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The Evacuated Ones

By Lisbeth Hedebye
Special to The Star


During the Spanish Civil War 3,000 children, orphans of rebel families, were taken in by the Soviet Union. Here is the story of one of them. 


MADRID — The year 1937 was a bad one for the Spanish Civil War. The attacks against northern Spain were very heavy indeed and with the support of German aircraft and Italian soldiers, Franco's troops occupied Bilbao in June, Santander in August, Gijon in October.

In September, 3,000 Spanish children between 5 and 15 were evacuated to the Soviet Union. The Soviets had offered to take care of children from the worst hit areas until the war was over.

The children were orphans or half-orphans of killed Socialist or Communist families. Most were living in orphanages.

Late one night in September, 1937, while the harbor of Gijon was under heavy bombardment, a cargo-steamer with 3,000 children aboard slipped out to carry them to the Soviet Union and safety.

On board was Rosita Suarez, today 50 years old, who has returned to Spain and now is living and working in Barcelona.

That night 45 years ago she was only 5. Together with a sister, 8, and a brother 11, she said farewell to her mother and a little sister on the quayside of Gijon. Later she learned her mother was imprisoned and her little sister had died.

After a long journey by ship they came to Leningrad, where the whole town was out to receive them. The children were taken to different hotels where they were given a bath, food and were dressed in sailor's costumes.

In Leningrad they were divided into several groups and taken to different places in the Soviet Union. Rosita came to Mozjajsk, a few miles outside Moscow.

The Soviets had arranged something they called "Spanish children's homes" and in each one 300 children were living together with the Spanish teachers who had come with them from Spain.

As the Soviets were very careful not to separate brothers and sisters, Rosita, her sister and brother lived in the same home.

When she was 7, Rosita started school. All instruction during the first four years was given in Spanish with Russian as a second language. After that, the instruction was given in Russian with Spanish as one of many other subjects.

Rosita is thankful to both Spanish and Russian teachers because they gave all of themselves.

When World War II began and the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Rosita was in the children's home in Mozjajsk. From the very first moment she heard the German bombers flying above them. They had to run downstairs to the air-raid shelter many times a day.

The fear had only been away four years, the fear for that dreadful sound of bombers.

As in all wars there was of course lack of food. But Rosita says that if there was bread it was given to them. The Spanish children were always privileged.

At the end of 1944 they returned to Mazjajsk. Rosita was then 12 years old. There she continued her studies and passed her matriculation exam. Then she studied mathematics and physics at the University of Moscow.

At the age of 21 she was a qualified teacher and started working in Mozjajsk.

The Soviets in general knew of the Spanish children's existence. Rosita tells how the children would exploit the situation and remembers how she and her sister had asked for money from the staff of the children's home to go and visit their brother in Moscow.

Instead of tickets they bought candy. When the conductor wanted to see their tickets they looked at him with innocent eyes and said, "but we are Spanish children." He pinched them lovingly on their cheek, smiled and replied: "There is no need for tickets."

As Rosita felt completely integrated in the Soviet life and society she applied for a Soviet passport. They were free to choose to be Soviet citizens or not. That doesn't mean that Rosita didn't want to return to Spain one day.

She says that there lies perhaps the greatest merit of tho Soviet Union — that they educated them so that Spain was their native country. They saw to it all the time that they kept all the Spanish facets of their lives alive: Music, dance, literature and language.

After 19 years Rosita finally went back to Spain. Her mother had joined the children in the Soviet Union in 1954, but couldn't settle.

She hadn't intended to return until Franco was dead. The Soviet Union had always felt a certain responsibility toward the children and if they wished to return to Spain it wanted certain guarantees from the Franco regime, guarantees that they wouldn't suffer from reprisals and that they would be guaranteed work.

For Rosita it was hard to come back and she did it mostly for her mother's sake. In Asturias, where they first arrived the word was kept. She got both residence and work, mostly thanks to the governor of Asturias of that day. But when she moved to Barcelona it was a different story.

She was offered jobs as a teacher, but only if she joined Franco's Fascist party. She couldn't. The same thing happened to all her friends who had returned to Spain in 1956. As soon as it was known that they had belonged to the group of Spanish children in the Soviet Union all doors were locked. Most of her friends then went back to the Soviet Union — only to come back once again when Franco died in 1975.

Rosita supported herself with different jobs. For 10 years it was hard. She wants to forget those first 10 years in Spain, she was longing to go back to the Soviet Union every day.

Now she has long ago understood and accepted that she has two homes — one Spanish and one Russian. There are very few of the evacuated ones left today and they will probably also return to Spain. A Spaniard, Rosita says, always longs to be buried in the native soil.

This is the only story about an ordinary Soviet individual to be published in three Toronto dailies over the six-month period ending March 31, 1983. In the time there were 922 stories, photos, editorials, cartoons, opinion columns and letters to the editor about the Soviet Union printed. Of these only 21 concerned daily life in the Soviet Union as such. Of the 21 "The Evacuated Ones" was the only one that was not anti-Soviet. An anti-Soviet story is defined as one which does one or more of: (a) Focussing on a difficulty or shortcoming of Soviet life (b) Using language to reinforce negative stereotypes or to introduce innuendos (c) Inserting "Western"perspective explanations for facts about Soviets. It appeared on page B7 of the Saturday Star on Nov. 27.


Star Photo not included: "Then and now: Rosita Suarez at 19 when she was in the Soviet Union, and today aged 50, living in Spain."


Published in Sources Summer 1983


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