They were the children of jailed left-wing opponents to the regime of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco, snatched from their mothers with state approval and the Catholic Church’s blessing to purge Spain of Marxist influence.
Decades later — as Spain heads towards the 70th anniversary of the end of the 1936 to 1939 civil war — questions are being asked about the fate of these youngsters.
“There was a desire on the part of the regime, which was encouraged by the Catholic Church, to take children from ‘red mothers’ to purify them and convert them,” said Julian Casanova, a modern history professor at the University of Zaragoza.
They were seized during the early years of Franco’s right-wing dictatorship that followed the conflict, which continues to divide Spanish society.
A 1940 decree allowed the state to take children into custody if their “moral education” was at risk.
Firm numbers are hard to come by because of the poor state of Spanish archives and a reluctance by the government, until recently, to probe the civil war era — which some historians estimate claimed as many as 500,000 lives on both sides — and its immediate aftermath.
But Casanova said up to 30,000 children were registered as being in state custody at some point during the 1940s and 1950s, raised mostly by religious orders.
“All of these children under state guardianship were not stolen. But in certain cases they were kidnapped and illegally adopted, their identity was stolen and they were given to other families,” he said.
Many of the so-called “lost children of the Franco regime” who were put in Catholic religious orders went on to become nuns or priests, said Ricard Vinyes, a modern history professor at the University of Barcelona.
“Being a child of a Republican was a stigma that only redemption could overcome. Many of these children entered religious orders precisely to atone for the sins of their parents,” he said.
The civil war was sparked by Franco’s insurgency against the democratically elected left-wing Republican government. His revolt was aided by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy while the Soviet Union aided the Republican government.
It officially ended on April 1, 1939 — no official ceremonies are planned for the 70th anniversary — as the resistance to Franco’s forces collapsed.
Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist until his death in 1975, but a taboo over the “lost children” issue endured.
In November, however, Spain’s best-known judge, Baltasar Garzon, called for a probe into the “disappearance” of children taken from Republican families as part of a ruling that accused the Franco regime of crimes against humanity.
“In 60 years they have not been the subject of any investigation whatsoever,” he said at the time, adding that to “ignore this reality for longer would be unjust and cruel for the victims.”