It was January 1939 when little Vicente, aged five, suffered a double trauma. A photo of that moment serves as proof: the frightened look of the child and the bandage that almost completely covers his head. His young age, that contusion and the fear of loneliness after losing his parents in the war caused an amnesia that will prevent him from remembering the details of his Spanish past. Because that kid left in 1939 from Barcelona to Belgium, where a family adopted him, giving him a new life and surnames. More than seventy years later, Vicente tried to regain ties with his Spanish family, but he was prevented by lack of memory. His, lost decades ago, and the one of a whole country, that does not finish recovering it.
For a long time they sought him out from Belgium and his aunt in Spain, not knowing that on the other side of the family thread they were also investigating without success. "Until someone could find the needle in the hayloft", explains Pere Puig, scientist of the Genetic Identification Group of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). "We reached the end of the story, with our genetic work we only put the icing on the cake," says Puig, a scientist committed to human rights who is excited telling every detail of this story.
He arrived in Belgium about five years ago, where he was adopted; just carry a piece of paper with your name and a surname. That role is all he has from his life in Spain
"Having the opportunity to give an answer to a person who has been searching for his past for so long has been very exciting," says Puig. He adds: "Genetics was the last check, the last closed door that had to open that child who was evacuated in 1939 to know who he really was and to find the family he left when he had to escape a very likely death with the entrance of the Francoist army in Catalonia ". The door closed with five years and did not open until he was 80; a whole life without a past.
The boy was from a mining town of Teruel, Utrillas, who fled with his uncles to Barcelona, after his father died at the front and his mother disappeared in hospital. There, in Colonia Miaja, in Cabrera del Mar (north of Barcelona), he found his last refuge in Spain, before leaving for his new life. The geneticist emphasizes that now that same house is a place of reception of "menas", unaccompanied foreign minors. His aunt had left him in that colony to work for a week and visited him on Sundays. But one day he went to see it and there was no trace: an ad in the newspaper, which he did not see, announced that the children would be evacuated.
Pere Puig, together with Rosa Miró and another group of committed scientists, now publish Vicente's case, resolved in 2014, in a specialized scientific journal (Forensic Science International), when the family has given them permission to do so. "As far as we know, here we describe the first genetic identification of a person with amnesia evacuated during the Spanish Civil War that recovers his personal identity ", they conclude in the study.
"We believe that amnesia is probably a defense mechanism," says the researcher. He arrived in Belgium five years ago, where he was adopted and was renamed Vincent. He only carries a piece of paper with his Spanish name and his first name. That role is all he has from his life in Spain, his only ticket to travel to the past where he can reunite with his family. But the information is too scarce and there is confusion in the surname that complicates giving that needle in a haystack. From Belgium, little by little he begins to send letters to all the great Spanish town halls with the hope that one of them has his trail in the archives.
"When we put the two cousins together for the extraction of blood, with their more than 80 years, the emotion could be felt in the environment", recalls Puig
In Bilbao, two officials decide that they will help this man in his free time. And they will fight for years until they achieve their goal. "Some heroines who have shown incredible sensitivity," says Francis Moltó, Vicente's cousin. After many inquiries and trips, they decide to go to Barcelona, to investigate in the National Archive of Catalonia. There they find a golden thread to throw: the letter of an aunt, which could be Vicente's, who did all kinds of paperwork to get his exiled nephew. They had the name of that woman, but how to find her?
"Here we have another one of the spectacular caroms of this story," explains Puig, "because luckily the women of this family are very long-lived and it turns out that the Generalitat of Catalonia gives a medal to those who turn 100." She fulfilled them, received her medal, her name was published and that allowed her to find her family. "But unfortunately she had just died when they were located," says Puig sadly, because she could not find the peace to find her missing relative, like so many people in Spain.
Fortunately, this woman had a son, Valentín. "They looked like two drops of water," explains Moltó. "We organized a meeting in Barcelona that was very exciting, and when we saw Vicente and Valentín together there was no doubt: 'It's him, it's him,' we said, 'it's our family,' recalls Vicente, the 77-year-old cousin. Everything was in order: dates, names, ages, surnames, places ... But it had to be confirmed. "When we put the two cousins together, with their more than 80 years, at the UAB clinic for the extraction of blood, the emotion could be felt in the environment," Puig recalls. "They were safe at 90%, at 95% ... they sensed that they were cousins, but that gentleman in a white coat, I, is going to say yes or no, they were nervous," he says. "After two days we called them and said: 'Yes, you are cousins.' Genetically, his case was very easy: two samples of living people, with conditions so propitious to search the mitochondrial DNA for the signals that linked the two cousins with their maternal grandmother.
The Group of Genetic Identification of corpses recovered in the pits had to stop working due to lack of support
This mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively from mothers, so that each descendant has the same sequence as his mother. Therefore, any relative linked through the mothers can give exact proof of someone's identity. Statistically, it is a very reliable system, because it provides very specific genetic variables, almost for each family. The first to use this identification system in favor of human rights was the geneticist Mary-Claire King and Argentine scientists trying to identify the stolen grandchildren of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The prominence of this maternal DNA line enchanted the Argentine Grandmothers, who joked that this was the proof that God is a woman, who had put that clue in the DNA to help them.
One of those Argentine geneticists, Víctor Penchaszadeh, I remembered A few years ago his work with the Grandmothers managed to dignify a scientific field, that of genetics, which had played a particularly dark role in many episodes of history. But "a lot of institutional support is needed: in this aspect the mother country, Spain, has much to learn from Argentina," the scientist complained, in reference to the lack of resources for the recovery of victims of the Spanish Civil War. "When I found out that Spain had more than 100,000 disappeared in ditches I could not believe it. We decided to start volunteering, "recalls Puig, who in 2004 launched the UAB Genetic Identification Group together with Miró, to name and remember corpses recovered from mass graves." We managed to keep it almost at zero cost, but we had it to put on pause for lack of resources, "he laments, thanks to this group, Vicente recovered his memory, but the lack of state support prevents them from returning it to anyone else.