Foto de Matti A. Mattson en 1938, de los archivos de The Tamiment Library y Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
De: The New York Times
Spain Gives Citizenship to a Fighter of Franco
By SIMON AKAM
Published: August 26, 2009
Like many young Americans traveling in Europe, Matti A. Mattson had a close encounter with wine — but not in the cafes of the Left Bank or the trattorias of Tuscany.
Instead, seven decades ago, he stowed away on a wine carrier in the French Mediterranean port of Sète, about 100 miles from the Spanish border, to reach Spain, crouching among the cargo on board the small vessel. “We got on at night when no one was looking — we hoped,” he explained.
It was March 1937, and Spain was in the throes of civil war — with the Republican government fighting Fascist Nationalist forces led by Francisco Franco.
Ignoring an international nonintervention agreement, Mussolini and Hitler lent support to the Fascists, while the Republican side was aided for a time by the Soviet Union and Mexico. In addition, about 40,000 foreign volunteers — including 2,800 from the United States — fought on the Republican side. They formed international brigades, and the American contingent came to be known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
One of those young Americans was Mr. Mattson, who is now 92 and who has lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, since the 1950s. On Wednesday, Mr. Mattson was awarded Spanish citizenship at the Spanish Consulate General, on East 58th Street in Manhattan.
“I am going to accept this citizenship not only for those guys who are buried in Spain but also those who are buried in the U.S.,” he said, dressed in dapper white shoes and a green blazer.
“We are really honored that people like you, with ideals, wanted to fight for democracy, for liberty,” said Fernando Villalonga, Spain’s consul general. “History has recognized your courage, your will to defend democracy.”
The civil war ended in 1939 with a Nationalist victory, and Franco ruled the country until his death in 1975. Since then, Spain has begun to honor the foreigners who had fought for the doomed Republican cause.
A spokesman for the Spanish Consulate explained that a 2007 Spanish law allowed former members of the International Brigades to apply for full Spanish citizenship without relinquishing their existing passports.
Mr. Mattson said he decided to apply at the prompting of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the history of American involvement in the conflict.
Mr. Mattson is the third American to apply for the honor — the first two are from Madison, Wis., and Providence, R.I., — said Peter N. Carroll, chairman of the group’s board of governors.
In an interview at his apartment on Tuesday night, Mr. Mattson, whose hometown is Fitchburg, Mass., said he was horrified by the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s.
“There were four people that left Fitchburg to volunteer for Spain: two Finnish, one Swedish, one Greek,” said Mr. Mattson, who is of Finnish descent.
Contacts in Boston helped arrange passages across the Atlantic for Mr. Mattson and a friend, Joseph Hautaniemi. Once in France, they made their way to Spain, where both became ambulance drivers.
“There was an English ambulance with the steering on the right-hand side,” Mr. Mattson recalled. “They said, ‘Do you think you can handle that?’ ” He did.
After one bloody offensive, Mr. Mattson drove for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Mr. Carroll, who has written a book about the brigade, said Mr. Mattson’s occupation was hazardous.
“Matti was a front-line ambulance driver,” he said in a telephone interview. “He had one of the most perilous jobs there, because ambulances were particularly targeted by fascist aircraft.”
Fraser M. Ottanelli, a historian at the University of South Florida who has also written about the war in Spain, said the presence of Americans proved that the war was a global conflict.
“The main contribution is that they sent a clear message to the Spanish people that they were not alone,” Professor Ottanelli said.
On one occasion, Mr. Mattson said, he gave a lift to Ernest Hemingway, who was covering the civil war as a journalist and who later used it as material for his novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“I knew he was a reporter. I didn’t know it was Hemingway immediately,” he remembered. “I had read his book ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ ”
“We got to the front and he just took off and he said thank you — he gave me a bottle of White Horse Scotch,” Mr. Mattson said.
After returning to the United States in 1938, he found that his service in Spain had made him, like many other Americans, a target of suspicion by anti-Communists.
He said he was abruptly dismissed from pilot training in World War II, refused an officer’s commission and reduced to the ranks. He said he served in the Army in both Europe and the Philippines during the war. After it ended, he worked as a printer in New York.
His son-in-law Jim Williams said that though Mr. Mattson was certainly gratified to be granted Spanish citizenship, he never doubted that what he did was right, despite having been “hounded” by the F.B.I.“In some ways,” Mr. Williams said of the citizenship award, “it will be a recognition of everything he’s fought for all his life.”