Eight decades on, Oxford’s compassion to refugees from Spain should not be forgotten

From Brexit to Trump, it feels like old certainties are breaking down. With people desperate to take back control, it can feel like we’re starting a new chapter of history.

If that’s so, then it’s so important to look back to a time when things felt uncertain for Oxford, but people rallied to stand up for their values. A landmark anniversary last week offered us that opportunity.

Last Wednesday marks the 80th anniversary of the destruction of the Spanish city of Guernica by Nazi German and Fascist Italian bombers and the humanitarian response of our city.

In 1937, everybody’s attention was gripped by the spread of fascism and right-wing authoritarian regimes across Europe. The writhing of Spain in a civil war fuelled by a brutal dictator especially occupied people’s minds.

Oxford had been so horrified by the bloodiness of the civil war that local activists had been raising funds and collecting food, clothes, and medical supplies for innocent victims caught in the crossfire of the war.

But nothing stunned activists like the killing of 120 men, women, and children in the aerial bombing of Guernica. The razing of a civilian target touched a nerve in Oxford and the city’s communities rallied to help.

Explicitly humanitarian appeals were made in the city. The Mayor’s Spanish Relief Fund collected contributions for life-saving help to all civilians.

The Oxford Co-operative Society joined in the Co-operative’s ‘Milk for Spain’ week. 20,000 Co-op shops sold 800,000 ‘Milk for Spain’ tokens, supported by volunteers handing out 1.5m leaflets to shops, homes, workplaces, and football grounds.

The Co-op donated a room at their Botley Road building to trade unionist Arthur Exell and fellow workers from the Morris plant in Cowley. In that workshop, car plant workers strived to make splints from steel rods for emergency medical use on battlefields and converted 70 second-hand Harley-Davidsons donated by Americans into motorbike ambulances for helping injured people in Spain.

Oxford also swung into action to care for 4,000 Basque refugee children brought to safety in the immediate aftermath of Guernica. With the dictator’s forces surrounding their homes and Nazi jets razing their villages, Spain’s civilians realised they had nowhere to go except the sea.

But the British Government wanted to slam the door shut to Spain’s refugees. Britain’s aid campaigners, many from Oxford, steadfastly refused to abandon them.

Oxford campaigners lobbied hard, pledging to open their homes just as they had opened their hearts. Having donated whatever they could in Oxford’s biggest aid appeal to date, Oxford activists lobbied so intensely that the Home Secretary relented and allowed 4,000 innocent children to reach safety.

Having convinced the Government to respond with compassion to the child refugee crisis, Oxford’s families turned their own homes into sanctuaries for the Basque children.

Students and members of staff from Oxford University cared for and taught refugees. One St Hilda’s College student from Fife, Cora Blyth, worked with some children and took them on day trips to the seaside, solicited donations of bicycles and taught English.

While visiting the estate of Lord Faringdon — a Labour peer who had donated accommodation and food free of charge to Basque refugees — Cora met a Spanish left-wing intellectual called Luis Portillo. Romance blossomed and Cora proposed by 1941. In 1953, Cora gave birth to one of four sons, naming him Michael Denzel Xavier Portillo.

In 1984 that son became an MP and over the following decades won appointment to the Cabinet, lost his seat and became a broadcaster, then latterly a railway enthusiast.

Oxford is set to get a permanent memorial to the 31 men and women with links to the city who fought fascism in Spain. I’m proud that my ward will be home to the memorial, having donated money to the campaign and spoken for a memorial at a key council meeting.

I wish the memorial had been erected years earlier, so that those who helped Spain the most could have known the city’s esteem for them. But, as one resident has told me, she’s excited about the prospect of walking a young grandson past the memorial every day and reminding him of the importance of standing up for your values and standing against hate.

Given the times we’re living in, a memorial seems especially timely in that respect. And, while the monument is to those who fought fascism in combat, it’s right to remember those activists who did whatever they could to relieve suffering, particularly after they saw what happened at Guernica.

The force of their help lay in their practical impact.

But it also rested in the effect they had as symbols of cooperation and the beginnings of a shared resistance to fascism.

This piece was published by the Oxford Mail here.

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