Jerome Socolovsky for NPR
Uxenu Ablana, 79, was one of thousands of children stolen from leftist parents during the Franco era so that they could be indoctrinated in fascism and archconservative Catholicism.
Uxenu Ablana, 79, was one of thousands of children stolen from leftist parents during the Franco era so that they could be indoctrinated in fascism and archconservative Catholicism. Jerome Socolovsky for NPR
In recent years, there's been a movement in Spain to dig up the dark secrets of the Franco dictatorship — but there's one atrocity that is only now coming to light.
It involved the stealing of thousands of children from leftist parents so they could be indoctrinated in fascism and archconservative Catholicism.
Uxenu Ablana, 79, was one of those children. He is still afraid to talk about his childhood because it evokes a part of Spain's past that many people in the country would rather forget.
The Fate Of The Children
On one particular day, Ablana sits in the corner of a restaurant, away from the other diners, in the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela. He takes out a faded photo album and begins his story.
In the 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, the town where Ablana was growing up was overrun by right-wing insurgents seeking to topple the Spanish Republic. How his mother died remains a mystery.
"First they told me it was in childbirth," he says. "But that was one of their many lies. Later, I found out from old folks in the town that the rebels had tortured her to find out where my father was."
Ablana says his father was suspected of being a leftist and was imprisoned until long after the war ended. Ablana was shuttled between orphanages, where he got tuberculosis. He says the priests starved him, sexually abused him and indoctrinated him in fascism.
"I am a Falangist, and will be a Falangist 'til I die," are words to one of the songs that he says still echo in his head. "They ruined me," he says. "They stole my youth and my life."
Ablana and thousands of other children were stolen in the early years of the dictatorship, when Francisco Franco's victorious forces were killing, imprisoning and sending thousands of people to labor camps.
Stumbling Upon Forgotten Times
But the stolen children were forgotten until around a decade ago. A historian, studying the plight of female political prisoners, stumbled onto evidence that more than 12,000 of their children had been taken and sent to orphanages or given to families that supported the regime.
That historian is Ricard Vinyes, who was himself jailed by the Franco dictatorship. He says the regime was alarmed at how Spanish women had broken out of their traditional domestic roles under the prewar Republican government. So a state psychiatrist came up with a theory that politically active women were by definition morally degenerate, and should not be allowed to raise children.
"It was amazing to see all the letters and telegrams of congratulations he got from the senior military brass," the historian says.
Vinyes helped make a documentary called The Lost Children of Francoism. In it, a voice reads from the diary of a prison chaplain who was troubled by what he saw. He recorded the mothers' despair as their children were stolen, often just before their executions.
"They cried, 'Please don't take my daughter,' or 'Kill her along with me,' " he says.
Tyranny Of Silence
After Franco died in 1975, Spaniards decided not to rake over the past. But in recent years, volunteers have been digging up mass graves from the Civil War, and the last statues of Franco are now being torn down. A few months ago, an investigating magistrate called on the judiciary to investigate the stolen children.
Back at the restaurant, Ablana says he thinks the investigation won't go far, because most people would rather forget about the dictatorship.
"The young, none of them know what happened. Even my own children who are in their 40s and 50s don't want to talk about it," he says.
The dictatorship may have ended more than 30 years ago, but for many Spaniards, the tyranny of silence endures.