Where are the ‘lost children’ of the Franco regime?
Seventy years on, the fate of those children snatched from Republican families remains sketchy.
MADRID – They were the children of jailed left-wing opponents to the Franco regime, snatched from their mothers with state approval and the Catholic church's blessing to purge Spain of Marxist influence.
Decades later – as Spain heads towards the 70th anniversary of the end of the 1936-1939 civil war – questions are being asked over the fate of these youngsters.
"There was a desire on the part of the regime, which was encouraged by the Catholic Church, to take children from 'red mothers' to purify them and convert them," Julian Casanova, a modern history professor at the University of Zaragoza, told AFP.
They were seized during the early years of General Francisco Franco's right-wing dictatorship that followed the conflict, which continues to divide Spanish society.
A 1940 decree allowed the state to take children into custody if their "moral education" was at risk.
Firm numbers are hard to come by due to the poor state of Spanish archives and a reluctance by the government, until recently, to probe the civil war era – which some historians estimate claimed as many as half a million lives on both sides – and its immediate aftermath.
But Casanova said up to 30,000 children were registered as being in state custody at some point during the 1940s and 1950s, raised mostly by religious orders.
"All of these children under state guardianship were not stolen. But in certain cases they were kidnapped and illegally adopted, their identity was stolen and they were given to other families," he said.
Many of the so-called "lost children of the Franco regime" who were put in Catholic religious orders went on to become nuns or priests, said Ricard Vinyes, a modern history professor at the University of Barcelona.
"Being a child of a Republican was a stigma that only redemption could overcome. Many of these children entered religious orders precisely to atone for the sins of their parents," he said.
The civil war was sparked by Franco's insurgency against the democratically elected left-wing Republican government. His revolt was aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy while the Soviet Union aided the Republican government.
It officially ended on 1 April 1939 – no official ceremonies are planned for the 70th anniversary – as the resistance to Franco's forces collapsed.
Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist until his death in 1975, but a taboo over the "lost children" issue carried on.
In November, however, Spain's best-known judge, Baltasar Garzon, called for a probe into the "disappearance" of children taken from Republican families as part of a ruling that accused the Franco regime of crimes against humanity.
"In 60 years they have not been the subject of any investigation whatsoever," he said at the time, adding that to "ignore this reality for longer ... would be unjust and cruel for the victims".
Garzon later announced he was dropping his own investigation into the "disappeared" of the dictatorship. Franco and his associates, he said, could not be held legally responsible for crimes carried out during their regime because they were all dead.
"Children's party" inside San Antón's prison (Madrid).
The inmates' children pay them a visit. 5 November 1939.
But he urged provincial judges to investigate the "disappearance" of children taken from left-wing families as well as that of Franco's opponents.
Antonia Radas, 70, only discovered her real identity in middle age. At 54, she had a "very moving" first meeting with her biological mother Carmen, a former Republican prisoner, thanks to a popular television program on missing persons.
It was only then that she learned the true story of the early years of her life, a story which her adoptive parents had kept hidden.
"My mother took me with her to prison in the Canary Islands so as to not lose me. But just as I was about to turn three, she entrusted me to a friend who was leaving prison," she said.
The Franco regime allowed female prisoners to keep their children until they were three-years-old, and Carmen had heard that the sons and daughters of prisoners were taken away after that age.
Carmen's friend gave Antonia to a couple who could not have children, and who were not pro-Franco. They adopted her and gave her a new last name.
But when Carmen left jail, she lacked the means and the proper papers to track down her daughter.
Other mothers lost their young children to illness while in prison.
People hold flags of the second Spanish Republic as they attend a march with some 1,500 children and grandchildren of Spanish refugees to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1939 "Retirada" (retreat), when Spanish Republicans fled Francisco Franco's regime, on 21 February 2009 in Argeles-sur-Mer, some 25 km from the Spanish border.Comparisons have made to Argentina's "dirty war" in the late 1970s and early 1980s when hundreds of children of murdered dissidents were stolen and often raised by military families or others who supported the ruling right-wing military junta.
But in Argentina, unlike in Spain, the state operated the programme of kidnappings clandestinely and denied its existence, said Vinyes.
"In Spain it was the opposite, the state boasted of its policy of purification," he said.
1 April 2009
text: AFP / Olivier Thibault / Expatica
Head photo: Republican inmates' childrens in a prison's courtyard with guards. 1940