Fernandez, who sheltered young Basque refugees during the
bitter Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, has died peacefully in
Gwent at the age of 97.
The daughter of an ironworker from Bilbao who came to Dowlais
at the turn of the last century, Mrs Fernandez had lived at Caerleon
only yards from the site of Cambria House, where the young refugees
from Franco's bombs were housed.
Mrs Fernandez' death severs one of the last links between South
Wales and the Spanish Civil War, a conflict which saw many men
from the mining villages make their way to Spain to fight for
the Republican government against Franco's insurgents.
As the war grew in bitterness and intensity the Francoist side
made use of German and Italian air power to bomb Basque towns.
The most notorious of these incidents was the bombing of Guernica,
later to be immortalised in a painting by Picasso.
As the war progressed, a steady trickle of boys and girls were
shipped from Spain to Cambria House, then owned by Monmouthshire
County Council, and placed under Mrs Fernandez' wing.
In an interview several years ago, Mrs Fernandez - a Spanish speaker
born in the Basque region - looked back on those years as being
the most challenging of her long life.
"I was furious when Franco's forces marched in to overthrow the
government of Spain," she said.
"I was not attached to any Spanish political party - I did what
I did because I had a great dislike of Franco."
Basques migrated to Monmouthshire after British iron and steel
works began advertising in Spain after the Boer War. Mrs Fernandez'
father was part of that movement of workers.
For several decades the Basques busied themselves in the steel
mills and foundries and with the task of integrating themselves
in Wales' social structure - at the same time striving to keep
the bright fire of their cultural identity burning.
"The Basques are like the Welsh in that they are proud of their
ancient language," Mrs Fernandez said.
"The Basque language is as different from Spanish as Welsh is
from English. Basques have always been fighting for their independence
and there was great horror when Franco flew in from North Africa
at the head of Moorish troops to overthrow the legitimate government.
"Some people at Cardiff University were sympathetic to the Spanish
government, as were most of the population of South Wales. The
university people wanted to do something to help and a home for
refugees was suggested.
"It was all supported by charity, often by people who in the years
before the last war had little enough themselves. Not a penny
of government money went into it.
"I remember that Conservatives as well as Labour, Liberal and
Communist supporters all helped out.
"At this time my husband Manuel was a seafarer and was often away
from home. When I heard about Cambria House I offered my services.
"The lady who had been in charge before was strict and did not
like the Basque children to mix with locals.
"The children were not allowed to do this and not allowed to do
that - and I well remember one little boy putting up his hand
and saying: 'Please, Senora, may we breathe?'
"I encouraged the Basque children and locals to play together.
There were the usual problems with stealing apples and that sort
of thing - but the Basque children were told to be good ambassadors
for their homeland and were generally well-behaved."
Only months after the defeat of the Spanish government forces
and the imposition of Franco's dictatorship, which was to last
another 30 years, Britain was at war with Germany and the young
residents of Cambria House had to move to make billeting space
for British troops. Most found work, or were adopted, and are
still scattered across South Wales. Almost all of the Basque boys
and girls kept in touch with the Spanish woman they came to see
almost as a mother.
At Christmas her mantelpiece was covered with from her 'family',
many of whom went on to distinguish themselves in Welsh life.
Long after she retired to Camelot Court, she would say: "Why did
I do it? It is simple - I believed in the Spanish republic and
I have always loved the people."
Mrs Fernandez died at the Royal Gwent Hospital on January 26 -
surrounded by her family.
thanks to THE SOUTH WALES ARGUS for their permission to
use this article.
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