Basque Fact of the Week: Operations Kangaroo and Martha Brought Basques to Australia

Basques looking for opportunity traveled throughout the world. Many landed in the Americas but more than a few made their way to Australia, encourage by informal government initiatives between Spain and Australia to work in the sugarcane fields. But these lonely men desired companionship, so a second plan was hatched to bring “young, attractive, and single” women to the continent. Though it was a hard and lonely life, many of these Basques established a new community in this far-away land.

The only chances “Martas” would have to socialize was at mass. Photo from SBS.
  • Basques, typically from Hegoalde rather than Iparralde, first arrived in Australia in maybe the 1910s. There is a story that some merchants from Lekeitio abandoned their ship in Sydney to work in the lucrative sugarcane industry. However they first got there, some Basques saved and bought their own sugarcane properties. These Basques would sponsor family members to come to Australia and this was the nucleus of the Basque-Australian community.
  • However, after the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II, Basque immigration to Australia essentially stopped. The sugarcane industry took a hit as there was no new labor force arriving for the hard work of working in the fields. To help recruit new Basques to the area, people like Alberto Urberuaga were sent back to their native lands to find more Basques to come to Australia.
  • In informal agreements with the Spanish government (at the time, Australia and Spain didn’t have formal diplomatic ties), Basques and other Spanish citizens were recruited to Australia. The first group that came as part of Operation Kangaroo arrived in Brisbane, Queensland, aboard the SS Toscana, on August 9, 1958. In total, these “operations” – Emu, Eucalyptus, and Kangaroo – brought some 700 men from northern Spain to northern Queensland as sugarcane cutters.
  • There was then a concern that these men, mostly single, were lonely and even suicidal. Thus, a second agreement was arranged between Australia and Spain to bring single women. Plan Martha, or Operation Martha, brought 7 groups of women to Australia. The first contingent of 18 women arrived on March 10, 1960, on what became known as the “brides’ plane.” Between 1960 and 1963, about 300 (one source says 700) young women immigrated to Australia through Plan Martha. While told they were coming to work as domestic servants, the real goal was to balance the genders in the Basque/Spanish population – they were selected on the criteria of being “young, attractive and single.” The women were met by crowds of young Basque and Spanish men looking for a bride. Many felt they had been deceived, promised a land of opportunity but finding a backwards place where they couldn’t even go out for a coffee.
  • These women were at the heart of a local scandal. There were news reports that some of the women were working at a vineyard, picking grapes in the nude to escape the heat. While the story was debunked, it rose to enough of a story that the Consul-General for Spain in Australia was brought in to investigate.
  • From these beginnings in the sugarcane fields, Basques spread to other parts of Australia and other parts of the Australian economy. They formed clubs in both Melbourne and Sydney.

Primary sources: Douglass, William Anthony. Vascos en Australia. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; Plan Martha, Wikipedia; Operation Kangaroo, Wikipedia; ‘The flight of the brides’: 60 years on from the one-way ticket from Spain that changed Australian migration, SBS

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 153

Maite walked down the middle of the cobbled street, oblivious to everything around her. Miniature lightning bolts flashed from her eyes. Her fingers sparked with electricity but she barely felt it. Her heart was numb. She thought seeing Kepa die once would be the hardest thing she would ever experience. She was wrong.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

A French soldier burst onto the street in front of her, his rifle raised but shaking in his hands as he yelled. “Arrête, sorcière!” Maite kept walking as if the man – perhaps, maybe no more than a boy – wasn’t there. Sweat poured down his brow as he pulled the trigger. The musket made a loud bang and a cloud of smoke as the musket ball flew from the mouth of the rifle toward Maite’s chest. Maite kept walking as the ball approached, disintegrating as it hit the electric field surrounding her. And stil she kept walking. The young man screamed as he frantically tried to reload his musket, pulling out his powder horn. But Maite simply walked on by. The boy turned and yelled “Arrête!” one more time. Maite turned, the expression on her face never changing, as she touched the boy’s cheek. A shock of electricity poured from her arm through her finger and into the boy. His body fell to the ground, stunned. 

Garuna’s voice echoed in the back of her head. “The logical thing would be to eliminate him.”

Though Maite had just lost her lover, and she knew that killing this boy would be temporary at best, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She shook her head. “Ez,” she whispered, more to herself than to Garuna.

“And this is why you humans will eventually fade away,” said Garuna. “You do not possess the ability to do the necessary. You are illogical.”

Maite forgot about Garuna as more soldiers, maybe five, appeared in front of her. These did not hesitate to fire and soon the street was filled by the stench of burnt gunpowder. Musket balls whistled through the air at her only to explode as they hit her body, the electric aura protecting her from any damage. Still she walked, her steps taking her by the cowering soldiers. At least one dropped his musket and ran. Another attempted to grab her hand and screamed as an electrical pulse swept through his body. 

“They cannot harm me,” said Maite. “There is no need to kill them.”

“They will not stop until you do,” replied Garuna.

Maite shrugged. “And so?”

Maite continued on a rocky path that led up the side of Mount Urgull. She could hear a larger contingent of soldiers behind her, their excited chatter reaching her ears. Every once in a while a musket ball would fly through the air. Most missed by a wide margin, smashing into a tree or ricocheting off a rock, but once in a while one would be true. She could feel the pop against her skin, as it shattered against her, but she simply ignored them. They weren’t hitting hard enough to leave a bruise, much less do any real damage. 

Within minutes, she was at the top of the mount. In front of her stood walls of an old fort. She stopped to look around. In the bay, large ships rested, their canons eerily silent at the moment. She half expected swarms of British and Portuguese to flow from the ships but no one came. She saw the city, smoke swirling from some of the buildings that had been bombarded the night before. While much was different from the city she was about to call home, there was still much that was familiar. She almost smiled when she realized there was no McDonald’s nor Starbucks in sight. But, the musket balls that began pelting her body brought her back to the present. 

Maite turned to see maybe twenty or more soldiers at the edge of the clearing. They were shouting at her and each other in French. Muskets fired and balls burst as they neared her. She knelt down and touched the ground with her finger. A burst of electricity spread through the wet earth in an instant, finding the soldiers and snaking up their bodies, which convulsed briefly before falling to the ground. The few soldiers who had been in the back and standing on rock, and thus insulated against the shock, dropped their muskets and fled down the hill.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: Monica Bertagnolli, Granddaughter of Basque Immigrants, Nominated to Lead NIH

On May 15, 2023, President Joe Biden nominated Dr. Monica Bertagnolli to head the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world. Dr. Bertagnolli’s nomination is notable because, if confirmed, she would be only the second woman to lead the NIH. Dr. Bertagnolli is the granddaughter of Basque immigrants from Nafarroa Beherea who settled in rural Wyoming in the early 1900s to raise sheep and cattle.

Monica Bertagnolli, MD; photo from NIH.
  • Dr. Monica Bertagnolli was born in 1959 in Wyoming. Her parents, John and Elizabeth Bertagnolli, were of Italian and Basque descent, respectively. Dr. Bertagnolli was raised on a cattle ranch – the White Acorn Ranch – near Boulder, Wyoming. She got her undergraduate degree in biochemical engineering at Princeton University before studying medicine at the University of Utah.
  • Over her career, Dr. Bertagnolli has established herself as an expert in treating cancers. She is also an advocate for rural health care. In 1999, she joined the Harvard Medical School and became Chief of Surgical Oncology at the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute in 2007. She has received numerous recognitions for her work, including being elected to the National Academy of Medicine and appointed to the Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society.
  • In 2022, Dr. Bertagnolli was confirmed as Director of the National Cancer Institute. If she is confirmed as Director of the National Institutes of Health, she would be the second woman to lead that institution. She was the first woman to head the National Cancer Institute.
  • Her mother, Elizabeth Jean Bertagnolli (nee Carricaburu), was born on February 6, 1936, in Rock Springs, Wyoming. She obtained her nursing degree from St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing in Denver.
  • Her aunt, Josephine Marie Jauregui, was a strong advocate for the Basque culture. A fixture of the Alkartasuna Basque Club in Rock Springs, Josephine would share her knowledge of all things Basque to any who would listen.
  • Elizabeth’s parents were Gaston and Mary Carricaburu (nee Larre). Gaston was born in 1904 in Banka, Nafarroa Beherea in a region known as Kintoa, a pasture area that has been long disputed between France and Spain. Mary, born in 1910, was from nearby Baigorri, also in Nafarroa Beherea. Carricaburu – Karrikaburu in modern spelling – means something like crossroads or intersection.

Primary sources: Monica Bertagnolli, Wikipedia; U alum Monica Bertagnolli nominated as director of NIH, University of Utah; President Biden Announces Intent to Nominate Dr. Monica Bertagnolli as Director of the National Institutes of Health, The White House; Biden Nominates Rock Springs Native, Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, To Lead National Institutes of Health, Cowboy State Daily

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 152

“You know,” said Kepa as they made their way through the narrow streets that intertwined in the Parte Vieja of Donostia, “if we can just point our way to the zatia, that will make our lives a lot easier.”

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Maite nodded. “If we could have done this with Donnie, you wouldn’t have gotten shot.”

Remembering the bullet that had pierced his heart made Kepa wince. He had thought he was over it, but a pain shot through his chest and he stumbled. 

“What’s wrong?” asked Maite, obvious concern in her face as she put an arm around his shoulder to keep him from falling.

“Just the thought of Donnie’s bullet, it’s overwhelming at times.”

“It is for me too, and I wasn’t the one who got shot.”

“I’m ok,” said Kepa as he straightened up. “Let’s keep going. Where did you say the zatia is?”

Maite pointed. “That way.” Her finger was pointing to Urgull, the small hill that rose out of the end of the old part of town. In his time, this is where the San Telmo museum stood, at the base of Mount Urgull. He didn’t expect to find any tourists this time.

They rounded a corner and nearly bumped into a group of three French soldiers. Before the soldiers could respond, they turned and ran.

“Halt!” cried one of them as the other two began pursuit. The first one raised his musket and fired, a ball ricocheting off the walls next to him.

“Dammit!” cried Kepa as they turned another corner. He was beginning to lose his sense of direction, buried deep in the Parte Vieja without any visible landmark to guide him. He wasn’t sure which way he was going. It didn’t matter, as he could hear the heavy footsteps of the soldiers and their boots behind them.

“When we make it out of this bubble,” said Maite between panting breaths, “we need a proper vacation.”

Kepa nodded silently as he pulled her around another corner. He suddenly stopped. In front of them was a wall. 

“Dammit!” he cried, his face scrunched in frustration. He turned, putting Maite between himself and the wall as the French appeared in front of him. Two of them had their muskets raised while the third, a young man no older than Kepa with a dark mustache and a sickening smile, approached them.

“Why do you run?” he asked in broken Spanish.

“We want no trouble,” replied Kepa.

“Then you should not run,” said the soldier. His smile slowly transformed into a snarl. “No one is allowed out of doors.”

“We needed food,” said Kepa. 

“There is no food here,” snapped the soldier. “But there is plenty in the cells.” He waved to his comrades. “Take them.”

Kepa raised his hand, the light from his palm beginning to grow in brightness. Just as a flash burst forth, one of the soldiers yelled “Sorcière! Witch!” while the first one, the one that had been talked, raised his pistol and fired blindly into the light. 

Maite heard Kepa scream as the soldiers stumbled, their hands over their eyes. Kepa’s body slumped to the ground. Maite rushed to his side. “Not again,” she whispered over and over to herself as she saw the bright red stain spread across Kepa’s shirt.

Tears fell across her face as she looked down at him. “Why are you always trying to play the hero?” she said between her sobs. 

Kepa coughed, his spittle bright red. “I just want to keep you safe,” was all he could muster.

His eyes glanced over at the soldiers, who were slowly recovering from the light.

“You need to go,” he said. “Find the zatia, and get us home.”

Maite was about to protest leaving him there but she just nodded. She got up and calmly walked up to the still dazed soldiers. The first one took an elbow in the nose. His hands covered his face as blood gushed down his front as he collapsed to the ground. Maite hit the second one hard in his throat with the side of her hand, knocking the air out of him. She then grabbed his head and threw it down as she slammed her knee up. The soldier crumpled to the ground. Maite approached the third soldier, who had dropped his musket and was fumbling to find his pistol. His face was ashen. “Sorcière!” he repeated. “Stay away!” he cried. 

He backed against the wall, his hands too sweaty to grab his gun. Maite leaned in, her eyes flashing with the light of the zatia. “Boo,” she whispered. The soldier fainted in a pool of his own urine. Maite turned to look back at Kepa who lay lifeless at the end of the alley, then walked back into the street, light crackling at her fingertips.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: Zegama and the Golden Trail World Series

Happy Mother’s Day (at least in the United States)! Today marks the 22nd edition of the Zegama-Aizkorri Mendi Maratoia – the Mountain Marathon of Zegama-Aizkorri. Part of the Golden Trail World Series, this marathon takes runners through the mountains surrounding the town of Zegama – in particular, passing over the Aizkorri massif. Noted for the steep ascents and the throngs of spectators, it is the first race in this year’s World Series.

Photo by Toño Miranda, found on trailrunner.
  • Zegama is an ancient town in Gipuzkoa, not far from the town of Idiazabal which is famous for its cheese. The origins of Zegama have been lost to time – there is no founding document on record – but its first mention in the historical record occurred in 1384. One of the Caminos de Santiago passes through the town. Tomas Zumalakarregi Imatz, a Carlist leader in the First Carlist War who is sometimes credited with inventing Spanish tortilla, died in Zegama after being wounded in the siege of Bilbao.
  • Aizkorri, also known as Aitzgorri, is the highest mountain in Gipuzkoa and, indeed, in the Basque Autonomous Community. It reaches a height of 1551 meters, or 5008 feet – almost a mile. Aizkorri means bare stone in Euskara. In 2006, the region was declared a national park. The Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park is the second largest in the Basque Country.
  • The Zegama-Aizkorri Mendi Maratoia – known as a skymarathon as runners climb to altitudes of more than 6000 feet – began in 2002. Part of the Golden Trail World Series, the course has an accumulated height gain of nearly 18,000 feet (according to the race’s website). Other races in the series include Pikes Peak Ascent in Colorado and the Mammoth 26K in California.
  • The Zegama-Aizkorri race is notable for the enthusiasm of the spectators. Nearly 1/3 of the 1,500 inhabitants of Zegama become involved in the race, with some 15,000 spectators cheering the runners on along the course. Many of these congregate at Santi Spiritu, the highest point of the race in which, over 1.4 miles, the runners climb 1,700 feet.
  • The current course record holders are (men) Kilian Jornet of Spain with a time of 3:36:40 and (women) Nienke Brinkman of the Netherlands with a time of 4:16:43, both set last year. No one from the United States has yet won the Zegama-Aizkorri marathon.

Primary sources: Zegama-Aizkorri Mendi Maratoia; The 2023 Golden Trail World Series Kicks Off This Week. First up? Zegama, trailrunner

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 151

While Kepa half expected a group of thugs or French soldiers to be waiting for them, the building was abandoned, just as Josean had promised. He reached down to help Maite up before really surveying the room. They seemed to have found themselves in a small apartment, which at one time must have been quite elegant but now had fallen to ruin. It wasn’t so much that the decor had been destroyed, it simply had been neglected for a very long time. The furniture still stood where the past owners had placed it, but now it was covered in dirt and cobwebs. Paintings of regal figures stared down at them through their grime covered surfaces. Kepa couldn’t help but feel judged by those icy stares. Light spilled in from high windows that prevented passersby from seeing inside but fully illuminated the room.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

As he looked around, Kepa noticed some faint footprints on the dusty floor. 

“It’s been a while since anyone used this place,” he remarked.

Maite nodded. “I guess hardly anyone knows about this place.”

Kepa and Maite continued to explore. In addition to the living space they had crawled in, the apartment had a small bedroom and dining area, but little else. 

“I guess if it were too big, people would have noticed,” said Kepa.

“Hard to hide a mansion in the middle of town,” replied Maite with a smile. 

Kepa pulled a blanket that covered one of the chairs, waiving to Maite to sit while he brushed the dust off another before collapsing himself.

“Why does it seem that each of these bubbles becomes increasingly more challenging?” he asked with a sigh.

Maite shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe we just have bad luck.”

“Do you think Marina is here?”

“Ez dakit. But I’m not sure I want to run into her if she is.”

Kepa nodded absently. “Agreed. She is starting to become a wild card herself.” He futily looked around the room as if hoping to find the zatia right in front of him. Dejected, he slumped deeper into his chair. “What now? How do we find this stupid thing?”

Maite heard the familiar voice rumble in the back of her head. “Do the zatia not have affinity to one another?” asked Garuna, almost rhetorically.

Maite sat up, suddenly alert. “Garuna just gave me an idea…”

“I almost forgot we had a third wheel,” interjected Kepa.

Maite ignored him. “Hold out your hand,” she continued, “like this.” She held out her hand in front of her, palm up. Kepa reluctantly mimicked her.

“Now think about the zatia.”

Kepa closed his eyes, focused his thoughts on the zatia. For a moment, nothing happened. He thought he felt a slight tug when he was interrupted by Maite.

“There!” she exclaimed. 

Kepa opened his eyes. Maite had stood and her arm was pointing in the direction Kepa had felt the tug. Maite turned to Kepa, her eyes wide with excitement.

“I think we know where to go.”

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Matxinadas, the Peasant Revolts

The 1800s was a time of great upheaval in the Basque Country, embodied by the Carlist Wars. These grew out of the widening gap between the rich and powerful and the common people, developing over centuries, who were being lost in the globalization and unification of markets. Prices soared as speculators inserted themselves in markets. Traditional Basque privileges were abolished or curtailed as the Crown tried to homogenize the country. Rural regions saw themselves subservient to the richer cities. All of these led to an unstable situation that repeatedly broke into riots across Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa.

Plaque in memory of the executed leaders of the Salt Matxinada of 1634. Image from Wikipedia.
  • The word matxinada (machinada in Spanish) comes from machín, a local name for Saint Martin by which iron workers were known. It eventually became associated with conflict, more specifically riots that the working and peasant classes held against the ruling class. Many factors contributed to the general dissatisfaction that led to these riots, but at the heart was the worsening conditions of the peasantry as Spain tried to centralize and unify. Consumers lost power of supply and demand, seized instead by speculators. This led to harsh conditions, high food prices, and discontentment.
  • There were five major matxinadas in the Basque Country. The first, the Salt Matxinada, took place between 1631 and 1634 in Bizkaia. It arose from several factors, including the disenfranchisement of the common people in the political process and the imposition by Castilla that all subjects, including those in the Basque Country, had to help defend the empire. This included new taxes. At a time when harvests were poor, this led to higher food prices. The government imposed even more taxes on and prohibitions in the buying and selling of salt, a critical commodity used throughout the economy. In October, 1632, the people revolted, killing at least one representative of the government. Amongst the many demands of the revolters was the abolishment of the prohibition of the sale of salt, which the Crown ultimately did in April, 1634.
  • The Customs Matxinada happened in 1718. In 1717, in an effort to regain the territories it had lost in the Treaty of Utrecht, the Bourbons tried to impose reforms to the tax system and moving customs offices to the coast. Before this, products produced or imported into the Basque provinces were free of most taxes, until they were introduced into Castilla. The reforms of 1717 tried to change this. Again, these changes harmed consumers and threatened the political system of the region. In March, 1718, when the customs moved, the people, primarily in Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, revolted. A tax collector was killed and multiple customs boats were burned. Several government leaders, including the mayor of Bilbo, were also killed. The more powerful raised their own army against the revolters and called on the king to intervene. The whole situation led to a split in Basque society about the role of the fueros, as the merchant class benefited from the changes in customs.
  • 1755 saw the Meat Matxinada. Economic speculation was rampant, including in meat. Beef exports from Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa to other provinces in Spain were particularly important to the economy. Gipuzkoa tried to regulate the selling of beef to reduce speculation, but the peasants that actually raised the animals benefited from the practice. The government of Gipuzkoa went so far as to ban the export of beef and force the animal owners to sell in local markets. Other restrictions were also put in place, all of which harmed the producer. Towns began to rise up, but the rulers quickly responded with a militia that met little resistance, quelling the matxinada. However, nothing was resolved.
  • Cereals were next. In 1766, the Cereal Matxinada hit Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. A number of factors led to these riots, but one important factor was the reduced ownership of land – land wealth was concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Most peasants had become tenants, without land of their own. Further, some 80% of their income went to taxes and rent. Cereal prices increased due to poor harvests, inflation and speculation, and changes in tax code. In particular, speculation was rampant after a decree in 1765 that abolished taxes on cereals. Speculation hurt consumers, leading to famine. The matxinada was sparked by the exportation of cereals by speculators in Gipuzkoa to Nafarroa, Asturias, and Galicia. Starting in Gipuzkoa, it spread to Bizkaia. Amongst the demands were price controls in cereals and meats, the use of communal lands, and the participation of common people in government. While no one was killed in the riots, there was significant property damage. However, having learned from previous matxinadas, the ruling class quickly quelled this one as well and in the end few of the demands were enacted.
  • The last great matxinada was the Zamacolada of 1804, in Bizkaia. The conflict between the ruling class and the common people was ever deepening. In an effort to weaken the power of Bilbo, multiple proposals to build a competing port were advanced, including one by Simón Bernardo de Zamacola. At the same time, the rulers of Bilbo schemed to harm the new project. Eventually, several towns rioted, capturing government officials and forcing them to hold new meetings.

Primary sources: Aragón Ruano, Álvaro. Matxinadas. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; Machinada, Wikipedia

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 150

150 parts! Not sure who might still be following this, but if you are, thank you for following me on this journey. I stll have no idea where it is going, but I’m enjoying writing it and developing these characters and world, and I hope you are enjoying reading it!

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Kepa led the way, the glow from his hand breaking the suffocating darkness. Maite never liked enclosed spaces, but this one, in a foreign time with danger all around, seemed particularly oppressive. She squeezed the key tightly in her hand causing the teeth to bite into her palm, distracting her from the unease that was building inside her.

She imagined the city above them, the buildings and streets that connected the old part of Donostia together, like the stitching of a blanket. She didn’t know the city well enough to guess what might be above, and, she admitted, she had no idea if the city was even the same in her time as it was now. The way that the ships were blasting the walls with their cannons, she expected much of it would be destroyed in the coming days.

Ubruptly, Kepa stopped. Maite peered over his shoulder. There was a wall in front of them. To the side was another rickety old ladder, this one in much worse condition than the one at Josean’s sacristy. Maite reached out with her hand and could see the rust flakes fall away as she touched them.

Kepa grabbed a rung and started to pull himself out when Maite put her hand on his shoulder, pulling him back. “We don’t know what is up there,” she said in a whisper.

“No, but we know what is down here – nothing – and we can’t stay here forever.”

Maite sighed, knowing Kepa was right, but still fearful of what they might find on the other side.

“Kontuz,” she said.

Kepa smiled. “Beti.”

Kepa climbed up the ladder, flakes of rust falling as he did. Maite stepped back so they wouldn’t fall into her eyes. A few minutes later, Kepa reached the ceiling of the tunnel where he found a latch, fastened shut with a large lock. He looked down at Maite. 

“The key?”

Maite nodded and tossed it up. It almost seemed to hang in the air as Kepa reached out, the bright light emanating from his hand reflecting against the dull metal of the key as it spun, splashing light on the walls and down the tunnel. He grabbed it midair and inserted it into the lock, which made a satisfying click as he turned the key. He looked back down at Maite who blew him a kiss. Returning his attention to the latch, he pushed it up and open. Light spilled down and into the tunnel, momentarily blinding him.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: Maritxu Anatol Arístegui of the Comet Line

The Basque Country, straddling the border of France and Spain, played a key role during World War II, serving as a conduit for Allied prisoners and Jewish refugees to escape the horrors of the war. Numerous Basques played an important part in helping those people cross the border. In the past, I’ve highlighted Florentino Goikoetxea, Kattalin Agirre, and Ana María Bidegaray. Today, it is Maritxu Anatol Arístegui’s turn.

Maritxu Anatol, along with several of her collaborators of the Comet Line. Photo found on Deia.
  • María “Maritxu” Anatol Arístegui was born in Irun (Gizpukoa) on January 24, 1909 to Anatolio Anatol Choperena, of Béhobie, in Lapurdi, and Concepción Aristegui Vidaurre, of Irun. As a result, Anatol had dual Spanish-French citizenship. As a young woman, her independent spirit shone through, as she asked to work in her family’s custom agency, a job that was not viewed as suitable for women.
  • When the Spanish Civil War broke out, her family moved to the other side of the Bidasoa river, to a house called Kontxesinea, in the town of Béhobie. But it was only a few years later, in 1940, when the Germans confiscated part of Kontxesinea so that they could house their soldiers there. The French Resistance, specifically the Comet Line, approached her, asking her to gather information and to transport refugees, which she immediately accepted.
  • Being part of the Comet Line aligned nicely with her adventurous spirit. “I felt sorry for those boys, the pilots, and I saw that I could help them. That’s why I started working in the Comet Line,” she said. “If I were born again, I would do the same. I would get back into the Resistance. I like risk, adventure and the comfortable life annoys me, the soft life.”
  • Her team consisted of at least three other Basques: Martín Hurtado de Saracho, Ambrosio San Vicente, and Alejandro Elizalde Irabarren. Anatol said that Florentino Goicoechea was also part of her team. Elizalde was the one that recruited Anatol to the Comet Line.
  • She and her team helped downed airmen reach safety, providing them with supplies. She would travel to Paris to pick them up and take them by night train, false documents in hand, first to Ambrosio San Vicente’s place in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and then to Oiartzun. She estimated that, in total she helped 39 Jews and 113 airmen cross the border into Spain.
  • However, the Comet Line for which she worked became distrustful of the seemingly close relationship she and her team had with the Germans and the local officials. She tried to argue that these relationships were necessary to get information, but eventually they cut her off.
  • On July 13, 1943, she and her team were arrested by the Gestapo. Three of them were deported to Germany, though they survived the experience and ultimately returned home. Anatol herself was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Baiona and the prison in Biarritz, but her calm and steely demeanor during her interrogation led to her release.
  • For her efforts, she received a communication signed by General Eisenhower, on behalf of the President of the United States, and the Medal of Freedom from both the United States and the United Kingdom, and the Legion of Honor, amongst other recognitions.
  • After the war, she returned to Irún. In 1948, she married Eugenio Angoso. After his death, she became the head of the Marichu Anatol Customs Agency. Maritxu died on August 27, 1981. The street she lived on was renamed in 2014 after her.

Primary sources: Rodríguez Álvarez, Mikel. Anatol Arístegui, Maritxu. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; La marcha de la Red Comète rinde homenaje a Maritxu Anatol, El Diaro Vasco; Maritxu Anatol, el último eslabón de la Red Comète, Deia; Maritxu Anatol, así fue la “Pimpinela Escarlata” Vasca

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 149

Maite grabbed the hand offered her as she climbed up the ladder back into the sacristy. As she stepped over the fake trunk’s side, she noticed the bruise beginning to form on Josean’s cheek. “What happened?” she asked in alarm.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

Kepa was making his way out as Josean replied. “The French soldiers. They had seen the broken window and were looking for fugitives. I told them some orphans had broken in looking for food. They didn’t believe me, at least not at first. So, they roughed me up a bit while searching the sacristy.”

“Eskerrik asko,” said Kepa. “If they had found us…”

“That’s why we have these secret spots,” interrupted Josean waving his hand at the trunk.

Maite turned to Kepa. “What now? We can’t stay here and put Aita in jeopardy like this.”

Josean shook his head. “Don’t worry about me. I know how to take care of myself. You don’t reach my age without a bit of luck and even more craftiness.”

“Still,” began Maite.

Kepa nodded. “We need to find the zatia.”

“Zer?” asked Josean. “What is a zatia?”

Kepa looked over at Maite. “Just something we lost. Something very important to us.”

“I can help,” replied Josean. “What does it look like?”

“It is… hard to described,” said Kepa. 

“Well, where did you lose it?”

“In the city somewhere,” replied Maite.

Josean chuckled. “You would think the French are interrogating you, you are so vague with your answers. Nevermind. You don’t need to tell me and I won’t press you any further.” His hand fished around in the depths of his pocket and pulled out a key. He handed it to Maite. “Take this. The tunnel under the trunk leads away from the church and to an abandoned house in the old part of town. This key opens the gate on the other side. You can come and go as you need to.”

Maite took the key, warm from absorbing the heat from Josean’s hand. She leaned over and gave him a small peck on his undamaged cheek. “Eskerrik asko,” she said in a low voice.

“Ba, ez horregatik,” replied Josean, his cheeks blushing. “All I know is, if the French are looking for you, I want to be sure they don’t find you.”

Josean handed Kepa a bundle wrapped up in a plain white cloth. “It isn’t much, but here is some food.”

Kepa took the bundle and nodded before disappearing back down the darkness underneath the trunk.

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