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'I hope the memory lives on': Remei Oliva, 102-year-old Civil War exile and mother

Memoirs of the last surviving 'Mother of Elne', who gave birth in a maternity hospital for refugees in France

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20 September 2021 06:22 PM

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ACN | Elne

At the grand old age of 102, Remei Oliva has returned to Elne Maternity hospital for the launch of the Catalan translation of her memoirs as a Civil War exile.

When Spain fell to Franco's fascist troops, a 20-year-old Remei was forced to abandon her job as a seamstress in Badalona, just north of Barcelona, and flee to France in the winter of 1939.

As her memoirs recount, she spent fifteen months in internment camps in Argelès-sur-Mer and Saint-Cyprien, and gave birth to her first child, Rubén, in Elne Maternity hospital, a converted château set up by Swiss schoolteacher Elisabeth Eidenbenz to provide a safe place for pregnant refugees to give birth.

Remei is the last surviving 'Mother of Elne', and on Sunday, just shy of her 103rd birthday (she was born September 29, 1918), she was back at the hospital to attend a commemorative event and the launch of the Catalan translation of her autobiography, first published in French in 1988.

"I kept everything in my memory"

Remei was encouraged to write the book by one of her daughters-in-law. To put her memories in order, she noted them down with a pencil, and then they were rearranged chronologically.

"Because I kept everything in my memory I was able to write it down just as it was," she said during the presentation.

Elne Maternity was a godsend for those pregnant women like Remei who lived in terrible conditions in the internment camps, and she is glad that later in life she was able to meet and thank again the woman behind the hospital, Elisabeth Eidenbenz. "She deserves everything," Remei said.

In all, 597 children of Republican exiles detained at the Argelès-sur-Mer internment camp were born there between 1939 and 1944.

Remei hopes that her book ensures that "the memory lives on" and that the barbarity of war and exile will never be forgotten.

Symbol of "all women"

Catalonia's justice minister Lourdes Ciuró, who attended the event, said that Remei's story was a "very valuable testimony" because it is a symbol of the courage and dignity of exiled Republican women.

"It gives us a clear picture of all the women who were victims of that forced exile, too often forgotten," she said.

"She tells us about life in the refugee camps, about the girls who had children, about the absence of fathers for the children, about families, illnesses and disease. About how everyone struggled internally to survive in subhuman conditions and how, despite all the adversity, life found a way to continue."

The Catalan translation of Remei Oliva's memoirs is called 'La noia de la capsa de fils' (The Sewing Box Girl).

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  • Remei Oliva, the writer of the memoirs, and Catalan justice minister, Lourdes Ciuró, September 19, 2021 at the Elne Maternity Hospital (by Xavier Pi)

  • Remei Oliva, the writer of the memoirs, and Catalan justice minister, Lourdes Ciuró, September 19, 2021 at the Elne Maternity Hospital (by Xavier Pi)

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