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  • Relatives place the name of the Republic refugee they are related to for the public ceremony in Valparaiso, Chile.

    Relatives place the name of the Republic refugee they are related to for the public ceremony in Valparaiso, Chile. | Photo: EFE

Published 4 September 2019

The Winnipeg steamer set sail on Aug. 4, 1939, from the French port of Pauillac carrying more than 2,200 Spanish refugees who had fled their country following Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

The coastal city of Valparaiso in Chile recreated Tuesday the landing of more than 2,200 Spanish Republican exiles back in 1939 aboard the SS Winnipeg, with the participation of Spanish Justice Minister Dolores Delgado.

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80 direct family members of the Winnipeg passengers – one for each year since they arrived – boarded a tourist ship that then sailed around the Bay of Valparaiso to subsequently dock at Prat Pier.

As occurred with the Winnipeg steamer on the morning of Sept. 3, 1939, the 80 relatives of the exiles got off the ship and were greeted by the authorities, today led by the Spanish justice minister.

The chief idealizer of that epic voyage from France to Chile was the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who at the time was consul for Spanish migration in Paris. The poet labored tirelessly to charter the ship, obtain visas, reunite families separated by the war, and obtain the necessary financing to pay for the tickets.

The Spanish justice minister recalled this Tuesday that the vessel, a French steamship abandoned after World War I, had room for approximately 100 passengers but was reconstructed to hold many more.

After a 30-day crossing, Delgado recalled, Valparaiso extended an “apotheostic” welcome to the Spanish refugees, with the pier and surrounding buildings packed with people and with bands playing Chilean and Spanish music.

The Winnipeg passengers were a melting-pot of exiles of different professions, backgrounds, and progressive political leanings, but with one thing in common.

“The exiles leaving Spain formed an ideological spectrum: communists, socialists, anarchists, nationalists, republicans...there were Catalans, Basques, Andalusians, Galicians, Valencians, Madrid natives, all with one idea in common – that of freedom,” the minister said.

The Winnipeg steamer set sail on Aug. 4, 1939, from the French port of Pauillac carrying more than 2,200 Spanish refugees who had fled their country following Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

“All were united by a deep-rooted commitment to solidarity, comradeship and some strong anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian convictions. Exactly what motivates us now and must motivate us with a view to the future,” Delgado added at a ceremony in Valparaiso’s Sotomayor Plaza.

Most Spanish families who arrived on the SS Winnipeg 80 years ago put down roots in Chile and made outstanding contributions in the spheres of culture, medicine, art, and business.

Delgado said that in Spain there is no “complete account” of the Spanish republican exile, so it is therefore important that the life histories of the Winnipeg passengers be made available to Spanish citizens.

The 1939 Spanish Civil War tore apart families and communities, and the legacy of the ensuing far-right-wing dictatorship that ended with Francisco Franco’s death in 1975.

More than half a million people died during the civil war and an estimated 150,000 were killed by Franco’s regime, while 450,000 were forced to leave Spain, historians estimate.

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