26 Fruits


Only reconnect

You never quite escape from the past. Sometimes it comes back and takes you by surprise.

Most of you reading this will know that my novel Spanish Crossings was inspired by a family story and a photograph from 1937. That photo was of a Spanish boy I never met, whom I knew only as Jesús, ‘adopted’ by my parents during the Spanish Civil War. My parents had died relatively young in the 1960s so I could not question them about him.

After Spanish Crossings came out I discovered through Carmen Kilner of the Basque Children of ‘37 Association that his full name was Jesús Iguaran Aramburu, and that he had been aged 13 in 1937.

Jesús had been one of 4000 unaccompanied children who had fled from Bilbao on an overcrowded boat called the Habana soon after the bombing of Guernica by fascist airplanes in April 1937. The children arrived in Southampton in May and were first put up in tents, then distributed to various houses, institutions and ‘colonies’ around the country. So Jesús was in some way put into the care of my mum and dad at that time.

That was as far as the trail of the story went when Spanish Crossings was published nearly three years ago. Out of the blue some Basque people started contacting me on Twitter and a little more information came from their researches, then silence. When I heard two weeks ago that a Euskadi (Basque) version of the ‘children of 37’ group was being formed, I put Carmen in touch with someone I knew on Twitter as @gurimousen. This man, whom I have never met, is Gaizka Garamendi who lives in Bilbao.

Through several acts of generosity, acting on his own initiative and ‘from the heart’, Gaizka has continued his research. He has pieced together some of the life of Jesús and his sister Amelia after their return to Spain in 1938.

As far as Jesús is concerned, it is a sad story. This was Franco’s Spain. In 1942 he was punished as a member of the workers’ militia and sent to north Africa to do hard labour. By 1948 he was in the provincial prison in Bilbao, then given a conditional release a year later. His exact ‘crimes’ are not stated but his ideology was officially listed as ‘communist’. He was back in prison from 1950-52, released, imprisoned again, and released from Gijon prison in 1954. Then imprisoned again, at least until 1958, aged 34. After that, at least for now, there is no further news of Jesús.

All of this I know through the researches of Gaizka who has no family relationship to me or to Jesús’s family. I want to pay tribute to his extraordinary humanitarian spirit. In these times, surrounded by so much that is bad, he shows the best of humanity.

Here are some of his words to me:

It has caused me enormous anger to discover what this child suffered since his return to Bilbao. Apparently Jesús will spend at least until his 35s between labour camps and prisons, possibly preventing him from marrying and having descendants. His sister Amelia will have a more comfortable life, having four children. I have no news about his brother Alberto, it is possible that he rebuilt his life in France. A certain fact is that both brothers are not mentioned in Amelia’s 1997 obituary.

You must be proud of your parents John, because the time Jesùs set foot in England until he had to leave will be for sure the happiest moments in his entire life.

Today I’ve made a visit to the cemetery of Bilbao, in Derio, and I discovered the burial place of Amelia. I have asked about Jesús and Alberto and they have told me that they are not buried there….

In a further email:

All this work is not an effort for me because I’m doing it from the heart. Some time ago I thought I could no longer continue, but after a break time, I have seen that I can still pull more of the thread. While I can my purpose is to find something positive about Jesús. I will send you my findings.

The story of that child has touched me from the beginning. And I think the story of each of the almost 4000 children are life examples and would give for more than a movie.

All this more than justifies the time I put into researching and writing Spanish Crossings (it was, in any case, a joy for me). But I feel I have gained a friend in Gaizka who is an inspiration to us all. I don’t know how to express my gratitude except by writing it here for others to witness.

The story of Amelia, also uncovered by Gaitzka, is even more extraordinary but that must be saved for another time. If more information comes to light about Jesús I will put it in a future blog. For now I have experienced the most amazing reconnection with a young person I never met but who is, in some ways, a lost brother. I’m pleased to be able to honour the life of Jesus Iguaran Aramburu, thanks to the efforts of Gaizka Garamendi. This was exactly what was in my mind when I wrote the last lines of Spanish Crossings:

Above, the stars were shining like pearls in the moonlight. There were more stars than anyone could ever count, more stars than anyone could ever want to count, in that black immensity of night sky. Each one was beautiful, however bright or dim, and it seemed to me, that night, every night, that each one counted.

3 Responses

  1. Therese says:

    Such a heartwarming blog post John, I think more than ever before we need to hear about genuine acts of kindness, decency and humanity. And the photo of Jesus is so compelling – his eyes. ..

  2. Rowena says:

    The story goes on and on. How inspiring to see this ripple effect from your words, histories and lives uncovered.

  3. Jenni Wallace says:

    The entire story for me is humbling.

    Write away ……
    This story needs sharing
    John you have the words.

    Thank you

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