Exhuming Memory

This past week, I was fortunate enough to join the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica at an exhumation site. While working alongside this inspirational team, I have recognized just how versatile their skill sets are because of all of the work that is presented when considering historical memory in a country that nationally has not recognized the need for this type of effort. Therefore, this small handful of people serve as researchers, anthropologists, emotional supporters, laborers, and friends to families who continue searching for their lost loved ones. I am continually amazed by their compassion and sympathy day in and day out as they deal with the grueling task of fighting for the preservation of memory without much outside support.

 

Arriving in the “town” (really, it is one street long and consists of under 150 people) of Castroncelos in Galicia, we drove immediately to the site at which we were planning to exhume two brothers who were executed in 1936. The team had already made three trips to this site – one to survey the land, another to originally attempt to exhume these two brothers but instead exhumed two other bodies of other victims of Franquismo, and a third to re-survey the land to try and excavate the original victims. This case presented to be difficult in that the available records indicted that the bodies were buried four meters from the Northeast wall of the church on this plot of land. As I learned, it is tradition to have all churches in Spain oriented East to West, front door to back door, but in the 1960s, this church was unconventionally reoriented to face North and South. Because of this, there was confusion and controversy regarding where exactly the Northeast wall was in 1936 when the two brothers were murdered. I had the opportunity to meet the grandchildren of one of the victims we sought to return to his family, and they continually spoke of the esperanza y fe (hope and faith) of preserving this memory. I was moved all day by their courage and strength to pursue the memory of a family member they had never had the chance to meet.

We spent the morning portion of the exhumation digging up what ended being the Southeast side of the old church, meaning no results were produced. Throughout the morning, we were lucky enough to secure a donated bulldozer and certified operator to quicken the pace of the dig, but it also took much physical labor of the volunteers to search for remnants of bones and other human parts. Along with a few volunteers to help with the physical portions of the day, two major press companies came to cover the story for upcoming documentaries. One, La sexta, is a popular Spanish television station running a series entitled Dónde estabas entonces, asking Spaniards where they were in prior years of important events happening in Spain. The other, HBO Vice, is working on a documentary on Spanish historical memory because of the current Valle de los Caídos controversy (see my take in my prior post). It was a frustrating morning filled with much disappointment, but we broke for lunch to refocus ourselves for the afternoon portion of the dig.

In the afternoon, we regained our strength to continuing trying to return the remains of these victims to their loved ones. The sun was blazing as we continued to dig four meters out and around two meters deep from the predicted walls of the old church. When we dug deeply enough, we uncovered some ancient foundation of what we assumed to be the corner of the old church, making our work in locating the victims much easier. We felt a sense of renewed hope when we found the dental framework of one of the victims followed by a large number of bones scattered throughout the unburied portion. Sadly, however, we reached the walls of the current, reoriented church at about three meters from the foundation of the old church that we have found. We attempted to dig a bit into the current church to see if we could find any burial structure, but because of the unsecure material used to build the new church, we were not authorized to continue this project.

It was certainly an emotional day for the family who came but also for everyone who dedicated their time and effort to preserving the memory of these brothers. We can say with almost certainty that the graves of the brothers lay somewhere under the foundations of the new church, but at this current moment, we cannot do more to remove the remains of the brothers from their current situation of an improper burial. The grandchildren of these victims were extremely grateful at the work of all involved to attempt to place these remains at peace once and for all. As this summer research experience comes to an end, I, too, realized how grateful I was for the chance to witness this impactful project. I look forward to carrying this experience and all of the experiences I was fortunate enough to have with me as I continue to dedicate my efforts to preserving memory at all costs.

                

The Intentionality of Memory

Now approximately eight weeks into my summer research position, I have had the unique opportunity to learn about historical memory from both an academic and personal perspective. While I would have heard news relating to historical memory in Spain, I would not have been able to converse and critically analyze decisions and projects of memory with Spaniards who have been impacted by Franquismo without having had this experience. I have been reminded about the important difference between decisions of memory and decisions of memory that matter, decisions that actively work to change the current landscape of commemoration. It is with this key distinction that I have so deeply engaged with the recent debate regarding El Valle de los Caídos.

 

This memory site was first envisioned by Francisco Franco early into his dictatorship to remember the victims of the Spanish Civil War. As often happens when history is constructed by the winners, this monument was originally meant to only recognize the Nationalist victims of the war, completely ignoring the over 114,000 victims of the Republican side at the hands of fascism. Eventually, the Franco regime agreed to construct this monument to honor lives lost from both sides of the war. Franco’s government took this compromise to the next level by physically removing Republican corpses from their graves and relocating them to the Vallewithout telling their families. Adding to this controversial pursuit of memory, after Franco died, it was agreed that he would be buried in this monument alongside the leader of the Falange (fascist rightist party founded in the 1930s), José Antonio Primo de Rivera. This representation only gets more complicated when learning that every single day, fresh flowers are placed on Franco’s grave, which sits in the center of this memorial site, and the funds that essentially honor the work of a dictator come from the public funds of today’s Spanish population.

Yes, the topic of Spanish historical memory is indeed very interesting. As referenced in a past post, the Socialist (PSOE) political party recently took over the government amidst political corruption. In the momentum of this political swing, the new president, Pedro Sánchez, declared that in a continued effort to raise awareness of the need of historical memory, the government will be removing Francisco Franco’s body from the Valle before the end of July. Initially, I was ecstatic about the news, thinking about just how big of a step it would be for Spain as a whole to recognize the need for increased efforts of historical memory. However, conversing with experts of historical memory here in Ponferrada has opened my eyes to the truth regarding this situation.

My reaction exemplified the reaction that was sought out by Sánchez and the new government in sharing this news with Spain. As such a large monument in Spain, the government has done a great job in attracting the headlines and media to claim this new political power as a righteous fighter for historical memory. However, those around me helped me to recognize that this step to change a monument so public, so central to Spanish identity only represents one step in a solution to right the wrong done by past governments. Firstly, Sánchez will most likely remove the body of Franco at night, demonstrating that this pivotal step in changing the script of memory here cannot be shared with families of victims of Franco’s work. Hiding such an important event will represent Spain’s continued shame and its inability to truly confront its memory in a public, state-sponsored manner. How can memory be integrated into today’s society when its processes cannot be shared with the public?

News of removing Franco’s body from the Vallehas not been supplemented with plans of how the space will be transformed to do its job in honoring the many victims of the Spanish Civil War. There are an estimated 33,287 bodies buried or re-buried under this structure, and there has not been a single mention of efforts to exhume these bodies or reconnect their identities with their families. There has not been a single mention regarding the largest cross that sits on top of the Valle, a symbol that heroicizes fascism and all Franco represented. There has not been a single mention of how the site will attempt to reconcile with the fact that it held Franco’s remains for so long. While Sánchez is introducing a large step in Spain’s journey towards historical memory, the lack of focus on the victims shows that the government did not make this decision with those who suffered in mind. Instead, the government is supporting a decision that will produce the headlines without producing results that intentionally honor the victims of Franco’s regime.

 

There are so many questions that remain regarding the memory and historic implications of El Valle de los Caídos. By only committing to the removal of Franco’s remains, the government has not understood the importance of remembering the victims instead of simply shifting the memory to recognize this site as “Franco’s old burial ground.” As of now, the government’s only real work to the people is saving a few public dollars on fresh flowers every day for a dictator who never deserved them in the first place.

The Ethics of Memory

This summer has challenged me when thinking about memory. What does memory look like? What should memory look like? Do there exist any “requirements” when talking about how best to display memory? Memory is such a unique concept, but should there also be a certain amount of standardization when talking about how to honor the memory of victims of human rights atrocities? Every recognition of history presents itself with both positive and negative consequences, and it is our job to discern how best these platforms can help us to remember the victim and not the perpetrator.

With all of these questions and thoughts in mind, I attended a lecture on the role of historical memory in Argentina. Specifically, the professor who led the presentation focused on a method of memory related to the clandestine detention centers that impacted so many victims during the Argentinian Dirty War. While ESMA was the largest detention center during this atrocity, Professor Vecchioli explained that historians often lose themselves in obtaining information regarding ESMA in a way that delegitimizes the victims’ experiences in other camps. It was with this framework that she formed a team of historians and computer scientists to work and see how as many of these torture centers as possible could be understood and presented to the public. For many years, they have been working on creating and publishing a virtual reality version of certain camps in order to demonstrate what exactly these camps looked like and how they functioned during the Dirty War.

The last portion of her presentation walked us through the newest virtual reality project, El Campo de Mayo, and explained how while virtually navigating through the camp, the program presents the viewer with written texts explaining what each room or space is as well as listening prompts spoken by a survivor that expresses what exactly it was like to be there and undergo the constant torture at the hands of the police officers. While I am extremely impressed with this method of delivering history to a more accessible audience, I am also hesitant to paint this virtual world as a perfect solution to increase efforts of historical memory and contribute to the ethics of memory.

Maybe three, four months ago, I would have been enamored by this method and shared it for all my friends to see. However, I recently had the opportunity to visit Poland and see, in first person, the damage done against the Jews during the Holocaust. I have grown up in an environment where I have seen pictures of Auschwitz, and I can honestly say that I had become somewhat desensitized to what this place represented. When arriving at Auschwitz, all five of my senses were on alert. I felt and I thought in silence, I touched and took my time to try and understand what I was seeing and what happened where I was standing. I tried to picture the scene on that day around 70 years ago, and I felt so much closer to the victims while feeling the emptiness and the solitude of Auschwitz. Obviously not everyone has the resources to visit these types of places, and I am very thankful for Duke’s support in making this experience possible for me, but it allowed me to confront these questions of memory from a more emotional perspective as opposed to a more mechanical and quantitative perspective.

Thinking about this virtual reality method of presenting the detention centers, what is gained by the audience when interacting with this method of memory? What is lost? For each person, their perspective on this front will vary. I know for me, I have been unable to communicate with any survivors of the Dirty War, so hearing the testimonies of the victims who have lived to talk about it has greatly impacted my knowledge of the event. As I am currently unable to go to Argentina, it has been a great resource to contextualize what I have read with what I can see with this representation. However, the static nature of the virtual setting, to me, has desensitized my empathy for what was experienced in this setting. Virtually witnessing sheds and trees does not translate to the pain and suffering that these victims had to confront after being kidnapped and deemed disappeared. This method of memory excels in presenting the viewer with many unheard stories and voices, but I also believe that the use of the screen makes it difficult for the viewer to be impacted by what is on the screen. This online format greatly increases the accessibility to this type of information, but it also allows the viewers to stroll through these sites of torture from the comfort of their homes without having to confront the suffering attached to what is being seen.

When witnessing this virtual environment, I immediately recognized that all the information was only displayed in Spanish, meaning that since the Dirty War is rarely taught in curriculums worldwide, it would be unlikely for many people to be able to use this resource as a form of education. After the lecture, I approached Professor Vecchioli if she needed help with translations, and three weeks later, I am a member of their team! I have been able to translate all of the functions of El Campo de Mayo in English, meaning that this information will now be accessible for many more readers. I look forward to bringing up these questions of memory and ethics when discussing how we relate this information to the public. This publicly accessible format is doing a good job to educate the general public, but should this be done at the expense of delegitimizing and suffering the experiences of the victims?

****To view the interactive virtual world of the detention centers, feel free to visit http://www.centrosclandestinos.com.ar

Say Their Names.

This past week, Spain screamed. Depending on who you were and how you align politically, this scream represented anger and frustration or hope and renewal. On Friday, June 1, conservative Mariana Rajoy was ousted as president of the government and replaced with socialist Pedro Sánchez. In a country filled with many traditionalists, protests filled the streets in denial that their beliefs had been overshadowed. In a country filled, too, with many progressives, crowds surrounded Congress to welcome in a new political voice. While I cannot claim to be an expert of Spanish politics, I can claim to be a fervent fighter on behalf of victims of represión franquista and the Spanish Civil War. This transition favored those victims, as the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) has been the only party to financially support the efforts of the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Históricato recover the bodies of those who suffered at the hands of Franquismo.For this victory for human rights and human dignity, I say the name of a victim to humanize their life and their identity.

Carlos Garzón Merayo

I have finally been able to obtain appointments at several archival sites all throughout Madrid. This unfamiliar system has challenged me and my Spanish capabilities to ensure that I am understanding all of the rules and regulations that come along with each new investigation site. When arriving in Madrid for the start of my summer, I was still questioning what exactly I wanted to concentrate my time on and how I could utilize my time efficiently and effectively. After searching through many archival catalogs and attending various lectures, I am eager to be one of the first to take a comprehensive look at historical memory in León, a place scattered with mass graves and Franco symbolism today. When beginning my research at the Biblioteca Nacional de España, I met Juan García Arias, the last republican mayor of Ponferrada, a pueblitoin León, before the coup d’état on July 18, 1936. It only took twelve days for the overpowering Nationalist forces to detain, charge, and murder him on his land. Before he was killed, he wrote one last letter to his family expressing his unwavering love for all of them. It was through his words that I was reminded of the importance of personalizing these victims, humanizing these victims, and honoring these victims through recognizing their human identities. Say them, scream them, remember them. I say the name of a victim to honor the courage and persistence in the face of terror.

Juan García Arias

Shortly after this archival day, I decided to visit the largest cemetery in Madrid, El cementerio de la Almudena. Up and down the tombstones, I attempted to find any sort of record or memory of the dead specifically impacted by the Franco regime. Upon circling the majority of the cemetery, I went back to its center to uncover two monuments that directly mentioned the consequences of the Spanish Civil War. In one way, I was amazed that these plaques of memory were placed in such a focal point of an important landmark for a country whose government will still not recognize the truth regarding the impacts of Franquismo and the many lives it took. However, I was also frustrated and dejected. While yes, these monuments represented all of the victims fallen at the hands of injustice, the visitors must do their own work to remember that these victims had names and faces and identities. Monuments that so broadly attempt to honor such a large category of victims almost always come up short in that they do not humanize what they abstractly represent. And for that, I say the name of a victim to deconstruct the large, faceless pool of victimhood and instead honor the life of a human being.

              

Francisco Sánchez Rodríguez

In the heart of Madrid, Plaza Mayor brings in locals and tourists alike to admire its beauty and energy. An exhibition was recently placed in this city center entitled “¡No Pasarán!” to remember the heroism and perseverance of the Republican forces when confronted by the impending Nationalists. For more than two weeks, the Republicans stood strong against their opponents and eventually pushed them back. However, this came at the cost of human lives, lives on both sides with families and loved ones. This exhibit so beautifully honored each known life lost by placing their name on a wall, reminding all the viewers that each of these people mattered. Through a compilation of oral and written testimonies, these victims were able to rest and be remembered.  I say the name of a victim to keep alive their memory long past their live and the lives of their loved ones.

Jesús Méndez Ricoy

And another victim . .  .

Jorge Pérez Mercadal

And another victim, which should galvanize us to act and ensure that these names become the last impacted by intolerance .  .  .

Maximino Alvarez Pascual

.  .  .

Say their names.

Scream their names.

Remember their names.

The importance of remembering the past…

I came to Spain ready to gather research, but things started off a little bit slow because my boss, Óscar, broke his phone and could not meet until he had it fixed. Therefore, it gave me a few days to explore Madrid in the summer, an experience for which I have been eager to undergo. I reacquainted myself with the city I am fortunate enough to call home by walking for miles and miles. I stumbled upon the 62nd annual international rose bush competition (who knew!) and spent the afternoon reading by these beautiful flowers — a reminder of the natural beauty all around us.

This period without work also gave me the chance to check out a fairly new exhibition in Madrid called Auschwitz. As my topics of interest include how Spain confronts the Holocaust, I was very intrigued to see how this city would represent Auschwitz and more broadly, the Holocaust. In a very quick history lesson, Spain and Hitler had a strong relationship, but Spanish Jews were not specifically targeted during the Holocaust (maybe because it was too far from the German Empire? Maybe because there were few Jews after being expelled in 1492?). In such a crucial part of Spanish History, the Holocaust, and specifically concentration camps, served as an threat for Republicans who had lost the war and were unwilling to live under a Franco-ist regime. There was an extremely brief section in the exhibition covering the Spanish victims who were transported to these concentration camps, but I had wished for more personal details of the victims. They had only been able to display the identities of about 50 Spaniards in a group of about 9,000 who were estimated to have been sent to these camps.

 

Entering the exhibition, the first portion covered the end of the Holocaust and the heroic efforts of liberation. I was definitely disappointed to view this telling of history before educating the public on why liberation was necessary. Next came sections about the history of Auschwitz as a city and about the Jewish people. I quickly went through these portions until reaching the area relating what actually transpired in the Holocaust, reading selected testimonies from a small number of the estimated 200,000 survivors of the camp. However, Auschwitz constantly recycled both portions of testimonies and survivors who told the testimonies, which to me displayed a lack of engagement on the exhibition’s part. For example, Primo Levi was quoted at least five times in this fairly tiny space, and a testimony relating the importance of cigarettes as currency was copied twice.  There were certainly redeeming portions of the exhibition, such as the extensive collection of artifacts, but as a whole, I was not impressed. The exhibition got lost in these historic pieces, however, focusing too much on life before the Holocaust without discussing how the Holocaust impacted victims and survivors. The museum ended in 1945. However, the importance of recognizing the Holocaust for what it was had just begun.

I was not impressed because what was lacking in Auschwitzis also missing from the telling of Spain’s history: how the past impacts the present. As I mentioned prior, the exhibition started with liberation, and therefore did not cover it extensively at the end. Instead, the museum ended with coverage of the death marches and had the visitor walk along a long path to leave the space… I felt very uncomfortable when walking a long distance after learning about these horrific marches. There were no lessons that related the importance of remembering the Holocaust in the future, no conversations that showed the life of a survivor today, no memories from family members who had to live without their parent or sibling or loved one.

Similarly, the so-called “transition to democracy” that Spain has undergone has many people neglecting the continued impact of Francoism in a contemporary context. There are few questions being publicly asked today about disappeared family members. There are no voices in the government speaking up to provide reparations for victims and families of victims. The Spanish Civil War and Francoism appear to be problems of the past, forgotten about in a Spain still run by those who perpetrated the suffering against those who believed in Republic ideologies. When we cannot take lessons from our past and apply them to today’s world, we risk repeating the same histories filled with injustice, pain, and suffering. Spain, in its light of covering the history of Auschwitz without connecting its consequences with the repercussions of tomorrow and in its silence regarding the impacts of the Spanish Civil War in today’s Spain, must wake up to realize the importance of using past histories to guide policies and life today. If voice are not raised and victims are not honored, Spain could very well be on the track to forgetting these past human rights injustices and passively allowing these horrible atrocities to occur again.

Welcome to Madrid

My travel has officially begun. Over the next day, I will take three planes in order to arrive in Madrid, Spain. I am fortunate in that traveling does not bother me, as I enjoy the ability to recline and let someone else take the driver’s seat as I reflect and ponder about what is to come. I am currently experiencing a number of emotions and anxieties. This summer will challenge me in a number of ways, especially since I have so much to learn. I am looking forward to knowing exactly what I will be doing this summer with ARMH and how my work can make a difference in Madrid, in León, in Spain, and in the world.

Many questions and doubts stayed with me as I boarded my flight out of the US to connect in London. By some stroke of fate, I sat next to a woman from Colombia who only spoke Spanish. Normally, I am extremely nervous to speak Spanish, as I do not want to make a grammar mistake or be misunderstood. However, she could not understand the instructions or words from the staff during the whole trip. Therefore, I stepped in and helped to translate the basics while we both enjoyed our flights. Once she realized I spoke Spanish, we did not stop speaking. For hours, we talked about our travels, our family, our excitement to arrive in Madrid. I regained a confidence that originally existed as worry to come back to Spain. While I will not have the same comfort of an official study abroad program, I am now more confident in my abilities to meet and talk with the everyday Spaniard. Hopefully I can continue to be brave as I navigate my work experience and as I work towards forming a closer, more intimate relationship with my host parents, Jesús and Consuelo.

When I arrived in London, everything was decorated for the Royal Wedding.

How lucky to have landed in London on such a momentous occasion! Very little time remains until I am back in Madrid! Wow, what a time it will be. Nervous? Absolutely. Luckily, I will have comfort in living with my home stay parents again and knowing that many friends will be visiting me throughout the summer. I cannot wait to text my boss when my flight lands to learn about my first day on Monday. Let the summer begin!!

Welcome to my page!

Hi, there! My name is Tyler Goldberger, and I am a junior at Duke University from Raleigh, North Carolina studying History, Spanish, and Jewish Studies. Thanks to all of the incredible opportunities at Duke, I have traveled more than I ever thought was possible. Because of this, I have been challenged to ask questions that have allowed me to delve into the world of humanities research. Spending a semester in Madrid encouraged me to confront Spain on its negligence of recognizing the victims of the Spanish Civil War and how this impacts culture and memory in today’s Spain. I am looking forward to continuing these curiosities through spending my summer doing research into Spain’s historical memory practices. When not investigating really interesting historical topics, I love to run and explore new areas. I am also an avid reader with a sweet tooth.

El valle de los caídos, a monument built by Republican political prisoners that originally was meant to just honor Nationalist victims of the Spanish Civil War, really sparked my interest in engaging with the topic of historical memory in Spain.

In my research project, I will work directly as a research analyst with a social movement in Madrid, Spain, Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica. Asociación’s mission is to uncover Spain’s (in)ability to adequately recognize its human rights atrocities. There currently exist few monuments that actively commemorate the hundreds of thousands of deaths during the Spanish Civil War, which has moved me to study the impacts of these memorials, as well as the lack of memorials, in and around Spanish culture.

I plan to continue focusing in on Spain through its recognition, or lack thereof, of its own past, the Holocaust and Argentinian Dirty War, human atrocities that have impacted the field of historical memory drastically.

While Spain did not directly involve itself in World War II, it has recognized its passive culpability in permitting the murder of so many innocent people in the Holocaust while adjusting to the Franco regime. Directly following the end of Franquismo, the Argentinian Dirty War began and subsequently took the lives of 30,000 disappeared victims. Both of these human rights atrocities occurred in fundamental times in Spanish history. I hope my work will help to challenge the country to open its eyes to the pain and suffering that still find a place in today’s society.