Review by Alvah Bessie: They Shall Not Pass (El Unico Camino) by Dolores Ibarruri

by Rebeca on June 6, 2009

[Editor’s Note: Ibarruri was still alive, and had not returned to Spain at the time this review was written. After Franco’s death in 1975 she returned and was again elected a member of the Cortes, representing Asturias. She died in Madrid at the age of 93.]

Pasionaria’s story of Spanish War

By Dolores Ibarruri, International Publishers,
New York, 368 pages.

Reviewed by Alvah Bessie for the National Guardian, 1966

For some reason we will never know, the late Ernest Hemingway, in his Cosmopolitan magazine version of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, felt it necessary to slander one of the greatest women of our time: Dolores Ibarruri, known then and now as Pasionaria.

The slander was not placed in the mouth of his hero, Robert Jordan, who “had no politics,” but it was uttered twice: once by a Spanish guerilla, who baited a young Spanish communist by telling him that Dolores “has a son in Russia since the start of the movement” – to save him from the war; the second time by a Soviet correspondent who referred to her contemptuously as “that great face . . . that great voice.”

It is true that Dolores Ibarruri’s son turned up in the Soviet Union, and he died there. He was buried in Stalingrad (Volgograd), where he fell with Soviet soldiers under his command, and his tomb may be found on its Avenue of Heros, where you will not notice his name unless you can transliterate the Cyrillic alphabet and read: Ruben Ibarruri. He was 18 when he died – in 1942.

Ruben Ibarruri’s mother, who will be 71 this winter, has lived in the U.S.S.R many years, ever since the French Republic made her life in southern France impossible through harassment and the same sort of slander Hemingway employed.

La Pasionaria’s “great voice” may be heard again – in all its eloquence, its passion and its dedication to her people and her cause – in the pages of her “autobiography,” originally titled El Unico Camino (the only way). It is the same voice that spoke on Radio Madrid July 18, 1936, and which has been quoted ever since: “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

That Dolores Ibarruri was and is something more than a sloganeer scarcely needs documentation, for even her worst enemies acknowledge she was a leader and a major focus of the resistance of her people during three years of war against Franco’s forces and the Nazi and Italian invaders. If quotation marks are used around the word autobiography, it is only because her book is far more than the history of her tortured country and her heroic people than it is the sort of personal history to which Western readers are accustomed.

The daughter of a miner, born in Gallarta in the Basque country, Dolores “finished” her education at 15; she had neither the money nor the health to continue. At 20 she married a miner and at 20 she became a communist. She bore six children, of whom four died in infancy – a tragedy common enough to her time, place and class. With her husband she was not happy, although they shared the hardships of organizational work among the miners, as well as several individual jail sentences. By 1936 she was in Madrid and a communist deputy in the Spanish Republican Cortes.

On August 12, 1961, near Moscow, a handful of veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade sat in her dining room at a lunch she had prepared and served herself, and listened, as she spoke for 20 minutes without interruption about the situation in Spain, its present and its future. The detailed information she had astonished us; you would have thought she had a pipeline to Madrid or had just returned from Barcelona that afternoon.

But it was her confidence in the future of a Spain she had not seen in 22 years that astonished us even more: this was no bitter, sad, defeated expatriate such as we have all met from time to time; this was a Spanish woman who had never been separated from her people since she was born in a mud hovel in Vizcaya.

She may not live to return to a new Spanish Republic, but when that republic is reborn, it will owe much of its vitality and health to this powerful and utterly feminine woman who was for so long its great face, its great voice.


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