The Spanish Civil War: Basque Refugee Children (1936-39)

Spanish Civil War Basque refugee children
Figure 1.--The Basque country as the Spanish Civil War unfolded was aRepublican stronghold. With Franco's Nationlist forces driving into the Basque country, the Government chartered ships to evacuate the children. Here are some of the Basque refugeee children's ships arriving in Southhampton (May 1937).

A special group of Spanish refugees were Basque children. The Basques in northwestern Spain had resisted Franco and Basque towns were subjected to aerial bombardment. A naval embargo precented food and other supplies from reaching Bilbao and other cities. Food supplies declined and the situationnin the city deteriorated. After the bombing of Guernica (April 1917), the autonomous Basque Government, loyal to the Republic, issued an appeal to save Basque children. Seven countries responded: Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and Switzerland. Mrs. Roosevelt backed an American effort, but opposition from the Catholic Church prevented American action which required Congressional action. About 20,000 children aged 2-14 years were evacuated from the Bilbao region. (Some accounts indicate 25,000 children.) Most (about 15,000) went taken in by the French which also had a Basque population and bordered the Spanish Basque country. After a quarantine, about 6,000 of these children were sent to Belgium (3,100), the Sovet Union (2,500), and Switzerland. The British took in almost 4,000 Basque children. The Basque children sent to England embarked from Santurce, Bilbao, on the Habana (May 21, 1937). The docked at Southampton. Many stayed at Cambria House and Moor Hill House. The English thought that they could soon be retirned to Spain. That proved impossible. Some were eventially sent to the colonies. The children in these countries (except Belgium, Mexico, and the Soviet Union) were cared for by private charities (Catholic groups, political parties, and trade unions). The children in fact became political pawns. In Frace and Belgium they symbolized the failure of apeasemet and posed concerns about apeasement. For the Soviets they were made a symbol of solidarity with te Republic. The treatment and experiennces of the children varied. One historian reports that the children were especially cared for in Belgium. [Legarreta, "Hospitality".]

The Basques People

The Baques people have a fascinating history that is only in recent years being unraveled. The Basques arethe people who live in an area spanning two countries, northern Spain and southwesrern France. The name Basque is Medieval French term which identified the ancient tribe of the Vascones. They first appear in the written record in the writing of the Ancient Greek historian Strabo. He described them as libing south of the western Pyrenees and north of the Ebro River. This is essentially Navarre and northern Aragon in modern Spain. The triban name used by the French came to describe all the Basque-speaking people on both sides of the Pyrenees. The modern Basque people inhabit what they desribe as Euskal Herria, s located in the western Pyrenees along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The Basques language until the development of DNA as a historical tool was one of the few ways to study the ancient Basque people. And because the language was so different than the Spanish or Catalan spoken in the rest of Spain, there was a tendency to assume that the Basques had origins outside the Iberian Penionsula. The number of theories were legendary. Some of the most imaginative were a lost tribe of Israel or survivors from Atlantis. Historians thanks to DNA studies are now increasingly coming to the conclusion that the Basques peope and their language trace their roots to the original settlers of the area. It is Spanish and Catalan with their Latin roots of course that are the imports. The Basques are now accepted as the descendents of prehistoric people who settled the Pyranees (around 40,000 BC). These people subsequently developed as a destinct people. This is a a rugged, but fertile corner of Europe. The ruggedness of the Pyraneees was probably a factor in the ability of the Baqques people to survive over the milenia. In additiona the rich alluvial plain helped to support their flocks. The Basques Country develooed as the area of seasonal migration for flocks of sheep. There is evidence that the Basque language was being spoken milenia before tghe arrival of the Romans and Latin (6,000 BC). There is evidence that the language was widely spoken in southern France (including southern Aquitaine) and nothern Spain (Catalonia). At about this time invaders from the east speakijg Indo-European languages conquered the original inhabitants of Western Europe and the languages spoke becane Indo-European language and culture ingeneral. The Basque language is perhaps the only surviving pre-Indo-European language. Modern Basque history to an extent parallels the formation of Spain. The Basques people have held themselves apart as the modern Spanish state developed. This history and the Basques oeople themselves was little known outside of Spain and France. This changed with the Spanish Civil War. The Basques generally supported the Republic and were invaded by Franco's army. It was the NAZI boming of Guernica in the Basque Country that first brought the Basques to world attention. This was the first Luftwaffe bombing of a town that received extensive press treatment and was imortalized in Pablo Picaso's painting. Large numbers of refugees were created by the War. A special group of Spanish refugees were the Basque children.

Nationalist Offensive

The Basques in northwestern Spain had resisted Franco and Basque towns were as a result subjected to aerial bombardment. The air arm of the Franco forces was largely units supplied by Fascist Italy and NAZI Germany. A naval embargo precented food and other supplies from reaching Bilbao and other cities. Food supplies declined and the situationnin the city deteriorated.

Guernica

The Basque village of Guernica was the first European city to be destroyed by the new German Luftwaffe. Luftwaffe bombers 4:30 pm launched a massive attack on the defenless Basque town of Guernica. Republican troops controlled the city which was the capital city of the Basqueregion. A force of Loyalist soldiers were laying siege to the city. A force of about 30 Luftwaffe bombers was based in Burgos. The attack was led by Lt. Rudolf von Moreau. Orders for the attack came directly from Hitler. There were no military targets located within the city, with the exception of a weapons factory near the town. The target was a smallbridge that Republican forces would have to cross to move through the town. A series of bombing runs destroyed the entire center of the city. There were no aerial defenses and the civilian populatiin had no shelters. The Luftwaffe was assisted by Italian and Loyalist forces. The bombing was the first terror bombing of a civilian population in Europe. The bombing was criticized around the world. Public opinion in the Democracies was horrified, but resulted in no conrete action. The bombing of Guernica, hoewever, became a symbol of Fascist brutality. It also left Britain and France terrified of Hitler's impressive new air force. Republican officials asked Pablo Picasso to create a painting to honor the victims which ould be displayed at the Spanish Pavilion in the Paris World Fair. The Piccaso painting depicted the German bombing, evoking the horror that would become common place in Europe during World War II

The Children

As the Nationlists moved in on Bilbao, large numbers of dispaced children were endangered. Food suopplies were running out. They were threatened both by the bombing and the fighting. Many of the children had lost their parents in the fighting. The children were in danger of disease, starvation, and exposure. Thus it was urgent to get the children out of Bilbao. While most of the children were Basque, there were other children that were caught up in the War. There were some children from Asturias as well as children from Santander. [Legarreta, Guernica Generation]

Basque Appeal

After the bombing of Guernica (April 1937), the autonomous Basque Government, loyal to the Republic, issued an appeal to save Basque children. The children trapped in Bilbao were a principal concrn.

International Response

Seven countries responded to the Basque appeal. The countries included: Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and Switzerland. Mrs. Roosevelt backed an American effort, but opposition from the Catholic Church prevented American action which required Congressional action. About 20,000 children aged 2-14 years were eventually evacuated from the Bilbao region. (Some accounts indicate 25,000 children.) The children in these countries (except Belgium, Mexico, and the Soviet Union) were cared for by private charities (Catholic groups, political parties, and trade unions). The treatment and experiennces of the children varied.

Children Left in Bilbao

We are not sure just how many Basque children were left in Bilbao and not evacuated. Or what happened to them.

Political Pawns

The children in fact became political pawns. In Frace and Belgium they symbolized the failure of apeasemet and posed concerns about apeasement. For the Soviets they were made a symbol of solidarity with te Republic.

Sources

Davis, Kenneth S. FDR, Into the Storm 1937-1940: A History (Random House: New York, 1993), 691.

Legarreta, Dorothy. "Hospitality to the Basque refugee children in Belgium." >p> Legarreta, Dorthy. The Guernica Generation: Basque Refugee Children of the Spanish Civil War (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1985), 396p.






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Created: 9:40 PM 3/10/2013
Last updated: 2:55 AM 9/19/2018