70 Years Later, Guernica Holds Secrets

The Associated Press
Sunday, April 22, 2007; 5:18 PM

GUERNICA, Spain -- Itziar Arzanegi can still hear the roar of the German warplane overhead, and see the old woman shaking her fists at the foreigners destroying her town. She remembers the look of horror on the woman's face as the plane swooped low, opened fire and cut her down.

It has been nearly 70 years since German and Italian fighter planes backing the fascist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War leveled this historic Basque town on April 26, 1937.

Myths and misinformation have shrouded the bombing from the outset, starting with the death toll, which historians have been gradually revising downward for decades. But Guernica has come to be seen as a foretaste of the aerial blitzes of World War II, immortalized in Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," one of the most iconic paintings of the 20th century.

But while the images of destruction are etched indelibly in the world's consciousness _ and in the minds of a dwindling number of survivors _ the 70th anniversary is causing barely a ripple in Spain itself. Little is planned to mark the event on a national level, and no major Spanish politicians are expected to attend a Mass, concert and wreath-laying ceremony for the dead in Guernica's town cemetery.

It is symptomatic of a country that has never come to grips with its Civil War past. Spain has become a cultural and economic powerhouse in recent years, but critics say its success has been built _ quite literally _ over the ruins of its greatest disaster.

"In Spain, we have changed on the outside _ we've built new highways, shopping centers and successful multinational companies _ but to change people's mentality on the inside has proven much more difficult," said Emilio Silva, president of an organization that leads efforts to exhume the bodies of civilians killed by Franco's forces in the 1936-9 war. Half a million people are believed to have died on all sides.

Silva said that many in the generation that lived through the war and Franco's victory learned that the best way to survive under the dictatorship was not to talk about it. Those who oversaw the country's transition to democracy following Franco's death in 1975 believed reconciliation meant burying the past.

But the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the war generation are starting to demand more openness, he said, adding: "A country without memory has no meaning at all."

Survivors of the Guernica bombing, their faces lined by age, say forgetting has never been an option for them.

Arzanegi was just 11 years old when the bombs started to fall. She fled to a pine grove on a hill above town and watched the inferno below. She and other villagers hid in the brush as the planes screamed overhead, until one woman could contain her anger no longer. She jumped out and started to scream at the sky, just as a plane was coming into view.

"There are many things we live through in our lives, and some of the details we forget, but that bombardment I cannot forget, not even for a single day," said Arzanegi. "As long as I live, the sight of that plane dropping down and machine-gunning that woman will be with me. It was so cruel, so unimaginable."

Only about 200 survivors are known to be alive today, according to Remembering Guernica, a non-governmental peace group based in the town. But the stories they tell of that day in their childhood are captivating and terrifying in their detail.

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