MADRID — On the day she surrendered in 1939, Carmen Arrojo threw her pistol into the sea rather than hand it over to Gen. Francisco Franco’s forces. She watched a soldier slit his throat rather than be taken prisoner. In captivity, she was fed stewed lentils laced with shards of glass.
Mrs. Arrojo’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War haunted her for decades, but she, like many others, kept silent — muzzled first by Franco’s dictatorship, then, more gently, by a democracy intent on burying the past and moving on.
Now the memories are spilling out in a video archive project, and a new government is listening and planning to compensate the victims of one of history’s bloodiest civil wars.
“Finally, we are being recognized as human beings, which up until now we weren’t. We were forgotten, scorned and hated,” said Mrs. Arrojo, a diminutive woman of 87 with a vivid memory.
The Spanish Civil War is sometimes called a rehearsal for World War II. The three-year battle between Franco’s Nationalists and the Republican forces defending the leftist government inflamed ideological nerves the world over. With Adolf Hitler backing Franco and Joseph Stalin backing the Republicans, the conflict crystallized the forces — democracy, fascism, communism — soon to clash all across Europe.
During Franco’s 36-year dictatorship, the Nationalist side of the war was glorified, while the defeated Republicans were stifled. So bitter was the legacy that after Franco’s death in 1975, an official policy of silence about the past became part of a blueprint for Spain’s transition to democracy, and neither socialist nor conservative governments were inclined to change it.
However, many say the silence left a hole in the nation’s collective memory.
The non-profit archives project is the brainchild of a group called the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. It uses volunteers, has no government funding and gathered more than 100 hours of videotaped interviews last year and will give the videotapes to universities and libraries.
“It will be a vaccine against oblivion,” said its founder, Emilio Silva, whose grandfather disappeared during the war.
Mrs. Arrojo lives in the same Madrid apartment from which she watched the battle for Spain’s capital unfold. Meticulously dressed, surrounded by photos and other mementos, she told her story to the camera.
Born into a family of leftist background, she spent the war organizing meals for war orphans and Republican soldiers. When the war was about to end, she fled with her boyfriend and her father to the southeastern port of Alicante hoping to catch a ship to the Dominican Republic, but they were rounded up by Nationalist troops along with thousands of other refugees.
She remembered her refusal to hand over her weapon. “‘I won’t give it to the fascists,’” she recalls screaming. “‘I will give it to the sea,’ and I threw it into the water.”
Both sides committed atrocities, executing civilians and dumping them in unmarked mass graves.
But one stark example of the discrepancy in how the two sides were treated is the Valley of the Fallen, the monument to Franco and his followers built by Republican prisoners. There is nothing like it for the Republican dead.
To redress the imbalance, the 9-month-old Socialist government has set up a commission to study how to compensate Franco’s victims. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has his own personal interest: His grandfather, a captain in the Republican Army, was executed during the war.