Covering the Evacuation of the Refugees

By Albert Weisbord

It was time for me to get out of Spain, Valencia, Alaeria, Barcelona, and others, made me feel that gradually the noose was being drawn around the Spanish Republic. At the same time the sullenness of the masses, coupled with the continued preventative repressive measures of the government, presaged new battles to come of an even more terrible nature than before. Although I was invited by those in the government to stay around and see the fun, I considered that now was the time to leave Spain if I wanted to get out at all.

But before leaving this part of the country for good, I determined to see what the evacuation of refugees was like. Each week the French government sends a vessel, the Imetherie II, from Marseilles to Barcelona to take out refugees, Spanish and otherwise, who wish to leave Spain. The ship is under the watchful eyes of two representatives of the International Control Commission who hoist their peculiar white pointed flag with two balls painted on it, for all to see and take note. I was not aware of the fact, until later, that those who took the boat were, in the main, people who were afraid to leave Catalonia by train, that is, who were hostile to the Republic and therefore feared, whether justifiably or not, that they would be taken off the train and either arrested or shot.

These people had lived in Barcelona under the protection of various foreign consulates who understood that their charges must have the protection of foreign flags, otherwise their lot as refugees would not be an easy one. Most of the refugees on the trip I was to make were former nuns, pale, timid women bewildered and plainly incapable of adjusting themselves to the stern realities of the life they had found outside their cloister. Mingled with these nuns were a few families of the business world who had lost their all in the revolution and wanted to get out.... Then there were others.

Pressed in with these future passengers, then, and totally ignorant of the fact that we were looked upon with deadly hostility by the Valencia Carbineros who had replaced the Catalonians after the bloody May Days, I was pushed along into the locked large warehouse used by the customs authorities for the inspection of those leaving the country. Most of the voyagers, were playing safe and travelling very light. But I, not having been forewarned, had a big suitcase and plenty of literature. What is more, I had only my passport and press card to identify me.

As soon as I opened up my suitcase the customs official became extremely excited. First of all I had been foolish enough to keep with me an old map put out by the North German Lloyd Company which on one side contained a map of Germany and on the other a map of Europe giving in red and in blue the airlines and railroad routes from one city to another and also expressing in numbers the mileage and the hours it took to travel the distances. It was an ordinary map, but all maps were suspect in Spain and this was a German one. Then I had a large detailed map of Spain. It did no good to protest that I had received this from the Spanish Bureau of Tourism in Paris. It might have secret notations in invisible ink. I also had some pictures of the victims of the recent bombardment of Barcelona and, to cap it all, some literature of the various political organizations some of them not linked by the official. Then my name was German. In short, I could be nothing else but a German spy bringing out important information to Hitler.

I trembled at the fact that in my pocket of my topcoat flung carelessly next to the valise were highly interesting military notes that I had obtained in my visit to the Aragon front, notes that had been given me by the general staff at Sietamo. But fortunately, so eager was the official to bring me before his chief that he had scarcely time to give an order to his fellow officer to run through the valise carefully, when he had whisked me away for "special examination." Life moves swiftly in Spain these days. Gone is the old procrastination of "manana," perpetual delay till "tomorrow." Once suspect of being a spy, your life is not worth a Catalonian peseta in Franco's camp, which is not very much. Justice is swift and secret. No wonder, then, that I had a few jittery moments while I explained to the chief in charge the innocent character of my material. At last he gave the order to allow me to pass.

When I returned I found all my stuff in the suitcase had been gone over as with a fine toothed comb, everything was scattered on the floor and some of it was lost. But, what was most important, nobody had thought of looking in my topcoat. And so packing up my bag and throwing the coat nonchalantly over my arm, I went on to the next official in the line. This person was supposed to check up on the money each passenger took with him so that he did no take out more than he had come in with. But, as my listeners know, I had not been given any money authorized on my entrance into Spain, and so I had to turn over all my foreign money to the officials. Fortunately, however, again I had changed most of my money into American Express money orders which were worthless to the Spanish authorities and which they allowed me to keep.

But to make sure that I had really shown them all of the money in my possession, they sent me to another room to be searched. You can imagine my dismay when the officials began fishing into my topcoat and dragging out all the precious notes I had kept hidden from previous inspections. With these notes I had been given a special topographical map at military headquarters at the front. I had had the presence of mind to mail this map out of Spain. Had they found it on me, I certainly could not have been here to tell this tale. As it was, I do not know what gods there are that favor me, the officers scrutinized minutely the whole first part of the notes which were innocent enough and then rapidly scanned through the middle portions containing the military data. With a gruff grunt he handed the notes back - others had been arrested and killed for trying to take out similar notes - and I was finally allowed to pass on board the boat. I wiped my forehead, grabbed my valise and coat and rushed for the gang plank. At last I was under the French flag again.

I was one of the first passengers to board the Imetherie II, but I found ahead of me a faultlessly dressed passenger who, I was certain, had not passed through the customs. This individual was already ensconced in the best cabin in the ship. I should point out that the only accommodations for the some three hundred and fifty refugees who were to overcrowd the ship for the night trip to Marseilles were miserable bunks of straw in a filthy unventilated freight hold. On one side, toward the prow of the ship were two toilets used indiscriminately by men, women and children and adding their stench to the unbearable odor from the closely packed and sweating passengers. The hold, at best, should not have held fifty passengers, if any at all, but under this hatch there was supposed to be squeezed all the passengers they had shoved on board. Knowing, then, what kind of bunk had been given me, I became all the more interested in this favored passenger.

Walking around the ship I knocked into the delegates of the International Control Commission, an Englishman and a Dutchman. The British representative, I soon discovered, was a member of the British Naval Reserve. He evidently conceived his job on the commission as a fine opportunity to do some spying for the British Admiralty. His chief concern was the identity of every vessel, especially every ship of war, to be found in Mediterranean and Barcelona waters. The Dutch member, however, took his duties in reference to the Imetherie II, conscientiously. He was a newcomer on this route, having been stationed previously on the Portuguese side watching the Canary Islands, and he was a bit worried by the fact that the captain of the ship was not making him very welcome. Gloomily he told me that he had heard of some cases where the crew had become so hostile to the control committee on board that the members had not dared to get out of their rooms. As for the present vessel, things looked rather suspicious, he confided to me.

With that sort of opening, I was able to ask about the interesting passenger whom I had found on the ship and I was informed that this gentleman had come aboard in a very mysterious manner. Before the vessel had reached Barcelona harbor, a French destroyer had stopped the boat and placed this man aboard. Thus his presence was unknown to the Spanish authorities. While the stolid Dutchman was puzzling over this question, I made up my mind to do a bit of sleuthing on my own.

I was soon in conversation with the stranger. He told me that he was a "special aid" of the British consul at Alicante. But when I question the British member of the control I learned that there was no British consul at Alicante and that such small consulates never had "special aids." What was more suspicious was the fact that this Spaniard had no passport of any kind. Later he unburdened himself of the real facts. He was the son of a very wealthy aristocratic family now fleeing republican Spain. With the help of the French consul he had been able to get on board a French warship and then had been transferred to the refugee ship, since it would create a scandal for the French Navy to disembark private passengers. It was enough that the French Naval vessels had become ferry boats for the emigration of Franco's supporters who had been caught on the other side.

Where was my friend going? Well, he did not mind saying that he was going to Bayonne, a French city on the Bay of Biscay, and from there he would re-enter Spain to enlist on the side of the monarchists. But how would he get into France? He had no passports or papers of any kind. Oh, that was easy, he exclaimed. The French consul could take care of him.

Here was an interesting case worthy of any American writer's attention. I made it my business to check all these facts. Sure enough, as the boat docked at Marseilles and the immigration authorities came on board, one of the French consuls who had travelled on the boat with us took this stranger in first of all and made a special plea for him. The Spaniard was then given a special pass for debarkation and allowed to waive his vaccination, although all the rest of us had been forced to submit to this medical treatment.

Since I was the next one to get off the boat after he did, he stopped for me and asked me to help him get his papers in Marseilles, especially as the French consul could no longer be openly identified with him. I thus accompanied him to the prefecture of police at Marseilles and saw that it took only a short time to get him fixed up with the necessary papers to stay and travel in France, to enter England if he so desired, or to go to the Franco side of Spain.

Astounding, you may say, that the agents of the French People's Front Government professing friendship to the Spanish Republic, should be violating French law, Spanish law and the rules of the International Control Commission in order to help Monarchists escape from this Spanish Republic. But this was no isolated case of an accidental nature. I was to see further evidence of this same tendency. The officers of the French Navy, most of them members of l'Action Francaise, a French fascistic society, were evidently not in sympathy with the politics of their government.

As our ship, the Imetherie II, steamed out of the harbor of Barcelona, it was stopped and again a French warship drew alongside. This time, six more passengers were deposited. All of them were well within the draft age, all of them, like the first one, were Spanish and were thus violating Spanish laws in fleeing the country. All of them professed views friendly to Franco as I was to ascertain. And all of them were given special privileges on the boat.

Supposedly, every one was to be treated equally on this vessel, and nothing was for sale. But while the rest of us were given but one coarse meal during the first day out, these others could have theirs brought to their state rooms, and obtained the best on the boat in the way of food and drinks. They formed a special group apart from all the rest.

There was such a glaring contrast between this situation and the one that had confronted me when I had tried to enter leftist Spain that I determined to take up the matter with the representatives of the control commission on board the boat. But the British member declared his job was only to prevent the entrance of volunteers into Spain, not to report the escape of Monarchists from the Leftists. If the French Admiralty violated the laws of France or of Spain, that was not his business. If these favored refugees wanted to get into Spain on the other side, that was for the control in Western France to worry about. The Dutchman wanted to help but felt he could not if the British member would not cooperate. It was beginning to dawn on him, too, why he had not been made welcome on the ship. He promised to report the matter. And so it rested.

Thus my final farewell to Spain was like my first initiation to its borders. Around the volcano of the civil war in Spain there blew on all sides immense billows of smoke of intrigue, plots and conspiracies. Everyone apparently has a finger in the Spanish pie eager to pull out some sort of plum for himself. Neutrality and impartiality are birds entirely unknown in these parts. Were they to be seen, they would be shot on sight.