The other Ground Zero

The other Ground Zero

A shot of the square in Guernica.

A shot of the square in Guernica.

Kevin Galea experiences hope in the Basque town of Guernica, the site of mass aerial bombing during the Spanish Civil War which left hundreds of civilians dead.

Senor Luis Iriondo opened the door and showed me the lavatory that saved his life. “This toilet, I have a lot to be grateful for,” he smiled. “I am very attached to it!”

The destruction of the Spanish town of Guernica by German Bombers, 1937.The destruction of the Spanish town of Guernica by German Bombers, 1937.

It was Monday and market day on April 26, 1937. At 4.30pm, the bells of the Santa Maria church rang out. Everyone ran for their lives to their nearest air-raid shelter. Three hours later, Luis Iriondo’s hometown of Guernica had been reduced to rubble. It had become the original Ground Zero.

“First, we saw the red warning flags being waved by the Brigade from the Kosnoaga mountain and heard the planes coming. Then, the bells rang three times,” Luis told me, as we stood inside an arched whitewashed cellar, which is now the gents’ of The Third Age bar in the Plaza de Paseleku in the centre of Guernica. It is an architecturally non-descript and increasingly industrial town three quarters of an hour by bus or train from Bilbao.

“I like to call it the Third Age Bar. It sounds better than The Elderly Bar or The Retireds Bar. That is what the pub’s name means – Jubilatuen Taberna or Old People Taverna. But we are in north Spain, not the Costa del Sol!”

We raised our glasses to survival skills and paid homage to the Basque Country’s craft beer drive.

“There is not much to see now in Guernica, apart from the 1826 Basque assembly Biltzas Jauregie house, our famous tree and my famous toilet. You can feel more than you see. You come to Guernica for its past.”

The son of a factory worker, Luis is a retired cutlery designer. Since his retirement he has taken up painting. He was 14 when the seat of the Basque parliament and the symbol of the Viscaye or Biscay identity was bombed by the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion under Col Wolfram von Richthofen.

A tiled wall in Gernica reminds of the bombing during the Spanish Civil War.A tiled wall in Gernica reminds of the bombing during the Spanish Civil War.

“I worked in a bank in the middle of town. I didn’t go to my usual shelter under the Town Hall when the planes came. I went with my manager to his. If I hadn’t found shelter in this toilet, I wouldn’t be here today. There were seven shelters and two were destroyed. One was the Town Hall. I lost my two best friends in the attack, Cipriano Arrian and Perico, my pet donkey.

Henry Moore Guernica MemorialHenry Moore Guernica Memorial

Guernica became famous as an experiment in aerial terrorism. It was a dry-run for the blitzkriegs on London and Stalingrad.  “People are, perhaps, more familiar with Picasso’s painting than the location or the significance of the town itself,” said my guide, Aimia, who works at the town’s Peace Museum. It is full of newspaper reports and photographs of the results of the Fascists’ Die Totale Kriege philosophy.

“Guernica was the Nazis’ laboratory and its people their guinea pigs. It was the first town decimated by aerial terrorism. Air-delivered terror,” Aimia reminded me.  “Everyone knows Picasso’s 1937 painting in Madrid, but not many know even where Guernica is.”

Guernica was the Nazis’ laboratory and its people their guinea pigs

The planes flew in from Burgos (for three years, the capital of the national movement) over the Basturialde landscape of north-east Spain, through the Corte de la Ria channel and down the Guernika estuary. First came the Italian Saboya-79s and Fiats-CR 32s. The Renteria bridge over the Rio Murcada was destroyed. But no other strategic target – the real targets were civilians.

Then came the Dorniers, Heinkels and Junker 52s, bringing incendiary and delay fuse bombs. A third wave of Messerschmitts machine-gunned the terrified survivors running through the devastation. Some 29,000 kilos of bombs fell on the town. The Basque government’s official death toll is 1,654. The Germans’ 300. The German government apologised in 1999.

After the raid, survivors were imprisoned for questioning the official Francoist line that the locals had razed their own city. The Nationalist Carlists mended bomb craters and even poured gasoline on the ruins. Seventy per cent of the town was destroyed, together with half of its population. The Republican prisoners re-built everything under the Commissariat of Devastated Regions.

Every April, on the anniversary of the massacre, a Mass is said at the town mausoleum. A clanger from the Church of St Juan (partially destroyed in the raid and knocked down in the reconstruction of the town) is processed through the town and the church bells ring again.

Entrance to Santa Maria Church.Entrance to Santa Maria Church.

We stood in front of the Guernika Tree. “Our town is a place where essential steps have been made for reconciliation. “We are on our fifth Guernikako Arbola since the 14th century. The original assemblies in the region were held under big trees. The third tree survived the attack.”

Near the old 1742 tree stump (now in a colonnaded template) and the newly-planted tree, is  Henry Moore’s 1987 sculpture, Figure In A Shelter.

“Ours is a city of peace and human rights,” continued Aima. “We are committed to recovering the past as a resource.”

Later, Luis took me to his studio in the Guernica backstreets. He showed me some of his oil paintings. A recurring symbol in his work is the charred remains of Guernica-Lumo town hall. It was the first thing he saw after the all-clear sounded and he left the shelter.

I agreed with him on how it looked uncannily similar to the atomic dome of Hiroshima and the site of the Twin Towers in New York. The second Ground Zero.

A postage stamp printed in Spain, showing an image of Guernica, a Pablo Picasso painting, circa 1981.A postage stamp printed in Spain, showing an image of Guernica, a Pablo Picasso painting, circa 1981.

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