Historia de Palma

The past uncovered

Under the streets of Palma, dark, damp and silent, the air raid shelters that protected the population from bombs during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) hold stories worth telling.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936, Spain began writing the saddest chapters of its recent history. Palma was no exception, and during the first months of the conflict in particular, the city was brutally bombed from the sky. 

“I remember I was on my way back from my grandfather’s house when the siren went off. I flung down the bike and ran down into the shelter. After you went down the steps there was a zigzagged bend, because they said that if a bomb fell, it would help mitigate the blast of shrapnel. There weren’t any big rooms, it was all passages with benches on either side. People would sit down and wait. I feel as though I can see it all right now.” Now aged 86, Paco Segura (Palma, 1933) evokes the clayey smell of the shelter that was across the road from his house. 

The first explosions impelled the inhabitants of Palma to react to the danger. The bombings became the number one topic of conversation. Many residents of Palma embarked on an exodus from the city to the countryside. It was recommended that you hide in the space under the stairs, but this was no guarantee that your life would be spared. With no time to lose, the authorities were forced to construct a network of air raid shelters in streets and squares to protect the population from the attacks. 

Local residents joined in with the construction of these shelters, digging and bringing out baskets of earth using a pulley, whilst the youngsters, like Paco, were charged with emptying them and bringing them back. 

With their half barrel vaulted ceilings, the narrower the shelters were, the safer they were. To build them, in addition to the elbow grease of the locals, the aid of most of the city’s architects and engineers was enlisted. 

Francisca, Francisca, the planes, the planes are coming, come on, let’s run to the shelter!”... Francisca Seguí (Palma, 1929) was in her sewing class when her mother appeared, shouting, a shaken look on her face. That time it was just an inoffensive flock of seagulls flying in the sky, and not a squadron of aircraft, tells Francisca, smiling now as she recalls what happened. But often it was not a false alarm. Francisca was seven years old back then, and like Paco, she has not forgotten the steps that led down to the air raid shelter located between the corner her house was on and the church a little further up the road, in the neighbourhood of El Terreno.

The importance of remembering

After the war was over, the more than 700 public and private shelters dotted between houses, and in the streets and squares of the city, gradually fell into oblivion. Until half a century later, as a result of some building work being carried out on a family business, Tomeu Fiol (Palma, 1970) discovered what looked like a mysterious hole. 

A mysterious hole which, after letting the City Council know, ended up being a series of tunnels and shelters. In this way, and without a premeditated search, Tomeu has devoted much of his life to finding, unearthing and documenting the air raid shelters of Palma. “I was convinced that the majority of the public shelters still existed underground, invisible and inaccessible, under the streets we walk on every day.”  

To gain access to some of these shelters, for several years Tomeu looked out for road works. Thanks to his job as an engineer with a telecommunications firm, he was in contact with companies that were constantly digging up the subsoil of the city in order to install new cables. And he used his ingenuity to enter the old air raid shelters and photograph them. “The first time I went into one, my heart was beating so fast I didn’t know if I would be able to make it to the end of the passage, it seemed incredibly long to me,” he says.

Twenty-seven years after embarking on his own particular crusade, Tomeu Fiol left a record of his discoveries in the book Els refugis antiearis de Palma i la defensa passiva a Mallorca durant la Guerra Civil (1936-1939) (“The Air Raid Shelters of Palma and Passive Defence in Mallorca during the Civil War”), published by Lleonard Muntaner. His goal is to demand the preservation and maintenance of these vestiges before they disappear for good.

The generation of Paco and Francisca are likely the last who will be able to remember “that dark, tragic part of our history.” Opening up some of the air raid shelters to the public would be a way of making a conscious effort to recover, enhance and treat the past with special respect. “A time when, in spite of the war, the bombs, the sirens and the fear we managed to overcome,” Tomeu concludes.

(IN PALMA wishes to thank the Consell de Mallorca for their collaboration with this report).

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