Spectres of Fascist Past Back to Haunt Spain
A new photographic exhibition raises ghosts from Spain that many would rather remain buried - mass graves from the civil war, reports Sarah Wildman
In early September, in the shadow of a Romanesque church in Porriño, a tiny town west of Vigo, near the Spanish Atlantic coast, a team of forensic archaeologists, volunteers and psychologists worked diligently, brushing at the earth with their bare hands, with paintbrushes, with delicate instruments.
A small crowd of locals gathered around them, fanning themselves in the heat, some standing a few feet away in the shade of the trees. In the near distance, the verdant hills of Galicia rose up; small children scampered between the gravestones of an ancient cemetery just a few yards away.
The work crawled along meticulously; when a recognisable artifact emerged, the onlookers would gather, clucking and murmuring amongst themselves. A collective sigh went up as a skull emerged, shattered by a bullet hole; two bony feet still wore boots.
The skull and the feet belonged to men who were executed here by the Falange, supporters of Francisco Franco in the early days of the Spanish civil war. They were thrown in this unmarked grave - one of hundreds like it still scattered across Spain - purposefully placed at the foot of the church, explained Javier Ortiz, the head forensic archaeologist, "So everyone would walk on them, forever desecrating them".
Two elderly men stood looking over into the pit. One remembered hearing the screaming, the shots. The other was looking for his father.
For 70 years, Spain has avoided such painful disinterment. Even though townspeople knew exactly where their neighbours were buried, it wasn't until 2000 when Emilio Silva, now the director of the non profit Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory (ARHM), set out looking for his own grandfather that work on these graves began - and even then only with great controversy. Many opined that to unearth and rebury would awaken the wounds of the civil war and divide the country once again. The effort to recover the past gained momentum in the early part of this decade, with individual families seeking answers about their personal pasts.
Ortiz and other forensic archaeologists like him go where they are invited by a family member and are supported by the ARMH. The week before I visited, he opened two graves a few miles north, near Ponteverde. Before that, his colleagues gathered on the other side of the country in Burgos to open another. Alongside the archaeologists, teams of oral history gatherers were hovered next to the grave sites as well. Working with ARMH, historians from the University of California San Diego and the University of California Los Angeles launched the Audiovisual Memory Archive Project this summer; it is the first major effort to record oral testimony from the victims of Francoist repression.
The rest of the country, though, has been slow to follow. "In Spain, reading history in school is like getting the Reader's Digest version of events," says Francesc Torres, a Catalan photographer.
At a later date in New York, I speak with Torres on the opening day of his exhibition, Dark is the Room Where We Sleep (Oscura es la habitacion donde dormimos), at the International Centre for Photography (ICP) in Manhattan. In a stark presentation of giant black and white prints, adhered to the wall with thumbtacks, Torres has done his part to retrace steps that have been obscured, culturally and politically for decades.
A skeletal hand still wears a wedding ring, glasses, buried in the dirt, are otherwise unscratched; a skull's jaw is open, as if screaming. These are among the dozens of photographs Torres began taking in 2004. In the town of Villamayor de los Montes, in the province of Burgos, 46 men, supporters of the Spanish republic and civilians, were killed on September 16, 1936. They were shot by Franco's troops and dumped into an open pit. Beer caps are littered among the shell casings. The dead were uncovered, recovered and reburied between 2004 and 2006. Torres captured it all. "History is resilient," he says. "You can cover it, but it's not going away."
Running until January, the ICP exhibit is actually an interconnected set of four installations. One features Torres's work, two others show the more famous photographs of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, two photographers whose work from Spain conveyed to the world the message that the civil war was the first battle of the second world war, a brutal conflict of democracy versus fascism and a chilling adumbration of the fascist atrocities to come. There is also a multimedia selection of photography and print culture produced during the war. The result is multidimensional and trans-historical - war as it happened, war in actuality, war in its aftermath and war in memory.
It is a groundbreaking project 70 years in the making. While Capa's works in anti-fascist conflicts - including Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936 - are often immediately recognisable - this is the first time Taro's work has been exhibited in her name (her work is often confused with Capa's).
Taro was a German Jewish émigré and an idealistic anti-fascist. It was a romantic identity: she and Capa met in Paris and fell in love; they ran down to Spain, joining a cadre of literary expatriate idealists including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. Eventually, the pair began publishing photographs signed together "Capa-Taro".
Taro was immensely brave; her battle photos rival for proximity those of Capa, and her series on orphans in Madrid and women in the morgue are particularly heartbreaking. She was killed in action - believed to be the first female photojournalist to die in the line of duty - in 1937. Capa's images are headlined, This is War!, a line taken from one of the photo-heavy magazines in which Capa was published during the civil war - Vu, Regards, Match, Picture Post and, of course, Life. On one wall, the photos are breathless work, removed yet present, running alongside the soldiers, feeling the impact of the shells.
Then the mood changes, slows, and reveals the human impact of the war with Capa's series on refugees bound for the French border as Catalan cities fell to Franco's troops, dragging their possessions. Women and men bear improbably large packages, everything they can carry, everything they owned in the world. The displaced are crowded in thick groups, bunched in depressing packs at train stations - 500,000 refugees fled Spain when Barcelona fell. They walked across the Pyrenees and went into exile in France where most were put into internment camps. Capa captured the melancholy of children, of farmers forced off land they had inhabited for centuries.
It is the human toll in This is War!, the displacement of peoples, the sorrow and devastation, that brings the exhibit back to Francesc Torres and the work of unearthing Spain's past, in the woods just yards away from where Capa's Leica camera captured his images. "I wanted to see if it was possible to recuperate an episode of the Spanish Civil War," Torres explained. "Thirty five thousand to 50,000 are still buried in open fields across the country." Spain is a country of mass graves. Off the battlefield, citizens and captured soldiers alike were marched into the woods. Political prisoners barely existed; they were killed before they could protest.
In 2000, when Emile Silva, the grandson of a republican murdered by fascist troops, set out to exhume the remains of own his grandfather it was the beginning of a conversation many Spaniards were not sure they wanted to have - and one that others had been waiting their entire lives to hear.
In the book accompanying the exhibition, Torres writes, "When you see an open grave you know, if you did not before, that it is absolutely necessary to recover the victims, to take them out of the gutters, the dumps, the wells, and the mines, all anonymous holes they were thrown into like animals. Some of these common graves are now underneath new housing developments, sports centres or supermarkets where people live, play and shop ignorantly... an open grave is a book with pages of earth where words are written with the letters of bodies, bones, fractures, bullet holes, Mauser bullet shells, hand gun shells, buttons, buckles, clothes, shoes, pencils, glasses, watches, and rings."
In Spain, officially, conversations about the war, executions and Franco's concentration camps did not take place. Franco, of course, ruled until 1975. The myth of Spain's post-Franco transition, explained Torres, "is that in 1975, Spaniards kissed each other on both cheeks and agreed to move on". In fact, there was a legally institutionalised amnesty for those who battled Franco, and those who worked for him, and a quasi-legal pact of silence frustrated the conversation. "The tendency in the country has been to associate a mild amnesia with political stability," he added.
But things have opened up further under Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the socialist prime minister. Last summer, he introduced a ley de la memoria historica, the law of historical memory, which proposed government funding for the opening of mass graves, and for the first time, promised restitution and recognition for the victims.
Fifteen months of debate found legislators divided along party lines over whether it provides enough, or too much, or shouldn't provide anything at all, toward recognising one side in the conflict. A breakthrough in October provided the first hope that the law will pass. "There can be a good use of memory," said Torres, "a setting the record straight, and making sure things like this never happen again".