Catalonia’s “Alvah Bessie Program”: FAQs

November 19, 2022
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Alvah Bessie. The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection; ALBA PHOTO 11-0176. Tamiment Library, NYU. Color by Tina Paterson.

In response to the information session held by ALBA and representatives of the Catalan government, below a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the Alvah Bessie Program.

 

What is the Alvah Bessie Program?

It is a new program by the General Directorate for Democratic Memory, of the Ministry of Justice of the Government of Catalonia. It was officially announced in April 2021 and it is focused in the research of the international antifascist volunteers who were lost in Catalonia and in the search of their alive relatives.

 

Why?

We think that a minimum of 2.000 international antifascist volunteers died in Catalonia, but there is not complete information about who they were and where they disappeared, and a very few relatives have requested the General Directorate for Democratic Memory to search them. By this program, we want to obtain the most specific information possible about the names and identity of those who were lost and about the place where each of them died or disappeared. On the other hand, by this program we want to let know their relatives our historical research, our archaeological works and our Genetic Identification Program and offer them the option to request a research and to donate a DNA sample.

 

Who is doing it?

The General Directorate for Democratic Memory, of the Ministry of Justice of the Government of Catalonia. This unit is responsible for the search of the people who were lost because of the Spanish Civil War and Franco dictatorship. Such work is done by several means: historical and documental research, location and archaeological excavation of mass-graves in Catalonia, and anthropologic and genetic analysis with the proposal of identifying the exhumed remains.

 

Where is the funding for this program coming from?

It is a responsibility of the Government of Catalonia, so the works done by the General Directorate for Democratic Memory, including the Alvah Bessie Program, are done by public funds.

 

Why this program is named after Alvah Bessie?

His name has been chosen for the Program because his communication and research work connects with and fully illustrates the mission of the program. Shortly after returning to the United States, Alvah Bessie wrote his Men in Battle, one of the most eloquent and well-written eyewitness books about the Spanish Civil War; and in the 1960s, during a visit to Catalonia to take part in the shooting of a film, he looked for the burial place of Aaron Lopoff, his friend and commander who had died because of the Battle of the Ebro. So Alvah Bessie – perhaps before anyone else – did as an individual what we are doing today as an institution; telling society about what happened and searching for missing people. The program was named after Alvah Bessie with the permission of his sons Dan and David Bessie and his daughter Eva Wilson, and this decision is also a homage to him.

 

How to obtain more information about the Alvah Bessie Program?

The information about the Alvah Bessie Program (as well as the Plan of Graves and Mass Graves and the Genetic Identification Program) can be found here: https://justicia.gencat.cat/ca/ambits/memoria/Recerca/Programa-alvah-bessie/index.html#googtrans(ca|en)

 

Is this program only for the dead in Catalonia? What about Lincoln brigaders that died in Belchite for example?

The jurisdiction of the Government of Catalonia includes only Catalonia and not the rest of Spain where other governments have the responsibility to exhume. Therefore, we are only allowed to do archaeological excavations in Catalonia.  Nevertheless, we can do historical research of people who were lost in other places, but we can’t try to recover their remains.

 

Is there opposition in the present govt to this?

There is no resistance because it is a government-sponsored official initiative run by the General Directorate for Democratic Memory, a division of the Government of Catalonia.

 

But the SPANISH state has not assumed the responsibility or costs…this is a project of the government of Catalunya, yes?

The costs and initiative to launch such a programme are taken up by the Catalan Government. However, Catalonia’s Government is actually a part of the Spanish state, as all its funding comes from Spanish taxes. Compared to a few years ago, the Spanish Central Government is now more sympathetic to the Memory policies, and beginning 2021, it subsidises some of the activities of the General Directorate (not specifically the Alvah Bessie Program). This budgetary allocation represents a part of the overall budget.

 

What is the overlap of this project with the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica?

There is not overlap with this association work or others. The program tries to fix the number and identities of the international antifascist volunteers who were lost in Catalonia and to know the place where each of them was lost, in the most complete and specific way possible, so that this information can be compared with the map of graves and mass-graves in Catalonia and can be useful for our archaeological, anthropological and genetic works. The second strand of the program concerns finding relatives of the missing brigaders so that they could know this information and our research and identification efforts. We know that there are great databases and researches, in Catalonia and in several countries, and the program’s aim is not to create a new database.

 

How can we help? Will there be volunteer opportunities to collaborate with the program? Are there any volunteer opportunities for Americans (history/anthropology students, etc.) willing to travel to Spain?

We are very grateful for the offers that we are receiving, but as a public institution we are not allowed to accept work in volunteer conditions. The best way to collaborate is to let know this program to others. On the other hand, we are open to receive and to assist any researcher or any person who is interested in this work.

 

What works are you doing for honoring the victims?

Each year we are unveiling a new plaque with the names of those who died or disappeared in the front of the Ebro; these plaques are installed in a memorial site (Memorial de les Camposines), near Corbera d’Ebre, and a commemorative event with the relatives is celebrated for the unveiling of each new plaque. On the other hand, in the places where we have done archaeological works or in cemeteries where exhumed remains are re-buried we install plaques where what happened is explained.

 

Regarding mass-graves

 

What are you doing regarding the mass-graves?

The Government of Catalonia started archaeological works in 1999. In 2017 it was set up the Plan of Graves and Mass Graves and the works highly increased. Such work includes the search and geolocation of graves and mass graves, historical research about each of them, archaeological excavations, and archaeologic, anthropologic and genetic studies of the exhumed remains.

 

Is the map of graves publicly available (posted on the Internet)?

Yes, you can see it online in our Banc de la Memòria, under the title “Mapa de fosses”, in the following link: https://banc.memoria.gencat.cat/ca/app/#/maps

 

Regarding genetic identification

 

What is the Genetic Identification Program?

It is a collaboration between the ministries of Justice and Health of the Government of Catalonia, and it was set up on 2016. By this program, the genetic data of alive relatives are crossed with the genetic data that we obtain from the human remains that we have exhumed, in order to identify them.

 

How do we donate DNA?

You should previously request us the search of your relative, in the following link: https://web.gencat.cat/en/tramits/tramits-temes/22842-Recerca-de-persones-desaparegudes-durant-la-Guerra-Civil-i-la-dictadura-franquista?category=

After being registered, we will include you and your relative in the Census of Missing Persons, we will do a documental research about him or her and we will offer you the option to donate a DNA sample for the Genetic Identification Program. If you are interested in donating a DNA sample, we will send you a kit so that you can obtain the sample yourself, and you should send it back to us. It is an easy test. The sample will be analyzed and your genetic data will be included in the databases of the Genetic Identification Program.

 

How is it stored and to whom, outside this project, might it be made available?

Genetic data are personal and protected, and they are only used in the data crossings with the human remains, by the genetic unit of the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital, of the Ministry of Health of the Government of Catalonia. These data are not available for other institutions. We only share it with an institution of another region, if it is believed that a human remains exhumed in such territory could belong to your relative, and they would be only shared with your previous permission.

 

What are the plans for re-interring the remains? Are any of them going to be repatriated?

If your relative is identified, you can request his or her remains. In this situation, the Catalan Government would secure the necessary authorizations and papers to allow the family to pick up the remains, send them home, or it would also be possible to rebury them in a Catalan cemetery. The costs of transportation and reinhumation in their home nations, however, cannot be covered. If the family prefers, the remains may also be interred in the village where they were discovered.

 

Our family is very interested in participating to possibly identify our ancestor. Who do we contact?

You should previously request us the search of your relative, in the following link: https://web.gencat.cat/en/tramits/tramits-temes/22842-Recerca-de-persones-desaparegudes-durant-la-Guerra-Civil-i-la-dictadura-franquista?category=

Or you can contact with us at memoria.justicia@gencat.cat.

 

How distant a relative could still be used to get a match? Is my DNA worth anything to the search? Will my dna actually be helpful? I’m looking for my great great HALF uncle?

If the relation between the alive relative and the human remains is close, it is easier to identify them, but it is not strictly necessary. If there is a genetic relation, you can provide a DNA sample for the Genetic Identification Program.

 

Do Asians have specific DNA marker for identification?

By the kind of analysis to identify people that are being used, it is not possible to know if the human remains have Asian ancestors, but the anthropologic analysis could be helpful in this matter.

 

I’ve submitted my DNA to Ancestry to do family research.  Is there a way to share that sample with this program?

No. You should obtain a new DNA sample by our procedure, with the kit that we would send you.

 

Specific questions

 

Do you know about the Genetic Identification Project from the Dept of Identification Genetics, Hospital Universitari Vall D’Hebron, Barcelona,  I have a form to help identify if my DNA was related to anyone they uncovered.  My uncle died in Brunette. I do not know enough Spanish to complete their forms.  Gracias

This is the unit responsible for the genetic data crossings and identifications for the Genetic Identification Program. Please, contact with us at memoria.justicia@gencat.cat. We will send you the form in English.

 

Would/could your work invite high school students to the work of identifying and honoring the victims?

Memorial Democratic (depending from the General Directorate for Democratic Memory) has specific programs with students from all educational levels in Catalonia. These include debates, exhibitions and other collaborations with the aim to explain and honour the victims of the Spanish Civil War.

 

Is there any effort to recognize the newly identified Brigade members to be given Spanish citizenship

It doesn’t depend on the Government of Catalonia, but is a responsibility of the Ministry of Justice of the Spanish Government. You can obtain more information in the following link: https://www.mjusticia.gob.es/es/ciudadania/tramites/solicitud-nacionalidad. We expect that the forthcoming law about memory will provide new information about this point.

 

Were there any mass graves in the south of France/and are there records of people who died in Argelers and other internment camps?

As Dr. Robert Coale explained during the online session, there are mass graves in the south of France from those who died in the French internment camps, and the monument in Argelès sur Mer lists the names of some of the dead. On the other hand, our databases Cost Humà de la Guerra Civil includes exiled people who died in France after the Spanish Civil War and we are doing new research works in this subject.

On the other hand, some public archives in France have digitalized their databases regarding exile in France, and they are available online: Archives Départementales de l’Hérault, Archives Départementales des Pyrénnées Orientales, and Archives Départementales de l’Aude.

 

– Do you have any idea where Aaron Lopoff may be buried? And is his family still around?          

– Has the grave of my father’s comrade Aaron Lopoff ever been found?

Aaron Lopoff was wounded in the Battle of the Ebro and evacuated to a hospital. Canadian researcher Ray Hoff has recently found an interesting document in the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History; according to this piece, he died in the village of Santa Coloma de Farners, where there was a hospital of the International Brigades. He was possibly buried in this village, but further research is needed. As far as we know, Aaron Lopoff was from New York, and according to Alvah Bessie’s Men in Battle he had one brother and one sister, but the search for his relatives hasn’t started.

 

My uncle – Arthur Johnson (Johanson) – was with the Mackenize-Papineau Battalion (Canada) and was killed near Gandesa on July 28 or 29, 1938,  during the Ebro Offensive.  Do you know about mass grave for Intl. Brigade members near Gandesa (or Corbera)?

We have located an important number of mass graves in the area of Gandesa and Corbera; some of them can be associated with international units, according to historical research and oral testimonies. In this area we have also recovered an important number of remains in surface. By the historical research of the Alvah Bessie Program we are working to detail the places were the international units were, in the most specific way possible, and the place and day when each volunteer was lost, so that we can check this information with our map of graves and mass graves.

 

Which is closest grave discovered near Lleida? I have family from Lleida. An granduncle disappeared during the war.

There are several mass graves in the city of Lleida and its surroundings. You can see it online in our Banc de la Memòria, under the title “Mapa de fosses”, in the following link: https://banc.memoria.gencat.cat/ca/app/#/maps

On the other hand, we suggest you to request us a search for your granduncle, by completing the form in the following link: https://web.gencat.cat/en/tramits/tramits-temes/22842-Recerca-de-persones-desaparegudes-durant-la-Guerra-Civil-i-la-dictadura-franquista?category=

Or you can contact with us at memoria.justicia@gencat.cat.

 

 

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