When the group of old Frenchmen with Spanish accents and Spaniards with French accents start singing the Civil War battle hymn, a painful silence falls over them as they try to hold back the tears.
They're the last surviving witnesses of a story that is coming to an end; a heroic struggle for ideals and freedom that - when the last members of the International Brigades are gone - will soon be relegated to the history books.
But today they're here, together, perhaps for the last time. Their hair is white and their hands are gnarled; above their heads wave faded tricolor flags.
A hundred-odd veterans have gathered this November afternoon in Paris in tribute to the thousands of comrades from 54 different countries who came to this very place 75 years ago, to join the International Brigades and spend over two years fighting with the Republicans on the fronts of Madrid, Jarama, Guadalajara, Brunete, Teruel and the Ebro. There were over 35,000 members of the brigade. Nearly one-third of them rest in unmarked graves around Spain. Many of them were badly wounded when the retreat began at the end of 1938 and died in French and German concentration camps. The survivors are a tight community, bound by blood, which no one has ever managed to break up.
Nearly one-third of Brigade members rest in unmarked graves around Spain
They were metal- workers, stevedores, students, farmers and intellectuals
After her time on the Madrid front, the pregnant Lise would lose her baby
Caught by the Nazis in Paris, she was sentenced to the guillotine
They weren't soldiers; they were young people who had never held a weapon. Dreamers who had gone from town to town as champions of peace and solidarity. They were metalworkers, stevedores, students, farmers and intellectuals; adventurers, revolutionaries, black activists from the American civil rights movement and Jews persecuted by the Nazis. But for all of them, regardless of their origins, fighting Franco in Spain meant standing up to Hitler. They believed that the Civil War was the first battle in a global conflict that could be prevented if Franco and his men were defeated. For those who joined the International Brigades, it wasn't just an isolated fratricidal war in a country that shared a border with Africa. It was the prelude to disaster. And time would prove them right.
That war ended on April 1, 1939 with the victory of Franco and the Axis armies and the exodus of half a million Republicans. Four months later, according to plan, Hitler invaded Poland; 12 months later came France and two years after that, in May 1941, the Soviet Union. Fifty million people died in World War II. Hindsight shows that the members of the International Brigades were visionaries. Before a declaration of human rights ever existed, they defended global solidarity by supporting a legitimate, democratically elected government that was being forcefully displaced by a dictatorship. Artur London, a Brigade member until the final hours of the Republic, sums it up perfectly: "They rose before the sun came up."
Autumn of 1936 was a critical moment, when democracy was beginning to fall apart; Germany and Italy were not the only countries to fall under the yoke of fascism. In Poland, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Portugal, dictatorial regimes were brewing. The far right had shown its teeth in France. Sectors of the US Republican Party and the British establishment were applauding Hitler. Meanwhile, half of Spain had rebelled against the coup d'état of July 18. The war had begun. Without an army of its own, the Republic had to improvise each day and Franco - with his legion of troops trained in Africa - reached the outskirts in Madrid in a matter of weeks. Hitler was humiliating democracies and sending his bombers against the Spaniards, breaking international accords. To appease him, France and the United Kingdom had abandoned the Republic. While the world stood by and watched, mainland Spain burned.
But not the whole world: thousands of men had reacted and gone to Paris as their first stop en route to Spain. Why were they willing to risk their lives in a country where they didn't even speak the language? According to Artur London: "In Madrid, a Czech was going to fight for Prague; a Frenchman, for Paris; an Austrian, for Vienna; a German, to free his country of Hitler; and an Italian, to throw Mussolini out of his country."
In 1936, No. 8 Avenue Mathurin Moreau was nothing but a piece of land with a smattering of shacks where left-wing unions and workers' committees operated. In October of that year, volunteers started flocking to that proletarian part of Paris. Communist parties from all over the world (the ones who had come up with the idea of creating the Brigades, through Comintern) had lent their infrastructure as an incentive. On this street they would begin their long journey to the front.
The Brigades volunteers were big, noisy, romantic youngsters bursting with energy. They weren't well-educated (although there was a handful of writers among them, including André Malraux, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Arthur Koestler), but they were very political; straightforward, fun-loving country folk who were affectionate with the Spanish people, who welcomed them as saviors.
After listening to recordings of dozens of testimonies from veteran brigade members, reading their memoirs and talking to the survivors and their families, one surprising detail stands out: they never grumble about their Spanish adventure; for them, the years of the Civil War were the most enriching, intense, altruistic years of their life. There is no bitterness in their words. None of them complains about the poor training and arms they received, the terrible living conditions on the front, or the cruelty of the battles. Not a single one of them criticizes the Republic's questionable political and military handling of the war, or even the fact that they were used as a bargaining chip to mollify Hitler.
For them, the only tragedy was abandoning the Republicans to their fate. The daughter of one of these veterans, who prefers to remain anonymous, confirms this: "My father told me that when the Republic decided, at the end of 1938, to order the withdrawal of the Brigadists in the hope of reaching a peace agreement, they didn't want the Spaniards to thank them; they wanted to thank the Spaniards for having had the chance to share the ideal of the Republic. [...] They saw the Spanish people as their brothers and sisters. That's why, for the 300 of them who were still alive in 1996, it was an honor to accept the Felipe González Administration's decision to grant them Spanish citizenship."
Of the over 35,000 foreign volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War, only 20 are still alive. The youngest veterans are over the age of 90. According to Marina Garde, the director of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), the organization that represents the last surviving American Brigadists (only five of the 2,800 who came to Spain), "the last of them are dying and it's tragic; they were charismatic, dedicated, tireless individuals who moved a whole lot of people with their testimony; now it's up to us to keep that memory alive. It's an extremely powerful legacy that we must save from oblivion, so their example keeps us from standing by and doing nothing about dictatorships."
Last winter, the last Italian Brigadist died; there is one survivor left in Mexico, two in Argentina, three in the United Kingdom, five in the United States, one in Russia, two in Austria, one Estonian, one Israelite and five Frenchmen. They weren't able to make it to Paris for the tribute. But César Covo, Théo Francos, the brothers Vincent and Joseph Almudever and Lise London are in everyone's hearts.
Especially Lise, Artur London's partner. Now 95 years old, Lise is the last surviving female member of the Brigades, born as Elisa Ricol to Spanish parents in a French mining town. The Ricols were a typical working-class family at the turn of the 20th century: poor, illiterate people who had been forced to emigrate. Papa Rico was a miner suffering from silicosis and an active member of Communist worker's unions. Lise was born in 1916. As a girl, she sold ice cream on the street. At the age of 15 she joined the Communist Youth. She was an attractive, sharp, strong-minded young woman with lovely black eyes and a cameo face.
Early on in her life, she became a professional revolutionist, a tireless activist willing to do anything for the party and the struggle. Santiago Carrillo, a friend of London and the secretary of the Spanish Communist Party for 20 years, once tried to explain that absolute obedience to the organization back then: "Being a Communist was more than just belonging to a party; it meant having faith. There was a lot of romanticism in us. Communism had a religious component with its saints, its martyrs and its Mecca, which was Moscow. [...] When we lost that faith, everything fell apart. It took Lise a long time to lose hers."
In 1934, when she was just 18 years old, Lise was invited by the Comintern to go to Moscow and become a Communist leader. Roberto Lample, the soul of ACER (Friends of the Fighters in Republican Spain) and one of Lise's loyal comrades-in-arms, explains it: "Moscow was her political school; she wanted to escape her fate as a proletarian woman. She realized that if she studied, if she traveled, she could have a different life. Lise's ambition was to learn. The party gave her the chance to go to Moscow, and she seized it."
She was a force of nature; a brave, magnetic, determined woman; a revolutionary who knew Stalin, Tito, La Pasionaria and Ho Chi Minh. In Moscow she fell in love with Artur London, a tall, handsome, 19-year-old Czech intellectual of Jewish origin who balanced out Lise's impetuousness with his calm, contemplative nature. Lise left her first husband (the Communist Auguste Delaune, who would be executed in the 1940s by the Nazis) to be with him. They would have three children and fight side by side for 50 years, from the USSR to the Civil War; the French resistance, the persecution of the Gestapo, the Nazi concentration camps and the Stalinist purges of the 1950s. It was an intense life, brought to the big screen in a 1970 film by Costa-Gavras.
Lise has been hospitalized at a clinic built after World War II for survivors of the concentration camps, in Fleury-Mérogis, an hour away from Paris. Michel London, her youngest son, a 62-year-old mathematician, offers to drive us there, although he warns that his mother is very weak.
On the way there he tells us how his maternal grandparents, the Ricols, took care of him and his siblings when his parents were sent to the Nazi camps and how they took in exiled Republicans. He also tells us about his father's family, Czech Jews, 28 of whom died in the concentration camps. But there is no hate in Michel's voice: "My mother rarely mentioned the Nazi camps; she had seen too much suffering. In 2005 the whole family went to Mauthausen, where my father, my uncle and my brother-in-law had been incarcerated, along with 8,000 Spanish Republicans and hundreds of Brigadists. My father had passed away by then; it was just the three of us children, the grandkids and my mother. She had been at Ravensbrück and Buchenwald, so she knew what it was all about. It was very emotional for her, but she didn't lose her composure. She showed the grandchildren the barracks, the ovens and the striped pajamas as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She's always been very strong."
After enlisting in the International Brigades, in the makeshift offices on Avenue Mathurin Moreau, the volunteers went to the Austerlitz station, where they took a train to Perpignan, the last stop before entering Spain. On October 28, Lise London took the last train that crossed the border. She had volunteered to be a translator and assistant to the head of the Brigades, the Bolshevik hero André Marty. Lise didn't hesitate. "What could be more exciting than finally getting to join the freedom fighters in Spain?"
When her father sent her off, he said: "Lise is going to her parents' homeland to do her duty."
There were 2,500 men and a couple of women in the convoy. After they crossed the border, it was closed by the French to keep more foreign volunteers from entering Spain. From then on, anyone who wanted to reach the front had to cross the Pyrenees illegally with the help of partisans, as Artur and thousands of other volunteers would do.
After two days of travel, Lise and the rest of that first group of volunteers arrived in Albacete, the city that the Republic had designated as the headquarters of the Brigades. She was three months pregnant. Artur was still working for the Comintern in Moscow and was trying to leave the USSR to join Lise in Spain and fight Franco. They had received no word from each other.
Two weeks after arriving in Albacete, the first brigade of international volunteers, the XI, was urgently sent to Madrid. It was made up of 2,000 Slavs, Balkans, Scandinavians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Germans and Austrians with hardly had any military training, weapons or uniforms; the only thing that identified them was their berets. They would be followed by the Germans, Italians and Franco-Belgians of the XII Brigade. Franco's Moroccan troops had already reached Ciudad Universitaria, the university campus on the outskirts of Madrid. On the night of November 6, the Republican government had fled Valencia and set up a phantom defense council made up of young, unknown left-wing activists.
The then 21-year-old Santiago Carrillo was named councilor of public order. "Franco knew if Madrid fell, the Republic would fall, so he attacked," Carrillo said. "Madrid was the center of gravity of the war; if we resisted, we could win it, if we lost, the resistance would collapse. Those of us who stayed in Madrid in November of '36 were prepared for sacrifice; we were ready to fight. On November 8, 1936 when we had just about given up, the Brigadists arrived. They marched down the streets of Atocha and Gran Vía en route to the Casa de Campo. There were thousands of them, but to the people of Madrid it seemed like millions. They marched through the city singing La Internacional in all kinds of languages with their fists in the air, and with this gesture, they raised the morale of the Madrid people. We weren't alone."
According to Carrillo, the Brigadists played more of a romantic and political role than a military one. "In any case," he admits, "Franco did not get into Madrid that year."
Carrillo and Lise London met during those days on the Madrid front, where André Marty had come to inspect his brigades. It was Lise's trial by fire.
The young revolutionary would have to face, without blinking, the rattling of the machine guns and bombings of civilians, to witness the thousands of women and children who had taken refuge in the subway stations and feel bullets fly over her head on the university campus.
The International Brigades had thwarted the advance of Franco's troops. In a matter of days, they had become disciplined forces admired by the Republicans: an example to follow, who would fight on every front in the war until their withdrawal at the end of '38. After the time she spent on the Madrid front, Lise, who was five months pregnant, would lose her baby. In 1937 she would reunite in Valencia with Artur who, sick with tuberculosis and a chain smoker, was put in charge of intelligence and propaganda missions for the Brigades. That horrible winter of 1937, with the Germans dropping bombs on them and hardly a thing to eat, they would conceive their daughter Françoise in Albacete.
The war was lost. In October 1938, the Brigades were demobilized and sent to French concentration camps. In late summer of '38, Lise, at the end of her pregnancy, had been evacuated. Artur would follow her in March 1939, with Franco's troops hot on his heels.
After Hitler occupied France in June 1940, an underground life of aliases and forged papers, safehouses, anti-fascist propaganda, sabotage and the armed struggle would be the fate of the Londons and many other Republicans and veteran Brigades members.
In August 1942, Lise received orders to instigate a popular uprising against the Nazis in Paris. The night before, she and Artur didn't sleep. They made love until dawn. "We sensed that we weren't going to see each other for a long time, maybe never again."
Lise's rebellion was successful: there was a shooting and several policemen were killed. Eleven days later, Lise and Artur were arrested. The Gestapo knew Lise, but the police could not figure out who Artur was. They didn't know that he was a Communist agent or a former Brigadist, so he only got 10 years of forced labor. Accused of murder, associating with criminals and Communist activities, Lise was sentenced to the guillotine. Yet something had escaped the Nazis' notice: she was expecting another baby. As of the day he was conceived, the night before the uprising, her son was destined to save her life. She got life imprisonment instead. Artur and Lise were deported to Mauthausen and Buchenwald, where they remained until the end of World War II, in May of 1945.
Earlier this month, Lise was released from the hospital. She lives in a middle-class flat with a Soviet feel to it, full of books, with a plaque with the Legion of Honor at the entrance that says that Artur London lived there, a man "who fought in every struggle for freedom and human rights."
He died in 1986. Lise hasn't managed to forget him. But when asked if all that suffering was worth it, she sits up, puts her hand over her heart, looks me straight in the eye and says: "We fought for freedom. Of course it was worth it!"