Fanny Schoonheyt took part in
combat operations to defend Spain's
democracy from a military uprising
supported by Nazi Germany; notably
seizing arms from the military
barracks in Barcelona at the outbreak
of war in July 1936 after entering
through the roof with her comrades,
and on the frontlines at Aragón where
she was wounded later that year.
Fanny Schoonheyt (1912-61) was born in Rotterdam and was the only woman among the contingent of Dutch volunteers to take up arms in defense of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). There were other Dutch women who supported the Republic but they worked in non-combat roles.
Fanny was already in Barcelona at the outbreak of the war in July 1936. In a letter to a friend in Rotterdam she described how she and her comrades entered the military barracks from the roofs and how they confiscated the arms found there:
I wore a rather conspicuous yellow shirt and it is a miracle they didn't shoot me. But perhaps they were so surprised to see me they forgot to react.
Surprised to see a woman, is the supposition, although in those days many young Spanish women took up arms in defense of the Spanish Republic. Fanny had immediately joined the antifascist milicias and as early as July/August 1936 left for the Aragón front, where she stayed till November when she was wounded.
At the front Fanny soon became famous for her technical knowledge and bravery. Almost all Barcelona newspapers—from the CNT's La Noche to the widely read Vanguardia—published long interviews with her, calling her "la reina de la ametralladora", the queen of the machine gun. Fanny was averse to what she called "this adoration" and later, when several Dutch newspapers translated the Spanish interviews, she complained in letters to her friend about "all this nonsense" being written about her.
Fanny came to Spain at the end of 1934, trying to make a living as foreign correspondent. In Rotterdam she had had a job as secretary of the prominent Dutch newspaper Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant. She was an ambitious young woman (and a talented pianist) trying hard to be invited to join the editorial staff—an almost impossible aspiration in this exclusively male world, though her job provided her with an entry into the cultural and intellectual circles of Rotterdam where she met writers, painters and filmmakers such as Joris Ivens.
Earlier in 1934 Fanny had traveled to the Soviet Union, as did many youths and intellectuals in the 1930s who were intrigued by the Bolshevik Revolution—although she had no idea of what was going on in the USSR at that time. She published a series of articles about her visit to Leningrad, where she was invited as art critic. In her articles she struggles with the question what "revolutionary art" should be, and although she doesn't come to any definite conclusion, Fanny predicts the brilliant future of one of the composers she discusses: Shostakovich.
At the end of 1934 Fanny decides to leave Holland, which she finds "dusty, musty, flat and boring". She heads to Catalonia to look up the Surinam-born Dutch novelist Lou Lichtveld, one of the writers she has met in Rotterdam. Lichtveld (who, as it happened, also composed the score to one of Joris Ivens’s films) lives in Barcelona, where he is working in the colony of German/Jewish refugees who have fled the Nazi regime in Germany.
Fanny did not stay with the Lichtveld family long and soon found a place of her own in the old center of Barcelona, but never realized her dream of becoming a foreign correspondent for a Dutch paper. The letters to her friend in Rotterdam indicate that she was not doing well and had kidney trouble. She writes a lot about daily life in Barcelona, inviting her friend to join her on a trip to Ibiza (which she described as the cheapest place on earth), but she never once mentions Spain's political turmoil. Nor does she give any sign of political commitment herself.
This is one of the many mysteries surrounding Fanny's life: When, where, and how did she become politically engaged? Less than a year later, after the outbreak of the war, writing to the same friend in Rotterdam, she is a convinced antifascist and a member of the PSUC (the United Socialist Party of Catalonia). What happened in the interim?
Author Yvonne Scholten (Fanny Schoonhey: Een Nederlands meisje strijdt in de Spaanse Burgeroorlog) long thought that Fanny became politicized during the few weeks she worked as a press agent for the Olimpiada Popular, the alternative Olympic Games to be held in Barcelona in July 1936, and on whose organizing committee sat a number of German and Italian political refugees. When Franco’s coup interrupted the Games, several of them joined the milicias and formed the kernel of what later became the International Brigades.
Apart from a handful of letters, Fanny left no personal papers and may have tried to erase all traces of her Spanish past. Even her daughter, who was born in 1940 in the Dominican Republic, had no idea that her mother had fought in Spain until interviewed by Scholten for her biography. The most extensive information about this period of her life is to be found in the Dutch National Archives in The Hague. Between 600 and 800 Dutchmen participated in the SCW and for almost all there is a personal dossier, compiled by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice. A special Royal Decree of summer 1937 deprived them all of their Dutch nationality. Probably a third of them were killed in Spain; of those who returned—stateless—to the Netherlands. Many ended up in German concentration camps.
The Dutch National Archive contains an extensive correspondence between Fanny and the Dutch consul in Barcelona and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Several points jump out. In the spring 1937 the consul writes that Fanny has become an officer in the Spanish Republican Army. This is the time when the militias, where anarchist influence is strong, are being dismantled, and the new army of the Republic, the "Ejército Popular" is being built.
It is not known exactly what rank Fanny held in the Republican army; while Spanish military historians say there never a foreign woman officer at all. However, the uniform she is wearing in one of the few photos taken of her during the war is not the uniform of a simple soldier. Several sources affirm that Fanny was "directora" in the “campo de instrucción premilitar” at Pins del Valles, a little village not far from Barcelona where new recruits got their instruction. Remarkably, during the whole war Fanny never entered the International Brigades; she always operated in the realm of the Ejército Popular and the PSUC. Regardless of the specifics, hers was an exceptional career for a foreign woman.
How involved was Fanny in the internal political conflicts that divided the Republican camp? In his Homage to Catalonia George Orwell describes the bad days of May 1937, when left-wingers in the streets of Barcelona engaged in a deathly struggle, ending up with the elimination of anarchists and POUMists (wrongly called "Trotskyites") and the violent death of POUM leader Andreu Nin. Orwell mentions the Barcelona’s central square, the Plaza de Catalunya, whose "principal landmark … was the Hotel Colon, the headquarters of the P.S.U.C., dominating the Plaza": "In a window near the last O but one in the huge 'Hotel Colón' that sprawled across its face they had a machine-gun that could sweep the square with deadly effect."
In the course of her investigation Scholten became more and more convinced that Fanny had been one of the PSUC machine-gunners at the Plaza. After publishing her biography of Fanny in the fall of 2011, ALBA's Sebastiaan Faber sent her a photo depicting Fanny, flanked by two men, standing with her back to a pile of sandbags in front of what looks like the façade of the Hotel Colón. The picture, taken by the famous Catalan war photographer Agustí Centelles, reinforces her supposition that Fanny played a significant role in the "hechos de mayo". Interestingly, the picture forms part of the exhibit "Centelles In Edit ¡Oh!" which opened in New York in October 2011. In the show, Fanny is misidentified as Fanny Jabcovsky, aka Fanny Edelmann, the equally legendary miliciana from Argentina.
Centelles' portrait of Fanny is part of a series of at least three photos taken at the same place and time. A cropped version of one of the other images—this time with Fanny smiling—appeared on June 17, 1937 in La Vanguardia. "La gran luchadora antifascista conocida por 'Fanny' gravemente herida", the headline reads. The great antifascist fighter known as Fanny, the paper states, has been seriously wounded in a car accident near Tarragona.
In the late spring of 1938 Fanny tries to get her Dutch passport renewed at the consulate of the Netherlands in Barcelona. Her request is denied. She tells the consul she wants to go back to Holland—certainly untrue at this point in her life. The summer of 1938 finds her in Toulouse, from where she resumes her correspondence with her friend in Rotterdam. She tells here she is in Toulouse "on duty" and will go on to Paris to obtain a pilot's license. She is reticent about the exact nature of her activities, but she does tell her friend about a man she has fallen in love with, Georges Vieux, who works at Air France in Toulouse.
Georges, a highly qualified aeronautical technician, was likely involved with the informal aid Air France provided to the Spanish Republic. He regularly traveled to Barcelona, and is there on December 31, 1938, when Barcelona is heavily bombarded by Italian aircraft. "I almost lost my Georgie", Fanny writes to her friend from Paris, where she is desperately trying to get her pilot's license; her lessons are continuously postponed because of bad weather. On January 6, 1939, only a few weeks before the fall of Barcelona, she tells her friend she is still determined to go back to Spain, "whatever happens". Meanwhile, it is not at all clear why Fanny was bent on getting her pilot's license and what she would have done with it. Was she paid by the PSUC leaders to become some sort of private pilot at the moment a hasty evacuation might be needed? As it turned out, many PSUC leaders were hastily evacuated, with Soviet help, at the end of the war.
There are many questions and just a few answers. Georges Vieux disappears from the scene altogether; Scholten was not able to find a single trace of what happened to him after the war. Fanny stays in Paris till February 1940. How she makes a living is a mystery. A little agenda covering the year 1939—one of the few personal belongings she left behind after her death—contains a long list of more or less well known antifascist artists, painters, musicians and writers. In February 1940 she arrives in the Dominican Republic, then under the dictatorship of Trujillo. She is on the lists of the SERE (Servicio de Emigración para los Repubicanos Españoles), the agency that helped Spanish refugees leave France.
After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, the non-aggression agreement between Hitler and Stalin, life for communists had become unbearable. The Communist Party was outlawed and many Spanish refugees thought to be communists or fellow travelers like socialists ended up in French concentration camps. Fanny, still stateless, did not choose to go to the Dominican Republic; refugees were simply assigned a destination. Trujillo had his reasons to admit thousands of Spanish and Jewish refugees to his country, including "improving the race" (with "white" Europeans counterbalancing the "blacks" from Haiti).
In April 1940 she gives birth to a daughter. Fanny will later tell her daugher her father was a Spanish Republican fighter named Julio López Mariani who died on the same boat that brought Fanny to the Dominican Republic. From the documents of that time unearthed by Scholten, and research she conducted in Spain, it seems there was no man by that name. Regardless, from that moment on she calls herself Fanny López. She contacts the Dutch consul in the Dominican Republic and tries once again to renew her Dutch papers, but the Netherlands has by then been occupied by the Nazi's and Rotterdam largely destroyed.
Fanny has good reason to hope that the information about her Spanish past has been lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately for her the Dutch bureaucracy is still functional and has a record of her support for the leftist Republican government and her application for Dutch nationality is denied once again. It is just because she gains the personal sympathy of the Dutch consul, Leonard Faber, that she is able to survive. Later on she starts a successful career as photographer. Remarkably enough she avoids almost all contact with Spanish Republican refugees that have settled in the Dominican Republic, who according to Dominican historians have had a substantial impact on Dominican cultural and intellectual life.
From the moment she arrives in the Dominican Republic Fanny seems bent on blurring her past. Of course in a dictatorship it is always better to be extremely careful—and Trujillo’s rule was particularly brutal, but she becomes even more taciturn after 1947, when she is compelled to leave the Dominican Republic—the precise circumstances are unclear—and is allowed to move to Curaçao, still a Dutch colony at that time.
Fanny’s silence about her Spanish past had puzzled Scholten for a long time. When she first met her daughter she was surprised to realize that she had not the faintest idea of her mother's life before her birth. When Scholten told her that her mother had been famous as “queen of the machine-gun” and the "bravest girl of Barcelona" she was shocked.
Fanny’s old Dutch-Surinam friend Lichtveld met her again in 1955 in Willemstad, Curaçao. She was "cool", he said, and did not invite him to her home. Lichtveld said this was likely due to the "fascistoid" government in the Netherlands that still refused to grant Fanny her Dutch nationality: "She was stateless, so she had to be very careful". Being seen to be close friends of notable members of the left could have harmed her efforts to return. In 1957 Fanny was finally successful in her efforts to return to the Netherlands, but was in bad shape and her health was deteriorating. On the eve of Christmas 1961 she died from a heart attack, age 49.
Fanny was a courageous antifascist democrat who took to heart the egalitarian principles that underpin democracy and modernity, which demand that governments respect the dignity and rights of every citizen. Principles she was willing to fight for. An example for us all.
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Scholten, Yvonne. Fanny Schoonheyt: Een Nederlands meisje strijdt in de Spaanse Burgeroorlog, Meulenhoff Boekerij, 2011. ISBN: 978-90-290-8779-7.