Ephemera: Barcelona envelope

Inevitably, there are many items other than letters and photographs among Frank and Elizabeth’s papers – bus tickets, leaflets, luggage labels, scraps of papers covered in scribbled notes.  This envelope was in the same bundle of papers as the letter giving Frank free passage to help in the aftermath of the March 1938 bombing of Barcelona – and perhaps originally contained this letter (although the official stamps and letterheads are different).

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I don’t really know anything about it (I would love to hear from anyone who can tell me more) – but the combination of the Generalitat de Catalunya Comissariat de Propaganda (which Frank worked for, for a while at least) official stationery, the addressee, Fernandez Bolaños, and the various names and addresses written on various parts of the envelope (including one in Russian) give an indication of the various people and networks that Frank would have encountered in Barcelona at this time.

I am pretty sure that it belonged to Frank, and I think perhaps that these were names and addresses of people that he wanted to (or had been asked to) contact, or keep in contact with, after his return to the UK in the late summer of 1938. In his report from this time (possibly July 1938, and possibly for the KGB) he had written: “Now convinced of the inefficiency of the Cat. Government and in particularly of the Esquerra Republicana I do not want to continue and no other work offering I shall go back to England to stimulate the propaganda for Spain.”

He worked in the Newcastle office of the International Brigades Organisation after his return to the UK and so it is possible that at least some of these people were intended as contacts in his work “stimulating propaganda for Spain.” The Russian address (“for Jeanna”) is perhaps the most intriguing…

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Barcelona, March 1938

1938.3 - Barcelona bombing

In March 1938 Barcelona was bombed almost continuously over three days by Nationalist planes (supplied by Italy and Germany); the bombing was so heavy that the air raid system was rendered useless as there was no way of telling if the sirens were signalling the beginning or end of an attack.

Frank had been in Puigcerdà until early in 1938, and had come to Barcelona and been issued with a Catalonian identity card on 1st February 1938. I don’t know if he was in Barcelona during the bombing but in his own account of his time in Spain he talked about his work in the Propaganda Office of the Catalonian Generalitat during this period. This letter, from the General Secretary of the Junta Local de Defensa Passiva de Barcelona, 19th March 1938 – the day after the bombing stopped – seems (as far as google translate tells me) to request that Frank be given free passage to help with salvage work in the aftermath of the bombing.

“There is a long straight valley”: one year of Frank and Elizabeth’s “Red Thirties”

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Frank (second from left) and Elizabeth (fourth from left), Puigcerdà, January 1938

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I haven’t posted for a while (I have been trying to have a PhD thesis “push”), but wanted to write something to mark the anniversary of my beginning this project. I didn’t know what to expect when I began; I wasn’t sure quite how the non-chronological posting of items would work (I didn’t, and still don’t, have time to go through and catalogue and order everything properly), nor did I know what I would find, or if anyone (other than my family) would find it all interesting. I am pleased to report that I have been pleasantly surprised on all fronts: the non-chronologicalness of it all hasn’t seemed to matter (and I have really enjoyed just diving into various boxes and seeing what I can find), and various people – from all over the world – seem to have found it interesting. I am incredibly grateful to everyone who has read my posts over the last year – and especially to those who I have had contact with in various capacities (from Nancy Clough, whose uncle, Nik Carter, was in Puigcerdà with my grandparents, to Fraser Raeburn, who sent me my grandfather’s Comintern file, and Hannah and Jenny who translated a long document from that file for me).

For this anniversary I had hoped to find and post an essay by my grandmother about Puigcerdà, and about her and Frank’s time there (I think she may have written it for the Daily Worker, although I don’t know if it was ever published – certainly, it appears to designed to raise support for the Republicans outside Spain). Unfortunately my brief Sunday night raid of my mother’s cellar didn’t yield the typescript (and I can’t remember which box it is in). However, I did find this first draft of the first page, complete with Elizabeth’s notes – I think it’s charming, as well as fascinating (hopefully I’ll find the full version before long). My quick search for it also yielded the above photograph of Frank and Elizabeth in Spain, together with some of the evacuated children from the Puigcerdà camp. This is the first photograph that I have ever seen of them together in Spain (and the only photo I have of Elizabeth in Spain), so I was pretty excited to find it.

Here is an early draft of the first page of my grandmother’s essay/article about life in Puigcerdà during the Spanish Civil War – a curious mix of normality (“there is a funny little hill, with one tower and one lake and one market square on its top”), deprivation (“starvation was drawing near last winter. No vegetables could be bought after seven in the morning, and very few before that; there was no meat at all, bread was poor and the ration five slices a day per person”) and fear (“before the winter was out, bombers had come”).

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“Mere writing is not sufficient”: Florrie, May 1938

“Socialism is definitely not the issue at the present but it is civilisation which is at stake in Europe.”

There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the similarities between the current political situation in Europe (and North America) and that of the 1930s. While there are some clear parallels, I have tended to take the whole fatalistic argument with a pinch of salt (the very real reasons for bleakness seem different, and there is, as yet, no incipient Holocaust), but chancing upon this letter today drew me up short. So much of what Florrie writes could have been written now, this very day or week.

I am not entirely sure who Florrie is, but the references in the letter make me think that she and Elizabeth must have worked together in Hackney Wick, with Hugh Lister (on whom, MUCH more to follow – I can’t underestimate how many more letters there are still to come, and Hugh Lister and his work in Hackney Wick, where Elizabeth worked with him for a while, is one of many strands I want to pick up).

The main drama of the letter is the fall-out from the 1938 May Day happenings; while there was apparently a good turnout for the traditional marches and demonstrations (including from the strikers with whom Hugh Lister, Florrie and Elizabeth were involved), a problem seems to have arisen due to some Labour Party members associating themselves with “Unity”. From what I have quickly gleaned, this was an anti-fascist, cross-party (in practice, Labour and the Communist Party) movement that had begun in 1937, and which was initially opposed to rearmament; by 1938, however, its position had become more contentious, in part because of its apparent links to the Soviet Union, and Labour was working hard to distance itself and its members. Florrie is driven to fury (“it makes me sick”) that time at a Labour Party branch meeting could be devoted to discussing such matters of internal politics, “while comrades in parts of the world are suffering”.

It is salutary to see just how seriously politics, and its attendant factionalism, is taken in this letter  – not just how much it all mattered, but a very real sense of the responsibility of the individual, of the impact and importance of one’s own personal actions and decisions. It is also very poignant to read of Florrie’s efforts to obtain “obtain working class education”, in addition to working in her day job. At a time when class consciousness is either a dirty or an alien concept to most people, we would perhaps do well to take some lessons from the 1930s about how best to arm ourselves for whatever is to come.

Here is the transcript of Florrie’s letter, written on 10th May 1938, and sent to Elizabeth in Scotland (with letter images below). Four pages, but worth it.

50 Annis Rd
South Hackney,
London E.9.

10/5/38

Dear Elizabeth

Many thanks for your letter which John brought home from Lister’s about the 6th of May, so if the date on your letter is April it has been there quite a time.

There is so much to say that it seems mere writing is not sufficient.

In the first place we do not come into contact with Hugh at all since his removal chiefly because our local labour party takes up much time and also that his union activities do not leave him time for us.

With regard to our letter to you in Spain naturally we hoped that it would prove some contact with home and would have been only too glad to know that you had received that with the cigs but in future we will avoid Hugh’s forgetfulness by having each others addresses.

The only prospect of seeing you would be by me travelling the same way as yourself as John as recently joined the LPJB as a bus driver which says goodbye to holidays this year otherwise your kind invitation would be promptly accepted but even so there may be the chance of a cheap trip to where you are in the near future. Perhaps you can suggest something as you are more familiar with Scotland than me.

I was interested in your remarks about the doctor or docker talking to the strikers about Spain, it seems a healthy sign also you will like to know that they turned out on May-day and what a day. I do not know if you are conversant at all with the happenings here in London but the demo reached all expectations in numbers and organisation although there is a row in our local party regarding the actions of individuals associating themselves with unity and refusing to give up party banners to our official marshalls. We are expecting the outcome of it tonight at our ward meeting and it makes me sick to think that while comrades in parts of the world are suffering we should be forced to waste time on discussing an action which has no bearing on the work of the ward which meets only once a month. I daresay that you are aware of the pushing forward of the “Peace Alliance” although the Labour Head Office refuse to associate itself with same and I sincerely hope that something in that way will be established as Socialism is definitely not the issue at the present but it is civilisation which is at stake in Europe and that is what the Right wing Labour does not seem to face up to.

Along with other comrades of Park Ward I have been attempting to obtain working class education with the National Council of Labour Colleges which has been to our great advantage and has given us clearer understanding of all class issues. We attend conferences in different districts and also have our own lecturer once a week at the central office so that together with a women’s section in the Wick and ward activities in which John also takes his part takes up time as you can imagine.

I should like to know more about the castle and what if anything goes on around and I only hope that I won’t be denied the pleasure of seeing it for myself so I’ll close in saying that I have inflicted enough writing on you and anticipate a quick letter in return.

With love from John & myself

Florrie

Continue reading “Mere writing is not sufficient”: Florrie, May 1938

Frank’s Catalonian Identity Card, 1st February 1938

Seventy-nine years ago, on 1st February 1938, Frank was issued with this ID card (Carnet d’Identitat) for the Generalatit de Catalunya, the government of Catalonia. The Catalonian text states (roughly): Frank Knowles Girling serves in this Comissariat, as  editor of English bulletins. 1st February 1938.

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A few months later, in his own account of what had brought him to Spain, and his activities while there (see Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1), Frank would write of his work as a translator for the Generalatit, and his growing disillusionment with the Catalonian government:

Having by this time learnt Spanish and a little Catalan came to Barcelona at the end of January hoping to be able to join the I.B. and serve usefully the cause. Being offered a post in the Propaganda Office of the Generalitat I accepted it thinking that as a translator I might be more useful than as a soldier. Now convinced of the inefficiency of the Cat. Government and in particularly of the Esquerra Republicana I do not want to continue and no other work offering I shall go back to England to stimulate the propaganda for Spain.

His account of coming to Barcelona at the end of January would fit with the issuing of this card on 1st February – and his description of himself as a “translator” fits roughly with his description on the card as an “editor”, although I still don’t really know what his activities were at this time (I have a feeling that he ended up broadcasting on the radio at some point). The Generalitat and the Republican Left of Catalonia (the Esquerra Republicana that Frank talks about) were in internal turmoil throughout the Spanish Civil War (as described by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia), with numerous groups and factions competing for control – I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of all this, but perhaps his disillusionment was in some part linked with his allegiance to a particular faction, or perhaps it was due to frustration at the overall factionalism in the face of ongoing assault from Franco’s forces.

Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 2

I feel like most of the posts so far have been about Elizabeth (more of the ephemera is associated with her), but that when there is a post about Frank it is a cracker. I have described previously how I was sent the information on Frank from his International Brigade personnel file held in the Comintern archives (now in Moscow). The most exciting things in this file were a photograph of a very young (c. twenty-one) Frank, and an account in his own words of how he ended up in Spain (see Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1 for more on all this). There were also two other main items: a “Biografía en España” questionnaire (answered by Frank in French), and an intriguing-looking three page document in German, that looks like some kind of security report on Frank by someone called Kurt.

My German is almost non-existent, so two very kind friends (Hannah and Jenny) have been working their way through this document for me over the last few months  – combining the translation of strange German documents (apparently some of the German is an unusual dialect) with various jobs and a new baby! It was a far greater task than I had first anticipated (far longer, and more intricate), and so much information has come out of it, that I have decided to break it up a bit and just post the report page by page. So here is page one, translation first (with the original – and some of my thoughts – below). Here goes:

Around 18 days ago Girling turned up in our delegation to take part in the Interbrigaden. He said that, since 10.10.37, he has been volunteering at the children’s evacuation center in Puigcerda. On his past he gave the following information:

Born in England. Studied at different universities. Then since May 1935 worked in Croydon in England in the Government Office: Civil Service Inland Revenue Department as a scribe. Girling states that this was a position subordinate to the finance ministry. He was here until December 1936. In January 1935 he wanted to enter the K.P.E. [British Communist Party – “Kommunistischen Partei Englisch“?], but left after 11 months, since he was in danger of losing his position in the civil service. After his dismissal from the service, he apparently worked as an unskilled worker in various companies.

Girling is in possession of an English passport no. 4634, issued on 15.7.35, valid for 5 years. In this passport he has various visas and visa stamps of entry and exit to France, from the time he worked in the Civil Service. He states that he went on holiday trips to the French coast. In July 1937 he went to France and joined the International Voluntary Service. Girling states that this is a service attached to the International Red Cross. He was allegedly used for building roads in Kanton Wallis [the Swiss Canton of Vallais] near Loetschental. He was there until the end of September 1937, then went to Bern, where he spent two weeks at the house of Therese Lautenburg, Bern, Falken Höhenweg 8. He states that this is a friend from the International Voluntary Service. In October 1937, he took a bus to Spain to pick up evacuated women. That is why Girling has a visa issued by the Spanish Consul in Bern. He arrived in Barcelona on the 10.10.37. He signed up at the Servicio Internacional de los Amigos Cuaqueros [“International Service of the Quaker Friends”], where he was sent to Puigcerda on October 13, 1937 to work in the children’s evacuation center. He is in possession of a confirmation on the 12.10.37 issued by this service, signed by Alfred Jakob. In Puigcerda he was mainly used for agricultural work by the Comite Ayuda Infantil [“Children’s Aid Committee”] until early January 1938. He then went to Barcelona.

In Puigcerda he met an Austrian physician, Dr. Wallis, who was married to the daughter of a Russian who is living in Barcelona, called Kleinmann. Kleinmann is the owner of a small celluloid factory and lives in Calle Provenza 82. Through the intermediary of Dr. Wallis, Girling met this little man and settled in Barcelona with him. For his time in Puigcerda he refers to the following 2 persons:

1. Friedel Funk (Swiss), head of the Comite in Puigcerda

2. Nic Carter (American), secretary of the Comite.

He first met both people in Puigcerda. Of Funk, we have nothing to complain about, but we are currently trying to inquire about him. Of Nic Carter, we were told that he was the son of an American millionaire. We have also been warned that he is an unknown quantity, with no exact details.

Continue reading Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 2

Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1

Frank - picture - 1I can’t quite get over how young and dreamy a c. twenty-year-old Frank looks in this photograph. It is the main image of him from his International Brigade personnel file held in the Comintern archives (now in Moscow). I was sitting in the library a few days ago when an e-mail arrived (from Fraser Raeburn – an Edinburgh PhD student working on Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War) with copies of the various documents held in this file. I hadn’t seen this photo – or any of the other material – before and my heart actually skipped a beat.

The file isn’t huge – but all of the information it contains is new to me (including an intriguing document that looks like a security report on Frank, in German, simply signed “Kurt” – more on this once translated). Most exciting is this, an account of how Frank ended up in Spain, including his involvement in politics before going there. It contains so much interesting (to me) new information that I don’t know where to begin… Here he is in his own words, with my thoughts below:

Continue reading Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1