Los Niños de Guernica
In Southampton last week, a city I am completely unfamiliar with, I noticed at the entrance to the City Art Gallery an attractive blue roundel. Bearing the date 2007 it commemorated, seventy years after the event, the arrival of almost 4000 refugee children, with a small support team of teachers, priests and volunteers, from Guernica.
The story of the Kindertransport is well known, but this prior episode in late May 1937 seems to have faded from general memory. I looked it up on a BBC local history webpage and the Basque Children of ’37 Association website. The story involves a prevaricating government, a persuasive Archbishop of Canterbury, a tireless Salvation Army and the support of every left-leaning, Republican-sympathising individual and organisation in Britain, particularly the trade unions, as well as the Catholic church. The British navy provided an escort, taking over from a Spanish destroyer as soon as the Habana was safely away from Bilbao in international waters.
The evening after I’d seen the plaque, I came across a photograph of two laughing little girls in a new book about the remarkable 1930s photographer Helen Muspratt. She had found them at the refugee camp established for the children, thanks to a generous farmer, on fields at North Stoneham, just outside Southampton. Muspratt had been on the dockside when the Habana docked. The elderly steamer had berths for many fewer passengers than the more than 3800 on board, and press photographs showed the decks packed with children.
They were moved on as quickly as was practicable, and by the early autumn they had all been relocated. Depending on their age and family circumstances (many were orphaned) they were repatriated to Spain (Franco having by then secured the Basque country), to other European countries or to the USSR. Around four hundred stayed in Britain and many of them never left.