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Heroes who hid away for 30 years: Defeated by fascists in the Spanish Civil War, dozens of rebels hid in tiny spaces and behind fake walls... and it was decades before the 'moles' could resurface, as a new film reveals

Heroes who hid away for 30 years: Defeated by fascists in the Spanish Civil War, dozens of rebels hid in tiny spaces and behind fake walls... and it was decades before the 'moles' could resurface, as a new film reveals
  • Manuel Cortes, 64, hid in a cubbyhole for 30 years after the Spanish Civil War 
  • If the coast was clear, he would emerge to spend time with his wife and daughter
  • It was  30 years until  'moles' like Cortes were granted an amnesty
As the front door closed behind Manuel Cortes, there was a moment's hesitation. Then, as he took his first step onto the cobbled street, the 64-year-old lost his footing, his wife Juliana offering a steadying arm to prevent him falling.
Later he would reveal it was his shoes that had been the problem — he simply wasn't used to wearing them. Why? Because for 30 years, Cortes had worn only slippers.
The reason? He had spent those three decades hiding inside the family home.
For part of that time, he had been concealed in a secret cubbyhole barely big enough to stand up in. If the coast was clear, he would emerge to spend time with his wife and daughter.
Now the extraordinary experiences of the 'moles' have been turned into an award-winning film, The Endless Trench, available on Netflix
Now the extraordinary experiences of the 'moles' have been turned into an award-winning film, The Endless Trench, available on Netflix
But such was the risk of him being discovered, no one else from the village of which he had once been mayor had the slightest inkling he was there.
Even on the day his daughter married, he could not be present — only catching a glimpse of her in her dress through a keyhole before she left for the church.
Because, for Cortes, capture meant almost certain death.
Having fought for the losing side in the Spanish Civil War, he had fled back home in 1939 only to find himself effectively trapped.
In a conflict that had pitted neighbour against neighbour, the victors' revenge was swift and brutal as supporters of General Franco purged their Leftist opponents.
While some fled and joined guerrilla groups, dozens like Cortes went to ground in their own homes, fashioning hiding places behind false walls or in hastily dug tunnels.
After 32 years in the attic of his house Manuel Cortes finally came out of hiding . Pictured: April 17 1969
After 32 years in the attic of his house Manuel Cortes finally came out of hiding . Pictured: April 17 1969
And there they would stay, hoping and waiting for the day the regime crumbled and they could finally re-emerge.
But it would be 30 years before the men — subsequently nicknamed the 'moles' — would finally be granted an amnesty and be able to set foot in a very changed world.
Now their extraordinary experiences have been turned into an award-winning film, The Endless Trench.
Available on streaming service Netflix, the movie tells the story of a fictional mole who goes into hiding in his wife's house. Based on the true stories of the survivors, it documents the couple's terrifying ordeal as suspicious neighbours encourage the authorities to search their property over and over again.
The film also touches on the toll it took on those involved — not just the men, but the women who kept them alive. Their pain was both mental and physical. Cortes, for example, would tell how he extracted nine of his own teeth, dulling the pain with an aspirin and a glass of wine. Another wore only dresses, so his neighbours never saw men's clothing hanging out to dry. A third mole hid in a tiny space beneath the roof, where temperatures in winter fell to -20f (-29c).
'I have never gone out, I have not stood up, nor have I walked once during all this time . . . not a step, nor stand up, nothing,' Saturnino de Lucas later recalled. 'And that has been terrible.'
Protasio Montalvo (centre), shortly after emerging from his 'hiding place' where he hid from 1939 to 1977 ¿ 38 years in total
rotasio Montalvo (centre), shortly after emerging from his 'hiding place' where he hid from 1939 to 1977 — 38 years in total
Yet at a time when, across the world, people find themselves locked away in their own homes, terrified of what awaits them outside, the story of the Spanish moles offers great hope. After all, if they were able to hide for 30 years, their spirits unbroken, what do a few weeks or months really matter?
As the same De Lucas also observed: 'Human strength is incredible; no one is sure of it until they feel it. No one knows what we humans are capable of.'
The end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 may have heralded the close of a conflict that cost more than 500,000 lives but it did not mark the last of the bloodshed.
In the years that followed, the so-called White Terror continued, as tens of thousands of Franco's enemies were rounded up and executed.
Laws were passed allowing for the trial of those who had held positions of responsibility in the two years before the uprising — for breaking laws that did not exist at the time.
Even the dead could be fined and their widows forced to pay.
As one of Franco's generals observed: 'It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.'
Of course, as with all civil wars, atrocities and wrongs had been committed on both sides. This meant that grudges were held throughout society.
It was into that fevered reality that Cortes, a committed socialist, returned when he made his way back to the village of Mijas, in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean, 20 miles west of Malaga.
Warned by his wife that if he surrendered he would be shot, the 34-year-old went into hiding, spending the first two years in a concealed hole built into a wall.
'It was cramped; there was room to sit facing only one way, on a small child's chair my wife had put in,' he would recall.
'My shoulders touched the walls. I could stand up but I couldn't move about. From early morning until after midnight I was shut up in there. Only late at night, when the front doors were shut, was it possible to stretch my legs in the house.'
Eventually, Juliana, who initially supported him and daughter Maria selling eggs, moved house. But how to get her husband the 250 metres to the new property?
'It was my wife who had the idea that I should dress up as an old woman,' Cortes subsequently told author Ronald Fraser for the book In Hiding.
'She brought some of her mother's things and I got dressed in them as best I could with her help. Her idea was that she should walk ahead of me down the street, and if she met anyone she would stop and talk to them while I shuffled by as an old woman might.'
The plan worked, and in his new accommodation Cortes was more able to move around the house, albeit with a hiding place concealed beneath the stairs. He would spend days helping his wife run her business, peeking through the narrow crack of his curtained windows at the world outside and listening to radio broadcasts.
He played with his daughter and, subsequently, his grandchildren, all of whom were schooled into keeping silent about his presence. Other than being found, his major fear was falling ill. Once, when he had a fever, Juliana treated him with penicillin and learnt how to give him injections.
When he developed an agonising pain in his left side, he coached his daughter about the symptoms. When the doctor came, she simulated the pain and was prescribed the medicine to treat it.
On the day Cortes finally came out of hiding — he had been listening to the radio when he heard the amnesty announced — he travelled to Malaga to present himself to the Guardia Civil, where he was told: 'You are completely free'.
On returning home he received a hero's welcome from villagers.
For De Lucas, another former mayor, conditions were even harder. He went into hiding at the start of the war, emerging only 34 years later.
For the first three years, he was hidden by the local priest in a pine closet in a stable, too small to stand up or lie down in, before moving to his mother's house. He spent the next three decades hidden in a tiny space below the roof.
Equipped with a typewriter, he would pass the time helping his six brothers run their businesses, speaking to them through a hole in the bricks. His siblings all took a vow never to inform even their wives of his presence.
Even though De Lucas was aware of the amnesty in April 1969, he waited a full year before coming out. Like other 'moles', fear of the unknown made him stay hidden.
When he did emerge, he was suffering from bronchitis. Although he recovered from that, tragically he would die just eight months later from a heart attack.
Meanwhile, brothers Juan and Manuel Hidalgo had equally extraordinary tales to tell, returning to their respective homes in the town of Benaque, also near Malaga, six days apart in 1939.
Both would remain hidden for the next 28 years, never setting eyes on one another, despite being just 25 yards apart. Manuel helped his wife baking bread to sell. He spent the entire time in a single 'sunless' room which he never left, not even to eat. Above it he constructed a way of getting into the roof in an emergency.
His brother had a far worse time, starting when his wife, Ana, fell pregnant in 1941. Staying in bed to conceal her growing bump, she pretended to be ill before travelling to Malaga to give birth.
When she returned with her daughter, she claimed it was a relative's, whose wife had died. But as the girl grew older she began to so closely resemble Juan that word spread that he was the father and must be alive somewhere. Matters were made worse by the suspicions of one particular neighbour, who had a long-standing grudge against the family.
'He lived in the house across the way and every night he would wait on the balcony with the lights off and his guns ready,' Juan was to tell the authors of The Forgotten Men, a book about the moles.
'When he went away, his brothers kept watch. Rumour had it that they never got undressed, so they could always be ready to run out if I showed up at my door. They never imagined I was inside.'
With their encouragement, police started to search the house on a daily basis. While they didn't find Juan, who was concealed behind a false wall, they administered vicious beatings to his wife. Juan would say that the stress of watching on, helplessly, as she was beaten unconscious eventually led to him losing his sight.
When he emerged from 28 years of hiding, both he and his wife required hospital treatment.
'I was so heavy I couldn't walk,' recalled Manuel. 'White as chalk, too. The first few days I was out in the sun, all my skin peeled off. Eight months later we came back home. Everyone in the village came to see me. Everyone praised the women more than us — it was to their credit that we were still alive.'
Of all the moles, the one to spend the most time in hiding was Protasio Montalvo, who hid from 1939 to 1977 — 38 years in total.
When he returned to his home in the town of Cercedilla near Madrid, he initially hid in a rabbit hutch near his house, eating from a bucket and watching the movements of the animals to warn him of anyone approaching.
Later, he moved to the basement of the house in which his wife and children lived, but his presence was kept secret from his brothers, who died without ever knowing where he was.
'I saw the grandchildren through a hole in the door — only when they were little did I have them in my arms,' Montalvo would recall. Once they learned to speak, he felt it too risky for them to continue seeing him in case they accidentally gave him away.
Montalvo stayed hidden long after the amnesty was announced, even following the death of Franco in 1975. He argued that 'the same people who were then in power continued to occupy the main positions of the Administration', and feared neighbours might try to take reprisals against him.
Indeed, it was not until 1977 that he set foot on the street as a free citizen. The emergence of the 77-year-old made headlines around the world — Montalvo being the last of the 'moles' to reappear.
For him, and hundreds of men like him, the war was finally over.
'God grants both the injury and the cure,' observed fellow mole Juan Hidalgo. 'It's a story with a happy ending.'
Something on which tens of millions of people in Spain, and around the world, who are hiding in their own homes today will also be pinning their hopes.

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