Silence | Memory | Hope
Contribution to the Photo Book Memoria Perdida – Sites of Spain’s Lost Memory 1936-1975 by Miquel González
‘Forced disappearance’ means not only to take a person’s life, but also to snatch that person from the living, leaving loved ones in ignorance of his or her fate. It is a crime that extends beyond death itself – and always needs a partner: silence, that dark accomplice of the deed. Desaparecidos, ‘the disappeared’, are caught in a no man’s land which belongs neither to the realm of the living nor to that of the dead. The photographs in Memoria Perdida capture the no man’s land that has been Spain since the civil war. The beauty of the scenery is betrayed by the cruel events these landscapes have witnessed. The tranquillity and openness of the images leave space for the imagination. Hear the lorries in the early morning hours. Hear the shots. Hear the silence of those left behind.
The legacies of dictatorships are ‘contaminated landscapes’, a concept formulated by the German-Austrian writer and journalist Martin Pollack, himself the son of a member of the Nazi Waffen-SS. ‘Landscape’ is a romantic idea, connected to cultural notions of beauty and recreation. ‘Contaminated landscapes’, by contrast, are sites of massacres, despoiled by thousands of invisible dead. The contamination consists not so much in the presence of the dead as in the failure to grant them a dignified burial place. This lack of formal remembrance has a poisonous effect on society too, because the anonymous victims are denied their human dignity beyond death. Silence reigns.
Silence is never neutral, never passive. More than just the failure to assist someone in danger or need, it suggests complicity in the crime. Even worse, that complicity is forced upon those other victims, the survivors who have to live on with a sense of guilt as well as grief, and in fear for their own lives. There is one image in this series that captures perfectly the pain of this silence. It shows the cellar door of a dilapidated rural house in Villalibre, León. Where does it lead? What horrors lie behind it? You will search in vain for bullet-holes in the crumbling plaster, yet that green door recalls the silent destruction of a family: one son, still a minor, was brutally beaten to death; his father committed suicide; another son died in hiding in the cellar; while the surviving daughter never dared to tell their story.
Silence is part of the contamination of a territory just as much as it is of trauma, and of the long-term effects of terror that demoralise and derail those who are still there to tell their stories. Silence is imposed by others and has lasted longer than Franco’s regime itself. People have to keep going despite the unnamed dead and the mourners without a place to mourn. They settle for what is left, living in incomplete but bearable versions of history. There are noisy winners, and official lies that are repeated until they become fact. There are losers who, eventually, may dare to tell their stories in whispers.
On 1 April, 1939, Franco did not celebrate peace or the end of the Spanish Civil War, but the day of his victory. He buried his country beneath a regime of terror during which his fellow citizens disappeared by the thousands. It was nothing other than a continuation of the civil war by other means. In the process the door to memory was closed and the survivors hid in the shadows. Silence covered the crimes; mourning had neither voice nor place; and witnesses and survivors deliberately muted their experiences.
Post-Franco, in the mid-1970s and 1980s, Spain was determined to look to its future rather than its past. A generation had to pass before the grandchildren of the war broke the pact of silence towards the end of the 20th century and overcame their parents’ and grandparents’ fears. They began to ask questions; they began to search for the truth. Many peoples’ eyes are now fixed on the past and, at last, they are speaking up.
In his memoir, Literature or Life, the Holocaust survivor and former Spanish minister of culture, Jorge Semprún, lists the indispensable qualities that listeners must possess if survivors are to be able to talk about what happened to them. Now, a generation has reached adulthood who fulfil Semprún’s prerequisites and are recovering Spain’s historical memory with patience and passion. Unafraid of getting their hands dirty, they have rolled up their sleeves and dug up the ground.
For almost 20 years now, civil society groups, historians, archaeologists and forensic scientists, journalists and photographers have been searching for, exhuming and recovering the victims of the Franco dictatorship. They identify the human remains as best they can and return them to their families for burial. Their actions and their voices have met resistance ‒ from the powerful who want these crimes to remain hidden, and sometimes also from people on the losing side for whom the truth is still too painful to contemplate, who are still afraid. All their activities are a forensic intrusion into an unchartered past, and an archaeological penetration of silence. They are fulfilling the ethical imperative to preserve and perpetuate memory. They are questioning a culture of oblivion, of censorship and self-censorship, and are unmasking the euphemisms of the language of removal and disguise. But the young volunteers are working against time. In Montearenas, mass graves and human remains and biographies were lost in the construction of the A6 highway but, as if earth itself has taken on the task of grieving, streaks of dirt are shown running down the wall of the underpass like tears. And as contemporary witnesses die out the final silence looms just around the corner.
Not always, but very often the earth does hold answers. The survivors need certainty in order to make peace with their own stories and those of their families. It is a painful and psychologically demanding process. Bones, histories, secrets, conflicts, injuries – everything is exposed to the light of day. Some exhumations are like a cleansing ritual. In most cases that is a cathartic experience in the wake of which the victims’ descendants can recompose their truth after a lifetime in the company of a lie, in toxic silence. Exhumations break the iron connection between the crime, silence and contamination and allow them to free themselves from their imposed complicity.
These photographs capture with respect and discretion the silence that reigns in the spaces between death and life, past and future, violence and grief and, hopefully someday, justice. The book is a challenge to the amnesia of Spanish society, it also renders homage to the memory of the lost, the killed and the disappeared ‒ and to those individuals who have always refused to forget.
The last picture is a panorama of the city of Barcelona with the disused quarry, the Fossar de la Pedrera, in the foreground. The Fossar was site of mass killings from the very onset of the Civil War up to 1952. Today it is part of the Mirador del Migdia Park and one of the few examples in this album of an official memorial. The picture is taken from high up and casts the Fossar beyond and below the Barcelona necropolis, against the background of the city at dawn. In the righthand corner of the quarry, partly hidden by shrubbery, are little stones and plaques on the ground, commemorating the victims of the civil war, including members of the International Brigades, and the subsequent assassination campaign. Another corner hosts a memorial for the victims of Nazism between 1939 and 1945. There are stelae with hundreds of names, and there is a plaque in memory of Catalan democrats as well as a pieta with an inscription reclaiming justice. Invisible on the image, hidden behind trees, is the memorial for the former president of Catalonia, Lluís Companys, shot, as so many nameless fellow citizens, on Montjuïc.
To me, this photograph, a view over the awakening metropolis with the city lights like thousands of stars, is the most optimistic in the book. With a little luck it shows the way into a brighter future for Spain, a society that has set out to recover its memory.