Sisterly Solidarity

On our second last day in Barcelona [1939], in the face of the imminent threat, we officers from the Mujeres Libres committees and a few comrades from the districts held a get-together. In such grave times we needed to take the requisite decisions regarding organisation of the evacuation from Barcelona, and that when transport was in such short supply.

At the time I was very ill. I had just returned from a tour of the entire Catalonia region. I'd contracted scabies from the barns where I had occasionally had to spend the night and I was also afflicted with boils along with a high fever. Physically, I was in a very sorry condition and could scarcely walk. After the meeting, the comrades determined that, on account of my health, I should leave along with another ailing comrade in a car that had room for two more passengers. The car belonged to the SIA (International Antifascist Solidarity) secretary Mateo Baruta and it carried his wife Cristina Kong and Mary Barroso, secretary to the then national secretary of the Mujeres Libres and SIA member, Lucía Sánchez Saornil. After which we arranged to meet at 5.00 am. in a certain location. We had just enough time to collect a few things from home and say goodbye to relatives, without letting them know that this departure was going to be final.

As arranged, my comrade and I arrived at the agreed spot at 5.00 am., but six o'clock, seven o'clock and then nine o'clock came and went and no car showed up. We were starting to feel panicky and, being sick, did not know where to turn. We realised that our side had lost. It was 25 January 1939 and the Francoists entered the city on the 26th. We had no idea that danger was so close.

We were downhearted and then it occurred to me to go back to the local, which wasn't far away. When we got there, the place was deserted, as one might expect and our hopes were dashed. What could we do now? Nothing. not a thing. However, just as we were in the depths of despair, the phone rang. At least there was somebody close by. In fact we heard a voice saying:

"Pepita Carpena?"

"Speaking", I answered, startled to hear my name spoken.

"Soledad Estorch here." I heaved a sigh. It was the comrade who had organised our trip. "Our apologies…"

She explained that comrade Baruta had thought he had heard fascist troops entering the city overnight. He had succumbed to panic and set off ahead of schedule. Other comrades had taken our seats and were by now in Gerona. Discovering our absence, Soledad had taken the risky decision to gamble everything. After a moment she told me: "Pepita, don't move, we're on our way to pick you up."

I've never forgotten that act of sisterly solidarity that placed her own life in danger. Few, very few people would have taken on such a delicate mission.

Being sick and unable to see things clearly and with a level head, it was all like a dream to me. Fever had me in a stupor and events just passed me by. I never found out the name of the driver who picked us up along with Soledad Estorach, but I owe him my life.

It now defies my understanding why we had gone back to our local, to the very place where we stood some chance of rescue.

Our destination was Gerona. Our comrades had a house not far from there that belonged to the SIA and which had been used as a home for city kids who were taken out to France to spare them from the dangers of air raids.

I spotted lots of comrades, most of them officials from the various committees, unions, bureaux, etc., doing what they could to welcome new arrivals.

I was lucky to come through this period and to be spared having to endure the wretchedness of having to cross the mountains in the awful cold snap of 1939.

In the village of Rabós, where we ended up, there were comrades from the local, regional and national Mujeres Libres committees, including the sisters Felisa and Apolonia de Castro, María Cerdán, Conchita Guillén - On seeing the condition I was in, Conchita did not hesitate and showed exemplary determination in trying to treat my infection. I let myself be guided and was almost in a stupor and to this day I can remember it like a dream, I was so afflicted with sickness and fever. After a whole (I can't remember how long it was), the comrades managed to find us a vehicle to ferry us over the border. In the end, we made it to Perpignan. Conchita Guillén, finding me so ill, did all in her power to find me a doctor. Doctor Santamaría, examining me, told me that I had a scabies infection. He looked after me from then on. In the wake of the hopeful experiences we had been through, finding ourselves reduced to this is a wound that has never healed in spite of the passage of the years.

As Spanish republicans, we 'reds' were humiliated and mistreated. I say republicans because that's what they called us in France once we crossed the border. France, the homeland of the rights of man and freedom. We were tremendously let down and if we are able all these years later to analyse that people more dispassionately, the reason is that it was the treatment meted out by the government rather than the populace as a whole that we found unthinkable. Men herded like animals across the beaches in the dead of winter, with only the sky for a covering; the weakest lost their lives there. Women and children at least had some shelter, albeit in atrocious conditions.

The years that have passed since then, our struggle on French soil during the Second World War, with all its wretchedness, would deserve separate treatment. […]

Pepita Carpena May 1986

From: 'Solidaridad Fraternal' from Mujeres Libres: Luchadoras libertarias (FAL, Madrid 1999) pp. 79-82.. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.