Saving Spanish Lives on the Volga, Summer 1942

November 11, 2017
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Alejandra Soler Gilabert, who died in Valencia, Spain last March, was one of the Spanish teachers who worked with the nearly 3,000 children who were evacuated to the Soviet Union during the Spanish Civil War. Soler is credited with saving the lives of 14 children during the battle at Stalingrad—the turning point of the Soviet Union’s military struggle against German fascism. But when the historian Glennys Young interviewed her a year before her death, Soler refused to see herself as a war hero. Her adventurous life, marked by a strong political commitment, illustrates the long-term impact of the Civil War.

Soler

Alejandra Soler with Arnaldo Azzati (left)

Born in Valencia, Alejandra Soler became a political activist during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923-1930). As one of the first women at a Spanish university, and a pioneering female athlete, she joined the Federación Universitaria Escolar (FUE), a progressive student organization.[1] In 1934, she met the Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria), with whom she would cross paths later in the USSR, and whom she described to me as a “charming woman.” After the brutal repression of the Asturias miners’ revolt that year, Soler joined the Communist Party.[2] When the Civil War interrupted her doctoral work, she took to teaching history and geography.

After the Republic’s defeat, Soler and her husband, the communist journalist Arnaldo Azzati Cutanda (1913-1986), were forced into exile. They crossed the French border at separate times, not knowing if they would be reunited. Alejandra left Spain at La Junquera in February 1939, “a few hours before Franco’s army arrived at the border.”[3] The pain of leaving Spain and her life to that point was still vivid on the day we spoke. “I left everything behind,” she told me. “And I was alone.”

Alejandra, desperate to find her husband, sent letters to all the refugee camps in France. It turned out he was interned at Argelés-sur-Mer. The couple was set to accept exile in Mexico when Arnaldo was told that they were needed in the USSR: Arnaldo as a journalist, and she as a teacher.[4] Alejandra arrived in Leningrad in June 1939 and was soon reunited with her husband  in Moscow. At that point Alejandra knew no Russian. As she began to learn the language, she also started to teach Spanish language, literature, history, and geography in one of the 22  homes provided by the Soviet government for Spanish children. Hers—Casa no. 12, near Pushkin Square—housed children 12 and older.

The Nazi invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941 stunned Soler, even though, as she put it in her autobiography, “our subconscious expected it and feared it.” In Moscow, where the civilian population was tasked with military responsibilities, Alejandra and Arnaldo assumed the “mission” of defusing incendiary bombs that the Germans were dropping on a city they thought comprised of wooden buildings.[5] Contingent forces beyond Alejandra’s control propelled her to Stalingrad in wartime. The German army reached the outskirts of Moscow by the end of October. Casa no. 12 had to leave the capital. Soon after Soler left with the children, Arnaldo was sent to Ufa, southwest of the Ural mountains, to continue his broadcasting work.

Soler was responsible for between 40 and 50  children evacuated to Stalingrad on a boat that included youngsters from both her Casa and that of Casa no. 2, “home” to younger Spaniards.[6] The boat made its way on tributaries before reaching the Volga.[7] After arriving in Stalingrad, the contingent was taken to the village Leninsk, about 40 kilometers east of the city. Soler continued to teach the Spanish children, acted as their second mother, and served as secretary of the Komsomol cell.

In the summer of 1942, following an order from the Soviet Ministry of Education, she led 14 Spanish boys and the manager of the Casa in Leninsk to renovate a new home for Spanish children on the other side of the Volga—that is, closer to German forces. In her autobiography, Soler states that, from the outset, she thought this mission was “madness”: “exactly [at this time] the Germans had begun an offensive towards the southwest, and in our movement we were going to run into this offensive, which, very probably, the Russian army would not be able to stop.”[8] Indeed, in mid-July, the German Sixth Army had launched its advance into the Don Bend. Distressed by the Ministry’s plan, Soler complained to Soviet authorities in Stalingrad. They called her a “defeatist.” Deciding that wartime discipline required her to fulfill the order, she reluctantly carried out the mission. Soler and her group reached the site for the new Casa, located in a Don Cossack village, probably near the town of Kalach, on the banks of the Don River, likely by mid-July 1942.[9]

After three or four days working on renovations, her worst fears materialized: the Germans launched a paratrooper attack not far from the new Casa.[10] Retreating Soviet soldiers, almost certainly of the 62nd or 64th Soviet Armies, occupied the home, protecting her and the Spanish youth. After a few days, the soldiers and the Spanish contingent retreated to Stalingrad by train, without incident, even though there were intermittent bombings on the railroad line.[11] By the time they reached the city, Stalingrad was an imperiled “bunker,” as Soler put it. Just after they arrived, a bomb fell on a trench in which another group of Spanish youth and their teacher, Félix Allende, had taken refuge. All were killed. Soler knew she needed to get her group back to Leninsk on the other side of the Volga.

Soler persuaded Red Army personnel to take her group to safety. “We had to convince the soldiers to extract us from the city,” she later wrote, “and take us to the other bank. It wasn’t easy, but after much pleading I was able to convince them.”[12] Her idea was to use a military pontoon with “a gigantic platform that carried war materiel, tanks, cannons” to transport her group. With bombs raining over them, she ferried the boys across the river in two groups of seven. “At the outskirts is where the fronts of [the battle of] Stalingrad were,” she told me:We were in the middle . . . in the center of the battle. . . [A]ll the bridges had been destroyed. In Stalingrad, the battle went house by house, street by street. And it took a long time”.[13]

In convincing Red Army officers to allow her to use the pontoon, and in ferrying the youth to safety, she was telescoping the skills she had honed in Spain, France, and Moscow. Building on her innate tenacity and intelligence, she had learned to see herself as a woman who, while small in stature, could stand up to men, no matter their rank or profession. She had trained herself to find a solution to seemingly intractable problems, confident that, whatever the odds, she could find the way out.

By any definition, saving the boys’ lives was heroic.[14] But Soler refused to see herself as a hero. As a modest person, she admired humility in others as well, including her husband Arnaldo.[15] When I spoke with her, it was difficult to understand how she wanted to be regarded. As she told the Stalingrad story, she often referred to things happening “at that moment,” as if indicating that she merely did what “the moment” required of her—as would any human being with a conscience and a sense of solidarity. “Solidarity,” she emphasized to me in fact, was what impressed her most about the USSR: “They cared about each other. They were open. Very open.”

The youths saved by Soler entered different walks of Soviet life after the war.[16] Ángel Lago, his brother Francisco Lago, and Daniel Monzó worked in factories, contributing to the reconstruction of the Soviet economy and infrastructure. Marcelino Galán became an architect in Moscow. Gerardo Viana Gómez de Foncea studied chorus and ballet at the Krupskaya Institute of Culture in Leningrad, and would later become a dance master in Riga. The boy she called, in Russian, Navarro “El Chornyi” (Navarro the “Black One”[17])—likely Vicente Navarro—became an engineer. The nephew of Spanish Communist leader José Díaz became an instructor at the M.V. Frunze Military Academy. Quite a few of the 14 joined the Spanish Communist Party after the war.

Their lives reached beyond Soviet borders. At least two of the 14 youth were among the hundreds of Hispanosoviéticos whom the USSR sent to Cuba in the early 1960s to aid Fidel Castro’s revolution, working as military advisors, translators, teachers, or technical specialists. Ramón Aldazábal Luri became a translator in Cuba, where he likely met La Pasionaria’s nephew, Amelio Pérez Ibárruri. Viana Gómez de Foncea[18] was among the 1,900 Spaniards (former niños, political exiles, ex-officers and soldiers in the Blue Division, pilots, and aviators) who returned to Franco’s Spain between 1956 and 1959. Back in Bilbao, Viana Gómez brought his insider knowledge of Soviet socialism to a Spain where everyday encounters with those who had lived outside the country, let alone in the USSR, were rare.[19] When Aldazábal Luri and others returned from Spain to the USSR, they in turn brought first-hand experience  of everyday life on the other side of the “Iron Curtain.”

Alejandra Soler Gilabert survived the perilous journey across the Volga and the war. She never stopped being a political activist, even after she lost many of her closest compatriots, including her husband Arnaldo. After World War II, Soler returned to teaching translation and was named head of the Department of Romance Languages in 1958 at the USSR’s Higher School of Diplomacy.[20] Many years later, in 2012, when she was 99, the former student activist became a public figure in her native Valencia when she championed the cause of students protesting cutbacks in higher education in what became known as the Valencian Spring. The students in turn adopted her as the abuela of their movement.[21] In 2015, when a left-wing coalition brought an end to decades of conservative rule in the city of Valencia, the new mayor, Joan Ribó, named Alejandra honorary citizen. She died this past March, aged 103.

¡Hasta siempre, Alejandra!

Glennys Young is Jon Bridgman Endowed Professor in History and Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington.

[1] Alejandra Soler Gilabert, La vida es un río caudaloso con peligrosos rápidos. Al final de todo . . . sigo comunista (Valènica: Universitat de València, 2009), p. 22.

[2] Other interviews indicate that she joined the PCE in 1934. But La vida, p. 24, gives the date of 1935.

[3] La vida, p. 33.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

[5] Ibid., p. 49.

[6] Her memoirs indicate that this was Casa no. 3, not no. 2. But documents in both Spanish and Russian archives indicate that this was Casa 2. See, for example, the testimony of one of Soler’s students in Casa no. 12, in Moscow, Eugenio San Segundo Serrano, in Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica, Salamanca, Spain, Fondos incorporados (Enrique Zafra García), caja 19. (Hereafter, San Segundo in CDMH Zafra.) I am grateful to Karl Qualls for confirming in an email exchange of 12 September that, according to Russian archival sources, Casa no. 2 was one of the homes evacuated along with Casa no. 12 to Leninsk, where the building was located at 16 Stalingrad Street.

[7] San Segundo in CDMH Zafra.

[8] La vida, p. 55.

[9] Here I am drawing on an email exchange of 12-13 September with David Glantz, to whom I am indebted for bringing his tremendous expertise on World War II, and Stalingrad in particular, to the task of deducing the probable location from the incomplete information provided by Soler’s La Vida. It is also possible, Professor Glantz indicates, that the location of the home was “further south along the Don, near or south of Nizhne-Chirskii. In the event it was, Alejandra and her entourage could have been evacuated northeastward toward Stalingrad along the Kotel’nikovo-Stalingrad railroad line in the Fourth Panzer Army’s sector advance.” Email of 13 September 2017.

[10] The German Air Force (Luftwaffe) dispatched “small teams of Abwehr operatives or Brandenburger special operations troops to reconnoiter key objectives such as river crossing sites or to seize special objectives and hold them until the arrival of (in this case) the spearheads of Sixth Army’s XIV and Fourth Panzer Army’s XXXVIII Panzer Corps.” Email from David Glantz, 12 September 2017.

[11] La vida, p. 55.

[12] Ibid., p. 57.

[13] During the interview, I asked her whether the incident occurred in November, 1942. She said yes. But her autobiography, La vida, claims that the events in question occurred in the “summer of 1943.” (p. 54.). As the text and notes above explain, it is impossible that the events to which she refers occurred in either November of 1942 or the summer of 1943.

[14] The Spanish youth whose lives she surely saved were the following: Daniel Monzó Carbonell (b. 1923 in Alicante), Ramón Aldázabal Luri (b. 1924 in Eibar), Ángel Lago Rodriíguez (b. 1925 in Moreda), Francisco Lago Rodríguez (b. 1926 in Moreda), Gerardo Viana Gómez de Foncea (b. 1926 in Gallarta), Amelio Pérez Ibárruri (b. 1925 in Gallarta), Enrique Peñafiel Martínez (b. 1925 in Bilbao), Francisco Peñafiel Martínez (b. 1928 in Bilbao), José Vela Díaz (b. 1918 in Sevilla), and Marcelino Galán Madera (b. 1926). Though she does not give the full names of four other youth on p. 56 of La vida, it is likely that the others were the following: Vicente Navarro (b. 1925 in Larache, Morocco), Serafín Randez Rodríguez (b. 1930 in San Sebastián), Enrique Escalera Larrazábal (b. 1926 in Bilbao), and Gregorio Sevilla Chuza (b. 1924 in Bilbao).

[15] La vida, p. 37.

[16] I have based this reconstruction on the biographical details of members of the Spanish “emigration” in the USSR in Ángel Luis Encinas Moral, Fuentes Históricos Para El Estudio de la Emigración Española (1936-2007) (Madrid: Exterior XXI), 2008.

[17] “Chernyi,” which can also be transliterated as “Chornyi,” is the word for “black” in Russian.

[18] He returned to Spain on the 6th expedition in May, 1957.

[19] For more on the multi-faceted consequences of repatriation, see Glennys Young, “¿Sujetos Peligrosos? Repatriados españoles desde la URSS en la Provincia de Vizcaya, 1956-1963,” Cuadernos de Historia Contemporánea 38 ((2016): 103-127, and “To Russia with ‘Spain’: Spanish Exiles in the USSR and the Longue Durée of Soviet History,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 15, 2 (Spring, 2014): 395-419.

[20] La vida, p. 87.

[21] See, for example, http://www.partitcomunista.es/hastasiemprealejandra/. Accessed on 14 September 2017.

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