Message in a Bottle

July 12, 2012

In a recent exchange with a commenter on this blog, I mentioned how sometimes, when posting here, I feel like a hopeful child throwing a message in a bottle into the vast cybersea.  And occasionally I experience the thrill of confirming that the message has arrived to an intended (if unknown) recipient. Those moments make the whole enterprise seem worthwhile.

Over a year ago, I posted a photograph I had come across in the NY war-time Spanish language press, of the Olondo brothers, who, according to the photo’s caption, were members of New York’s Spanish colonia, and who had returned to their native Basque country to fight against Franco.

Yesterday someone from the Basque country commented on the post, saying that she is a grand-daughter of  one of the men in the photograph (and grand-niece of the rest).   When I saw her last names “Torrontegui Olondo” I was reminded of a trip I had taken with my friend Luis Argeo to a  cemetery up in the Catskills (Allaben, NY), where a significant number of Spaniards are buried.  (On that same trip, we drove by the house where Federico García Lorca had visited Angel del Río in the summer of 1929.  It’s just a mile away from the cemetery.)  I recalled having seen both of those names (Torrontegui and Olondo) on tombstones that day.  So I scrolled through my i-phone archive of photographs, found the ones I was looking for, and sent them to my correspondent.

The next day (today), I received this remarkable reply:

Dear Mr. Fernández,

I want to thank you again for sending me the photographs in your last message.  All my life I have heard my mother talk about her family in New York, and what was just a reference now becomes reality, visible in those tombstones. It is very moving.

My mother’s family arrived to New York in the early twentieth century, responding to the consecutive invitations that the first Olondo extended to her cousins.  I assume that the dates I have been able to consult on the Ellis Island ship manifests are reliable; in any case, my mother’s aunts slowly settled in New York:  Clara, Celestina and Bibiana.  Her brother Ignacio was also there for some time, but he came back soon before the start of the war and is one of those who appear in the photo.  As I mentioned in my note yesterday, the other three brothers in the photo never traveled to NY, though they always stayed in close contact with the “American family.”  Still today my mother can clearly describe the clothes that were sent to Spain from New York, during the period of extreme poverty of the post-war years, when her father (my grandfather Gregorio) was imprisoned and sentenced to carry out forced labor because of his anti-Franco political affiliation.

I don’t know much about the lives of the family in America.  I do know that Aunt Clara visited Bermeo around 1956/57, and Aunt Celes returned to live there with he two daughters and grand-daughters, once her son-in-law and daughter-in-law had retired (they were also from Bermeo).

Another part of the family went to San Francisco; I had the opportunity to meet them when they visited Bermeo.  I’m sorry I don’t have any more relevant information; if my mother, whose memory is no longer very strong, can recall anything more, we would be happy to share it with you.

Finally, I’d like to thank you once again for the photograph of the brothers as soldiers (gudaris), which I would like to have with higher resolution, if it is available digitally in some archive that we are not aware of.

My interest in the Spanish Civil War is both professional (I’m a high school teacher of history)  and personal, since the war and the ensuing dictatorship marked the life of my family until recently.

The unexpected appearance of unknown photographs is one more  step toward reconstructing a history that is too often condemned to silence and secrecy.  The generation that knew those times first hand will not be with us much longer and it is urgent that we share and confirm with them the information that appears.  As they are able to help us situate that information in its proper context, their testimonies are valuable to us.  Besides, their image in that photo prolongs their memory.

Thank you for everything.

Estimado Sr. Fernández:

Debo agradecerle nuevamente el envío de las fotos de su último mensaje. Toda la vida he oído a mi madre hablar de su familia en Nueva York y lo que era una simple referencia se convierte ahora en una realidad visible en esas lápidas. Resulta emocionante.

La familia de mi madre fue llegando a NY a principios de siglo respondiendo a las llamadas consecutivas que la primera Olondo hizo a sus primas. Supongo que las fechas que he podido consultar en el registro de la Isla de Ellis serán fiables, pero en cualquier caso se asentaron en esa ciudad paulatinamente las tías de mi madre: Clara, Celestina y Bibiana. También estuvo algún tiempo su hermano Ignacio, pero éste volvió poco antes de la guerra y es uno de los que aparece en la foto. Como le indiqué en mi nota de ayer, nunca viajaron a NY los otros tres hermanos de la foto, si bién su contacto con la “familia americana” fue bastante intensa. Mi madre describe claramente aún hoy la ropa que les enviaban desde NY en los años de posguerra paupérrima que pasaron tras el encarcelamiento de su padre (mi abuelo Gregorio) y la pena de trabajos forzados que cumplió por su filiación política antifranquista.

Desconozco el desarrollo de la vida de la familia en América, pero sé que la tía Clara visitó Bermeo hacia 1956/57 y la tía Celes volvió a vivir a esta localidad con sus dos hijas y nietas, una vez que los yernos ( bermeanos también) se jubilaron.

Otra parte de la familia se desplazó a San Francisco y tuve la oportunidad de verles en las visitas que han hecho a Bermeo.

Lamento no disponer de ningún dato más relevante, pero si hubiera algo concreto que la memoria (no muy fuerte) de mi madre pudiera aportarle, estaríamos encantandas de ofrecérselo.

Por último, deseo renovar mi agradecimiento por la foto de los hermanos gudaris (soldados vascos) que me gustaría obtener con una mejor calidad, si es que está disponible en versión digital en algún archivo desconocido para nosotros.

Mi interés por la Guerra Civil Española es tanto profesional (soy profesora de historia en un instituto de bachillerato)como personal, ya que la guerra y la dictadura posterior han marcado la vida de mi familia hasta fechas bien recientes.

La inesperada aparición de fotografías desconocidas es un paso más para la reconstrucción de unas historias que a menudo  se habían condenado al silencio y a la ocultación.  La generación que conoció ese tiempo ya no durará mucho más y es urgente confrontar con ellos los datos que surgen. Mientras sean capaces de ayudarnos a ubicarlos en su contexto aportan testimonios valiosos para nosotros. Además su imagen en esa foto hace que perdure su memoria.

Gracias por todo.

James D. Fernández is ALBA Vice Chair and Professor of Spanish Literature and Culture at New York University.  Read more of his recent blog posts here.


One Response to “ Message in a Bottle ”

  1. James D. Fernández on July 12, 2012 at 11:38 am

    PS: When I asked her for permission to publish her letter to me here on the blog, Ms. Torrontegui Olondo responded;

    “It would be an honor to have my letter published wherever you see fit. If it is going to be published on the ALBA blog, please allow me to express my sincere recognition and eternal gratitude to any possible survivors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, for their commitment to the cause of liberty in our country, and for the altruism and sacrifice with which they fought. Their descendants will understand the courage they had when they led the way in the defense of the dignity of human beings throughout the world. They perceived the threat long before their compatriots would suffer it in World War II, and despite the risk of being misunderstood, they decided to fight in faraway lands.

    Unfortunately, different circumstances in Spain for a long time have not allowed us to render to them the tribute that they deserve; but their example will always be with us, and as long as we remember them, we will validate their message. The defense of liberty knows no borders.

    Un saludo y hasta siempre.

    A. Torrontegui Olondo