From Spain In Our Hearts
by Adam Hochschild
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In some places, like the outskirts of Madrid, the front in this war resembled the fixed, opposing rows of trenches that Europe had come to know so well from 1914 to 1918. Elsewhere, however, the dividing line between Republican and Nationalist forces snaked through the mountainous, thinly populated terrain. In such places the front line was ragged and porous, and many Republican guerrilla bands staged raids across it into Nationalist territory. By the summer of 1937, some 1,600 men had been taught guerrilla tactics by Soviet trainers in half a dozen camps.
One guerrilla unit was headed by Antoni Chrost, a Polish Communist of working-class origins who had been among the first foreign volunteers to reach Spain. His base was the village of Alfambra, midway between Madrid and Barcelona. A mountain range separated Alfambra from a long salient of Nationalist territory that pointed like a dagger into the Republican zone. Inside this strip of land lay a road and railway line that reached the provincial capital of Teruel, at the dagger’s tip. These important supply routes, only fifteen miles across the mountains from Alfambra, were a target for Chrost’s guerrilla raids.
One day, according to Chrost, he arrived at his headquarters to find a stranger chatting with a political commissar. Tall, burly, and mustachioed, the visitor seemed to enjoy displaying his repertoire of Spanish curses. ‘Me cago en la leche de la madre que te parió [I shit in the milk of the mother who bore you],’ he was saying jovially when Chrost asked for his identification. The newcomer promptly produced the proper safe-conduct document from a high army command. It asked that the bearer – whose name Chrost did not recognise – be given any help he needed. The visitor then proceeded to ask a stream of questions about how the guerrillas operated. Who, for instance, guided them through and behind Nationalist lines?
‘These guides are recruited from the region where the action will occur,’ Chrost explained. ‘They know every road, every path. … When the action is close to the lines, we use only one. When it is farther away, we use many. … Guerrillas call them living compasses.’
‘I’m hungry as a dog!’ the stranger interrupted, smelling a meal in preparation. The two men continued talking over dinner, which ended with his offering to introduce Chrost to a girl he knew in Valencia. Chrost declined, and his guest bid him goodbye, saying: ‘Salud, you distrustful fellow.’
Some six weeks later, Chrost says, the visitor returned, with two officers from the army corps that controlled Crost’s unit and with official permission to participate in a guerrilla raid – specifying that during it he would be under Chrost’s command. The objective of this one-night foray was to blow up a train as it crossed a bridge on the line to Teruel.
The night of the raid provided more than twelve and a half hours of mostly moonless darkness, sufficient time to get across the mountains to the railway and most of the way back. The men divided up the supplies they would carry and the visitor was assigned his share, lighter than those of the others: food, a revolver, hand grenades. The group headed off cautiously into the darkness and finally located the railway bridge they were to blow up, hiding first in some willow bushes and then in a culvert.
Smoke and sparks visible down the track announced the train’s approach. When it reached the bridge, where the men had set their dynamite, the explosion went off as planned, destroying some of the cars completely.
After a rapid return trek across the mountains, the guerrillas reached Alfambra. Chrost ordered all of them, including the visitor – who at first objected grumpily – to soak their feet in warm salt water, a Polish folk remedy said to reduce blisters. Then they sat down for a celebratory feast of roast lamb and wine. For the first time, Chrost recalled, his enigmatic guest asked Chrost about himself: was he Russian?
‘No, a Pole,’ Chrost said.
‘But in my book,’ the man replied, ‘you’ll be an American.’
The stranger was, of course, Ernest Hemingway, who never wrote or publicly said anything about this guerrilla raid.
Chrost did not tell his side of the story until twenty years later. Hence readers did not know that the central episode in the novel that would appear three years after that night-time raid, For Whom The Bell Tolls, was based on more than the novelist’s imagination.