BOISE — Basques marked a somber occasion this week, the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Gernika, a city in the Basque province of Bizkaia.
Nearly all of Boise’s Basque families hail from Bizkaia. Some of them survived the attacks before migrating to Idaho, and a few are in the Basque Country this week as the city of Gernika memorializes the events of April 26, 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War.
Spanish dictator Francisco Franco gave the go-ahead to German and Italian leaders to try out new methods of aerial warfare in the Basque Country — home to Franco’s political opponents.
The attack on Basque civilians destroyed nearly 80 percent of the homes in the city and badly damaged the rest, said Patty Miller, director of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise.
Boisean Dolores Totorica said the bombings ultimately helped create a political climate that drove many Basques out of Spain, including her own family.
Her sister, Gloria Totoricaguena, and her mother, Mari Carmen Egurrola Totorica, who lived through the bombings as a small child, are in Gernika this week.
Totorica has kept in touch with them through email. Totoricaguena and Egurrola Totorica have met Basque officials. They’ve met members of Basque families that fled to Mexico, South America and other parts of Europe. They have had reunions with family members who still live in the area and have experienced a series of embraces, tears and celebrations of their survival, said Totorica.
“Mama will be there as a survivor, and she and I will represent Boise and Boise’s recognition of the desire for peace around the world,” Totoricaguena emailed from Gernika.
A reenactment of the attack, with church bells, air raid sirens and actors playing the part of city dwellers, took place Thursday, along with a procession to the cemetery.
The attack on Gernika began late in the afternoon and lasted more than three hours. It started with heavy bombs and ended with machine gun fire from the air.
The fatality count is unclear, but materials published for the 70th anniversary by the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, put the death toll at 800.
Totorica’s parents have deep roots in Boise. They raised their children here.
“We’ve done well in Idaho. We have no complaints,” said Totorica. “But the bombings changed the whole trajectory for families like ours that would have stayed in their home country, speaking their own language. I would be living a very different life right now if it weren’t for Gernika,” said Totorica.
Egurrola Totorica was just 5 years old, a resident of Gernika, when the bombs fell. She was old enough to remember the sirens, running for shelter with her mother and pressing herself against the trunks of trees to avoid machine-gun fire.
The family didn’t know for days whether Egurrola Totorica’s father had survived. He did, along with her siblings.
The attacks affected even people outside Gernika. Relatives of Miller, the Boise Basque Museum director, lived nearby. They took shelter in caves.
For many, including painter Pablo Picasso who immortalized the attack on Gernika in a mural that hangs in a Madrid museum, the attack became an example of the brutality of modern warfare. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a network that advocates for social justice, calls the 1937 attacks “an early act of terrorism.”
“They chose what was unheard of: to bomb civilians,” said Totorica.
The bombings took place on a Monday, a market day in Gernika. The streets were filled with people, including hundreds who had come to the market from surrounding communities.
“Everyone in Bizkaia knew it was market day. I’m sure Franco knew, too,” said Totorica.
Miller said Gernika has grown from its tragic past. The city is now home to a peace museum. It became part of the World Association of Martyr Cities. It has two sister cities — Boise and the German city of Pforzheim.
In a 2005 speech during the Basque celebration of Jaialdi, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter noted that representatives from the German government had traveled to Gernika to apologize for the country’s role in the attack.
Officials and an orchestra from Germany are in Gernika this week, helping to memorialize the anniversary.