The Valencian Durruti [José Pellicer Gandía of the Iron Column]

The memory of José Pellicer Gandía, one of the Valencian anarchist founders of the Iron Column is safe in the hands of his daughter, Coral, and is now being salvaged after years of being overlooked and forgotten.

Loose talk is the greatest menace to a man’s good reputation”. These emphatic words were spoken by a pained and outraged Coral Pellicer (b. Valencia, 1937), the daughter of José Pellicer Gandía, the charismatic driving force behind the Iron Column, an assault unit made up of Valencian anarchists and which served on the Teruel front, defending the Republic after the outbreak of the civil war. To this day, she is convinced that warped and “horribly unfair” misrepresentations of what happened in Valencia and in the rest of the Comunidad Valenciana region during the war, “especially where the anarchists are concerned.”

For some years now, following publication of a number of books and the reopening of the records of the summary courts martial in the post-civil war years has been ardently trying to salvage the memory of “the youngsters who fought for human dignity and had a great social sensibility. Look at them”, she urges us, pointing to a number of snapshots of members of the unit set up by her father, “These were guys with rope-soled sandals and little else. They gave their all out of a belief in a better society for all.” At which her eyes moisten.

Surrounded by stacks of papers, books, newspaper clippings and letters from columnists living abroad, and photocopies of countless documents, Coral prattles endlessly - her energy and physical appearance resembling those of a woman twenty years her junior - as she strives painstakingly to reconstruct what became of Valencian anarchism 65 years ago.

José Pellicer came from a family from Valencia’s upper bourgeoisie - his grandfather, Vicente Gandía Pla, was the founder of the Castillo de Liria bodegas - and was educated by the Jesuits. He started work in the family firm as a book-keeper but by the age of 20 in 1932 was active in the CNT before moving over to the FAI. “His concern was to educate the workers in trade unionism and he organised lots of strikes at that time, including one at his grandfather’s firm. He was also a highly educated individual, speaking French, English, Castilian and Valencian, as well as Esperanto”, Coral goes on.

It was in fact at an Esperanto class that he met Maruja Veloso “his partner and my mother, who was one of the very first women in Valencia to study medicine”, Coral points out as she shows the last letter he wrote Maruja from prison, urging her to see to the education of their daughter.

Pellicer “was to his comrades what Durruti was to his. He had great charisma and was one of the few not bedazzled by the ‘scrambled egg’ he acquired with office, either on the Valencia War Committee or the committee from which he coordinated the Iron Column which grew to number upwards of 20,000 men and women on the Teruel front.” And she displays letters recently received from colleagues of her father, sent from various parts of the globe with professions of admiration for him. She stipulates that among the anarchists “there were no bosses or leaders”, but her father was one of the commanders of the Iron Column when it was converted into the 83rd Mixed Brigade of the Republican Army in 1937. He was wounded on the front, twice, was commissioned to travel to Paris to purchase arms and spent six months as a prisoner in a private communist prison in Valmayor, due to differences between the CP and the anarchists that Coral makes no bones about but refuse to make a song and dance of. “These things happen”, she says.

She grows indignant at the cavalier way in which events from those days are weighed up. Especially at the contents of the military indictments in connection with the “paseos”, militia patrols blamed for indiscriminate criminality in several Valencian districts. “There is absolutely no way that the Valencian anarchists organised patrols in order to ‘bump people off’. That is a fallacy and a shameful one”, she stresses.

There were patrols of anarchists, sure. My father organised them but their purpose was to guard against outrages. Looters and killers such as the guy known as ‘The Chilean’, for instance were arrested, tried and shot. In many villages there were plenty of infiltrators, fifth columnists and personal scores to settle. After the war it was all too easy to pin all the outrages on the anarchists. Which is what happened.”

She cites the “contemptible” accusations levelled at the young María Pérez la Cruz aka La Jabalina, who was shot in Paterna in 1942 after a very cursory trial. “After the war some 41 women were shot in Valencia, 12 of them in the city itself”, Coral adds. In recent years, since retiring as a journalist she had been delving into the civilian and military records in Segovia, Avila, Salamanca, Toulouse and Bordeaux among other places. “There is more to this than a daughter’s love. There’s the need to recover historical memory”, she pronounces.

And she cites an incident in which José Pellicer featured. The time when he “rescued the Holy Chalice”. “My father stumbled across it at the bottom of a trunk during a search of the home of Sabina Suey but did not mention it to his fellow searchers. And instead urged that it be moved to a safer location”. She adds that the version of events given in the book How the Holy Chalice of the Last Supper was Saved by the canon of Valencia Cathedral, Elías Olmos Canalda “is silly nonsense”.

Life is strange!” - she adds - “In the early 80s my mother made a train journey up to Teruel and bumped into a group of female pensioners. Sabina Suey happened to be one of them and en route she told my mother the story just exactly as she had heard it from my father on the very night of the episode and as she had related it to me.”

Coral also harks back to when the San Miguel de los Reyes prison was thrown open, a decision she credits to her father and other comrades of his, all of them anarchists. “That was a beautiful act because there were lots of people unjustly imprisoned. It’s the sort of thing done in any revolution. France marks the capture of the Bastille prison as a national holiday, a revolutionary act.”

José Pellicer was condemned to death and shot in Paterna on 8 June 1942, charged with murdering the brother of an officer in the Francoist army. “My father never fired a shot other than on the battle-front. He too was denounced anonymously and tortured in Las Torres de Quart.” And what is more”, she recalls of her uncle Pedro and other comrades of her father such as Rafael Martí aka ‘Pancho Villa’, Paco Mares, Elías Manzanera, Joaquín Canet - the list is endless. “The losers in the Civil War were the protagonists of epic deeds but they did not have their Sophocles. It would be an historic mistake to overlook them in the context of Spanish history. And the Iron Column was a combat division made up of anarchist volunteers that had to fight on the front, taking heavy losses and also had to look to its defences against attacks from the rearguard. Because they were revolutionaries, their memory has had to endure slander, insult and opprobrium. All that I ask is that they get the honour and respect they deserve”, Coral concludes.

By Juan Antonio Blay

From: Levante, 13 January 2002. Taken from . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.