The Spanish Civil War is like a huge flaming candle attracting many moths who soon enough singe their wings and fall into the blaze. German emigres torn from their native land by the purge of Hitler, Italian outcasts, now long enduring the misery of exile in France and unable to pass the bans of Mussolini, French partisans of the class war who believe events in France are going too slow and want to speed them up by the acceleration of Spanish strife, British and even American youths ready to take sides, these are the people who rush enthusiastically to the borders of France, burning to give their lives and to fall on the blood soaked fields of Spain.
The French government tries its best to stop the flood. It places tens of thousands of guards at the border, patrolling every mountain pass, even the ones used by expert smugglers. It searches every village, every tavern, every train that goes to the border. It arrests scores and even hundreds of people weekly. It watches every opening along the Mediterranean to see that no one slips through and yet it can not succeed completely. It may be able to hinder the flood of volunteers and reduce it to a tiny trickle, but still the enthusiasts can succeed, one by one, in getting by.
Of course, hardly anybody can get through legally. The American consul at Paris is careful to see that visas are granted very sparingly and then only when a mass of credentials are presented to prove that a first class news gathering agency or some similar body has sponsored the visit. For the ordinary writer and author there is a long wait, while the consul cables Washington, at your expense of course, and sees whether permission can possibly be granted to you. But the true American seeker of thrills scorns that sort of entry into Spain. The difficulties of American visas, French guards and international control only spur him all the more to crash the gate and to see at first hand how the underground railway works that brings the adherent of either side of the civil war in Spain across the Pyrenees.
To counteract these activities of the French government there has arisen a vast network of antiİfascist circles with their volunteer friends who conspire to violate the bans against entering into Loyalist Spain. On the other side, too, there are committees to aid the forces of Franco, so that France has become literally honeycombed with secret partisans of the combatants in Spain who carry on their machinations on all sides. However, as there are not nearly as many who volunteer for Franco as for the side of the Loyalists in democratic France, the best way to study the activities of this underground railway is to work with the side sending in help to the Spanish Republican Government.
Your first difficulty is to get in touch with the proper committees. Their international center, of course, is Paris. The committees there are of two kinds, one made up of Socialists and Communists, that is, of those elements who favor the People’s Front Government, the very government that denies them permission to go into Spain, and the other committees of Anarchists, Syndicalists and revolutionary Marxists who are opposed to the People’s Front Government whether in France or in Spain, and who want to overthrow both governments and push the revolution to the extreme, similar to what was done in Russia under Lenin. It is not very hard to get in touch with the comrades of these groups. And once they are certain that you really mean to help their cause and not betray them, they will aid you all they can at your own risk, of course.
Armed with suitable letters you go to one of the central points in Southern France. It can be Toulouse, it can be Perpingnan, all depending upon what part of France you want to pass through. The best place for me was Perpignan. Anxious to see what would happen, I took the train from Paris the first evening I could get my letters in shape. Significantly I heard the trainmen singing the “Internationale”, the revolutionary song of the workers. Wondering what the future would hold in store for me, eventually I fell asleep to the rhythmic clatter of the wheels of the fast express, to find myself the next day in the little city of Perpignan.
Perpignan is a sleepy town on the extreme Southern edge of France near the Mediterranean and about twenty miles from the frontier of Spain. It is the last important stop before reaching Cerbere, the extreme point on the French boarder. Having checked my baggage at the station I walked slowly down the principal street of the city. The day was bright and sunny as only Southern France can be. Far away, behind the station, one could see the towering blue outlines of the Pyrenees. The nearer hills were terraced to support the vineyards that one sees everywhere in this country. A dinky little trolley car, with an open trailer, clanged its way down the street. The policeman in a cork helmet looked cool and at ease in the square of palms that faced the station. To one side could be seen the barracks part of the fortifications that made Parpignan one of the principal military strongholds of this part of France.
Hardly a person was on the street. It was Saturday noon and they were either at home or behind the curtains of bright colored beads that hid the cool recesses of the cafes. A few minutes walk brought me to the Cafe Metropole on Place Arago. All around were immense palm trees that sheltered the square from the heat and stretched along the canal to the park in the distance. But I had a mission to fulfill and could not stop long to enjoy the sunny serenity of the town.
I pushed past the tables spread out in the open air and went to the rear. “Do you know M. Cartier?” I asked the bartender. The bartender whispered with the waiter and then told me out of the corner of his mouth to go into another room in the back and wait. All the customers in the meantime, who had been chatting in Catalan, that quaint mixture of 18th century French and Spanish, put aside their games of dominoes and Catalan cards to eye me thoroughly up and down. Later I was to find out that this card playing was mostly a mask, that right here was transacted a good part of the business of sending men across the line.
In a short while M. Cartier came around. He did not say much, just took my letter, told me to wait and disappeared. Later I was introduced to some of the men playing cards who took me to a hotel where I could spend the night and then returned with me to the cafe. Every hour men would arrive and disappear. At one time there burst in an officer of the Customs Guard. I thought surely there was going to be a raid on the place. But no. This customs guard was one of the comrades who right under the nose of his superior officials had already passed a number of men across the border. But now it had become too risky. A new officer had been put over him and he could not take the chance. It seems the committee actually had sympathizers on the police force of many of the boarder towns, the police themselves doing the job of spiriting across the volunteers.
Around five o’clock a truck stopped outside with supplies for Spain and several people came into the bar. They had passed into France legally and were returning to Madrid the same way. Could I be taken across? Well, if I would like to sprint it, they would consider it. The road that they were taking was one that twisted and turned just before they were to reach the border where the guard was placed. They would arrive at the last turn late at night and could slow down. I could then jump off and run across the rough country hillside several hundred yards till I reached a point where the road had wound around and crossed the Spanish line. Of course the guards would see me running and would give chase. But the border patrol had been forbidden to kill those running across the line and so the soldiers would be reluctant to fire. Was I ready to take the chance?
Only recently they had tried that very scheme with a young couple. “But they were youngsters and thin,” one of them remarked, looking dubiously at my waistline. These two young Americans had just got over the border when it turned out that the Spanish government had changed the border guard and put in charge officers who were not sympathetic to the workers’ committees. The officer now at the head was ready to turn back the two volunteers to the French patrol who had vigorously demanded their return. And it had only been the intervention of the Spanish soldiers themselves that had prevented the partisans from being ousted from Spain and sent to prison in France. My friends on the truck looked pretty gloomy about taking the chance again as their truck would now be confiscated and they themselves deported from the country.
So another method was closed to me. But how about the mountain passes? Surely one could cross the Pyrenees in spite of the fact that the hills are not wooded but covered only by sparse shrubs and there are watch towers on every prominent height. There were smugglers, members of the underground railway, w0ho could guide you through. But one had to bide one’s time for this. In the meantime, since I was in a hurry they would give me a special pass to a high functionary of the border town of Cerbere. He might help. I quickly took this offer, grabbed my valise and dashed up to the station just in time to make the last local to Cerbere. On the way an English youth from the truck had told me: “Don’t act like a greenhorn. There are guards at the station. Pretend you are a native or a tourist. Walk right by, turn to the right. There you will find a tunnel. Go under the tunnel and turn to the left. Then follow the directions of the note till you meet the functionary.” For this advice I was grateful. For, indeed, when we pulled into the little village of Cerbere every passenger was closely scrutinized and I was stopped and asked whether I knew the way around. “Why, of course!” I exclaimed. “I am going under that tunnel to such and such a street. I am not here for the first time.” They let me pass. I hurried under the tunnel, got out to the square on the other side and looked around. Already it was dark. The Pyrenees now looked threateningly lower all around me. The village was at the foot of the hills that rose sheer on all sides and threw themselves into the sea that rippled against the shore. Pantingly I lugged my valise up the hilly streets to the house of M. Jaques and rang the bell. M. Jaques was by no means pleased to see me. The committee had considered him a friend, but now he had become a high official and did not dare take any more risks. Besides I had a valise. Did I think he could smuggle me across the hills with all sorts of baggage and the place swarming with soldiers? Every narrow dirt road and alley off the dried up stream that ran through the village was filled with swanking men in uniform who had gazed suspiciously at me all during my jaunt. No, it was better to leave the house at once and spend the night at the Hotel Industriel.
Drearily I trudged my way back, crossed the bridge of the canal and entered the vile hotel whose dining room was filled with swearing and drinking guards. I hired a room determined to take the first train back. Cerbere seemed no more promising than Perpignan. At first I thought of going through the tunnel at night, the tunnel that marked the link between Cerbere, France and Port Bou, Spain. Its dark opening had looked so inviting. This, however, had been explained to me as a very dangerous method, indeed. I would have to pass sentries posted with machine guns at each entrance. The only chance would be to wait for a moonless night and then creep through trusting to luck that no freight train would pass thundering by making hamburger of me. Just now a bright moon was shining and it would be suicidal to try that route. So, sadly, I went to bed, sleeping fitfully amid the hooting of owls and the rustling of the trees and at early dawn walked down to take the first train back.
It was 4:30 in the morning. Scarcely a soul was up in the village. But as I passed the big of shore near the station I could see some fishermen standing by their little boats and spreading their nets. Could I not hire a radical fisherman to go “fishing” with me and place me on one of the barren rocks a few miles to the South which was already Spain? Later I found that this method had been used, but also was dangerous. Again it would have to be done under a darkened moon and with a trusted fisherman prepared in advance.
So back to Perpignan. Back to watch the parade for May Day which had been made a government holiday this year in France, with bedraggled meetings addressed to death by city and State officials. For a while I thought of going to Marseilles and there taking a boat across the Mediterranean. This was the advice given me by one close to the American consul at Paris. But I had later been told the sea was closely watched. Fascist ships were forewarned and made the trip exceedingly difficult. This was to be demonstrated later when the vessel “The City of Barcelona” was torpedoed with over a hundred lives lost, fifty of them being American.
There was one last chance that sounded feasible and this one I determined to try at whatever cost. It involved, however, a considerable amount of histrionic ability and careful preparation. There is a little village that stands astride the very frontier of France and Spain. The main highway has a big chain across it where France meets Spain, but the Spanish border is so cut that a portion of the sidewalk on the left side of the road is Spanish while the road itself and the other sidewalk is French. The problem is to cross that very heavily guarded road so as to be able to walk down the street in France until you pass opposite to the sidewalk that is Spanish and then cross over.
This time I made no mistake of taking any valise. But in a light suit that was totally unfit for long travelling, I came to this village to do business with one of the transit men who move goods across the border. I inquired whether any of my trucks had arrived with food for Spain and on being told no, took my place in one of the cafes that lined the French part of the road, loudly complaining at the delay. Soon I was in intimate conversation with the cafe owners and hangers on and with the soldiers and officers of the army and the members of the International Control Commission watching all. The object, of course, was to have them completely familiar with me.
Come the late afternoon. The road is crowded with wagons and trucks unloading their goods for the customs inspectors to examine. The highway is filled with the people and the guards are hard put to notice who is who. Complaining of the delay of my truck I tell the officers that I will telephone to Madrid to see what is the matter. But to telephone to Spain I must cross the fatal street to the Spanish side. No one would suspect a business man of wanting to go into Left Spain illegally. I cross to make the call. I am now in Spain. There is a back way out of the cafe, a way that winds across the slope of the hill and that lets me out just in front of the Spanish guards on the other side of the chain. I am through. And the French guards would never even notice whether I returned or not. My valise is sent on to Barcelona by one of the committees. I am now free to pass my examination at the Spanish part of the boarder.
Lucky for me that no one at the French border knew that at the very moment that I had inquired for a telephone, all wires had been cut and that a new civil war was raging in Barcelona. Lucky for me, too, that the guards on the Spanish side had not been changed but, pending the outcome of the struggle of which I was to be a part and which cost the lives of over 1400 persons, the guard was willing to let all go through. I could not then be aware of the fact that my life in Spain would be one perilous adventure after another. I would no sooner pass the tests at the border when I would be thrown into the barricade fighting in Barcelona and the firing at the Aragon Front as well as be witness to a terrible aerial bombardment that in a few minutes would cost the capital of Catalonia over two hundred casualties and immense destruction of property. But of this more anon.