With Help from NY, Remembering Spain’s ‘Disappeared’

The ARMH laboratory in Ponferrada whose work can continue thanks to the ALBA award (Photo courtesy of ARMH)

The ARMH laboratory in Ponferrada whose work can continue thanks to the ALBA award. (Photo courtesy of ARMH)

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the corrected spelling of a name.]

More than 150 mass graves have been uncovered, around 200 bodies identified and remains of more than 1,300 individuals have been unearthed but not yet identified or given a proper burial. For 15 years, la Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, or ARMH) has been searching for the victims of political repression during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and the repression of Gen. Francisco Franco’s subsequent Fascist regime, which lasted until 1975.

Their work is far from done: There are at least 114,000 known men and women whose bodies remain unidentified, in mass graves all over Spain, and experts believe the number may be higher. But ARMH’s work was in danger because of lack of funding until the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), an organization based in New York, announced in January that this year it was giving the association the ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism, in the amount of $100,000.

“They have worked to put victims’ rights and justice on the Spanish political agenda and they were about to close their doors,” said Marina Garde, executive director of ALBA.

Marina Garde, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives in NYC (Photo by María Sánchez Díez for Voices of NY)

Marina Garde, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives in NYC (Photo by María Sánchez Díez for Voices of NY)

ALBA has a special connection with Spain – during the Spanish Civil War, thousands of volunteers from around the world, who became known as the International Brigades, went to Spain to fight the fascists. Among them were 2,800 Americans, who became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Today ALBA preserves the legacy of that group by sponsoring educational programs, supporting human rights and promoting access to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade archives of documents and materials, housed at the Tamiment Library at New York University.

As part of its mission, ALBA also gives an annual award to an organization that is pursuing human rights goals.

James Fernández, vice chair of ALBA and professor of Spanish and Portuguese at NYU, had the chance to witness the uncovering of mass graves in the small town of Valdenoceda, in Burgos – something that he found moving and that he says is extremely important for families who want to finally give their forebears the proper burials and recognition they deserve.

“To bury the remains of grandparents who, in many cases, gave their lives defending democratic ideas is an exercise of human decency,” he said.

Now, says Fernández, with the $100,000 award from ALBA, the Spanish organization ARMH will be able to operate for another couple of years, a “critical” time, because the last eyewitnesses of the massacres are now between 85 and 90 years old. “It is now or never,” Fernández said.

The Ponferrada-based ARMH will use the money from ALBA to keep open the laboratory where the DNA samples taken from the remains are identified, said Marco González, vice president of ARMH.

“The money shortage had forced us to terminate the contracts of the four people working part-time in the laboratory: a coordinator, an archaeologist, an archeological assistant and a historian who has continued working without pay, determined not to give up,” said González.

In Avila, Spain, volunteers unearth the remains of a guerrilla killed in 1950 by Franco's Civil Guard  (Photo courtesy of ARMH)

In Avila, Spain, volunteers unearth the remains of a guerrilla killed in 1950 by Franco’s Civil Guard. (Photo courtesy of ARMH)

ARMH was founded in 2000 when the journalist Emilio Silva started looking for his grandfather, who had disappeared during the political repression. He knew that a group of gunmen from the far-right Falange party had executed him in October 1936 and that his remains were in a mass grave in Priaranza del Bierzo, in northwestern Spain.

With the help of a team of volunteers, he unearthed his grandfather’s body, along with those of 13 other Republicans, or anti-fascists who supported the democratically elected government. The exhumation was widely covered in the press, and many other Spaniards then went to Silva hoping for help in recovering their own family members.

Spain is the country with the second highest number of documented cases of disappeared victims of political repression (Cambodia ranks #1), according to a report of Jueces para la Democracia (Judges for Democracy). In 15 years of activity, the ARMH has recovered 8 percent of the disappeared, mostly thanks to volunteers. Their work is a race against the clock, since the survivors of the war who can inform about the whereabouts of the mass graves are dying.

“The generation of informants is disappearing: There are few men and women who remain alive and who want to tell those stories, because they still feel true panic when talking about this,” said González, who notes that the fear of repression remains present among the war’s survivors.

Almost four decades after the end of the dictatorship, the Spanish government keeps ignoring the rights of the tens of thousands of Spaniards who have longed to find and exhume the remains of their loved ones to honor their memory and to give them a decent burial. Last August, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Pablo de Greiff, expressed his “concern that the State has not done more to manage the exhumation and identification of the remains” and complained that this task was being left to relatives and associations.

Spain’s Historical Memory Law, passed in 2007, extended some financial reparations to victims of the war and supported some uncovering of mass graves. However, that financial support was withdrawn in 2011.

ARMH’s savior, ALBA, maintains its headquarters in a tiny office at 799 Broadway in Manhattan, sandwiched between acupuncturists’ rooms, therapists’ offices and the atelier of a chessboard maker.

Members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, including Delmer Berg, standing second from right wearing a beret (Photo courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives)

Members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, including Delmer Berg, standing second from right wearing a beret (Photo courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives)

The association was founded in 1979 by some of the American volunteers who survived the Spanish Civil War, and it maintains a database of the 2,800 Americans who fought against Franco in Spain. There is one known living survivor: Delmer Berg, of Columbia, California. About a third of his fellow volunteers died on Spanish soil. According to Garde, many of them are still missing, so the work of the ARMH could potentially help find their bodies.

González said that right now, among the 1,500 cases ARMH is investigating there are two members of the International Brigades: an Irish writer called John Cornford, who is believed to be buried in a mass grave with dozens of fellow members, and a Bulgarian named Petko Marinov Mirchev.

“It would be an honor to find a volunteer’s grave because they have never been sufficiently recognized in Spain as people who came to defend democracy in a foreign country,” said González. “If you think about it, it’s funny that the Lincoln Brigade has to come again to save the rights of victims of Franco.”

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