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Guide to the Spanish Refugee Aid Records TAM 326 TAM 326

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

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This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 21, 2018
Description is in English.

Historical/Biographical Note

Spanish Refugee Aid (SRA) was founded in 1953 to assist refugees of the Spanish Civil War who were then residing in France. Nancy Macdonald (1910-1996) was the leading figure in the founding of Spanish Refugee Aid and remained at the organization's helm until her retirement in 1983. SRA maintained an office in New York City and coordinated aid efforts in France from Paris, Toulouse and Montauban. Between 1953 and 2006 when SRA, by then a program of the International Rescue Committee, was dissolved, over 5,500 refugees received aid from SRA.

With the defeat of Spain's Republican Army at the hands of Generalisimo Francisco Franco in 1939, five hundred thousand Spanish citizens, often with no more than the clothes on their backs, fled over the Pyrenees to seek asylum in France, which received more Spanish exiles than any other country. Upon arrival in France, most of the refugees were interned at St. Cyprien, Argeles-sur-Mer, Gurs, Barcares, Vernet d'Ariege and other overcrowded camps with few facilities. While a portion of the refugees returned to Spain, in spite of reprisals against Loyalists, and some were transferred to other countries, at least 350,000 refugees remained in France as 1939 drew to a close. As the Second World War loomed the situation of the interned refugees, already precarious, worsened. Tens of thousands of Spaniards were conscripted as laborers in the Groupement de Travailleurs Etrangers, and many were captured at Maginot when the Germans entered France. During the war some refugees joined the French resistance, including General de Gaulle's Free French army, while others joined the French Foreign Legion, most pledging loyalty to the Allies during the North African campaign. Thousands were sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp (where most died), and thousands more were put to work for the  Organisation Todtin Nazi-occupied France. In all, an estimated forty-eight thousand Spaniards were sent to Germany -- to labor camps, to work in German industries, or as political prisoners in concentration camps -- and approximately a third died there.

After the war, the surviving Spaniards still in France were given the status of political refugees, and a majority eventually assimilated into the French workforce. The oldest and youngest refugees, as well as those disabled by disease, infirmity, or physical or mental trauma, however, were impoverished and ineligible to receive pensions from their work and military service in Spain. Of the approximately two hundred thousand Spanish refugees in France at the end of World War II, at least ten percent needed some form of assistance. Spanish Refugee Aid (SRA) was founded in 1953 to assist those refugees of the Spanish Civil War who still struggled in France long after the war had ended. Nancy Macdonald (1910-1996), the leading figure in establishing SRA, remained at the organization's helm until her retirement in 1983.

Nancy Gardiner Rodman Macdonald was born into an affluent New York City family. After some years in the care of a Swiss governess, she attended the private Brearley School. A family trust fund long provided her with a financial safety net. Inherited along with the family's trappings of wealth and privilege, however, was the notion that charitable work was mandatory. Macdonald's maternal grandmother, Sarah Van Nostrand Marvin, who volunteered for over thirty years at the Henry Street Settlement House, set a pattern of hands-on philanthropy that would be followed through the generations. Even as a child, Macdonald was expected to assist those less fortunate than herself, by "adopting" orphans of World War I, or by visiting the poorer parishioners of Madison Avenue Presbyterian, her family's church.

In 1934 Nancy Rodman, by then a graduate of Vassar College, married Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982), a graduate of Yale and writer for Fortune Magazine. They would have two children, Michael born in 1938 and Nicholas in 1944, before divorcing in the early 1950s. Although the mores of her day often kept married women and mothers from working outside the home, Nancy Macdonald maintained a career and was active in committee work. Indeed work, politics and committee obligations were a family affair in the Macdonald household.

Already favoring a libertarian orientation and dedicated to social causes, Nancy Macdonald became increasingly politicized throughout the 1930s. In New York, she attended meetings for a variety of Popular Front causes, often accompanied by Dwight, whose nascent critical and political philosophy developed more concrete form during this period. When Dwight Macdonald left Fortune Magazinein 1937 to become an editor of the  Partisan Review(  PR), an independent political and literary magazine, Nancy Macdonald became the business manager of  PR. The couple joined the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group with an anti-war stance, in 1939, and then joined with the minority faction that split off to form the Workers Party in 1940. Nancy Macdonald served as executive secretary of the group's Committee of Emergency Aid to Refugees, her first foray into organized refugee aid. When both Macdonalds left the Workers Party in 1941, Nancy took the refugee committee with her. She was also active in  PR's Fund for European Writers and Artists in the early 1940s and ran its operation out of her home. In 1943 she added the Lynn Committee to Abolish Segregation in the Armed Forces to her roster of committee work.

In 1944 Nancy again followed Dwight when he founded the journal Politics, once again in the position of business manager.  Politicsserved as Dwight Macdonald's vehicle for independent expression of his idiosyncratic political views, as well as those of a close circle of writers and intellectuals who contributed to the magazine. As World War II ended,  Politics' European writers and contacts told the Macdonalds of refugees across Europe in need of money, food, clothing, and medicine. In response, the Macdonalds organized  Politics' Packages Abroad (PPA). Much like the relief committee they had established at  PR, PPA sent packages of food and clothing, provided limited financial aid, and lent moral support to a handful of refugees, mainly anarchist and socialist activists as well as like-minded writers and intellectuals, throughout Europe. Among the recipients of aid from PPA were many Spanish refugees.

Nancy Macdonald's first contact with Spanish refugees began with her involvement in PPA, but she had long been interested in Spain and the plight of those who fled Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War. During the Civil War Macdonald, like any self-respecting leftist of the time, attended rallies in support of the Spanish Loyalists and took an avid interest in their cause. Macdonald's interest in Spain, however, preceded the political upheavals. She had made several lengthy trips to Spain before the outbreak of Civil War, having visited the country first in 1932 after her graduation from Vassar, and again the following year on a trip to Europe with her mother. Finally, she and Dwight Macdonald had visited Spain in 1935.

When Dwight Macdonald's journal, Politics, unraveled in 1951--and with it PPA--Nancy Macdonald took a position with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), where she continued the refugee aid work she had initiated more than a decade before as a member of the Workers Party. While at the IRC she began to focus specifically on Spanish refugees, even as the IRC turned its attention increasingly to refugees from Eastern Europe. Within a year, due to lack of funding, Macdonald lost her job with the IRC, but somehow she could not give up on the Spanish refugees. In the summer of 1952 she made a four-month-long exploratory trip to Europe to meet Spanish refugees and to assess their needs. She also began a lengthy correspondence with domestic and international contacts to discuss the feasibility of forming a committee solely to assist Spanish refugees living in France. She returned from Europe with 101 IRC case files and immediately began to organize a committee.

The timing was right for the founding of SRA. The Macdonalds' marriage had ended, the Spanish refugees were competing with a host of causes and refugee groups for the world's attention, and Nancy Macdonald was out of a job. Macdonald's heritage of philanthropy, her experience with committee work, her contacts in activist and political circles, her interest in Spain, combined with her compassion and willingness to do what ever needed to be done to complete a task, all converged in the creation of Spanish Refugee Aid.

By January of 1953, SRA was incorporated to: "improve the health and social conditions and alleviate the human suffering and distress of Spanish non-communist refugees presently residing in France by their physical and mental betterment, by the development of plans for their education and establishment of centers for social services…" SRA's certificate of incorporation was signed by James T. Farrell, Mary McCarthy, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Norman Thomas and George Shuster. Many of SRA's earliest supporters, including McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and Albert Camus, were American and European intellectuals and writers well known to the Macdonalds through their work with Politicsand other political engagements. The novelist James T. Farrell, for example, had also served as honorary chairman of the Workers Party refugee committee that Nancy McDonald had organized. SRA's office, at 45 Astor Place, was in the same building where  Partisan Review,  Politics, and PPA had also operated.

Within six months after its incorporation, SRA had case files on 561 refugee families or individuals and had raised over seven thousand dollars for their aid. Over the next few decades SRA handled the cases of over 5,500 Spanish refugees through its New York office and French offices in Paris, Montauban and Toulouse. Along with aid in the form of food, clothing and cash allowances, SRA arranged medical and dental care, and supplied refugees with sewing machines, typewriters, tools and radios. SRA established scholarship funds, acted as a clearinghouse to provide refugees with information and connections to other aid or governmental agencies, and also set up "adoptions" between Americans and refugees in an effort to sustain both the refugees' financial well-being and their morale.

While the files do not contain complete demographic information on every refugee, a majority record the refugee's place of birth, birth date, occupation in Spain, and wartime role. The refugees aided by SRA originated from all parts of Spain, with the largest groups coming from Catalonia, Andalusia, and Aragon. More than half the refugees on SRA's rolls were over the age of fifty, as these were the people least able to assimilate into the French workforce; most were in poor health due to the effects of illnesses such as tuberculosis, which many of the refugees contracted while at St. Cyprien, Argeles, and other internment camps in France. The refugees included men and women, both single and in couples, as well as their children, but the majority of primary clients were men. Many were active participants in the Spanish Civil War as Republican soldiers or workers and fled Spain to avoid reprisals by the Franco regime against Loyalists. Others had been largely uninvolved in the war and left Spain when their homes were destroyed or occupied. A significant number of the refugees were members of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo(CNT), the  Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista(POUM), and the  Union General de Trabajadores(UGT). Most of the refugees had fled Spain at the end of the Civil War; a small number came to France later after being imprisoned in Spain. While SRA focused primarily on the refugees living in France, it also helped a small number of Spanish refugees living in other countries, the majority in Morocco, Belgium, and Algeria.

The work of SRA was facilitated greatly by organizations, committees and individuals in the United States and Europe. The IRC, based in New York, in addition to handing over the first one hundred cases to SRA, shipped packages of clothing to France gratis, donated food to be distributed among the refugees, made financial contributions and for many years lent the aid of their accountant, Wille Werner, to the SRA. Likewise, Hanne Benzion, head of the IRC in France, made referrals to and worked closely with the SRA.

Two committees, the Aide aux Refugies Espagnoles(ARE) of Switzerland and the  Deutsche Komitee zur Hilfe fur Spanische Democratische Fluchtlingerof Germany, were set up specifically to assist the efforts of SRA. ARE was founded in 1956 by Dan and Elizabeth Gallin and the German refugees Henry and Frieda Jacoby. Peter Blachstein and Rose Froelich were the founders of the  Deutsche Komitee, which assisted SRA from 1954-1984. SRA also received much assistance, beginning in 1963 and through 1981, from  Individuell Manniskohjalp(IM), a Swedish aid organization. Siv Follin, a social worker with IM, spent half of every year in France distributing aid and visiting refugees. IM also provided scholarships to Spanish refugees.

Although Macdonald was unsuccessful in setting up a committee in Great Britain to assist SRA, she did receive assistance for many years from individual British citizens including Chloe Vulliamy, who had sheltered Basque children during the Spanish Civil War and World War II and, in 1961, spent several nights in a Spanish jail after attempting to distribute money to families of Spanish political prisoners. From 1967 to 1973 Vulliamy regularly visited Spanish refugees in remote parts of France and reported to SRA on their well-being. Others in England, including John McNair (secretary of the Independent Labor Party), Sonia Orwell (George Orwell's widow), and Stephen Spender (poet and novelist), assisted SRA by introducing Macdonald to aid agencies and serving as sponsors. Two English organizations, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (OXFAM) and Aid to European Refugees (AER), contributed to SRA's work.

Political and labor groups and veterans' organizations also worked with SRA by referring members in need of assistance. SRA's first one hundred cases had been referred to the IRC by the Liga de Mutilados e Invalidos de la Guerra de España/  Ligue de Mutilés et Invalides de la Guerre d'Espagne en Exil(LM, a veterans' aid organization),  Solidaridad Democratica Espanola(SDE, the solidarity committee of the Spanish Socialists),  Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista(SIA, an anarcho-syndicalist group), and  Solidaridad Socialista(SS, part of POUM). These organizations, which together represented thousands of members in France, eventually referred over 1,700 cases to SRA. With these initial cases a pattern was set of accepting refugees based primarily on the recommendation of a trusted organization or individual. A mixture of other groups--government, relief, and political--also submitted names for SRA's rolls, including: CNT, UGT,  Agrupacio Catalana,  Agrupo Republicana Española,  Aumonerie des Etrangers Protestants, the Basque Delegation,  Croix Rouge,  Federación Espanola de Enfermos Cronicos e Invalidos, Service Sociale d'Aide aux Emigrant (SSAE), Solidaridad Confederal, the Pablo Casals Foundation, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Morocco. Julio Just, the Interior Minister of the Spanish Republican Government-in-Exile, referred dozens of cases to SRA. José Rodes, a POUM member who had been mayor of Lerida during the Spanish Civil War, was, in exile, serving as head of the Spanish section of the IRC's Paris office, and also referred a number of cases to SRA. A majority of cases were referred by SRA's staff in France, who met refugees in need as they traveled throughout the country visiting areas where large numbers of Spaniards resided.

The work of SRA in France was carried on from offices in Paris and Toulouse, and from the Pablo Casals Foyer in Montauban. The Paris office had difficulty initially in sustaining a permanent staff. Francine Camus (wife of Albert Camus), Miriam Chiaromonte (wife of Italian journalist Nicola Chiaromonte) and Cleta Mayer (wife of Daniel Mayer, a prominent French socialist and member of the resistance) were among those who briefly ran the Paris office. Not until 1960, when Suzanne Chatelet left Perpignan to head SRA's office in Paris, did that branch of SRA become fully functioning; she ran the Paris office until her death in 1973. Chatelet's companion, Francois Olivé, was the bookkeeper for the Paris office. Olivé had been a trade union organizer and POUM member in Tarrasa and was helped by PPA after he fled Spain. Olivé and Chatelet were among Nancy Macdonald's earliest connections to the Spanish refugees. After Chatelet's death, Odette Ester (wife of José Ester Borras, a CNT militant and participant in the French resistance who served as secretary general of the Federación Española de Deportados e Internados Politicos), Ramón Alvarez (a leader in the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement and CNT member in Spain and in exile), and Mathilde Droulin maintained the Paris office for various periods until it was closed in 1978.

In 1957, with Anne Marie Berta as its representative, SRA opened an office in Toulouse. Berta was a native of Catalonia who had lived in France since childhood and before joining SRA presided over the Toulouse branch of Croix Rouge Espanole. Jacques Vive, a Spanish refugee and secretary of  Solidaridad Internacional Antifascista, joined the Toulouse staff of SRA. Maria Batet, also a Spanish refugee, an anarchist and CNT staff member in Toulouse, continued the work of Berta and Vive after they retired. When Batet grew too old to manage the office, Antoinette Caparros took her place.

SRA established Foyer Pablo Casals, a center for elderly Spanish refugees in Montauban, France, in 1961. The Foyer was named for famed cellist Pablo Caslas, a native of Catalonia, who served as SRA's honorary chairman from its inception. Casals had made an international appeal for the Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, and after their defeat, vowed never to return to his native country. Montauban was the city where Nancy Macdonald had seen the greatest need among refugees in her exploratory trips there in 1952. By 1960, there were still over a thousand Spanish refugee families living in and around Montauban, many having been there since the end of the Spanish Civil War. The Foyer provided a clean, warm place for relaxation and fellowship, and was SRA's distribution point for packages of food and clothing and monetary aid. Teresa Palacios, who had formerly worked for an office of the Croix Rouge Espanolein Montauban, ran the Foyer with her husband Manuel. The Palacios were natives of Madrid, where they had worked for a Republican government office; in France, Manuel Palacios had helped organize the Spanish Socialist Party-in-exile in Montauban and Toulouse. The work of the Foyer continued until 1983.

From 1984 until 2006 when it was disbanded, SRA, with Margaret Childers as director, operated as a program of the International Rescue Committee. Childers, daughter of former Irish President Erskine Hamilton Childers, immigrated to the United States in 1960 and worked for the Ford Foundation. Fluent in French, she joined the SRA staff in 1973. Before becoming director in 1984, Childers coordinated SRA's adoption and scholarship programs. From this point on, SRA maintained a French office only in Toulouse. Aid was distributed by Antoinette Caparros, based in Toulouse, and Childers on her annual trips to Spain. SRA continued to work closely during this time period with French social service agencies, especially SSAE and Amigos de los Refugiados Espanoles(AARE), a Spanish committee based in Madrid that was established in 1984 to aid exiles remaining in France.

The death of Franco in 1975 and the transition of Spain to a parliamentary monarchy raised hopes that the estimated 40,000 Spanish refugees still in France could return to their native country. While many took advantage of the amnesty to return to Spain, others were too old or ill to relocate, especially if they had no family members residing in Spain. Though the Spanish government agreed in 1976 to provide pensions for disabled Republican veterans, it was often difficult in practice to obtain the pensions. In addition, Spain's widespread poverty, high unemployment rate, and large population over the age of 65 made it difficult to care for an influx of aging refugees. Although France revoked their political refugee status in the late 1970s, the refugees continued to receive basic social service--including health benefits, social security, housing subsidies, and household help--from the French government. These factors led many refugees to choose to remain in France. As a result, SRA continued to aid refugees as long as they lived in France, providing moral support in the form of packages and visits, assistance in navigating France's social service system, and supplemental financial support. In 2006, when the SRA closed, it had less than one hundred individuals remaining on its aid roster. The IRC assumed responsibility for these cases.

Although SRA received money over the years from foundations and individual bequests, the vast majority of its contributions were from individual donors. At its peak, SRA received contributions from thirteen thousand individuals whose average donation was ten dollars. In addition to its regular appeal letters and annual reports to donors, SRA occasionally sent special appeals signed by prominent sponsors of SRA, including Pablo and Marta Casals, Salvador de Madariaga and Mary McCarthy. Fundraising benefits such as parties, concerts and especially art sales also enriched SRA's coffers. The most important contributor to the art sale phenomenon was Alexander Calder. Calder made his first contribution to SRA, a monetary one, in 1954, but over the years he donated prints and sets of lithographs. By the time of his death in 1977, SRA had received half a million dollars from the sale of Calder's donated prints. Louise Crane, publisher of Ibericamagazine, was one of SRA's earliest and most sustained major donors; some of her contributions to SRA helped sustain the work of the  Ligue de Mutilesin France. Margaret De Silver (wife of Albert De Silver, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and later of the Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca), served as SRA's treasurer and was also a regular contributor.

SRA personalized the aid that Spanish refugees received through a program of "adoptions." Donors were matched with a particular refugee or family. They were encouraged to correspond with their "adoptees" and to send packages of food or clothing as well as provide financial assistance in quarterly payments. SRA served as a clearing house, translating the letters between adopters and refugees to and from Spanish, and ensuring that payments were made regularly to the adopted refugees.

In addition to its staff in France and New York, SRA was supported by both a board of directors and a group of sponsors. Prior to its merger with IRC, SRA had five chairpersons: Hannah Arendt, James T. Farrell, Dwight Macdonald, Nancy Macdonald, and Mary McCarthy. Alexander Calder, Luisa Calder, General Lazaro Cardenas, Pablo Casals, Marta Casals Istomin, and Salvador de Madariaga served as honorary chairpersons. SRA's sponsors included Roger Baldwin, Herman Badillo, John T. Bernard, Hans Bethe, Claude G. Bowers, Fenner Brockway, Albert Camus, Noam Chomsky, Dorothy Day, Jesus de Galindez, Waldo Frank, Erich Fromm, Michael Harrington, Lillian Hellman, Irving Howe, Christopher Isherwood, Alfred Kazin, James Loeb Jr., Robert Lowell, Allard K. Lowenstein, Juan Marichal, A. Phillip Randolph, Victor G. Reuther, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Adelaide Schulkind, Ramón Sender, José Luis Sert, Ignazio Silone, Norman Thomas, and George Woodcock.

From its inception, SRA reflected Macdonald's anti-communist bias. Although SRA's incorporation papers did not expressly prohibit assisting communist refugees, they did state the organization's intention to help "non-communist refugees." SRA did help individual refugees who were communists, but it concentrated on non-communists and did not work with any political or relief agencies perceived to be communist-affiliated. This anti-communist position dated to Nancy and Dwight Macdonald's Trotskyist activism in the late 1930s and to their earliest refugee aid work in 1940 on behalf of Victor Serge, a Belgian-born anarchist and former staff member of the Communist International who was accused of leading a Trotskyist conspiracy and imprisoned in Russia in 1933. Released and living in France in 1940, Serge, who had written for PR, contacted the Macdonalds for assistance as he tried to flee Nazi-occupied France. Several of PPA's cases were referred by Serge, establishing a pattern of focusing on anarchist and socialist refugees.

When Macdonald was coordinating relief for the handful of Spanish refugees on PPA's aid roster, she asked Erma Arnstein, a supporter of PPA and resident of San Francisco, to research the Spanish Refugee Appeal (part of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee) in Berkeley. Macdonald did not wish to ask the Spanish Refugee Appeal for support if it was a "Stalinist organization." (The Macdonald-Arnstein correspondence can be found in the Case Files, PPA 46, Lorenzo.) In addition, the Appeal's work was increasingly hampered by the House Un-American Activities Committee's ongoing investigations of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. Macdonald concluded that a new organization was needed to focus specifically on non-communist refugees, whom she feared were being neglected by existing organizations. Throughout her years at SRA, Macdonald was particularly sympathetic to Spanish anarcho-syndicalists and former members of the POUM, a small revolutionary party opposed to the Popular Front, most of whose members were Catalans.

Decisions about whether to aid Communist refugees or whether SRA should accept any affiliation with individuals or groups who were even rumored to have connections with communism kept the board of SRA busy until the early 1980s. In particular, debates over whether to keep as sponsors Waldo Frank and Lillian Hellman, both believed to remain close to the Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s, divided the SRA board. Gabriel Javsicas, an anarchist and SRA sponsor, and Mary McCarthy, who feuded with Hellman in the late 1970s, both opposed Hellman's involvement in SRA.

Although it is evident that the needs of the Spanish refugees were always paramount to Nancy Macdonald and to the staff and supporters of SRA, the SRA records are more than simply a source of information on the distribution of aid and on the fates of individual Spanish Civil War refugees and their families. The political allegiances and activism of those involved with SRA, and of Nancy Macdonald in particular, are clearly reflected in much of the SRA correspondence and other documents. Macdonald's correspondence with prominent trade union leaders, social critics, and political activists documents SRA's connections to leftwing and radical individuals and organizations in the United States and Europe.


  • International Rescue Committee. "Spanish Refugee Aid." (15 Aug 2006)
  • Macdonald, Dwight. The Memoirs of a Revolutionist. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1957.
  • Macdonald, Nancy. Homage to the Spanish Exiles: Voices from the Spanish Civil War. New York: Human Sciences Press, Inc., 1987.
  • "Outside, Inside." TimeJune 19, 1939.,9171,761503-1,00.html (20 Aug 2007)
  • Républicains espagnols en Midi-Pyrénées: Exil, Histoire et Memoire. Presses Universitaires du Mirail. Toulouse. 2004.
  • Sumner, Gregory D. Dwight Macdonald and the politics Circle. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
  • Wreszin, Michael. A Rebel In Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald. New York: Basic Books, 1968.