Remembering Francisco Ponzán Vidal on the 60th Anniversary of His Death

The summer of 2004 saw a tentative effort by variety of individuals in the media in Aragon to commemorate Ponzán. Thus the letters-to-the-editor pages of several bourgeois newspapers carried long letters from CNT-Huesca and J.A. Pina, there was an article in the magazine Criterio Aragonés by the teacher and writer Víctor Juan Barroy and reviews and news items in the October 2004 edition (No 8 in a series) of Javier Díaz's Cuadernos de Cazabaret in Mas de las Matas (Teruel), as well as a short TV item of several minutes' duration in the August schedules of the Aragon Television Channel, including an interview with, among others, the Aragonese Floreal Samitier, living in exile in France. Plus the second edition (December 2003) of the counter-information bulletin Huesca-Info published by the Ateneo Libertario Ramón Acín in Huesca carried a biography of Ponzán. But in his native city, Ponzán has yet to receive a simple tribute, public meeting or commemorative event. So here goes with a brief outline of his life.

Francisco Ponzán Vidal. Born in Oviedo, 30 January 1911 - died in Buzet (France) 17 August 1944.

Known simply as Paco, Gurriato or (because of his short-sightedness) El Gafas (Specky), this denizen of Huesca who, as it happened, was born in Oviedo, lived in No 9, Calle Costanilla de Arnedo with his widowed mother Tomasa Vidal Bellostas and his sisters Pilar, Susana and Carmen. He attended the Salesian College in Huesca; at the age of 14 he began training as a teacher at the Teacher Training School in Huesca, having won a free scholarship as a penniless orphan. It was there that he came upon his much-admired mentor and comrade Ramón Acín, quickly becoming one of his disciples.

At the age of 18 he qualified as a teacher and worked in the villages of Ipás near Jaca and Sabiñánigo and was involved with the CNT unions there. He also worked in Castejon de Monegros and eventually found a teaching post of his own in Baos-Corzán, in the Mazaricos townland in La Coruña. He also taught in places in Upper Aragon such as Borrés, Noves and Berdún. He served on the board of the Ateneo Cultural Libertario in Huesca and was an active and leading militant of the Huesca CNT.

The course of history was to make this surprising anarchist, possessed of a great moral presence and a lively sense of solidarity, a lover of freedom, culture and world peace, into an outlaw and battle-hardened fighter.

In 1930 he was arrested in the wake of a revolt in Jaca and was jailed on 29 December 1932 for his support for striking chemical workers in Sabiñánigo who had been arrested and charged with blowing up the home of the company's director. He was tried on charges of having threatened Señor Berges, the director of the Aragonese Power and Industrial Company, with the following anonymous missive:

"We know that you are quietly beavering away to ensure that a number of young people who are just starting out in life are dumped into the cells (…) we'll be frank with you. Our word is our bond (…) unless the prisoners from Sabiñánigo are acquitted, make your peace with your God (..) before many days have passed someone will call to require of payment of your bill which is, to say the least, astronomical (…) Don't forget that an anarchist never goes back on his word (…) Either the prisoners go free or we'll put a bullet in you (…) You choose. Signed: An anarchist."

All twelve members of the jury also received anonymous messages signed by the "friends of death" and reading:

"… your life depends upon this, for, should the Sabiñánigo accused be convicted (…) the sentence that we too will be delivering and which we must implement without hesitation is death."

In July 1933 he was sentenced to two months in custody. In the libertarian uprising in December 1933 he was arrested and tortured by the police from Zaragoza: in 1934 he was rearrested and charged with aiding and abetting the escape from Huesca jail of 10 prisoners from Alcalá de Gurrea and Tormos, among them Máximo Franco.

Faced with the army revolt in 1936 and the inaction of the republican authorities, CNT personnel demanded weapons and stormed an armoury before taking on the army columns in Cuatro Escquinas and El Coso. With tensions running high in the Civil Government building, the impulsive fire-brand Ponzán was called to order by Ramón Acín who shouted "Paco, you're going to be the death of us all", but Acín got it wrong and he himself was to be arrested and shot by the rebels on 6 August 1936. Outnumbered and with the resistance exhausted, Ponzán escaped to the loyalist zone. His sister Pilar Ponzán, a teacher in Jaca, was arrested and jailed in the Rápita fortress for a year, whilst upwards of 350 from the loyalist side in Jaca were shot, as recorded in Esteban C. Gómez's impressive book El Eco de las Descargas.

Ponzán served on the County Committee of the Angües Collective and was appointed Transport and Communications councillor on the very first Aragon Defence Council and was Under-Secretary for Information and Propaganda in its second line-up. The head of that department was his friend, the anarchist teacher Evaristo Viñuales. After three months they both resigned and Paco rejoined the Roja y Negra Confederal Column (which had by then become the heroic 28th Ascaso Division) manning the front in El Vedado de Zuera. He refused to wear military uniform and joined the "Los Libertadores" guerrilla unit attached to the anarchist Máximo Franco's 127th Brigade. It operated behind the enemy lines, gathering intelligence, liberating antifascist escapees and carrying out sabotage raids. On the basis of his record he was made a lieutenant of the 10th Corps of the Army of the East, serving with the SIEP (Special Border Intelligence Servive) over CNT personnel Faustino and Manuel Barrabés Asun (whose sisters Violeta and Rafaela, members of the Libertarian Youth, had been murdered in Huesca on 23 August 1936 along with a hundred others from Huesca in Huesca's bloodiest night of fascist terror), Benito Lasvascas Coronas, Eduardo Santolaria Ferrer, Pascual and Eusebio López Lagarta, Prudencio Iguacel Pedrafita, Manuel Sus Dieste and the socialists Angel Beltrán Calvo, Angel Cabrero Callau and Lorenzo Otal Biela.

After the republic lost the war, he withdrew to France, but not before he had stashed some weapons dumps in Andorra and left behind contacts and support bases with an eye to carrying on with the fight. He was interned in the Vernet concentration camp in France, from where he escaped and, helped by some libertarian exiles, in 1939 he set up the very first wide-ranging anti-Francoist network straddling the Pyrenees. In 1940 he was wounded in Boltaña while on a raid to liberate CNT prisoners who included his friend and comrade Manuel Lozano Guillén from Belver de Cinca (who had served as commissar with the 127th Mixed Brigade of the 28th Division) who would be shot dead in Zaragoza in 1945.

Come the German invasion of France, the Ponzán Group placed its organisational resources at the disposal of the nascent Pat O'Leary network, the most extensive and significant escape, intelligence-gathering and communications line serving the resistance from 1940 to 1944. Ponzán thereby established connections with the allied secret services, British and French alike, as part of his plan of action against Franco, although the General Council of the Libertarian Movement-in-Exile disagreed with this, so he was disowned by his organisation.

Thanks to his network of smugglers and mountain guides, prominent among then Joan Catalá, hundreds of antifascists' lives were saved; they included allied airmen, European Jews and high-ranking military officers who made it out to Gibraltar and Portugal.

In 1942 Ponzán was arrested and returned to the Vernet camp, only to escape a second time and in April 1943 he was jailed by French authorities working for the German Reich. He stood trial and was handed over to the Gestapo and was jailed in Toulouse. From there he was taken with a convoy of 50 other antifascists and they were all executed and their bodies set on fire in Bouzet, just two days before the maquis liberated Toulouse.

After years of underground struggle and weakened by repression, his comrades were unable to free Ponzán from the Nazi barbarians.

In a will written in the military prison in Fourgolle (Toulouse) in December 1943, Ponzán wrote: "I want my remains removed some day to Spanish soil and laid to rest in Huesca alongside my teacher, lecturer Ramón Acín and my friend Evaristo Viñuales."

He was posthumously recognised and decorated by the armies of France, Britain, Belgium and the USA. But in his homeland he has met only with the most dismal silence and oblivion.

In confidence that some day we may be able to roll away the great stone that fascism, the transition and the compromising left had placed over this country's social history, the memory of comrade Ponzán lives on in the hearts of us libertarians.

Raúl Mateo Otal

For more information, see Antonio Telléz's biography of Ponzán: The Anarchist Pimpernel: Francisco Ponzán Vidal (1936-1944). The anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and the escape and evasion networks in World War II.

From: CNT (November 2004). Translated by: Paul Sharkey.