How the Story of Scottish IB Nurse Chrissie Wallace Reached Her Long-Lost Son

February 25, 2024

Bill Wallace.

Over the many years I spent researching the presence of the International Brigades in the town of Vic and its surroundings, in northern Catalonia, I’d always been curious about the case of Simon Bulka, a medical captain, and his wife, the nurse Chrissie Wallace, both from Scotland, who were assigned to the International Hospital here. It was in Vic, in early 1938, that Chrissie Wallace contracted typhoid fever—both the city and the hospital had been struck by an epidemic—and died on May 12, at eight in the morning.

The historical record tells us that a team of international volunteers carried Chrissie Wallace’s open casket from the hospital to the cemetery. The procession, in addition to all the brigadistas who were present in Vic at the time, included a music band and the highest civilian and military representatives of the city. The townspeople who witnessed the tribute were overcome with emotion, as one of them, who was a child at the time, later explained in his memoirs. Simon Bulka expressed his gratitude to the town through a note in the local paper.

Not long after, Simon contacted General Walter of the 35th International Division to request permission to return to Scotland, arguing that he’d lost his wife and had to take care of their young son, who they’d left behind in Glasgow. Permission arrived in September, but it seems that Simon never made it back. The only information I could find indicated that, at the outbreak of World War II, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo and eventually deported to Auschwitz, where he died at an unknown date.

For years, I’d tried to find out more about Simon and Chrissie. Until one night in 2022, during my umpteenth online search attempt, I found a link that took me to the magazine The Kosher Koala, a newsletter of the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society dated December 2004. The issue featured an article by Bill Wallace that told a remarkable story.

Simon Bulka and Chrissie Wallace, Paris, March 1938.

In 1952, a then fifteen-year-old Bill Wallace, living in Glasgow, volunteered to serve in the Boy Service of the British navy. The application required a copy of his birth certificate. When he asked his father for that document, he was shocked to find out that his real name was Walter Bulka, son of Shmul Bulka and Chrissie Welch Wallace, while the people he had always thought of as his parents were in fact his maternal aunt and uncle. When he asked them what had happened to his birth parents, they told him that his mother had died shortly after his birth and that his father had been a regular army doctor who had died in the Spanish Civil War.

In the late 1950s, Bill emigrated to Australia, where he spent years trying to find out more about his parents, without much luck—until he got his hands on a book about the medical volunteers who had joined the Spanish Republic’s defense. The book mentioned a Doctor Bulka who had died at the Belchite front. Not much later, he found information about a Simon Bulka who’d been arrested as a political prisoner in France shortly after the outbreak of World War II. According to this source, Bulka had been deported to a concentration camp in Algiers, served in the British army until the end of the war, married the widow of a French officer, and settled in Nice, where the couple had a son named Daniel.

In his article, Bill explained that, after managing to track Daniel down, years later, his half-brother finally allowed him to fill in the gaps in his parents’ biographies. Simon Bulka, it turned out, had been born in Konin, in Central Poland, and died in Roquebillière, in the French Alps, on July 30, 1998, only a few years before his two sons reconnected.

My first impulse after reading Bill’s account from 2004 was to try to contact him to share everything I knew about his mother Chrissie, the tribute she’d received, and her final resting place. Less than 24 hours after writing to the Kosher Koala, I received an excited email from Bill, who was then 85 years old and living In New South Wales. I sent him all my documentation on Simon, his work in Spain as IB doctor in various fields hospitals at some of the bloodiest fronts of the Spanish Civil War, and finally, his residence at the Vic hospital with Bill’s mother. I also included a translation of the pages in the memoir describing Chrissie’s funeral and a photograph of the plaque—which I helped erect—with the names of all the brigadistas who were laid to rest in a corner of the Vic city cemetery, which included his mother’s name (albeit with a typo that had slipped in over the years).

Bill in turn sent me a photograph he had of his parents in Paris, shortly before leaving for Spain, a copy of which I immediately placed next to the plaque at the cemetery—now with his mother’s full name, Chrissie Welch Wallace, the date of her birth in Glasgow and of her death in Vic, and an inscription: “Your son Walter has always carried you in his heart.”

The local journalist who covered Chrissie’s funeral in 1938 quoted an international volunteer, who said: “There will come a day when the son of this lady, who was a mother to so many wounded soldiers, will be asked where and how the woman that gave birth to him died. He will be able to reply, with a noble and justified sense of pride, that his mother died in the defense of freedom.”

Eighty-four years later, I am honored to have been the person to tell that lady’s son how his mother died.

The plaque with IBers buried at the Vic cemetery.

Manuel Montero, a police officer from Vic, Catalonia, is the author of Looking for Kevin, a novel about the Australian brigadista Kevin Rebbechi, who died in Vic and is buried in the city cemetery.