Antecedentes  Travesia   The Lives of Vicente Amezaga y Mercedes Iribarren 

The Amezagas

From the Middle Ages to modern times, there were small pockets of agriculture in Europe that did not embrace feudalism, and one of these was the Basque Country, especially in the strip of land between the Cantabrian Mountains and the north coast.  Here the land was held in small parcels; the rugged terrain would not permit any other arrangement.  Alone of the Iberian peoples the Basques practiced primogeniture, which meant that only the eldest son could inherit the land; the other sons had to leave to make their way in other walks of life, which helps explain why there were so many Basques in fishing, whaling, adventures in the New World, military service and the Catholic priesthood.  Primogeniture also ensured that the Basque farms, called caserios, would not be split up among multiple heirs and so would remain economically viable from generation to generation.  The population remained small and stable, scattered sparsely across an intensively farmed landscape.  The Basques also never created any titled nobility as occurred farther south in Iberia. 

As a consequence of these factors, Basque rural society produced a small-holding middle and upper class comparatively rare in Europe until the Industrial Revolution began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The values and cultural traits of these people supported democracy much more than did the values of the landed nobility elsewhere in Europe.  The caserio was the physical heart of such an arrangement, and the Basque language, Euskera, further isolated these people from their Spanish and French neighbors.  It was within this setting that the Amezaga family had its origins.

The family name Amezaga can be traced back to the Basque province of Alava, specifically to a town in Alava with that name.  The name is derived from ametz, the Basque word for a kind of oak tree called the Portuguese Oak or Lusitanian Oak.  The suffix aga indicates “place”.  Thus, Amezaga, or Ametzaga as it is frequently written, means “the people who come from the place where oak trees grow.”  The Amezaga name is found throughout the Basque Country, but it dates from at least the mid-sixteenth century in Vizcaya province and is found most prominently there as well.

For as long as anyone can recall, the Amezaga family was identified with the Vizcayan town of Algorta.  The caserio of the Amezagas no longer exists.  It was built in 1490 and disappeared so long ago that no one today can even identify its probable location.  It was within comfortable walking distance of the town of Algorta, we know, because farmers who worked the farm would often come into town to consult with the owner, Mirentxu’s grandfather.  By this time, the Amezagas had for many years lived in the town and managed the affairs of the farm from there.  We have no photograph of the caserio, but the preceding picture is of a painting of the original farm, copies of which have been passed around the family for many years.

Pedro Amezaga, was born in Algorta on October 19, 1852, and died in Algorta in 1918.  He was the son of Jose Maria Amezaga and Maria Rosa de Abaroa, both of whom were from Guecho.  He had two children by his first wife who died long before Vicente Amezaga was born.  As was the custom at that time, Pedro married his deceased wife’s sister, Maria Juana Aresti.  Maria Juana was born in Algorta on February 7, 1862, and died in Algorta in 1945.  Her father, Antonio de Aresti, and her mother, Josefa Ramona de Sustacha, were both from Guecho.  Vicente (or Bingen in Basque) was Pedro’s ninth child (and seventh son) and was Maria’s seventh (and last) child.  This photo of Maria and Pedro was taken in 1908.

Maria’s family name also reveals botanical origins.    Aresti was the customary spelling of Vicente’s mother’s name in Vizcaya province; in Guipuzcoa, the name was spelled more frequently Aritzi or Areitzi.  The name is derived from the Basque word areiz (or haritz) which means “oak tree” and the suffix ti which indicates abundance.  So their family name means literally “the people from a place where oak trees grow in abundance.” The name is primarily of Vizcayan origin but it is not unknown in Guipuzcoa as well.  One source reports that there were about 20 caserios in Vizcaya with this family name so it is impossible to identify the exact place of origin of Vicente’s mother’s family.

My father was born on July 4, 1901, in the small historic harbor town of Algorta, province of Vizcaya, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.  It was an important port as early as 1626, so large that seventeen ships could be berthed there.  It was guarded against pirates by a fort and a lighthouse as well as two castles.  Algorta is ten miles from Bilbao, an important port city and the provincial capital.  Algorta still preserves its initial structure with steep and narrow streets but its port is no longer in use and its only natural attraction is its beach.

To the right is a photo of the Church of St. Nicholas de Bari, the church where Vicente was baptized.

My father’s family lived in this town for hundreds of years.  My father came from a remarkable family.  His father, Pedro, had been a well known figure, a gentleman with great wealth and exquisite taste.  My father got his looks from his mother.  He had blonde hair and blue eyes.  He was strongly built and of medium height.  He stood out from his brothers and sisters by his love of learning.  As is pointed out below, he lost his father when he was 17, and this tragic event changed his life.  He taught himself Basque and commanded the language in six months.  A year later he won a Basque writing contest with an article that was published in the local newspaper.  He was a top student in the school and spent his non-study time with his favorite sports, swimming, soccer, and hand ball.

The young man’s intellectual brilliance brought him the mastery of nine languages so he could read the best authors in their original language.  He won his first award for a translation from Latin of “Cicero’s Friendship,” and he wrote many other award-winning poems and newspaper articles.

My father met his future wife Mercedes in a theater where she played the main role in “Cancion de Cuna”.  She looked sweet, delicate and beautiful, with thick chestnut hair and big dark eyes.  She acted so well.

Just like my mother, my father loved children.  A stream of cousins, nieces and nephews spent their holidays in the big ancestral house in Algorta, which is shown to the left (my father is to the right).  His childhood was filled with family, friends and town leaders who came to his house for meetings.  The garden was full of fruit trees and flowers where the kids played.

In 1910, on the occasion of Vicente’s first communion, his family posed for a formal photo.  Vicente’s parents, Maria and Pedro, are seated, with Vicente standing between them.  His siblings are standing (from left to right): Blanca, Ramon, Jose Mari and Maria.




Prior to 1900, the family could be counted among the wealthiest and most highly regarded families of Algorta, and Pedro Amezaga one of its most highly esteemed citizens.  In 1888, when he was still in his thirties, Pedro Amezaga was awarded one of Spain’s most highly regarded commendations when he was made a member of the Royal Order of Isabelle the Catholic (Real Orden de Isabel la Catolica), a prize given to people who have exhibited unblemished loyalty to Spain.  There is no record of what Pedro did to deserve such an honor, but it must have been of considerable merit.  The photo above shows Vicente Amezaga as a young man in front of the Amezaga ancestral home in Algorta.  The house was seized by the Franco government and later sold.  In later years the house was razed and replaced with a bank.

Through the first third of the twentieth century, the Amezaga family experienced a number of tragedies that marked Vicente’s youth and young adulthood.  As we have seen, Pedro’s first wife died early in their lives.  Their oldest son gambled away much of the family’s wealth and, in deep shame, fled to Argentina and was never heard from again.  Pedro’s second wife, Maria Aresti, gave birth to seven children, including two daughters, Blanca and Maria, who both died in 1921 of tuberculosis at the respective ages of 25 and 27.  Pedro himself died in 1918 of influenza during the global epidemic of that disease which killed between 20 and 40 million persons.

Despite the tragic losses his family experienced, Vicente would appear to have had a relatively calm childhood himself.  As the youngest of his mother’s children, he seems to have received great affection from her, especially after his two sisters died in their 20s.  He would remain especially close to his mother, and his older brother Ramon, throughout his life.  Ramon was tall and athletic and Vicente accompanied him frequently to his soccer games.  Vicente’s favorite sport was handball, a game the Basques invented and continue to play at world championship levels.  Vicente attended school locally in Algorta at the Colegio de San Bernardo.  At age 21 he began to wear glasses, made necessary, he said, by reading so much in poor light.

The death of his father made a great impression on Vicente, who was 17 at the time.  Pedro Amezaga had inculcated in his youngest son an appreciation of Basque traditions and culture, and when he died Vicente determined to read the seminal works of the Basques in Euskera.  Since he had not learned the language from the cradle, Vicente closed himself in the attic of their home and began to study the language from an old grammar.  In six months, he had mastered the language, and went on to become one of the language’s most noted writers, speakers and translators from this early period.  (Apparently his rapid mastery of Euskera was not an accident but rather showed his gift for languages.  He learned six other languages in his life, he said, so he could read the great works of literature in the original.)

In the best of all possible worlds, Vicente would have gone on to a career as a writer or perhaps a poet, but the death of his father forced him to make a career choice based on financial considerations.  So he selected the law and began his law study at the University of Valladolid, where he graduated in 1927 at the age of 26.  Upon his graduation he opened his law offices on the first floor of the family mansion.

As we have seen, by this time Vicente had already met the love of his life, and the rest of this story – at least to 1938 – becomes the story of Vicente and Mercedes.

To read of the noviazgo, or courtship, of Vicente and Mercedes in the late 1920s is to return to a traditional world that has largely disappeared today. The setting was Vicente’s home town of Algorta, shown here as it was about 1960.  On a more or less daily schedule, at about 6:00 each evening Vicente would walk down from Algorta to Las Arenas (to the lower right from this picture) to meet Mercedes.  Perhaps they would stroll back along the beautiful promenade, called Zugazarte, which curves along the side of the Bay of Biscay.  Vicente asked Mercedes to give up her acting, which she did, to become the administrator and accountant of her sister Juli’s popular fashion and seamstress house.  On weekends they might see a film (American imports were popular) or attend the theater in Bilbao.  Sundays were always dedicated to the Church through Mass and then perhaps a parish event later in the day.  Holy Week events were always intense and significant in their lives.  By the mid-1930s they had already agreed to become husband and wife.  The two photos below are from 1927, at about the time of their engagement.











In preparation for their married life, Vicente and Mercedes purchased a small house in the nearby coastal town of Sopelana and began to furnish it.  The house was small but sunny, made of white bricks.  The bedroom’s wide door opened directly onto the yard which was bordered by tall trees.  My parents had already purchased the furniture for the dining and living rooms and the bedroom, and they visited the house often to decorate it.  My mother dreamed of the flowers and vegetables they would raise in the garden.  Once when they were visiting the house the air raid alarms sounded and a German bomber circling overhead dropped several bombs nearby, killing some of the cows in a nearby pasture.  They were never able to enjoy this house.  It was confiscated by the Fascist government and eventually sold.

Much later Mercedes would describe life in these times as “simple, humble and strong in faith.”  In a simpler world, they would have lived out their lives this way, but unfortunately their world was about to explode and in fact they would know little peace again.  In 1931, with his country battered by the global Great Depression and undone by political, social and economic disintegration from within, the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII, abandoned the throne and the Second Spanish Republic was launched.

The stories of the Amezagas and the Iribarrens begin for us in 1876 at the end of the Second Carlist War in Spain. Two of four Amezaga-Iribarren grandparents were born in the 1860s; the oldest, Pedro Amezaga, in 1852; the youngest, Juliana Gorostegui, in the early 1870s.  Thus in their youth they witnessed a monumental struggle in Spain between the forces of modernization and centralization, on the one hand, and those supporting tradition and regional freedoms (called the fueros, or foral laws), on the other.[1]  At the end of the Second Carlist War, in 1876, it seemed that the centralists had triumphed and the way had been cleared for Spain to become a thoroughly centralized, unified and modern state somewhat similar to France, Germany and Italy, which all experienced struggles like this through the nineteenth century.  But that is not what happened.

Spain’s colonization of the New World increased the demand for iron and steel weapons and farm implements, which sparked a boom in those industries in the Basque Country.  The Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain about 1750, was carried by British industrial capitalism around the world, including to Vizcaya.  British capital played a key role in the exploitation of Vizcayan iron ore during the latter half of the nineteenth century.  The eighteenth century French Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality, laid the foundation for the modern European administrative state.  The role of Napoleon Bonaparte was also critical.  His attempts in 1808 to incorporate Spain and Portugal forcibly into his imperial designs for Continental Europe ended in failure, and when he withdrew in 1813 he left behind a political vacuum created by the destruction of the Bourbon Dynasty.  Into this vacuum flowed forces bearing all the unresolved issues of modernization in Spain: the Catholic Church, the landed aristocracy and the landless peasantry of the south, the unassimilated regional ethnic nations (principally the Basques and the Catalans), the labor movements of the big cities, and a rising – but still small and timid – middle and professional class.  Finally, the Napoleonic Wars sparked the rise of ethnic and linguistic nationalism among German and Italian writers and intellectuals, and contributed significantly to the philosophy of Basque nationalists two or three generations later.

From 1812 to 1876 the battle raged across the peninsula – and in the New World, as well – over what kind of Spain would emerge to take its place in the modern world order.  Two models competed for power in a struggle that became violent during the Carlist Wars.  The failed model was that of traditional Spain: monarchical, semi-industrial, decentralized, religious.  The eventual victor owed much to the French example: republican, industrial, centralized, and secular.

In the Basque Country, the forces arrayed for or against these two models stemmed from the class structure that emerged during the nineteenth century.  In the countryside of Navarra and Alava lived the small farmers and peasants, Basque-speaking, traditional, and Catholic.  In the region west of the Nervion River and in other pockets of nascent industrialization lived the small but rapidly growing working class, mixed Basque and Spanish, liberal to socialist in politics, centralist and modernizing.  And then there was the middle and upper middle class.

In a simpler setting there would have been only a unified middle class speaking with a single voice: well educated and prosperous, politically liberal, modernizing and centralist.  And a certain number of the Basque bourgeoisie took this route.  By the turn of the twentieth century they had embraced a “Spanish” identity for nearly all purposes except perhaps an occasional foray into the less threatening aspects of Basque culture such as food, dance or music.  But their wealth hinged to a great extent on their ties to British capital, which had flooded into Vizcaya after 1876.  In short, those industrialists and bankers who were allied with British capital prospered in the period between 1876 and World War I.  The bourgeoisie who tried to build a manufacturing sector without British capital (for whatever reason) generally fell behind in the economic race, and their successor generations turned to other pursuits, including law and other professions.  It was from this generation that the founders of Basque nationalism were recruited.

The founder of Basque nationalism, Sabino de Arana y Goiri, exemplifies this sector.  His father and grandfather had been shipbuilders and industrialists, but in the wake of the Second Carlist War their economic fortunes had turned down, and Sabino studied law as a young man.  He never became a lawyer, however, turning to journalism and politics while still in his 20s.  He spent time in Spanish prisons on several occasions for his inflammatory writings and ran (mostly unsuccessfully) for elected office frequently.  He died still relatively young (in his mid-30s)  but left behind a legacy of political ideas, slogans and strategic thinking that still informs Basque nationalists today, a century later.

Sabino cleverly wove together elements of the competing political philosophies into a coherent Basque nationalist ideology.  From the Carlists he took the idea of restoring the fueros, from the rural people and small towns the strong role of Catholicism and of the Basque language, and from modernizing liberals the notion that the Basques needed a state apparatus that was progressive and administratively competent.  These elements were bundled into a package that was to be given autonomy or, even, independence to govern the seven Basque Provinces (including the three in France) along boundaries that had existed since the Middle Ages.  The final element was non-violence.  Sabino and other Basque nationalist leaders were pragmatists and they could count: Spaniards outnumbered Basques ten to one.  No amount of violence would ever suffice to break free from Spanish rule; parliamentary politics and cultural endurance would have to suffice.  Thus Basque nationalists have since the beginning stressed that they would win their freedom some day simply by outlasting the Spanish, by surviving culturally.  Preservation of the unique Basque language, Euskera, was the key to the success of this strategy.

At the turn of the twentieth century urban middle class Basque families discouraged the use of Euskera as the language of the lower classes, the uneducated, and the rural folk.  Thus, neither Vicente Amezaga nor Mercedes Iribarren learned Euskera as children even though it was the first language of their parents.  Vicente taught himself Euskera at the age of 17 after his father died; Mercedes never did learn the language well  Nevertheless, Spanish policies and cultural practices to destroy Euskera, and the resistance of Basque nationalists against such efforts, have been at the center of Basque-Spanish relations for a century.

The abandonment by Alfonso XIII of the throne in 1931 launched the Second Spanish Republic.  Between 1931 and 1936, Spanish voters elected three national parliaments: the first, dominated by parties of the Left in 1931; a second, by the Right, in 1934; and a third, controlled by a Center-Left coalition, in 1936.  This final election, coupled with rising anti-Catholic violence and anarchy, proved too much for the Spanish military, and on July 18, 1936, their leaders launched a coup to overthrow the government and establish a rightist dictatorship.  One of the leaders of the coup, General Francisco Franco, would go on to be the dictator of Spain from the end of the Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975. 

Meanwhile, the lives of Vicente and Mercedes proceeded more or less naturally through this period, although they were engulfed in the political turmoil of the times.  In the parliamentary and local elections in April 1931 the Basque Nationalist Party swept most of the offices in Vizcaya and especially around Algorta, and the young and charismatic Jose Antonio Aguirre became the mayor of Guecho as well as the leader of the Basque deputies in the Spanish parliament.  Vicente and Jose Antonio were close friends, and Vicente and Mercedes lived these heady days of democracy in a state almost of euphoria.  In 1931 Vicente was named a municipal judge in Guecho, and in 1933 he became a teacher of history and literature in a local high school.  This photo is the Guecho city hall, where he had his office.

Since the new Spanish constitution allowed for regional autonomy, the Basques launched the process to submit their own proposal.  In 1932 Basques celebrated for the first time their national day, called “Aberrieguna” or “Day of the Fatherland”.  They chose Easter Sunday because of the significance of resurrection for the Christian world.  That same year delegates from the four Spanish Basque Provinces met in Pamplona to approve a draft autonomy statute to be submitted to the Spanish government.  The Navarrese rejected the proposal by the margin of 123 to 109.  The delegates from the other three provinces supported the draft by a large majority and for the time being they decided to go ahead with the proposal without Navarra.

  The autonomy proposal was still being debated in Madrid when the Civil War began.  The Spanish Republican parliament still in power quickly approved the autonomy statute, and on October 1, 1936, those local and provincial leaders still on the Basque nationalist side of the war front convened in Guernica to witness the launching of the new Basque Government.  Aguirre was named President and Vicente Amezaga became the Director of Primary Education in the new government.  His mission was to create from virtually nothing an entire elementary curriculum, with teachers, text books, and other materials, in Euskera – and to do so in the midst of the civil war.  He called upon writers to prepare text books in their specialties such as geography, math and all they courses they would need for a complete curriculum.  In this capacity and to dedicate a local school, Vicente, accompanied by Mercedes, was in the coastal village of Mundaca, only a few miles from Guernica, on the day of the bombing – April 26, 1937 -- that enflamed world opinion.

The Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, with the mutiny of General Franco and his troops in Spanish Morocco.  The war reached the mainland the next day.  For the next several months, the war centered of Madrid and the south of Spain.  Basques hearing reports of the war on the radio were relieved that the war was fought far away and they felt impregnable because of the natural barrier of the Cantabrian Mountains.  Nevertheless, by the end of the year Franco’s forces had seized the border region between France and Spain and the region governed by Basque nationalist forces had been reduced to Vizcaya and about half of Guipuzcoa.  San Sebastian had fallen to the insurgents and the border with France was cut.  Basques began to evacuate the combat areas, falling back toward the ring of fortifications around Bilbao.  Even though the Basques are not a war-like people and never had an army prior to the Civil War, by September 1936 they had managed to assemble, train and equip about 40 infantry battalions of 600 to 700 men each.  What they lacked in training and arms they hoped to make up for with their superior knowledge of the battle field and the emotion with which they would defend their homes.

Despite the resistance from Basque forces, the ring around Bilbao grew tighter and tighter and regions of the city were bombed more or less constantly.  With the war coming closer each day, Vicente and Mercedes decided not to put off their already long delayed marriage, and they were married in a civil ceremony on May 14, 1937, a necessary step prior to the church wedding they had planned for years.  But on March 31, the Spanish Nationalist General Mola announced (via radio and by dropping leaflets over Bilbao)

I have decided to terminate rapidly the war in the North [i.e., Vizcaya].  Those not guilty of assassinations who surrender their arms will have their lives and property saved.  But if submission is not immediate I will raze Vizcaya to the ground, beginning with the industries of war.  I have the means to do so.

There then began – with the bombing of the Vizcayan town of Durango that same day – the first use in history of aerial bombing of undefended civilian populations to support ground combat troops (a strategy that would culminate eight years later in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  In less than a month, Guernica was the target, and then Bilbao itself and its surroundings towns, including Las Arenas and Algorta.  On one occasion, a bomb tore a hole in the side of the Iribarren apartment, and Mercedes hurrying home saw from the street below how the family piano was suspended part of the way through the opening.  With thousands of refugees streaming toward Bilbao, the city’s resources were stretched to the limit.  Food especially was in short supply, and the entire city went days without bread.  Meat, milk and vegetables were impossible to obtain.  Since many of the refugees were compromised by their earlier activities in behalf of Basque nationalism or Spanish republicanism, they sought desperately to leave Spain.  Many – like Vicente and Mercedes – escaped to France, but many thousands ended up in prisons or concentration camps in Spain.

On June 12, 1937, the ring around Bilbao broke under assault and President Aguirre gathered his ministers the next day to plan the evacuation of civilians from Bilbao.  They were to be sent west toward neighboring Santander Province where it was hoped they could seek passage to France or England.  On June 13, heavy bombing of the Nervion River brought down the trans-river shuttle, the Puente Colgante, which was the only available crossing between Las Arenas on the right bank and Portugalete – and safety – on the left side.  The above photo, made shortly after the bombing, shows the mangled ruins of the destroyed bridge.

On June 14, at 6:00 am, Vicente called Mercedes to tell her that the city was defenseless and all government officials were evacuating to the west immediately.  They decided to be married at once and leave together.  The pastor of Las Mercedes Parish in Las Arenas married the couple in the sacristy and the newly weds fled west dodging bombs and strafing airplanes the entire day.  Vicente’s driver somehow produced a small motor launch to get them across the Nervion and they continued in a convoy of government leaders westward to Santander Province.  They left behind their families (in most cases without even a brief farewell), their new home in Sopelana, and nearly all their belongings.  Mercedes was able to return 20 years later; Vicente never again saw his beloved homeland.

In all, about 90,000 Basques evacuated from Bilbao, including about 20,000 small children who were sent by their parents to safety in other countries.  Although the Basque Government appealed around the world for countries to receive some of these children, only seven agreed to accept them.  France took in about 15,000 while the others were sent to Great Britain, Belgium, the Soviet Union, Mexico, Denmark and Switzerland. 

Of the 15,000 Basque children sent to France, a group of 500 was placed in the care of Vicente Amezaga and his new wife.  The group included 23 teachers, two cooks and helpers, a doctor, two nurses, three priests and other assistants.  Incredibly, in the midst of violence and turmoil, Vicente was able to secure a French ship, the Plus-Varmet, to transport this group and they departed Santander on June 22 for France.  Just after leaving Santander, the ship was intercepted by a Spanish heavy cruiser, the Cervera, whose captain ordered the French ship to halt and be searched.  Fortunately the few men in the party were able to hide below and the French captain convinced the Spanish that he carried only women and children.  The Spanish offer of an escort was declined by the French captain and the Plus-Varmet continued on its journey.

From the French Basque port of St. Jean de Luz the group traveled by train to their eventual destination, St. Jean Pied de Port, in the Pyrenees, on the Nive River, only about five miles from the Spanish-French border. The town – whose name means “Saint John at the foot of the mountain pass” – occupied a strategically important position at the entrance to one of the mountain passes through the Pyrenees, and was much fought over during the Middle Ages.  The original town was razed to the ground in 1177 by the troops of Richard the Lionhearted after a protracted siege.  The Kings of Navarre rebuilt the town on its present site shortly afterwards.

The colony’s children were lodged in an ancient abandoned fortress in the center of the town, known as La Citadelle, shown in this postcard photo taken many years later.  The French Government sought to improve the town’s defenses by constructing this fortress, work on which was begun in 1628.  The citadel is perched on a hill in the center of, and overlooking, the town.  At two points the town walls intercept the walls of the fortress, permitting communication between the two during a siege.  The fortress had not been open since the Great War, when it was used to house German prisoners of war.  It was dirty, cold and dark, hardly the place to house a colony of 500 young, frightened children.  The photo below shows the entire colony in formation in the courtyard.  Vicente stands in the center near the front, impeccably dressed as usual.  Mercedes is standing next to the child at the front of the third column from the right, apparently helping her with her clothing.











The group was given a chilly reception because the local residents had all been told they were communists.  To counter this belief, Vicente had the group walk from the train station to the Citadelle praying the rosary.  Somehow, out of all this chaos, Vicente and the others were able to make the fortress livable and they began to establish a life and a routine.  The children were fed and cared for medically, and the local women made clothes for them.  Mass was said daily, and each day at 5:00 pm the children gathered in the courtyard to pray the rosary, as this picture illustrates.

The day after they arrived, everyone – adults and children – were put to work helping to organize the place.  The interior was swept, washed and then covered with whitewash.  Outside the masonry was repaired.  Windows and roof leaks were repaired.  Very primitive toilet facilities were improvised.  The children were divided into work groups depending on their preferences and abilities.  There were groups of dancers, choir, groups in charge of cleaning the grounds and bringing wood, others went shopping in the city below.  And almost all went fishing or to the village to see movies until my father brought an old projector and they showed their own movies.  In the mornings they were taught the traditional courses and in the afternoon they learned Basque songs and dances.  My father described their arrival: “We were all weak of spirit and body almost to the point of having a nervous breakdown, bearing memories of terrible sights of the war we had seen.  But in this abandoned place surrounded by greenery and listening to the sound of the flowing river, we found a source of soothing and rest.”

My mother was in charge of the chapel.  She brought fresh wild flowers every day from the gardens outside and took care of all the details of the large church where there was a Mass celebrated every day.  This is a photo of the chapel, which was taken in 1937.







The French Government immediately sent help with beds and essentials plus 5 Francs per child per day.  France was the most generous of any nation helping the refugees.  Funds for the Citadelle also came from the Basque Committee for Refugees with money from French Catholic sources.  Since theirs was the largest such colony, it was a financial burden that had to be shared.

In these circumstances, my mother found that she was going to have a baby.  She was immensely happy because carrying this baby she regained a little bit of what she had lost when she followed her husband into such perilous conditions.  They had been living six months in La Citadelle when my father was called to Barcelona as the representative of the Basque Minister of Education and Justice [December 1937].  He left St. Jean Pied-de-Port with sadness.  He didn’t want to leave his wife alone and the colony was now starting to bear its fruit.  It was viewed as a model of a Basque educational program.

On March 16, 1938, Barcelona was bombarded by the Italians, leaving 1,500 dead and 2,000 wounded.  My father miraculously escaped with his life when one of many shrapnel bits entered his office through a window and passed without hitting anyone.  He spent the rest of the night under his desk.  Shortly after, he was transferred to Paris as the personal secretary of the Minister of Education and Justice.  He also continued working as the Assistant Minister of Education.









Meanwhile, Mercedes left the colony of children and went to Paris to live with her sister and others in the city’s small Basque exile community.  She did not make the journey alone, for she already carried within her the first fruit of the marriage of Vicente and Mercedes, their daughter Mirentxu, to be born six months later.  Incredible as it seems to us today, Vicente and Mercedes had managed somehow in the midst of so much violence and uncertainty to express their love and to give it a reality in the form of a baby girl, the first of their five children.

The Amezagas were not in a place of their choosing when their first two children were born.  They did not want to be in Paris and they did not intend to stay very long.  They left the city definitively when their two children were only one and three years old, and the girls have always considered other cities to be their home.

Between the two world wars, Paris became a glittering and spectacular magnet that attracted the world’s leading artists, writers, musicians (especially jazz), dancers, and fashion designers.  At the height of the period, an estimated 40,000 expatriates lived there, including many American war veterans who simply did not return home after 1918.  The list of glittering talent was virtually endless: writers Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and James Joyce; composer George Gershwin; painters Pablo Picasso (who would paint the famous Guernica in Paris in 1938) and Salvador Dali; dancer Josephine Baker; and designers Else Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel.  Paris in the “Roaring ‘Twenties” became legendary as a center of contemporary artistic expression. 

After the 1929 New York stock market crash and the Great Depression became global, the tone of the city became more somber as people waited for the next war to break out.  By 1938 when the Amezagas arrived in Paris to await the birth of their first child, the city was no longer the sparkling center of global culture it had been, nor was it at all hospitable to its rapidly growing refugee population.  For half a decade, refugees had swarmed to Paris from across Europe: Republicans from the Spanish Civil War, Jews fleeing Poland and Germany, Russian writers and other intellectuals, and thousands of others.  According to William Wiser,[2]

For refugee émigrés,… life in Paris in 1938-39 could be an existence in purgatory, and there were even worse-off exiles huddled in colonies along the ragged arrondissements of the city, the benighted regions untraveled by the respectable bourgeois…  The colonies of refugees represented a second city, a Paris apart, where émigrés were associated by former nationality, a common language, and dependence on one another.  These marginals were known to the police as SDFs (Sans Domicile Fixe, no permanent home) and were subject to expulsion for infractions of the Code Civil, and especially if they were judged a financial drain on the state….As many discovered,… a permis de travail, a work permit for foreigners, was almost impossible to obtain; nevertheless, in the cruel logic of officialdom, l’etranger was obliged to show proof of cash subsistence at any police inquiry.

As an official of the Basque Government in exile in Paris, Vicente Amezaga and his family experienced a life considerably more comfortable than many of these refugees.  Nevertheless, Paris, while a glamorous and exciting city, wasn’t home to them and their stay there was only temporary while they awaited an eventual return to the Basque Country, which they expected to be possible at almost any moment.  They were to be cruelly disappointed.  

[1] The following story is told in the family about Elias Iribarren, who fought for the Carlists in the Second War.  After the war ended, Elias returned home, only to be pursued by the local liberal forces that had sentenced all the ex-Carlist fighters to exile or death.  One day, they came to the family house to arrest Elias, who hid in the straw in the attic.  Failing to find him, the soldiers were about to withdraw when it occurred to their commander to ask the children playing in the yard where their father might be.  The naïve Inocencio pointed to the attic; the soldiers searched it; and Elias was shot on the spot.  Imagine the guilt that the youth must have felt all his life.

[2] William Wiser, Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000), pp. 201-202.

Travesia   -   Travesia1   -   Travesia2   -   Travesia3  -  Travesia4

Travesia   Antecedentes   Reunion   Fotos     Videos   Slide Show Reunion



I.1 Linea de Vida  y su Obra

I.2 Poesias en Euskera Recopilacion Total

I.3 Conferencias Recopilacion

I,4 Articulos Periodisticos Recopilacion Total

I.5 Lengua Vasca

I.6 Gernika

I.7 Uruguay

I.8 Venezuela

I.9 Reseñas Biograficas

I.10 Traducciones

I.11 Obras Publicadas

I.12 Semana Vasca en Montevideo

I.13 Ciclo de Clases

I.14 Nota Bio-Bibliografica

I,15 Biografia en Euskera

I.16 Sitio en Internet en Euskera

I.17 Nostalgia

I.18 Articulos Periodisticos Indice Cronologico

I.19 Articulos Periodisticos Indice Alfafabetico

II) OBRAS COMPLETAS - Libros Publicados en Internet


II.1  El Hombre Vasco

II.2 Hombres de la Compañia  Guipuzcoana

II.3  El Elemento Vasco en el siglo XVIII Venezolano

II.4 Vicente Antonio de Icuza

III) INDICE de TEMAS RELACIONADOS. Libros publicados por sus hijos;


III.1 Nere Aita - el exilio vasco - Mirentxu Amezaga 

III.2 Cronicas del Alsina -  Arantzazu Amezaga de Irujo

IV) Sus Hijos Escriben;


IV.1 Los tres Barcos que llevaron a Ama y Aita

IV.2 Travesia

V) Sus Hijos Escriben tras su muerte;


V.1 A mi Aita

V.2 La cancion de mi Padre

VI) Otros aspectos


VI.1 Reunion Familar en su Memoria

VI.2 Exodo

VI.3 Comision del Cuatricentenario de Caracas

VI.4 Inauguracion de la Plaza que lleva su nombre en Algorta

VI.5 Su Pequeño Poema en la Nota Necrologica 4 Febrero 1969

VII) Toda su Obra Publicada convertida en Formato PDF- puede ser leida en dispositivos  e-Book


 VII.1 Amézaga Vicente  Autor Irujo Ametzaga Xabier

 VII.2 Articulos de Prensa

 VII.3 Bio Biografica

 VII.4 Biografia en Euskera

 VII.5 Ciclo de Clases

 VII.6 Ciclo de Conferencias

 VII.7 Nostalgia

 VII.8 El Elemento vasco en el Siglo XVIII Venezolano

 VII.9 El Hombre Vasco

 VII.10 Los Hombres de la Compañia Guipuzcoana

 VII.11 Obras Publicadas

 VII.12 Vicente Antonio de Icuza

 VII.13 Poesias

 VII.14 Relacion de Escritos como Autor

 VII.15 Reseñas Biograficas

 VII.16 Semana Vasca Montevideo

 VII.17 Semana Vasca Montevideo Indice de Articulos

 VII.18 Traducciones


Dedicatoria y mi homenaje a Mercedes Iribarren Gorostegui - Su esposa y mi ama

Sitio en Internet en homenaje a Vicente de Ametzaga Aresti.
Unico sitio en Internet, que lleva su nombre, de referencia completa de su vida y su Obra totalmente publicada en Internet, 
Poesias, Articulos de Prensa, sus Libros, completando asi, y cerrando todo lo que se habia escrito en libros sobre el y su vida
Creacion, Edicion y contacto: Xabier Iñaki Ametzaga Iribarren
Blog Xabier Amezaga Iribarren:
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