This website deals primarily with Irish involvement in the SCW, but Rosario Sanchez Mora is being marked here as her image is one of those currently on tour here as one of the series of photos "Defenders of the Spanish Republic" by Madrid photographer Pablo Vazquez Borragan, currently touring public libraries in Ireland. It has been seen in Belfast Cork, Dublin, etc. I'd like to thank Harry Owens for this touching obituary. CC, Belfast 21/4/8


Rosario Sanchez Mora, born Villarejo, Spain in 21-4-1919 Died April 2008

Rosario Sanchez Mora: seamstress, volunteer soldier, teenage war-bride and mother, underground resistance activist and tobacconist. A hero of our time.

The daughter of a carpenter who was chairman of the town's Left Republican Party, Rosario went to Madrid to learn dressmaking. She was 17 when the generals' revolt began Spain's Civil War in July, 1936, and was one of the girl who volunteered with the teenagers of the United Socialist Youth who left for the Somosierra mountain passes to defend Madrid and the elected Spanish Republic's government from the rightwing columns who were attacking from the north. Rosario, wary of parental refusal, told her father she was "signing up for nursing" and he didn't object.

She lost her hand on 15th September throwing hand grenades with el Campesino's brigade. In the casualty clearing hospital, she was just another seriously wounded case awaiting care till the commander on the front, Galan, sent a courier to check on her treatment, and she was sent for surgery.

The famous philosopher, Ortega y Gasset (who later abandoned the Republic and declared his support for General Franco) visited her ward and told her he'd be passing through her home town and would tell her family. When her father arrived, staff sought to calm his anxiety, but he told them that, despite his concern for her, his eldest child, he'd be proud of his other five children if they'd had to suffer as much for the cause of the people.

When the wounded were being evacuated as Madrid was besieged that autumn, Rosario badgered her commanders for work. El Campesino got her a job on the manual telephone switchboard in his HQ, where she met the soldier poet Miguel Hernandez who one day shyly presented her with his poem about her, "Rosario Dinamitera" which features on Irish third level courses today. It helped make her one of the symbols of the ordinary militia who were defending Madrid when the city stood almost alone against the forces of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, while the Non-Intervention Committee set up by Britain and France cut off the Republic's access to arms while letting the fascist powers freely pour in arms and troops on the side of the rebel generals.

Rosario later delivered mail to the frontlines under rifle and aircraft attack. Aged 19 when she married Francisco who served in the same division, she bore their first child alone when he was sent to the front. It was 15 years before they saw each other again. When the Spanish Republic collapsed and Madrid fell in March 1939, just six months before the Second World War began, she was among the fleeing thousands who were caught on the docks at Alicante, waiting in vain for ships to safety. In the internment camps there she watched her father being taken away to become one of the thousands of "disappeared" in the unrecorded postwar executions.

In the jails under Franco's dictatorship, she saw men tortured beneath her cell window in an early form of "waterboarding" followed by their executions. Like so many, she endured weeks long trips in cattletrucks, jails where twelve prisoners shared cells meant for one, and terrible hunger. "We learnt to be better people in jail." she said afterwards, through the solidarity which she had experienced in the trenches, and now found among the women political prisoners, literally sharing crusts of bread.

Her sentence of 30 years was later commuted. On the day she was freed, her friend the poet Miguel Hernandez died in Alicante jail. She remembered him from the time he'd been the cultural commissar in their brigade, as likeable, gentle and yet serious, who would go out to the frontlines, not to fight but to give talks, to read his poems, and to find inspiration in the trenches and the danger there.

When she got back to Madrid her child no longer knew her. She survived the postwar rationing by selling food smuggled in from the countryside, and helped distribute clandestine union and leftwing news bulletins outside factories. Like so many others who had once hoped in vain for allied intervention in their Civil War, she now looked forward to the allied victory against their old foes, Hitler and Mussolini. Once more they were to be disillusioned when the western democracies restored relations with Franco as the Cold War got under way in the late 1940s, and Spain was abandoned for a second time to fascism and to a further 30 years as a police state.

Rosario became one of the women of that generation who kept up the fight for union and political rights in those dark years of Spain's "Second Inquisition", a generation which was airbrushed from history till very recently. She got work selling tobacco and cigarettes on Madrid streets, till she got her own stand which she ran till she retired. She only once went back to Villarejo, to see her mother's grave. She died in Madrid aged 89, proud of her city's role in the defence of democracy, and especially of the part that women played in the war, and in the postwar underground resistance to the Franco dictatorship.

She remained convinced that their struggle was worth it, one of those people who made Madrid, in the words of the wartime correspondent Vincent Sheean, a city "that had done so much more than its share that its name would lie forever across the mind of man, sometimes in reproach, sometimes in rebuke, sometimes as a reflex of the heroic tension that is still not wholly lost from our race on earth. In this one place, if nowhere else, the dignity of the common people had stood firm against the world."

Her portrait is one of the series of photos "Defenders of the Spanish Republic" by Madrid photographer Pablo Vazquez Borragan, currently touring public libraries in Ireland, with the support of the ICTU.

Rosario Sanchez Mora: seamstress, volunteer soldier, teenage war-bride and mother, underground resistance activist and tobacconist. A hero of our time.

Obituary written by Harry Owens, April 21st 2008.