How an Anti-Fascist Photographer Landed in a Republican and Francoist Jail: The Lini Bunjes Story

November 14, 2020
By and

The Dutch photographer Lini Bunjes was among the first foreign volunteers to join the defense of the Spanish Republic. A free-spirited and independent woman, she attracted suspicion from both the Republican and Nationalist authorities and spent several stints in jail. When she left Spain, in January 1941, she was 23, had an infant son, and was poised to continue the fight against fascism in her home country.

Lini Bunjes, Dec. 1936. Photo Juan Guzmán.

Carolina Bunjes, known to her friends as Lini, looks confidently into the camera, smiling. In the picture, taken by Hans Guttmann, aka Juan Guzmán, in December 1936, she’s wearing her arm in a sling. The photograph was distributed widely, along with others shot around same time by the Republic’s best-known photographers. “The Woman Fighter,” the caption of a full-page portrait on the back cover of the popular magazine Mundo Gráfico read: “This girl, the German antifascist Lini Dunjes [sic], … continues to fight … despite her hand wound.”

Thanks to the investigative work of Montserrat Bailac, a researcher, we now know that the story behind the picture is more complicated than that. For one thing, Lini was a photographer herself. She had arrived in Barcelona from Paris shortly before the Popular Olympics that were supposed to begin on July 19, 1936; and although she was only 18 at the time, she was among the 1,200 women who immediately joined the front as milicianas. For another thing, she was persecuted by both Republican and Francoist security agents and ended up imprisoned by both sides. By the time she left Spain, in January 1941, she was 23 and had an infant son. She’d continue to fight fascism in her home country, the Netherlands.

Lini Bunjes was a precocious political activist. Born in Utrecht in 1918, she didn’t find out that her family was Jewish until she was 13 years old. Her father had fled Germany after deserting the army during World War I; her mother was Dutch. As a teenager, Lini joined various antifascist organizations. When she was 16, she met Franz Lowenstein, a young German Communist in exile, with whom she eventually moved to Paris, and who accompanied her to Barcelona in the summer of 1936.

In the Catalan capital, Franz and Lini made a living as sports and news photographers. Once the failed coup of 1936 devolved into a civil war, both joined the front. Franz fought in the Thälmann Centuria in Aragón and would eventually be appointed to the General Staff of the International Brigades in Albacete. He died in the Battle of the Ebro in September 1938. By then, he and Lini had already separated.

Lini, for her part, had traveled to Madrid in September 1936, where she ended up as a Second Lieutenant in the Joven Guardia Battalion, combining her military duties with photography. She reportedly sent her images to her sister Cato, who worked at the Brigades office in Paris, although none of her negatives or prints have as yet been recovered. The battle of Madrid, in November, found Lini fighting at the front line. There she met Antonio Blas García, a Spaniard, whom she married at the end of that month. In December, at the Navalcarnero front, she incurred the hand wound with which she’d land on magazine covers later that month.

Bunjes on the cover of “Mundo Gráfico”, 9 Dec. 1936. Biblioteca Nacional. SS BY SA 4.0.

Although the pictures were widely published, Lini wasn’t treated like a war hero. Instead, she drew the attention of the Military Intelligence Service (SIM), the Republic’s counterintelligence agency, which suspected her of being a German spy. She was shadowed for ten days; the surveillance reports detail whom she talked to—and with whom she spent the night. Although a mail cover and phone tap did not yield any confirmation, she was ordered to leave the front and return to Valencia to allow for a more detailed investigation of her past. Eventually, the SIM decided to expel her from Spain—not because they found proof of her spying but because, as the report stated, she was a woman who “could seduce our comrades”: “she is young and beautiful, very intelligent, and speaks our language.” (It was a similar form of gender prejudice that compelled the Republic to ban most women soldiers from the front by early 1937.)

Lini entered the Valencia women’s prison on December 19, 1936, under the orders of the Dirección General de Seguridad, as a suspected spy. A little over a month later, at the end of January 1937, she was transferred to the Provincial Hospital because she had an extrauterine pregnancy. By the time she was released from the hospital, in March 1937, she’d lost her baby. She was transferred to a prison in Madrid. When Antonio Blas found out, he requested the Communist Party authorities to release her immediately.

Lini then joined Blas, who was a commander in the 109 Mixed Brigade, at the front in Extremadura. In 1938, Blas was captured to the north of Badajoz; he was never heard of again. (The available documentation indicates he entered the Francoist concentration camp at Logrosán that summer. His death was never registered.) Lini, who had become pregnant again, decided to stay in Herrera del Duque, Extremadura, where she’d been living close to the front. Her son, named Antonio after his father, was born in Madrid in November 1938.

Soon after, Lini and Toñino (as she called him) returned to Extremadura, still hoping for Blas’s return. In January 1939, however, the town of Herrera del Duque was taken by Franco’s troops. (Barcelona fell that same month.) As often occurred, the Nationalists invited the townspeople to denounce their neighbors. Lini was given up by a Fascist after she’d refused to sleep with him. On May 30, 1939, she was imprisoned again, this time because she’d been a left-wing photojournalist. She was released after an intervention from the Dutch consul, who also made sure she received money sent by her mother from the Netherlands. He told her to leave Spain as soon as possible. With her mother’s money, she took a taxi to Madrid, where she lived for a couple of months in Antonio’s mother’s home while she requested the Dutch consulate to help her get home. The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940 did not make things easier.

Still a free spirit, Lini wasn’t comfortable at her mother-in-law’s and decided to take the train to Barcelona in an attempt to return home from there. She’d heard about a Jewish lawyer, Louis Stern, who was helping refugees cross the border. Yet she was unlucky: While trying to cross the Pyrenees on foot, she was arrested by the Spanish police and imprisoned again, this time in Figueres. (Little Toñino, who had become ill, was taken in for several months by a local pediatrician.)

Lini was released on the first day of 1941, escorted to the Barcelona airport by a member of the German consulate and an armed guard, and took a plane to Munich, from where she traveled by train to Nazi-occupied Holland. She immediately joined the Resistance in Scheveningen, near The Hague, where she successfully found hiding places for Jews, until she herself was arrested by the Gestapo. In her memoirs, she recalls that, although her interrogators knew she’d been in Spain, she was released for lack of evidence. By the summer of 1944, she decided it’d be safer to move north, to Friesland, where she continued to work to hide Jews from the Nazis, as well as weapons caches for the armed resistance.

At the end of the war, Lini returned to Amsterdam, where she met her second husband, Edward Rosenthal, an Auschwitz survivor who was director of a high-end department store and had a son from a previous marriage. In May 1949, she gave birth to a daughter, Katrin; soon after, the family moved to Luxemburg. Yet again, the small, prejudiced community proved unbearable to Lini. She and Rosenthal grew apart, although they stayed together until his death in 1957.

Not long after, Lini met Carlo Alvisi, an Italian who, like her, had fought in the International Brigades. Together with her three children, she and Carlo moved to Northern Italy, where they opened a hotel named Mimosa, possibly in honor of the Anarchist miliciana Georgette Kokoczynski, who’d been killed at the Aragon front in October 1936. By 1977, the busy hotel work had taken its toll on Lini’s heart. She moved back to Amsterdam to retire, spending the summers with her children in Italy. Her son Toñino died of cancer in the 1980s; Lini herself passed away, age 98, in 2016, in Italy. In an interview she said that, while she doubted the Spanish Civil War had served any purpose, she hoped that she’d be remembered as a woman who stood up to fascism when it mattered.

Sílvia Marimon Molas is a reporter for the newspaper Ara; Montserrat Bailac is a researcher for Catalan public television. A longer version of this article appeared in Ara on May 24, 2020. Adaptation and translation from Catalan by Sebastiaan Faber.