Cultural Life in a Concentration Camp
Blast from the Past is an ongoing series of posts reprinting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer.
Cultural Life in a Concentration Camp
By Morgan Havard[i], London Chairman of the International Brigade Association
The Volunteer for Liberty, Volume 5, No. 1, January 1944[ii]
I cannot imagine feeling any more impotent and helpless than I did when in company with other comrades of the International Brigade I was pushed into the dungeons of the Monastery which served Franco as a concentration camp. Nor can I, after five years, lost the feeling of relief and inspiration that I felt when I heard the thin chorus of “Mountains of Morn” being sun to welcome us by men in the adjoining cell. Our first thought was to try and pick up the words and we grinned at each other in the half-dark as we listened. The men were evidently singing their own version as Musso[lini] and Franco cropped up frequently. The words were unintelligible but the message was clear enough.
For a time we remained in solitary confinement, not really solitary, there were not enough cells (shortage the Fascists will suffer from, they never will have enough cells) and then we were let out into the life of the camp proper. I was pleased and surprised to find Bob Steck already there. Bob was and American whom I had already met back at the training base. It was he who, when we were getting fed up with the waiting and anxious to get to the front, thought up all sorts of things to fill in the time. All the old favorites were brought into use, only changed round a bit. “Hold the Fort” became “Hold Madrid” and “I.B. Men be Strong” suited us better than “Union men be Strong.” “Solidarity Forever” also had several different versions. The words usually related to the language difficulties, the food situation and of course the ever popular theme re Musso and Franco and was coming to them.
Despite the conditions in the camp, consistent beatings, lack of washing facilities, unedible food, or perhaps because of them each man did his best to get what enjoyment he could out of his scanty possessions. These included cigarette cartons, (thanks to the International Red Cross) which made admirable playing cards, soap, which was dished out a the rate of on bar between six men a month. Nevertheless we begged a piece of soap from every chess player in the camp and fashioned a set of chessmen which helped a good deal towards making us forget the many endless months we might have to stay as Franco’s guests. I well remember a German comrade who could play twelve games simultaneously and usually win ten of them – or two games blindfolded and win both!
The there was “Lawrence of Arabia” the only book in the camp and everyone wanted to read it at once. After much discussion we fixed that the 200 English Brigaders that is American, Australian, South African, etc., would divide into groups of 20 each, the first group choosing one of their men to start reading immediately after breakfast. Each group was allowed the nook for one hour a day an in this way every one of us was able to complete the book in four or five days. Every night during this period we would see the last group struggling to get through their hour before it was time to turn in on the lice-ridden mattresses – if you were lucky enough to get one!
Then there was the language schools, always popular. Some were learning German, some Spanish. In order to communicate with each other and share out pooled talent it was necessary to get over the language difficulty and the language classes were therefore well attended.
Al length we decided to run a talent competition with our precious cigarettes a prizes. I got four of the Welsh boys together for this and we spent an hour a day for a week practicing “Men of Harlech” and Land of My Fathers.” We thought we were pretty good until we found that we had to compete against about a dozen or so different national choirs and I think we were very lucky to get away with the second prize of 20 cigarettes between us.
Naturally this cooperation between the men for pleasure led to the beginnings of an organization of energies which in full time frightened the Fascist authorities and one day, inflamed by the recent Republican advance over the Ebro they broke in on us with their sticks and rifle buts, attacking any group of men, whether they were playing cards, chess, or just talking together. All the amusements we had created for ourselves out of practically nothing, all our painful labor of months was destroyed or confiscated. “We were wasting our soup” they said which meant good-bye to our chess men – and the cutting down of our soap ration.
However great our disappointment and rage was we knew that our boys were fighting back somewhere and we were determined to do what we could in our own way. First we held meetings, elected our own “Look-ours” who could warn us in time of any guards approach. We remade our chess men. Sharpening up the edges of our spoons, we carved them from bits of wood which we surreptitiously brought in from the exercise field. Some were so well done that I believe that those still in existence are worth a collector’s fortune. Also we made the language schools and lectures smaller, at the same time increasing their number and arranging for them in such a way that each man on the word of alarm could slide back on to his own mattress and in the minute it took for the Fascist officer to appear after the alarm was given, we had time to hide any “incriminating” material.
Bob Steck gave lectures on music, writing and etc., but his main job was organizing the camp newspaper, “Jaily News”. Later on there was a rival “The Undercrust” and there was keen competition between the two editors! We were lucky enough to have Kaline, a Czech cartoonish illustrating the paper for us and he also helped amateurs showing them his art with good-humored patience.
As Christmas approached we asked permission to produce a concert on Christmas Day and to our surprise the authorities agreed. Bob Steck was organizer and Stage Manager and a good many other things combined and he was the happiest man in the camp.
Our audience was made up of 30 different nationalities so the show had to be presented in such a way that everyone could understand it. A Frenchman was most successful at this kind of thing. He wrote a skit without words, the life of a tramp in pantomime, which kept the lot of us in fits of laughter for fifteen minutes without a word being spoken from the stage. There were jugglers, national choirs, and a lovely display of Russian dancing given by two Polish Ukrainians.
The show was such a success that the Fascist Guards present had to admit that “Four pesetas would not have bought them a seat for a better show anywhere in Spain”.
[i] Morgan Havard: from Craig Cefn Parc. Age: 23. CPGB (1935) Occupation: Sheet-metal Worker. T&GWU. Married, one child. Enlistment Address: 2 Wesley Road, Stonebridge, NW 10. Arrived in Spain: 8/12/1937. Wounded in the arm at Calaceite and had to be left behind by his retreating comrades due to his injury. Taken prisoner and was a POW at San Pedro de Cardena. Right arm amputated. Repatriated. Died age 58. Biographical sketch by Kevin Buyers, from his website XV International Brigade in Spain. http://internationalbrigadesinspain.weebly.com/welsh-volunteers.html
[ii] Havard re-worked this article and it was published in the Moring Star in 1969 with the new title “One Welshman’s War Against Franco and his Fascist Gangsters,” This later version is available online through, WalesOnline, posted December 15, 2011 (updated March 21, 2013) http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/one-welshmans-war-against-franco-1800922