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GUERNICA: Bombardment & forced migration behind the painting

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Born in 1996 in Puertollano (Spain), Rafael Jimenéz Montoya is a student of Audiovisual Communication at the University of Granada. In love with the seventh art, he really enjoys going to the cinema, listening and playing music and the peace of the countryside.

By Rafael Jiménez Montoya 

Let’s go back to 1937. If we think we cannot overlook the key event that was taking place in that period of time: World War II. The conflict between the allies and the axies powers defined every single aspect of the daily life, even the arts. 

What comes to yourmind whentalking about Guernica?

Maybe you think of the famous Pablo Picasso’s painting? But probably many people will have only a sketchy idea of bombardments or children at risk. You should not talk about one thing avoiding to see the connection to the other one. In 1937, Spain was in the middle of its dramatic Civil War between republicans and fascists. On 26th April of that year, the German air force's Condor Legion and the Italian AviazioneLegionaria bombed a republican village in the middle of Spain, helping the fascist group in its way to victory. The objective? Civilians. 

This  terrible disaster was the first area bombing on civilian targets ever. According to that, an  enormous feeling of destruction was represented in Pablo Picasso’s painting. Although he had  the original idea before the attack, the  bombardment was the inspiration he was looking for (he had to have the painting ready for the International Exposition in Paris, where he had to represent the Republic of Spain). The result was an international famous painting and another success of this painter. Everybody knows about it, but is it the same with the bombardment itself? 

Spanish children of war as victims ofa confrontation of ideologies

It is undeniable that these kinds of disaster are frequently remembered and tend to mark a fixed date in the calendar. Moreover, such disasters could commemorate the life of innocent children during wartimes, for instance Coqué Martínez, a child who witnessed in first person this airplane battle, up to the point that he had to hide behind the trenches because the airplanes were shooting individuals. In our case, it is so shocking because we are not talking about the children as spectators of the bombardment - we are talking about a war where children were a primary target  of the bombardments. As I have said before, civilians were the objective of the bombs, just because they were in the middle of a confrontation of ideologies. 

Nearly 1.650 death victims, children forced to flee their homes, the food still on the table, running to the harbour, sleeping between flour sacks … These are just a few consequences of the bombardment of Guernica, which forced  more than 32.000 children to escape to Sweden, Denmark, Russia, France, Belgium, Mexico, and mainly to the U.K. Republicans decided the best way to protect their children was sending them far away from the country. These children could be far from the daily wars, but they couldn’t ever forget the sounds of the bombs destroying their daily lives.

Rescue Missionto the United Kingdom

Even when the British government was not very willing to support the immigration. However, they finally agreed under one condition: Spanish people should pay for the costs. Fortunately, these children of war, forced to move far from their lives, found  a way to go to the United Kingdom: In less than a month, the ship Habana was prepared for them and they met helpful people like Leah Manning (an English teacher and mediator between the two countries), who tried to give them happiness during these horrible times.

In order to organize the children, though, they were marked with labels indicating their control number, and by that, their destiny. Their parents had to turn the head because they just couldn't  face the fact of saying goodbye to their little sons and daughters, not knowing if they ever would see each other again. On the one hand, children found a huge amount of food inside the ship, and they could live a little bit better. On the other hand, there were no cabins: they had to sleep on the floor, and make themselves as comfortable as possible. 4.000 children sailing on a ship, with no blankets … Most of them got seasick and had to vomit. This was  followed by further problems (such as the horrible smell, people rolling on the floor …). Furthermore, as if they haven’t suffered  enough problems, in the moment they had left Spain a battle-ship of Franco's fashist army threatened to bomb their home town again in the case they didn’t turn back. Fortunately, the events of Guernica did not take place again, so these 4.000 Spanish children of war could arrive to England.

It is difficult to be a forced migrant person (we can see it in the current situation of Spain), but it is even more difficult when you have never gone abroad before. Spanish children got surprised because of the double-decker buses, and the clothes of the English people, and of course they did not understand them. However, they found a good home: a camp in Eastleigh, where they saw their first movies and played some activities with other English children… During 4 months, it was their ideal house.

Nevertheless, everything comes to an end. After the summer of 1937, the children had to go with families, get adopted or live in orphanages. Moreover, they had to be “profitable”, so they started working (for example, boys went to the brickyard). It was the only way to keep the pour economy of the British colonies.

Franco threatens parents to fetch back their childrens 

As we have seen, this migration was a salvation from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. But in 1939 it ended up. Franco gained  the power in Spain, so he tried to make children come back. Obviously, the parents of these children of war missed them so much, but they knew they should not come back. Even the children did not want to face the poor life conditions of post-war Spain. How should parents get   their children back, when it means to make them live a hard daily-life?  But it was not something you just could decide. The government put a pressure on them to ask for their children to return them to their original families; if not, they were threatened with prison. In conclusion, at the end of 1939, most of the exiled children had to come back to Spain. Just 500 children stayed in the U.K.

These children of war, who stayed in the U.K. expected that the allies   would attack Franco so that they could go back to their country. But then, they had to face a hard but the likeliest possibility: They had to stay there, with no other choice.

In the end, they had to build their lives in another country, with other people but always with some other children of war that suffered the same horrible circumstances. But also, these grown-up children suffered from loosing their Spanish origin and had to answer these two big questions: Who  am  I?  Where am I from?  Most of them had successively forgotten the Spanish language, some of them hadn’t been able to forget their country, their dreams and memories, even if they lived in England most of their lives. 

Learning from history means going below the tip ofthe iceberg

These lines show  just the tip of the big iceberg called Guernica. It is the hidden history behind the famous painting of Pablo Picasso. I wanted to talk about the children of Guernica, and not about the painting, because the painting is clearly a fact that almost everyone has heard about. But what about the children of Guernica? How to commemorat them? Are they a forgotten fact of our history? In Eastleigh, the main city that took in the Spanish children, they commemorate the anniversary of the arrival of the Basque children (in 2007,  they celebrated the 70th anniversary).

Furthermore, the children of war (currently old men and women) usually meet each other every month. But, what about Spain? If you ask anybody about Guernica, what is the answer? Children of war were just another consequence of the atrocities of the war, so they are not specifically commemorated. In England, the migration was a surprising phenomenon, but in Spain people look at the war as a big and problematic period of time with no specific details and turn their attention to easier things to understand, like for instance a famous painting of famous Pablo Picasso. Of course they commemorate the anniversary of the bombardment, but once more it is as a big event. By all means,  it is not bad at all, but sometimes we should pause for a moment and think about important details like those children who had to escape from their native country.

Children of war have voices, but the problem comes when we have no ears to listen to them. We have eyes to see a painting, but we are not willing to discover what is behind the painting. We have eyes, but we need ears to reach a level below the tip of the iceberg. 


Documentary film “Los Niños de Guernica tienen memoria (The children of Guernica do remember)”: https://vimeo.com/43027787 

Recording broadcast “The children of the Spanish Civil War”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jwjw0   


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