In February 1942 during the Siege of Leningrad I found myself attached to General Edqvist, the commander of a division of Finnish troops stationed near Lake Ladoga. One morning he asked me to pay him a visit.
We have just taken 18 Spanish prisoners, he said.
Spanish? I said. Now you’re at war with Spain?
I don’t know anything about that, he said. But I have 18 prisoners who speak Spanish and claim they are Spanish, not Russian.
We have to interrogate them. Of course, you speak Spanish.
No, actually I don’t.
Well, you’re Italian, so you’re more Spanish than I am. Go interrogate them.
I did as I was told. I found the prisoners under guard in barracks. I asked whether they were Russian or Spanish. I spoke in Italian, slowly, and they answered in Spanish, slowly, and we understood each other perfectly.
We are soldiers in the Soviet army, but we are Spanish.
One of them went on to say that they were orphans of the Spanish Civil War; their parents had been killed in the bombardments and reprisals. One day they were all put on board a Soviet ship in Barcelona and sent to Russia, where they were fed and clothed, where they learned a trade, and where they eventually became soldiers in the Red Army.
But we are Spanish.
In fact, I remembered reading at the time that the Russians had evacuated thousands of Red Republican children to the USSR to save them from the bombardments and famine of the Spanish Civil War.
Are you members of the Communist Party? I asked.
Well, keep quiet about it. You’ve told me, and for the moment that’s enough. Don’t tell anyone else. Do you understand?
No, we don’t understand.
That doesn’t matter. If I stop to think about it, I don’t understand it either. It’s just that I think it would be better if you didn’t tell anyone else you are members of the Communist Party.
No, we can’t accept such a compromise. We were taught to tell the truth. There is nothing wrong about being Communist. We won’t hide the fact that we are Communists.
All right, do as you wish. Meanwhile, you should know that the Finnish people are honest and humane, that among the men in the Finnish army there are many Communists, but they are fighting against the Russians who invaded their country in 1939. So being Communist or not has no fundamental importance, that’s what I want to say. But you understand me, I think.
No, we don’t. We understand you are spouting propaganda, that’s all.
No, that’s not all. You should know that I will do everything possible to make sure you are not harmed. Do you understand?
All right then. Goodbye. I will come and see you tomorrow.
I found General Edqvist and told him about my conversation.
What can we do? the general asked me. You know, their situation is extremely precarious. They are Communists, Spanish volunteers in the Red Army. Of course they were children when they were evacuated, so they aren’t responsible for the education they were given. If it were up to me, I would help them. But under the circumstances, the best thing would be for you to telegraph your friend de Foxá, the Spanish Ambassador in Helsinki. Ask him to come at my request. I will turn the prisoners over to him and he can do what he wants with them.
I sent a cable to de Foxá: Have 18 Spanish prisoners come quickly take them in consignment.
Two days later, during a blizzard, de Foxá arrived in a sleigh, the temperature 42 degrees below zero. He was half-dead with cold and lack of sleep. As soon as he saw me he shouted: What do you think you’re doing? Why did you telegraph me? What can I do with 18 Spanish Red Army soldiers? Put them up at the embassy? Now I have to sort things out. You are a meddler.
And you are the Spanish ambassador.
Yes, but of Franco’s Spain. And these kids are Communists. At any rate, I’ll do what I can. But I would really like to know why you got mixed up with this.
He was furious. But de Foxá had a good heart, and I knew that he would do everything possible to help. He went to see the prisoners, and I tagged along.
I am the ambassador of Franco’s Spain, de Foxá said to them. I am Spanish, you are Spanish, I came to help. What can I do for you?
For us? Nothing, said the prisoners. We don’t want to have anything to do with a representative of Franco’s Spain.
Do you think this is a joke? It took me two days and two nights to get here and now you’re sending me away? Nevertheless, I’ll do everything in my power to help you. Francisco Franco knows how to forgive.
Franco is our enemy. He killed our parents. We’re just asking you to leave us alone.
De Foxá went to find General Edqvist.
They’re stubborn, he said. But I will do my duty anyway. I’ll telegraph the ministry in Madrid for instructions, and then we’ll do whatever Madrid says.
The next day, de Foxá prepared to leave for Helsinki: Mind your own business, you understand? he said, getting into his sleigh. It’s your fault that I’m in this jam, you hear me?
A few days later, one of the prisoners fell ill. The doctor said: Inflammation of the lungs. Very dangerous.
We have to let de Foxá know, said General Edqvist.
So I telegraphed de Foxá: One prisoner sick, very serious, come quickly with medicine chocolate cigarettes.
Two days later, de Foxá arrived in his sleigh. He was furious.
Now what have you done? he shouted as soon as he saw me. Is it my fault that this kid got sick? What can I do? I am alone in Helsinki, you know, without an attaché – no assistants, nothing, I have to do everything myself. And you make me snowshoe around Finland in a blizzard, all because of your meddling.
Listen, he’s sick, he’s dying, it’s good that you’re here. You represent Spain.
All right, all right, let’s go and see him.
De Foxá had brought a huge amount of medicine, food, cigarettes, warm clothes. He really did things royally, my old pal Agustin.
The sick soldier recognised de Foxá, and even smiled. His comrades, though, stood back silent and hostile, staring at Agustin with disdain and hatred.
De Foxá stayed for two days, then he went back to Helsinki. Before getting in his sleigh, he said: Malaparte, why do you keep getting mixed up with things that don’t concern you? When will you learn to just leave me in peace? You aren’t Spanish, you know. Leave me alone.
Three days later, the soldier died of his inflammation. General Edqvist summoned me: I could have him buried in the Finnish custom. But I think it would be better to let de Foxá know. After all, this soldier was Spanish. What do you think?
Yes, we should tell de Foxá. It would be the diplomatic thing to do.
And so I sent a telegram: Soldier just died come quick need to bury.
Two days later, de Foxá arrived. He was furious.
Will you stop harassing me? he shouted as soon as he saw me. This is driving me crazy! Of course once you let me know that this kid is dead and has to be buried, it’s impossible for me not to come. But what if you just hadn’t told me? It’s not as if my coming here is going to revive him.
No, but you are Spain. We can’t just bury him like a dog, in these woods, far from his country, from Spain. At least, with you here, everything is different, you know? It’s as if all of Spain is here.
Naturally, said de Foxá. That’s why I came. But why do you get mixed up in these things? You are not Spanish, válgame dios!
He has to be buried properly, Agustin. That’s why I contacted you.
Yes, I know, I know. Let’s move on. Where is he?
We went to see the poor kid, who was laid out in the barracks surrounded by his comrades. They stared at de Foxá with a sombre, almost menacing defiance.
We will bury him, said de Foxá, according to Catholic ritual. Spaniards are Catholic. I want him to be buried like a true Spaniard, a good Spanish soldier.
We will not allow that, said one of the prisoners. Our comrade was an atheist, as are all of us. This must be honoured. We will not permit him to be buried as a Catholic.
I represent Spain, and the deceased was Spanish, a Spanish citizen. I will have him buried as a Catholic. Do you understand?
No, we don’t.
I am the ambassador of Spain, and I will do my duty! If you don’t understand me, I don’t care.
And with that, de Foxá turned and went outside.
Agustin, my friend, I said, General Edqvist is a gentleman. He wouldn’t like it if you forced your opinions on a dead man. Finnish people are freethinkers, they will not understand your position. We have to find some compromise.
Yes, but I am Franco’s ambassador! I cannot bury a Spaniard without Catholic ritual. Mi Dios! Why didn’t you just go ahead and bury him without me? You see what you’ve done, with your obsession for getting mixed up in things that don’t concern you?
All right, don’t worry, it will all turn out for the best.
We went to see the general.
Evidently, said the general, if the deceased was a Communist, an atheist, as his comrades say and as I believe he was, it won’t be possible to bury him as a Catholic. I am aware, however, that the ambassador represents Spain, and can’t officiate at a burial without Catholic rites. What shall we do, I wonder?
I suggested that we send for the only Catholic priest in Helsinki, an Italian. (There was also a Catholic bishop in Helsinki, from the Netherlands, but it was unthinkable to ask a bishop to come to the front.) So we telegraphed the priest, and two days later he arrived. He was from upper Lombardy – a highlander, very simple, direct and pure. He grasped the situation immediately and set about arranging things for the best.
The burial took place the next day. In a clearing in the woods where the little cemetery was located, a grave had been blasted by dynamite out of the frozen earth. A group of Finnish soldiers was arranged along one side of the grave, and the flag of Franco’s Spain had been placed at the bottom. The snow covering the ground nearby glowed softly in the milky daylight. The coffin was carried by four of the prisoners, followed in procession by Ambassador de Foxá, General Edqvist, myself, the Spanish prisoners and finally by a few Finnish soldiers. The priest kept himself apart, about fifty feet away. His lips moved, reciting the prayers for the dead – but in silence, out of respect for the opinions of the deceased. When the coffin was lowered into the grave, the Finnish soldiers, all Protestants, discharged their rifles. General Edqvist and the Finnish officers and soldiers all saluted with elbows bent, as did I; Ambassador de Foxá saluted with his arm straight out, palm flat, in the Fascist manner; and the comrades of the deceased also held their arms straight out, but with fists closed.
The next day de Foxá prepared to leave. Before settling into his sleigh for the ride back, he took me aside and confided: I want to thank you for all you’ve done. You’ve been very thoughtful and considerate. Excuse me if I was angry, but you know … You are always getting mixed up in things that don’t concern you!
A few days passed. The prisoners waited for the response from Madrid, which did not come. General Edqvist grew increasingly nervous.
You know, he said, I can’t keep these men here much longer. A decision has to be made: either Spain takes them, or I send them to a concentration camp. Their situation is delicate. It is better to hold them here, but I can’t keep them for ever.
Have a little patience. We will get a response.
The response arrived: Only those prisoners who declare themselves to be Spanish, who recognise the government of Francisco Franco, and who express the desire to return to Spain, will be recognised as Spanish citizens.
Go and explain the situation to them, said General Edqvist.
We do not recognise the government of Franco, the prisoners said, and we do not want to return to Spain.
I respect the firmness of your opinions, I said, but you should appreciate how delicate your predicament is. If you admit to fighting as part of the Red Army, you will all be shot. The laws of war are the laws of war. So make it possible for me to help you. Consider this carefully. Basically, you are Spaniards. All the Republicans still in Spain have accepted the legitimacy of Franco. They lost the game, and their loyalty to their cause does not prevent them from realising that Franco won. Do what the Republicans in Spain have done. Accept your defeat.
There are no more Republicans in Spain. They have all been shot.
Where did you hear that story?
We read it in the Soviet newspapers. We will not recognise the Franco regime. We would rather be shot by the Finnish than by Franco.
Listen, I’ve had it with you, with Communist Spain, with Fascist Spain, with Russia! But I can’t abandon you, I will not abandon you. I will do everything in my power to help. If you don’t want to recognise the Franco regime, I will sign the declarations in your name. That will be perjury, but it will save your lives. Understand?
No. We will say that you forged our signatures. We just want you to leave us alone! Don’t get involved in things that don’t concern you. Are you Spanish? No. So why are you getting involved in this?
I am not Spanish, but I am a man, a Christian, and I will not abandon you. I repeat: let me help you. You will go back to Spain, and once you are there you will act like all the rest, like all the other Republicans who have accepted defeat. You are young, and I will not let you die.
Just leave us alone!
I went away, dispirited.
We have to tell de Foxá, General Edqvist said. Telegraph him that he needs to come and settle this situation.
I telegraphed de Foxá: Prisoners refuse come quick persuade them.
Two days later, de Foxá arrived. The north wind blew with unusual violence, de Foxá was covered with frost. As soon as he saw me, he shouted: Again! Why telegraph me? What good did you think it would do? These kids won’t listen to me. You don’t know the Spanish. They are as stubborn as the mules of Toledo.
Go and talk to them, I said. Perhaps …
Yes, yes I know. That’s why I came. But really, Malaparte …
He went to see the prisoners, and I accompanied him. They were resolute. De Foxá pleaded with them, cajoled them, threatened them. Nothing worked.
So we will be shot. And then? they said.
And then I will have you buried as Catholics! shouted de Foxá boiling with rage, tears in his eyes. Agustin was a good man, and he was suffering from this magnificent and terrible stubbornness.
You would not do that, said the prisoners. Usted es un hombre honesto. They were moved as well, in spite of themselves.
In turmoil, de Foxá prepared to leave. He urged General Edqvist to hold the prisoners a bit longer, and to do nothing without telling him. Once he was installed in his sleigh, he turned to me: You see, Malaparte. It’s your fault I am in such a state. I don’t want to think of the fate of these poor kids. I admire them, I am proud of them – real Spaniards. Yes, they are real Spaniards, loyal and brave. You know … ?
There were tears in his eyes, and his voice trembled. We have to do whatever we can to save them. I am counting on you, he said.
I will do my best. I promise I won’t let them die. Adiós, Agustin.
I went every day to talk to the prisoners, trying to persuade them, but it was hopeless.
Thank you, they would say, but we are Communists, and will never recognise Franco.
A few days later, General Edqvist called for me. Go and see what is happening with the prisoners. They have almost killed one of their comrades. We don’t know why.
I went to see the prisoners. One of them was sitting by himself in a corner of the room, covered with blood, guarded by a Finnish soldier armed with a suomi-konepistooli, the famous Finnish submachine gun.
What have you done to this man?
He’s a traitor, they answered. Un traidor.
Is this true? I said to the wounded man.
Yes. I am a traitor. I want to return to Spain. I can’t take it any more. I don’t want to die. I want to go back to Spain. I am Spanish. I want to go back to Spain.
He is a traitor! Un traidor! said his comrades, looking at him with stares full of hate.
I had ‘el traidor’ placed by himself in another barrack, and telegraphed de Foxá: One soldier wants to return to Spain come quick. Two days later, de Foxá arrived. He was blinded by the snow, his face had been pelted by chunks of ice which the hooves of the horses had chipped from the frozen road.
What are you doing? Why do you keep meddling in things that don’t concern you? When will you stop harassing me with this nonsense? Where is this soldier?
Over there, Agustin.
All right, let’s go and see him.
‘El traidor’ welcomed us in silence. He was a boy of about twenty, blond, with blue eyes, very pale. He was blond the way Spaniards are blond, he had blue eyes the way Spaniards are blue-eyed. He began to cry. He said: I am a traitor. Yo un traidor. But I can’t take it any more. I don’t want to die. I want to go back to Spain. He cried, and his eyes were full of fear, hope, supplication.
De Foxá was moved.
Stop crying, he said. We will send you back to Spain. You will be welcomed there. You will be pardoned. It wasn’t your fault if the Russians made you into a Communist. You were just a kid. Don’t cry.
I am a traitor, said the prisoner.
We are all traitors, de Foxá said brusquely, quietly.
The next day, de Foxá had him sign the declaration and prepared to leave. Before doing so, he went to see General Edqvist.
You are a gentleman, he said. Give me your word that you will help the rest of these poor kids. They would rather die than renounce their beliefs.
Yes, they are good kids, said General Edqvist. I am a soldier, and I admire courage and loyalty even in our enemies. I give you my word. Besides, I agree with Marshal Mannerheim: they will be treated as prisoners of war. Don’t worry, I will answer for their lives.
De Foxá shook General Edqvist’s hand in silence, choked by emotion. When he was settled in his sleigh, he smiled, finally. At last, he said, you are done annoying me. I’ll telegraph Madrid, and as soon as I have an answer, we’ll know where things stand. Thank you, Malaparte.
A few days later, the answer came from Madrid. The prisoner was taken to Helsinki, where Spanish officers were waiting for him. ‘El traidor’ was flown to Berlin, and on from there to Spain. It was clear that the Spanish authorities wanted to make something out of this. The prisoner was overwhelmed with care and attention, and he took it all joyfully.
Two months later, I returned to Helsinki. It was spring. The trees along the Esplanade were covered with a foam of tender green leaves, birds singing in their branches. I went to fetch de Foxá from his villa at Brunnsparken, and we strolled along the Esplanade, heading towards Kemp. The sea was so green it seemed also to be bursting with leaves, and the little island of Suomenlinna was white with the wings of seagulls.
And the prisoner, ‘el traidor’? Any news?
Again? shouted de Foxá. Why do you keep meddling in this business?
I did something to help save his life, I said.
De Foxá told me that ‘el traidor’ had been warmly welcomed in Madrid. He was paraded around, and the people said: See this handsome boy? He was a Communist, he fought with the Russians, he was taken prisoner on the Russian front. But he wanted to come home, to Spain. He has recognised Franco. He is a brave boy, a good Spaniard. He was taken to the cafés, the theatres, bullrings, stadiums, cinemas.
But he said: You think this is a café? You should see the cafés in Moscow.
And he laughed:
This is a theatre? A cinema? You should see what they have in Moscow!
And he laughed. They took him to the stadium. He shouted out:
This is a stadium? You should see the stadium in Kiev.
And he laughed.
Everyone turned to look at him, and he shouted:
This is a stadium? The stadium in Kiev, now that’s a stadium!
And he laughed.
Do you understand now? said de Foxá. Do you finally understand? It’s your fault they were furious with me at the ministry. It’s all your fault. That should teach you to meddle in things that don’t concern you.
But ‘el traidor’ – what did they do with him?
What did you want them to do with him? Nothing! They didn’t do anything with him, said Agustin with a strange voice. Why are you always getting involved?
Then he smiled: Anyway, they buried him as a Catholic.