Standing Amid the Olives Groves

(This is a story written by Jamie, a piece of creative writing in 2008)

¡Viva la Republica! With the revival of our Pasiones folk cabaret, I realize how much more I know and feel about the Spanish Civil War, having been to Spain and had this experience, and said good bye to my friends who were part of the Lincoln Brigades 75 years ago…

It was February 1937. We had a hospital set up in Jarama on the Madrid front. The men from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade there sang a song to the tune of Red River Valley: “There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama, it’s a place that we all know too well, it was there that we gave of our manhood, it was there that our first comrades fell”. We who left part or our hearts in Spain, who left a job unfinished, will never forget this song. The wounded lay on the floor and two or three to each bed. There was a boy there on the operating table.The doctor said: “He doesn’t understand English. Tell him we’re going to operate.” The boy’s name was Peter. I spoke to him in his language. He said: ‘I know I’m dying. Don’t leave me. Promise me before I die you will keep fighting for Spain and for what is right.’ I promised him. He said: ‘Sing me the cradle songs. Sing me the old songs. Sing to me.’
(Lini De Vreis, Spanish Civil War nurse)

Here is a blog I wrote in 2008 after my trip to Spain

photo by Willem O’Reilly


The most emotional day of our trip to Spain is Saturday, April 26 when we are hosted by Ana Perez and Juan Carlos– two of the Amigos of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Madrid, who drive us south of the city and we visit Jarama Valley, the battleground of the Spanish Civil War, honored in the song Jarama, Alex McDade’s lyrics, written to the tune of Red River Valley.

It was made famous by Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers. We sing it at the end of Pasiones. Hear Woody Gutherie here.

Ana and Juan Carlos show us the hills where Franco’s Army of Africa battled the Republicans, and we stand on the bridge crossed by the International Brigadistas. The battle marked the trial by fire for American volunteers, new to Spain, who lost 125 comrades (of the 500 there) , and suffered brutal injuries in extreme conditions.

Despite the devastating toll to the Brigade, and low morale due poor choices on the part of the leadership, the Republican side held their own for weeks, and the battle ended in a stalemate.

In this area there are a few scattered International Brigade memorials, in the fields, or in a town park, nothing drawing attention to them – no signs or billboards announcing the landmarks off the highway.

We sense the power of the place, as we look over the valley from where the great  legend of the Lincolns crossed the Atlantic, and made its way into our films, songs and poetry.  Juan Carlos, who is part of an effort to identify remains of the SCW disappeared, (and is later quoted in the New Yorker during the controversy about uncovering of the mass grave where Lorca was buried), tells us the some people say to him:

It was a dark time, let it go, why bring up the past?

We drive to a site hard to find without a map or marker, but Ana knows it based on years of experience bringing people here.  We are looking at “Suicide Hill”, (the story is in the song Gunner Name of Bill, Michael wrote for Pasiones). Across from the hill, among the brush, is a pile of stones and old, worn metal objects from mess kits and food tins. There’s a scrawled sign to Kit Conway of the O’Connor Brigade, Ireland, who gave his life February 1937. The sign was written by Kit’s best friend Bob Doyle, who was there, too in 1937, but was spared. Bob visits every year.

The biggest man-made memorial in this area is a well-wrought sculpture of two hands wrapped in each other. It overlooks primitive caves and trenches dug deep in the earth –still untouched and in tact since 1937. Peter Carroll’s book Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade says some of these trenches were dug with penknives or by hand.

There are no park rangers or security, pamphlets or groundskeepers, no roped off areas, or benches for visitors. The rose bushes planted there are dry and in need of care. New paint covers the recent work of vandals–who scrawl fascist slogans and deface the monument.  An unsolicited metal cross was placed at the base.

Olives groves near Jarama

After Jarama, we go to the tiny Museum Batalla del Jarama, in the town of Morata de Tajuna. It’s a small museo, in a barn, sharing property with a restaurant whose proprietress today sits at a card table with a cash box. She tells us there is wedding reception going on but we are welcome to eat.  Under the grapes arbors are the remains of a cocktail hour – and tables of appetizers we’ve never seen before, like tiny deviled quail eggs.

We eat a meal of paella, and then Goyo, (Gregorio Salcedo Diaz) comes to the table. He speaks no English, but smiles with his eyes and we communicate.

The museum is his lifetime project. Giant pottery jugs, sheepskin flasks, and an olive press – two huge stones stacked on top of one another– guard the entrance.

On the right is a museum to Spanish country life, a family bed with a lace coverlet, wedding photos from the early 20th century, carved wooden bureaus, and rustic tables and chairs create a bedroom scene. There’s also a model 1936 schoolroom, with tiny desks and “manners” books for women. Crude tools, plows, axes, cooking pots, and horse saddles hang on the walls.

To the left of the museum is a memorial to the dead of Jarama, and a thank you to the soldiers who fought there.  There are the papers, passports, ink bottles, shoe insoles, whiskey flasks, helmets, spades, and personal effects left behind. Unexploded grenades, bomb casings, bullets and rifles are in glass cases. Tattered, poorly preserved local newspapers of the day show photos of the soldiers in the very same trenches we just walked, wearing Russian issued helmets and holding antique rifles, and in other pictures are people from the town, who stand in the streets holding their arms up in surrender.

Recent photos are from the Homaje (Homecoming) in 1996, when surviving veterans of the Brigades visited the site, and there are books of signatures of families who come to pay their respects at the museo.

Goyo tells us he goes to the hillsides with a metal detector and finds grenade pins, mess kits, forks and knives, and bullet cartridges, which go to the museum.

From the hills of Jarama 70 yrs later

My daughter takes a photo of four brown bars in a case, the sign says: This is not chocolate, this is a piece of a mine.

At the end of the little room, with only Ana and Goyo standing with me, I sing a verse of Jarama while we stand beside an easel that holds the words to the now famous song—

There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama  It’s a place that we all know so well. It was there that we gave of our manhood. Where so many of our brave comrades fell.

We are silent for a minute. Then Goyo gives me a wooden and brass two-tiered pencil box with some of those found objects, tiny stones, a bullet, a grenade pin, shrapnel and what appears to be what’s left of an Officer’s metal, with a shredded red ribbon and broken clasp.

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