The appearance just two years ago of an album with 300 photographs of refugee children from the Spanish Civil War has allowed us to know for the first time the details of the colony that welcomed 150 children in Sigean, In the south of france. This colony settled in May 1939 in the Lake Castle, a short distance from the Elna’s Maternity, symbol of international aid to refugees from the civil war Spanish.
An exhibition at the Memorial Democràtic explains the role of Swiss Aid during the civil war
This story also has a proper name, that of
Ruth von Wild (1912-1983), whose journey through Catalonia and later through France, to protect refugee children, highlights the role of many women in humanitarian aid platforms during the war. And we know him now from the exhibition Ruth’s album
Ruth von Wild and Swiss Aid to the Children of War) dedicated to him by the Memorial Democràtic, at its Barcelona headquarters, until April 30, and thanks to the documentation work of the historian and teacher
Maria Ojuel Solsona
Ruth von Wild was born in Barcelona, since her father, the Swiss engineer Ernest von Wild, was deputy director of the Central Catalana de Electricidad company. She was a teacher at the Swiss School in Barcelona when the war began and she went to England to complete her training. But in August 1938 he returned to join the International Civil Service, a pacifist entity that led the Swiss Committee for Aid to Children of Spain (known as Swiss Aid). It was a neutral committee, made up of several NGOs, ready to help at any point in the state, although in practice it acted almost exclusively in the Republican zone. It did so by sending basic necessities, opening dining rooms, directing the evacuation of children from the war fronts to safer places, and supporting local entities that organized shelters and colonies. When the members of the Committee left Barcelona together with the civilian population, in early 1939, they reorganized in the south of France. It was then that Ruth von Wild was in charge of directing a colony with 150 Spanish refugee children at the Château du Lac, a 19th-century mansion rented by Swiss Aid, to the Count of Lareinty-Tholozan, a ruined aristocrat, married to the princess. Russian Demidof.
This story could not be done if it were not for Maria Ojuel. She learned the story first-hand through her mother, Maria Solsona, who had been a refugee at the Château du Lac and even kept some photos they gave her when she left. He started the investigation a few years ago, and went with his mother to Sigean, but they found a castle in ruins. Ruth had died but she located a sister of hers, and then she learned that some of the documents she had kept, such as a German diary, were in the archives of the University of Zurich. He also found other survivors from those colonies and began to piece together the entire episode. But the surprise came just two years ago when the sister calls her to tell her that they have found an album with 300 photos that Ruth herself had made, and with handwritten annotations to describe images and write down the names of the children. They are photos of his stay in Barcelona, the retreat and Sigean.
Ruth’s album contains images of colonies in Teià or Sitges and of the La Pasionaria refuge, in Sarrià
This complemented the history of Ruth and that Swiss colony. Now we know that in Catalonia there were 760 children sponsored by Swiss Aid and that nine canteens (dining rooms) were opened in Sitges, Berga, Reus, Montblanc, Riudoms, La Selva, Barberà, Borredà and Igualada, where some 1,200 children received their ration daily of barley flour with milk and sugar for breakfast and a plate of sweetened dried fruit in the afternoon. In the album, Ruth appears distributing groceries, steals, soap, medicines, deposited in the branch of the Suchard chocolate company, in Barcelona. But there are also other images of the colonies in Teià, Sitges and La Salut de Sant Feliu de Pallarols, or of displaced families who had been housed in the La Pasionaria shelter in the old Santa Isabel monastery, in the Sarrià neighborhood of Barcelona.
You can see in detail the truck transport of all these refugee children to the border in January 1939. The procession passed through Palau de Santa Eulàlia, in Empordà, which had then been renamed by the Republicans as Puigflorit del Fluvià. They stayed two days in a farmhouse, where the Aida Lafuente neighborhood was also located. They resumed the march with two trucks, dodging some bombardment, and on the night of January 29-30 they crossed the border at La Jonquera.
Once in France they had to take some children to the hospital in Perpignan and then they dispersed them. It was not until May, once the Château du Lac was fitted out, that they were able to regroup them in good condition.
One of the 50 photographic reproductions that can now be seen in the Memorial is precisely that of Magdalena, a girl with an amputated leg. Ruth notes in her diary that that girl with her mother and a seven-year-old brother fled from Madrid to Tortosa and from there to Barcelona and Figueres, doing much of the way on foot. In one of the terrible bombings that Franco’s aviation carried out on Figueres her brother died and she and her mother were taken seriously injured to the hospital. Her leg was amputated. Transferred to Perpignan, three days later their mother died. “This radiant and energetic creature is a model that enlightens others, who have understanding for their little comrade, appreciate her and help her in any way they can,” wrote Ruth in her diary in July 1939.
The castle was also joined by the married couple formed by Estrella Cortichs and Ricardo Mora, responsible for the Children’s Aid of Reraguardia, exiled in Toulouse; a Jewish Polish doctor, ex-brigadista, Gabriel Ersler; an electrician, Guillermo Acosta, who had been in the Brams concentration camp and later worked in the Elna maternity ward, and three teachers, Josep Quer and Àngels Solés, from l’Escala, and Jaume Pifarré, from Arbeca, in addition to some educators, nurses and cleaning staff.
Of the total number of children taken in at Sigean, 52% were Catalan and the rest from other areas of Spain. Almost all have been identified because the staff made exhaustive reports of their work. Little by little they were able to return them to their parents and those who remained were taken over by the Quakers, who were very active in humanitarian aid.
When this colony closed in June 1940, Ruth went on to direct another center in Pringy, near the Swiss border, between 1940 and 1946 and housed some 800 children, Spanish, French and of other nationalities, also Jews whom they camouflaged under false names to prevent them from being deported.
Ruth continued to be linked to humanitarian actions until her death. Already retired, in 1975, she made a trip with other friends, including Elisabeth Eidenbenz, founder of Elna’s maternity, through Madrid, Barcelona, Elna and Sigean, the spaces where she had developed her work.
Also in this photo album is Maria Solsona, who was 11 years old when she arrived at the Château du Lac. And still now, at 93, he evokes it not as a dramatic experience but as an apprenticeship. There they were taught to serve meals, to draw firewood, to get involved in daily work, to live in the midst of nature. Remember that they had resources that they had never had at the Barcelona school. “It was the first time I saw the clay,” he says. “And in the closet we even had rubber boots.”
Maria’s parents were teachers, linked to FETE-UGT, and they ensured that their daughter could go to the colonies outside of Barcelona, thus keeping her away from the Barcelona bombings and guaranteeing her training. She was in the inn of the sanctuary of Santa Afra, near Girona, and when the withdrawal she was evacuated to France. He was in a residence in Campan, not far from Lourdes, and soon went to Sigean.
The exhibition shows a letter from Maria Pàmies, Teresa Pàmies’ sister, and a drawing by Martin Saénz, two of the refugee children
In August 1939 she was returned to the family that had stayed in Barcelona. The father was separated from teaching for a few months but was later readmitted. Others were not so lucky. One of her colleagues, with whom she has maintained contact, Núria Torroja, who is now 95 years old and lives in Venezuela, found that her father, director of the School of Teaching Practices, was sentenced to two years in prison and later was disabled. Others did not return, such as Maria Pàmies, sister of the writer Teresa Pàmies, from whom a letter has been preserved explaining the daily activities in Sigean. The teachers who attended them practiced a modern pedagogy and used the drawings and letters as a therapeutic element. One of the recovered drawings was by another colleague Martin Saenz, who is also on display now.