ill-prepared for the escape, without provisions and proper clothing.

During the following days, nearly 28% of the escapees were brutally murdered by Francisco Franco’s army in the nearby fields and mountains, while the rest of the men were soon captured enduring forty days of isolation and inhuman treatment. Thirteen so-called leaders, including Baltasar, were sentenced to death. Leopoldo was also intercepted and brought to prison. He was shot without trial. Another 46 captured fugitives died in the fort between 1938 and 1943 due to sickness and sordid cruelty.

Only 3 men—Valentín Lorenzo Bajo, José Marinero Sanz, and Jovino Fernández González—as it was documented later on, succeeded in getting to the French border, 30 miles away from the fort.

However, the story did not end here. In 1998, a man visiting from California had a series of casual encounters with six different people in an area from where he recalled escaping to France after fleeing away from Fort San Cristóbal sixty years earlier. The man told them that he was born in Azagra (Nafarroa) in 1918, being imprisoned in the Ezkaba fort from where he broke free in 1938. He finally managed to cross the border, finding refuge in Martin Urrels’ farmhouse in Banka. There, he learnt about Martin’s two brothers, Michel and Jean, who lived in the Cedarville area, California, working as sheepherders. Michel and Jean had immigrated into the United States in 1910 and in 1914, respectively. From France he left to Mexico, crossing the border to California, where he worked for the Urrels brothers for a few years. The man went to explained how he enlisted in the United States Army during World War II, being deployed to Europe as part of a tank battalion. After the war, he got involved in the trucking business that his sons inherited.

This was the story as remembered by some of the people who met the strange visitor. In his 80s the man from California decided to reencounter the past through revisiting his memories. Though his identity is still a mystery, the story should corroborate the existence of a fourth escapee. This could mean that the Ezkaba escape was the most successful prison break in contemporary Europe.

Back in 1938, Diario de Navarra, a local newspaper, published a distorting note on the tragic event, while describing the escapees as “murderers, robbers, and thieves who had abused the human regime of Franco’s Spain.” The escape was another clear example of the official amnesia imposed by Franco during his four-decade dictatorial regime. However, it became part of the collective memory of many who never forgot May 22, 1938. In 2000, the Association Txinparta was set up to recover the historical memory of the Fort of San Cristóbal prisoners between 1934 and 1945. Similarly, in November 2002, the Association of the Family Members of the Executed, Murdered and Missing People in Navarre in 1936 was also established to honor the memory of more than 3,300 people who were murdered in Nafarroa during the Spanish Civil War. In 2006, Iñaki Alforja directed the documentary “Ezkaba, the great escape from Franco’s jails”.

If you have any information on the Fort San Cristóbal escape and, particularly, on the identity of the fourth man please contact us by sending a message. We would love to hear from you!

Many thanks to Fermín Ezkieta for sharing his excellent and extensive work on the history of the escapees from Ezkaba.

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Recap: Volume II, 2012

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The year 2012 marked the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of thousands of Basque children as a result of one of the darkest periods in European contemporary history—i.e., the Spanish Civil War. Its consequences in Basque soil were shattering, particularly for the civil society and its children. In 1937, over thirty small towns and villages in Bizkaia were intentionally bombarded by Generalissimo Francisco Franco´s Nazi allies to demoralize the Basque resistance. This provoked a massive organized departure of its youngest population. Some of the children were exiled to the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, having to endure, also, the outbreak of World War II. Many of them even enlisted in the Red Army (“No place for children,” March post).

Some of the children´s testimonies were collected in an oral history video—“Gure Bizitzen Pasarteak—Fragments of our Lives”—as part of an ongoing project that also took me to the land of the Basques in the United Sates (“#EuskalWest2012,” September post). The research attempts to uncover the lives of Basque migrants and exiles who had returned to the Basque Country as a way to make sense of the “injured” collective memory of an entire generation, which, undoubtedly, needs to be healed by acknowledging their sacrifice and suffering (“Mundos invisibles”—“Invisible worlds,” November post).

America was quite present in the blog throughout the year. It is well known the historical significance of this continent for the Basques as it has become a second home for hundreds of years, weaving a tight web of emotional geographies (“Etxea”—“Home,” April post). It is also known, to a certain extent, the relevance of some of the Basque migrants and descendants in the history of their countries of residence as in the cases of Julián Irízar (Argentina) and Jean Esponda (United States). Basque-Argentinian Lieutenant Commander Irízar led a successful rescued expedition in 1903 to the Antarctica, which also became the first official voyage of Argentina to the continent. One of the islands in the Antarctic Argentine Islands was named in his honor (“The Irízar Island,” February post). On the other hand, Johnson County, Wyoming, designed a flag to commemorate the State Fair´s 100th anniversary, which depicts the Ikurriña or Basque flag in order to honor the county´s Basque origins. This goes back to the arrival of Jean Esponda in 1902 from the Old Country. The Johnson County´s flag is the first official Basque flag outside the European homeland (“The Flag,” August post).

Also, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Basque Fellowship Society “Euskal Erria” (Sociedad de Confraternidad Vasca) from Montevideo (Uruguay), the Basque Center Zazpirak-Bat from Rosario (Argentina), and the Basque Home (Euzko Etxea) from Santiago de Chile (Chile). These diaspora associations as many others worldwide are good examples of tenacity and steadiness (“ehun”—“100,”May post; “En nuestro propio mundo”—“In our own world”, June post, respectively).

Similar to last year, the most visited post also happened to refer to politics (“Tiempo de promesas”—“Time for promises,” October post). In the occasion of the elections to the Parliament of the Basque Autonomous Community, I attempted to explain the reasons behind the traditional low participation of diaspora Basques, and the importance, in my opinion, for the diaspora to be involved in homeland politics. It is there where diaspora politics are designed and shaped. It is there where the voices of the Basques abroad need to be heard.

Confronted with one of the most acute crisis that recent generations have witnessed, let´s remember Viktor Frankl´s— a Holocaust survivor—words, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Indeed, new but difficult times are ahead of us (“Tiempos nuevos”—“New times,” December post).

In June, Basque Identity 2.0, celebrated its 3rd anniversary. Special thanks to our colleagues from eitb.com, A Basque in Boise, and About the Basque Country for their continuous support.

Thank you all for being there. I would love to hear from you. Happy New Year!

Eskerrik asko eta Urte berri on!

(NOTE: Please feel free to use Google automatic translation service…it seems to have improved, just a little bit).

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True or false…Sodom and Gomorrah, the Trojan War, and the Basclenses

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“Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire”

(John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1950)

When does history become legend and myth? What is real and factual and what is imagined and fictional in History? If History as the discipline to analyze the past means time—chronological and historical time—and memory is essentially the mechanism to remember or not-forget it, then what role do written and oral memory play in our understanding of history?

What happens when the transfer of our knowledge and collective memory get lost and buried in the mists of time, waiting to be awaked? How can we make sense of our history when some of the oldest vestiges of our common past are considered unreliable and non-scientific sources by Western academic standards?

With the development of History as a modern academic discipline during the 19th century in Western Europe, it was generally agreed that the events and stories narrated, for instance, in the Bible, in the Ancient Greek literature, and in many of the Medieval chronicles never had happened. These are, for example, the stories of the biblical “cities of the plain,” which included Sodom and Gomorrah, the Homeric’s city of Troy in Ancient Greece, and Monmouth’s story about the population of Ireland by the “Basclenses”—the ancient Basques, according to author Julio César Santoyo. That is to say, Sodom and Gomorrah, Troy and its famous Trojan War and the romantic story between Paris and Helen had never existed, and obviously Ireland’s current inhabitants had nothing to do with the Basclenses, whoever they might be. These historical sources were defined as literary, epic, and mythical manuscripts that described supposedly factual events that had taken place several hundred years before recording them. Consequently, these documents and other many similar ones were thought to be untruthful and unreliable sources of history.

However, some historians and archaeologists believed that there might be some truth to these myths and legends, though they did not faithfully represent actual events. There was also some degree of attraction of finding something it was thought to be lost forever or discovering some scientific evidence that could question some historical unadulterated truth it was thought to be unchallengeable. In this regard, in the 1870s Heinrich Schliemann, following Homer’s geographical descriptions, discovered some ruins that were identified with Homer’s Troy (2,500 BC) in the northwest of Anatolia (Turkey). The mythological city where a war took place between the Trojans and the Achaeans as described in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (900-800 BC) had actually existed.

The Hebrew Bible (200 BC) mentions how Yahweh punished and destroyed by fire and brimstone the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their unrepentant sins. In the 1960s, the Early Bronze Age (3,200-1,950 BC) sites Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira, located nearby the Dead Sea in Jordan, were identified as the possible places for Sodom and Gomorrah, respectively. Although there is no scientific consensus on the cities’ real location, most historians do not question their existence. According to geologists their destruction could have been most likely caused by an earthquake as the settlements were suddenly abandoned.

The History of the Kings of Britain (ca 1136) is a compilation of various earlier books, being the oldest from the 6th century, and which were expanded by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It recounts the history of Britain from its foundation by Trojan War exile Brutus, and it includes a detailed chronology of legendary kings of Britain. In the Chapter XII of the Book III, Monmouth recounts the story between the King Gurguit Barbtruc and Partholoim (or Partholón) and his people settlement (2,000 BC) in today´s Ireland:

“When Gurguit Barbtruc was returning home via the Orkney Islands after his victory, he came upon thirty ships full of men and women. Gurguit asked what they were doing there. Their leader, whose name was Partholoim, went up to Gurguit, did obeisance to him and asked for his pardon and peace. Partholoim then described how he had been expelled from certain regions in Spain and how he was now cruising in those waters in search of a land where he might settle. When Gurguit Barbtruc learned that these men came from Spain and were called Basclenses, and when he understood just what they wanted of him, he ordered his representatives to go with them to the island of Ireland, which at that time was a completely uninhabited desert. He granted the island to them. They have increased and multiplied there and they still hold the island today.”

Could the Basclenses be identified with today’s Basques? Do the Irish and the Basque share a common origin? Despite the fact that the historicity of many of the events described in historical sources including The History of the Kings of Britain are still subject to heated debate, the passage of time has also given scientists the opportunity to develop new tools to unearth the past.

Genographic Project_Basque MapThe Genographic Project Basque Map: “Basque genetic uniqueness predates the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula some 7,000 years ago” (Map source: The Genographic Project, National Geography, March 2012)

Here, for instance, is The Genographic Project, which was launched in 2005. The project aims at carrying out research on Y-chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA with the goal of tracing genes to reconstruct past human mobility in order to understand how our ancestors populated the planet. Back in 2010, Brendan Loftus’ research team have sequenced the first entire genome of an Irish person. By comparing common similarities between the Irish and the Basques, the genetic evidence shows that The Irish and Basques share by far the highest incidence of the [Y-DNA] R1b gene in Europe, which has a frequency of over 90% in Basque country and almost 100% along parts of Ireland’s western seaboard.” In other words, “both, the Irish and the British are Basques.” According to scientist Stephen Oppenheimer, the ancestors of current Basques had settled in this part of northwestern Europe at the end of the last Ice Age (15,000-7,500 BC) by just walking at the time when the sea levels were low. Evidence also suggests that there is a genetic continuity between contemporary Basques and the population that lived in the same region at least for the last 8,000 years.

Could these findings corroborate Monmouth’s story about the Basclenses migrating from Iberia to ancient Ireland? What do you think?

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Trust

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“It is my notion that if a society has invested years of energy, time and money in creating division, it will take years of investing energy, time and money to rebuild the relationships that have been torn apart”

(John Paul Lederach)

Lederach, a world-renown peace analyst and facilitator from the United States, pronounced these words in October 1996 at a conference in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. I just moved to Belfast and missed the opportunity to meet him. According to Lederach, time and trust would be the main ingredients for a sustainable peace in the region. There was also a need for money and investment in one of the most impoverished areas of Europe at the time.

Two years earlier, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Combined Loyalist Military Command have declared their respective cease-fires. Within this context the European Commission rapidly created a special Task Force to identify how the European Union could best assist the incipient peace process, to Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland in consultation with the national authorities. The Task Force proposed to the European Commission a special support program as the European Union has a clear interest and vital role to play in maintaining the momentum for peace and reconciliation. In this sense, the European Commission has shown increased interest in the area of conflict resolution, in current problems such as in the Basque Country. In July 1995, the European Commission approved the “Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation” with a budget of 500 million Euros for 1995-97, which was later extended for the periods 1997-99, 2000-04, and finally for 2004-06. On April 10, 1998, the Multi-Party Talks ended in an agreement, the so-called Belfast or Good Friday Agreement. One month later the Agreement was supported by a majority of 71% of the population of Northern Ireland in a referendum process.

peace_logo_pro

For three years I conducted research at Queen´s University of Belfast on the “Peace Programme” and the role of the civil society articulated by voluntary and community groups in West Belfast, in both areas the Catholic and Protestant. It was a new academic field for me; not directly related to Basque studies or the Basque diaspora, but soon I relized the significance of the programme for its potential application to the Basque case. By facing the crude reality of the consequences of many decades of destruction at all levels—physical and moral—and learning from the silent daily work of many people on the ground I began to understand the meaning of big words such as “PEACE,” “RECONCILIATION,” “CONFLICT,” “MEMORY”…Building trust was their first and main goal. Both main communities at the ground level, through imaginative programs, were building bridges of trust with their grass-root work—from ecumenical homes as symbols of reconciliation between faiths and peoples to mixed kindergartens where children could play together and share different cultural traditions.

On October 20, 2011 ETA announced the “definitive cessation of its armed activity,” opening a new era in our lives, in our individual and collective history and memory. The lessons learned in the Irish case may encourage the European Union to support programs for peace and reconciliation as a way to generate ideas and mechanisms to apply to similar situations such as the one in the Basque Country. However, I believe it is the civil society the one that needs to lead the changes that we all want to see. We cannot go back and change the past, but it is up to us to build our future together. How would you imagine it? How would you like to remember our future? The way we wish to remember our future is the way we should live our present. It is about time and trust.

We have the last word.

Me queda la palabra.” En el Principio (in “Pido la Paz y la Palabra,” 1955) by Blas de Otero (1916-1979).

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connected…lertxun marrak, the “Republic of Letters,” and the dabbawala‏s

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“Think on the last 24 hours of your life. And now ask yourself what percentage of that time you have devoted to think on social issues. You will discover that it has been 99% of the time. How is your wife? And your child? And the person who works with you?”

(Michael Gazzaniga, 2011)

Leading neuroscientists such as Gazzaniga argue that humans are inherently social creatures. According to them, being social is one of the characteristics that make us unique from other species. That is to say, the more intelligent we are, the more social we are. Then, the more social we are, the more experienced we are, which, in turn, facilitates what we are and what we achieve. Undeniably, the fact that we have developed a complex language has provided us with the ability to express ourselves, communicate, and transfer knowledge. Our desire for being social is at the core of the development of an increasing array of tools and resources, which have helped us to be in contact with each other (e.g., lertxun marrak); to create networks and communities of knowledge regardless of time and space (e.g., the “Republic of Letters”); and to establish low-tech supply businesses such as the one of the dabbawalas, and which may seem anachronic in a world increasingly determined by technology.

Tree carvings (arborglyphs) or lertxun marrak (in the Basque language) have been part of the American West landscape since the massive influx of Basque migrants from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. The majority of the young Basque men from France and Spain who came to America worked in the sheep industry as sheepherders and camp tenders. Their jobs required to work in the sierras for extended periods of time and demanded physical and mental strength. The feelings of isolation and loneliness experienced by Basque sheepherders provoked on some of them mental illnesses and drove some others to commit suicide. Names, dates, human and animal figures, phrases, poems, warnings for other sheepherders, were carved on the bark of thousands and thousands of aspen trees, thereby recording the historical presence of Basques in the most remote areas of the American West. The tree carvings are not only “banal” expressions of Basques’ identities, dreams, nightmares, and artistic ability, but they are also a “primitive” information and communication system, which desperately attempted to break down the barriers of the physical and mental isolation imposed on them.

Joseph C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, pioneers in promoting the development of the Internet in the early 1960s, had begun to conceive of the computer as a communication device more than a calculating machine. That is, they forecast computers as machines able to create communities, bounded by common interests and not by space or time. This idea echoes the “Republic of Letters” that described the exchange of private correspondence between philosophers and other influential intellectuals from the 15th century to the 19th century in Europe and America. The development of various “Republic of Letters” was linked to the invention and further improvement of the printing press, which meant a technological revolution in terms of dissemination of information and ideas. Similar to the carvings on the bark of trees, the ink on the paper draws maps of social connections, which, in this case, transcended the thinkers’ immediate communities. This proves that there was a great need for sharing ideas and experiences across borders. The “Republic of Letters” constituted informal social networks based on scholarly, literary, and artistic correspondence, which facilitated the circulation of information and exchange of ideas.  The “Republic of Letters” became the foundation of today’s scientific knowledge communities in the Western world.

The dabbawalas (literally, “one who carries the box”) are self-employed workers associated to the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association, and whose main job is to deliver lunches in tin boxes from the homes of their customers to their work places on a daily basis and for a very low monthly fee. The origin of the business dates back to the late 19th century when India was under British rule. A system was set up to distribute British-style (home cooked) meals to British workers in Mumbai. Soon, Indians became the primary customers of the dabbawalas. The impossibility for workers to go back to their homes during lunch time makes the work of the dabbawalas essential to establish the connection between individuals and their families’ home cooking. Often, the lunch boxes also include messages between home and the family member. In a city with nearly 14 million people, the dabbawalas rely on local trains and bicycles to carry out their deliveries in an area from 60 to 70 kilometers. Around 5,000 dabbawalas deliver approximately 200,000 lunches every day. Most of the dabbawalas are male, have a low level of formal education, and do not rely in modern technology to manage the logistics of the business. They do not use any electronic barcode system or tracking device. However, their distribution system is extremely accurate. (Just recently, the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association has set up a website and a text messaging system to take orders.) The tin boxes are color-coded with small series of letters painted by hand that identify the destination and the recipient as well as the railway stations to be used to deliver them efficiently. The boxes can change hands three to four times until it reaches the customer. After lunchtime, the empty boxes are collected and returned to the respective houses. In 2002, Forbes Magazine awarded the dabbawala supply-chain business a Six Sigma performance rating on the basis that only 1 in 16 million tins get lost (i.e., 1 tin gets lost every 2 months). Its reliability rivals with the best global logistic businesses in the market.

The previous examples are all attempts to connect. We all have the need to express ourselves and to establish communication with others, particularly when facing acute isolation. There is a further need to transfer information and ideas across continents as well as to establish connections between people in the most populous metropolitan areas of the planet.

Are you socially connected?

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