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Dorothy Parker

on the Siege of Madrid



I want to say first that I came to Spain without my ax to grind. I didn't bring messages from anybody, nor greetings to anybody. I am not a member of any political party. The only group I have ever been affiliated with is that not especially brave little band that hid its nakedness of heart and mind under the out-of-date garment of a sense of humor. I heard someone say, and so I said it too, that ridicule is the most effective weapon. I don't suppose I ever really believed it, but it was easy and comforting, and so I said it. Well, now I know. I know that there are things that never have been funny, and never will be. And I know that ridicule may be a shield, but it is not a weapon.


I was puzzled, as you may have been, about Spain. I read in our larger newspapers that here was a civil war, with the opposing factions neatly divided into Reds and Whites—rather as if they were chessmen. Even I could figure out that there is something not quite right when Moors are employed to defend Christianity. Since I have been here, I have heard what the people in the streets say. Not many of them call it the "war." They speak of it as the "invasion." Theirs is the better word.


There cannot be, in all the world, any place like the city of Madrid today. It has been under siege for nearly a year. You read about besieged cities in medieval days and you say, how awful things must have been, thank goodness they don't happen now. It has happened in Madrid and it goes on happening. In a city as big and as beautiful and as modern as Washington, D.C.


The dispatches say that there is not much doing on the Madrid front now—there is very little activity. It is what is called a lull. But all day long you hear the guns, the dull boom of the big guns and the irritable cackle of machine guns. And you know that gunners no longer need to shoot just for practice. When there is firing, that means there is blood and blindness and death.


And the streets are crowded, and the shops are open, and the people go about their daily living. It isn't tense and it isn't hysterical. What they have is not morale, which is something created and bolstered and directed. It is the sure, steady spirit of those who know what the fight is about and who know that they must win.


In spite of all the evacuation, there are still nearly a million people here. Some of them—you may be like that yourself—won't leave their homes and their possessions, all the things they have gathered together through the years. They are not at all dramatic about it. It is simply that anything else than the life they have made for themselves is inconceivable to them. Yesterday I saw a woman who lives in the poorest quarter of Madrid. It has been bombed twice by the fascists; her house is one of the few left standing. She has seven children. It has often been suggested to her that she and the children leave Madrid for a safer place. She dismisses such ideas easily and firmly. Every six weeks, she says, her husband has forty-eight hours' leave from the front. Naturally, he wants to come home to see her and the children. She, and each one of the seven, are calm and strong and smiling. It is a typical Madrid family.


There are fifty thousand babies still there. All food is scarce, and dairy products are almost memories. But the Republican government has stations all over the city where a mother may get milk and eggs and cereals for her baby, regularly, without delay. If she has any money, she may buy them at cost. If she hasn't any, she is given them. Doctors say that the little children of Madrid are better nourished than they ever were in the old days.


The bigger children play in the streets, just as happily and just as noisily as the children in America. That is, they play after school hours. For during siege and under shell fire, education in Republican Spain goes on. I do not know where you can see a finer thing.


Six years ago, when the royal romp, Alfonso, left his racing cars and his racing stables and also left, by popular request, his country, there remained twenty-eight million people. Of them, twelve million people were completely illiterate. It is said that Alfonso himself had been taught to read and write, but he had not troubled to bend his accomplishments to the reading of statistics nor the signing of appropriations for schools.


Six years ago almost half the population of this country was illiterate. The first thing the Republican government did was to recognize this hunger, the starvation of the people for education. Now there are schools even in the tiniest, poorest villages; more schools in a year than ever were in all the years of the reigning kings. And still more are being established every day. I have seen a city bombed by night, and the next morning the people rose and went on with the completion of their schools. Here in Madrid, as well as in Valencia, a workers' institute is open. It is a college, but not a college where rich young men may go to make friends with other rich young men who may be valuable to them in business with them later. It is a college where workers, forced to start as children in fields and factories, may study to be teachers or doctors or lawyers or scientists, according to their gifts. Their intensive university course takes two years. And while they are studying, the government pays their families the money they would have been earning.


In the schools for young children, there is none of the dread thing you have heard so much about—depersonalization. Each child has, at the government's expense, an education as modern and personal as a privileged American school child has at an accredited progressive school. What the Spanish Republican government has done for education would be a magnificent achievement, even in days of peace, when money is easy and supplies are endless. But these people are doing it under fire....


The government takes care, too, of the unfortunates of war. There are a million refugee children in Spain. A million is an easy number to say. But how can you grasp what it means? Three hundred thousand of them are in the homes of families and seven hundred thousand are in children's colonies. When it can, the government wants to have all in colonies. I hope that will happen, because I have seen some of the colonies. Where is no dreadful orphan-asylum quality about them. I never saw finer children—free and growing and happy. One colony was in a seaside resort, near Valencia. There were sixty children, from four to fourteen, who had been going to school in Madrid. And the fascist planes had bombed the school.


It was amazing to see how many of these children could draw and draw well—and it was heartening to see how their talent was encouraged by the teachers. When they first came to the colony, the children drew the things that were nearest and deepest to them—they drew planes and bursting bombs and houses in flames. You could see by the dreadful perfection of detail, how well they knew their subjects. Now they are drawing flowers and apples and sail-boats and little houses with smoke coming out of the chimneys. They are well children now.


And in Valencia, a few miles away, the fascist planes come over and the bombs drop, and so there will be more children who will draw planes and flames and fragments of bodies blown in the air. That is if there are any children left.


I can't get any pleasing variety into this talk. I can't tell you amusing anecdotes of the boys in the trenches. I don't think there are any such stories. The men who fight for Republican Spain, the men, who in less than a year have come from a mob wearing overalls and carrying sticks to a formidable disciplined army, are no gangling lambs, endearingly bewildered as to what is which front and who is on whose side. These are thinking men, knowing what they do, and what they must go on doing.


They are fighting for more than their lives. They are fighting for the chance to live them, for a chance for their children, for the decency and peace of the future.


Their fight is the biggest thing, certainly, that we shall see in our time, but it is not a good show. This is no gay and handsome war, with brass bands and streaming banners. These men do not need such assurances. They are not mad glamorous adventurers, they are not reckless young people plunged into a chaos. I don't think there will be any lost generation after this war.


But I, as an onlooker, am bewildered. While I was in Valencia the fascists raided it four times. If you are going to be in an air raid at all, it is better for you if it happens at night. Then it is unreal, it is almost beautiful, it is like a ballet with the scurrying figures and the great white shafts of the searchlights. But when a raid comes in the daytime, then you see the faces of the people, and it isn't unreal any longer. You see the terrible resignation on the faces of old women, and you see little children wild with terror.


In Valencia, last Sunday morning, a pretty, bright Sunday morning, five German planes came over and bombed the quarter down by the port. It is a poor quarter, the place where the men who work on the docks live, and it is, like all poor quarters, congested. After the planes had dropped their bombs, there wasn't much left of the places where so many families had been living. There was an old, old man who went up to every one he saw and asked, please, had they seen his wife, please would they tell him where his wife was. There were two little girls who saw their father killed in front of them, and were trying to get past the guards, back to the still crumbling, crashing house to find their mother. There was a great pile of rubble, and on the top of it a broken doll and a dead kitten. It was a good job to get those. They were ruthless enemies to fascism.


I have seen the farms outside of Valencia—the lovely green quiet farms. There is soil so fertile, since the government has irrigated it, that it yields three harvests a year. So hospitable that oranges and beans and potatoes and corn and pomegranates all grow in one field. I have seen the people in the country and in the cities wanting only to go about their lives, only to secure the future of their children. They ask only as much as you have, because they are people like you—they want to get up from their tables and go to their beds, to wake to a quiet morning, and the sending of their children off to school. They don't think of accumulated money. They want to do their own work in self-respect and peace. They want the same thing that you have—they want to live in a democracy. And they will fight for it, and they will win.


But in the meantime it makes you sick to think of it. That these people who pulled themselves up from centuries of oppression and exploitation cannot go on to decent living, to peace and progress and civilization, without the murder of their children, and the blocking of their way because two men—two men—want more power. It is incredible, it is fantastic, it is absolutely beyond all belief... except that it is true.



Originally published in The New Masses, November 23 1937.  Dorothy Parker was a critic, poet and co-founder of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.