Josep Almudéver died on May 23
OLD SOLDIERS often lose their enthusiasm for combat. They speak instead of peace and, in low voices, warn young people against the madness of war. Not so Josep Almudéver. At a moment’s notice, he unfurled the Spanish Republican flag that he always carried with him, yellow, red and purple, the colors of dawn, and draped it proudly around his shoulders. He would rather forget to eat than to forget this flag. Then he raised his closed fist, shouted “Viva el socialismo!” in a voice still so buoyant and clear, and singing a republican song. Not to stop it.
He was always at heart the 17-year-old boy who tried in all the recruiting offices of his village, Alcàsser in the province of Valencia, to engage in the struggle to save the Second Republic from the fascists of Francisco Franco. When Franco’s coup d’état against the elected government sparked civil war in July 1936, he had to engage. He was too young, but “You won’t stop him from walking,” his father told the secretary of the Socialist Party office, who then obligingly accepted his age at 19. He was still 17 years old, on the dark and icy frontline of Teruel. in Aragon where the republican forces were trying to dislodge Franco’s troops, when shrapnel struck his chest and shoulder. But it didn’t hurt for long, and after a few weeks he was looking for a front line again.
After the defeat of Teruel, where the air power of Nazi Germany came to Franco’s aid, many Republicans lost their stomachs for the fight. He was all the more lively. His youth remained a problem, however, unless he enlisted as a foreigner. Fortunately he was both French and Spanish, born in Marseille when his valencian father was looking for work there. Thus, in May 1938, showing his French side, he joined the International Brigades. He was now part of a force of some 40,000 fighters who had flocked to Spain to save the world from fascism, saving the Republic first. They came from all over Europe, Asia and America, and from all leftist colors: socialists, communists, anarchists and Trotskyists, with a fringe of writers, vagabonds and romantics. It was like participating in a medieval crusade, but with rifles and artillery (when it presented itself) and a role of shock troops, helping as needed. The Brigades were his ideal of what the left might be, like the Popular Front forged from the belligerent parties in Spain in 1936: all factions uniting to bring down capitalism and raise the working class.
His brigade, 129, was the last to be formed and, as it turned out, the last. The fighters were fresh, even scoring small victories in the Republican general retreat. Huge previous losses meant that most brigadists there were then Spaniards, but its own division included a Dutch, a German, a Swiss, an American (their chief engineer), even a Chinese. His regular comrade, David, was Canadian. They could barely speak to each other, but got along well. There were no conflicts. Others reported numerous conflicts in the brigades, as well as the overwhelming smell of the camp of rotten oats and urine, the same old bean stew eaten from dirty tin cans and the boredom of weeks spent in await orders from their Republican commanders. He didn’t even care much about the wait.
Moreover, as he kept emphasizing, the Republic did not lose the war. She was betrayed by the pact of non-intervention signed by the great Western powers in 1936, pledging to stay away from the struggle. When he had walked away from Alcàsser on that bright September morning, the people cheering loudly, he carried a dilapidated rifle and no bullets, for the French now refused to send the ammunition Spain had ordered and paid for. Fascist Italy and Germany, however, ignore the pact and side with Franco, as in Teruel. Pobre Republic, poor Republic, he sighed. Against criminals like these, he hadn’t stood a chance. As for the idea that Spain was a “civil war”, how stupid. It was a world war fought on a bloody little stage.
Everything could have been different. When the Republic was proclaimed in 1931, he saw freedom explode in the streets. The new government introduced secular schools and votes for women, but Catholic opponents gave the poor food and linens, and the votes were gone. He began to read newspapers to local peasants, two-thirds of whom were illiterate, explaining that socialism would build a better world. He still believed in it when in October 1938, the Republican government condemned itself by telling all its foreign fighters to return home. He expected the same gesture from Franco, with his thousands of Germans and Italians and Moroccans, but they did not leave. Pobre Republic.
He did not go to France, as he could have done. Instead, he lingered unhappily in Valencia and was arrested. He was sent for several months to the Albatera concentration camp, where he was forced to watch the executions of Republican fighters as young as himself. Their cries still haunted him and filled his eyes with tears. After several months in an ordinary prison, he was released, but continued to fight like a maqui in the northeast until in 1947, he went into exile permanently in Pamiers, near Toulouse. He had a young family now and couldn’t continue to take risks. He settled in his father’s trade of building and masonry.
Nothing, however, dulled his passionate interest in the progress or non-progress of the left. His divisions continued to frustrate him, both in France and Spain, where he was not allowed to return until 1965. Why was it so difficult for the Socialists and Podemos to unite for the good of the workers? Because they were still in the grip of the capitalists, as the Second Republic had also proved. The rich always won in the end, he said, rubbing his fingertips contemptuously. Money reigned. The king, “Colonel” Juan Carlos as he called him, had sent him a million pesetas for having endured the prison, but he did not want to touch it. He didn’t want it.
Instead, in his apartment in Pamiers, his riches lay around him: posters, scarves, medals and plaques glowing yellow, red and purple. Che Guevara’s face was on the wall, and next to him his young face, with the same expression delighted to await the great socialist dawn. If Spain still needed him, he would take up arms. And on foot, old but agile, he would cross the Pyrenees. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the title “The colors of the dawn”