The Spanish Civil War Begins: 1936: EXPAT Post #7

Christian Zozaya’s memories as a five year old boy.  (Continued from his draft memoir, Culture Shock.)

Madrid, Spain:  The year started as usual; the winter was cold and I was still going to (kindergarten) school (Institución Libre de Enseñanza (I.L.E.). This was a lay school that had been founded in 1876 by a group of liberal-minded professors who objected to the governmental policies on education.) The novelty was that I started taking piano lessons.


Christian's (Swedish ancestry on his mother side) blond hair stands out among his schoolmates.

Christian’s (Swedish ancestry on his mother side) blond hair stands out among his schoolmates at ILE.

The political situation in Spain was SNAFU… there’d been all sorts of strikes, disturbances and riots. The right was reasonably compact but the left, was split into several factions ranging from the moderate Republicans to the Socialists to the Communists and Anarchists. Although some of the strikes were of an economic nature most were politically motivated…

In the midst of this situation, of which I was totally unaware, I gave my first and only piano concert. My parents’ intimate friends were invited and sat in the living room as I proudly poked at the keyboard with one finger. And so matters stood until July 18th. …Life was never going to be the same again.

CZ w DadIt was a Saturday and Dad had taken me for a walk on the Sierra de Guadarrama, north of Madrid… We took a rail car in the morning, but before lunch Dad got restless that we should return to Madrid – a good decision because we caught the last train to the city. That day rebel troops under General Francisco Franco occupied Spanish Morocco and Sevilla. The generals misjudged the situation and their clean, surgical operation degenerated into a bloody civil war that was to last almost three years.

On the night of August 28th we heard a lone plane flying overhead. It was a biplane with tandem cockpits; the pilot was in one and the bombardier threw hand grenades over the edge of the second. We went downstairs and took refuge under the stairs. The rest of the neighbors stayed in their apartments and derided us. A few nights later the air raid sirens sounded again; now the raiders were not two fellows with hand grenades but a squadron of Italian SM79 trimotors and the bombs were for real.

The following morning we found a corpse in the empty lot across the street. The poor fellow was either a Fascist or suspected of being one. The scene was repeated several times. September rolled around and we went back to school. The killings continued. At age five I was well aware that all life had to end in death and somehow I wasn’t shocked.

On November 6th we abandoned Madrid for Valencia with the Republican government…via Alicante. The trip on the train was a classical trip in Spain. Every now and then somebody would shout, “¡Que viene un túnel!” and everybody would rush to shut the windows. The locomotives were steam driven and the cinders and ashes would cover everything and everyone unless you closed the windows while the car you were riding in was in the tunnel… Father found a car and driver in Alicante to take us to Valencia. We left at night with the headlights blued out and the bulbs removed from all the other lights.

Things got tough in Valencia. Food was hard to get even though it was rationed. I remember going one night from restaurant to restaurant trying to get something to eat. It’s the only time that I cried because I was hungry… Father spent a lot of time in the field. Although mother and I worried because he had to spend a lot of his time on the front lines there were advantages. Every time he was out on the countryside he would try to bring vegetables back home. It might be potatoes, or carrots, or once a huge cabbage.

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

On April 26th 1937, the Condor Legion bombed Guernica. This was an experiment by the German Luftwaffe to find out what effect carpet bombing would have on a civilian population. (Thus) in May, 4,000 Basque children were evacuated.

Guernica after the bombing.( Photo:

Guernica after the bombing.( Photo:

On October 28th the Republican government moved from Valencia to Barcelona…Two Italian cruisers shelled Barcelona during December. Mother went out shopping and I was with Consuelo (the maid). I could hear the shells whistling as they passed over the city and the explosions as they hit the buildings. I was afraid and I started crying. Poor Consuelo didn’t know how to console me in spite of her name. I stopped crying when the women returned home. The sense of relief was enormous.

…food was still scarce and it was rationed very strictly. Because I was a child I was allowed one egg a week. One day Mother couldn’t stand the temptation; she made a one-egg omelet and split it between the three of us.…(there was) a female cat with a litter of kittens sheltering under a bush and one day the cat and its kittens disappeared mysteriously – someone probably ate them.

In December the Italian Air Force operating from Majorca started carrying out a series of air strikes against Republican ports especially Barcelona…The school, L’Ecole Française, was in downtown Barcelona and the air raids sometimes took place in the day-time. I was standing by a door watching some airplanes fly overhead. (My friend) Trini saw me and came to warn me.

“Please come inside,” she said. “They might be enemy planes and you’d be in the way of any shrapnel that might fly this way if they bombed the city.”    I answered, “They’re not enemy planes; the air raid sirens didn’t sound.”

Burnt out cars Barcelona 1936.

Burnt out cars Barcelona 1936.


Trini was firm. “You know very well that the air raid warning system hasn’t been working very well lately. Come inside.”         I did as she said and another boy took my place at the door. Two minutes later he was dead. Thank you ever so much for saving my life, Trini. I’ll never forget you or that day.

Next time: Christian is evacuated to England and separated from his parents.  Can you imagine what it must have been like for a child so young to deal with bombs,death and hunger?

Barcelona: Spanish civil war (photo from

Barcelona: Spanish civil war (photo from


4 thoughts on “The Spanish Civil War Begins: 1936: EXPAT Post #7

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