Gen. Francisco Franco is seen with his wife at a parade in 1943. For years… (Agence France-Presse )
Reporting from Madrid — Emilia Giron never forgot her second son. She wanted to name him Jesus, but he was taken from her in the hospital to be baptized and was never returned.
He was stolen while she was imprisoned by Gen. Francisco Franco's regime, in the early 1940s, after the country's bitter civil war.
"I felt that anguish all my life," Giron told a historian 60 years later. "I carried him for nine months and I never got to know him. Pain like that does not go away. I will take it with me into the next life."
Giron died at 95 in 2007, five years after telling her story to historian Ricard Vinyes, who was also jailed by the Franco dictatorship. She never found out what happened to Jesus.
Her baby boy was one of thousands of children who were reportedly separated from their parents in the 1940s during a little-known chapter of the repression that followed the 1936-'39 Spanish Civil War, a practice that would have a terrible echo decades later in Argentina's "dirty war."
Giron's ordeal and that of other parents were immortalized by the 2002 documentary "The Lost Children of Franco," which Vinyes helped make. And now activists are stepping up pressure on Spain's justice system to ease their search for the victims of the sinister campaign.
Under Franco's far-right regime, she was considered morally unfit to raise a child because she was the sister of an outlawed guerrilla leader.
Military psychologist Antonio Vallejo-Nagera built the ideological framework for the practice of taking children from their parents. He saw Marxism as a form of mental illness that was polluting the Hispanic race and advocated that children of leftists be removed and re-educated, a process he termed "separating the wheat from the chaff."
An unknown number of infants were taken from women's prisons. In addition, some Republican child evacuees were repatriated without their parents' consent and interned in Social Aid homes for schooling in religious and nationalist ideology. Many were adopted by right-wing families.
A law passed in 1941 allowed the state to change the surnames of children in their care. Original records were tampered with, destroyed or simply closed to information seekers, and the victims' past became virtually untraceable.
When Franco died in 1975, the abuses of his regime were swept under the carpet in the interest of a smooth transition to democracy. In a country still littered with unmarked mass graves, the past has remained untouchable and hugely contentious.
Unlike Argentina, Spain has had no truth commission or trials.
In 2008, Spanish Judge Balthazar Garzon catapulted the fate of the "lost children" into the public spotlight as part of a wider investigation of human rights abuses during Franco's 37-year dictatorship. But his efforts met with fierce resistance. Accused of violating the terms of Spain's amnesty law, Garzon has been indicted on charges of abusing his power.
Garzon's case has stalled, but it broke society's unwritten pact of silence and spurred more families to come forward.
In addition to the children taken after the civil war for Franco's brand of political cleansing, child thefts continued into the 1960s and beyond, hundreds of families say, targeting mothers who were vulnerable under the Franco regime.
The later cases also were politically tinged, but the families allege that it was crooked doctors and midwives who stole newborns from clinics, motivated by personal gain.
Blanca Guerrero is searching for her brother, Miguel Angel, who was born June 5, 1945.
Her mother, Agustina, was from a family of known Republicans but was not herself politically active. After being pressured to have her child at a Madrid clinic where she worked, she was told that her son was stillborn. But she always told her daughter that she had felt him moving. Agustina died in 2009.
The case of Guerrero's brother is among those taken up by Mar Soriano, who is heading a campaign to trace the babies stolen in the later years of the dictatorship. Soriano is looking for her sister, Beatriz, who was born at a clinic in Madrid on Jan. 3, 1964.
"The babies were taken from poor, unprotected people," Soriano said in a telephone interview. "It was rooted in an 'anything goes' culture of impunity. If you knew the right people, I believe you could just buy someone else's newborn."
Soriano recounted that her mother gave birth to a "chubby, beautiful and peaceful" girl. But she was discharged from the hospital without the child, who doctors claimed was ill.
Her mother continued bringing milk to the clinic until she was told that the baby had died of an ear infection. The clinic staff said, "We'll take care of everything," and told her that Beatriz had already been buried in a mass grave.
Soriano and fellow activists are putting pressure on Spain's justice system. They petitioned state prosecutor Javier Zaragoza at the High Court twice last month.
But so far Zaragoza has ruled out legal action. Instead, he has suggested that the Justice Ministry set up a DNA bank.
Seekers need the authorities' cooperation to access archives and open records that are essential to the search.
"This is not about what side you are on," Soriano said. "Families have always lived with this terrible doubt, with this sense of loss. This is about the search for the truth."
Healy is a special correspondent.