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Misak Chelebian: An Armenian Genocide survivor who fought Franco’s nationalists in Spain

In 1937, hundreds of volunteers from around the world travelled to Spain to fight Franco’s nationalists. Among them was Misak Chelebian. Eight decades later, his American grandson visited the battlefield where he died, The Independent reports. 

On Christmas Day 1936, Francisco Franco was wrestling with a problem. Before the decade was over, he would be Spain’s fascist dictator and would rule for almost four decades. But at that moment, as a mere army general at the centre of a plot to unseat the democratically elected Republican government, his troops were stuck outside Madrid, unable to take the Spanish capital – it was crucial if the coup d’état was to succeed.

At the same moment, 3,500 miles away, Misak Chelebian was boarding a steam ship in New York. It was bound for Le Havre on the north coast of France. From there, the 47-year-old American of Armenian descent would travel, along with hundreds of other anti-fascist Americans, to the Pyrenees, cross the border into Spain and after a few rudimentary instructions on how to use their simple rifles, would be pitted against Franco’s forces.

Six weeks later the fates  of these two men crossed in the valley of Jarama, in what became one of the bloodiest battles of the Spanish civil war. After weeks stuck without progress to the west of Madrid, Franco opened a new front to try to cut the capital’s Mediterranean supply lines. Misak, along with thousands of his comrades-in-arms, members of the volunteer International Brigade, had come to stop him.

“I would like to think that this is his final resting place,” says Barton “Rocky” Chelbian (the family surname was later simplified) indicating an olive grove on a hillside.

A retired businessman from New Jersey, Rocky knows little of what happened to his grandfather, but almost eight decades after the two-week battle, which cost the lives of as many as 45,000 men on both sides, he has come to Spain to find out more about Misak and, as he says, to pay his respects.

At 47, Misak was not a typical recruit. Born in what is now Turkey, he had escaped the Armenian genocide of 1915. He returned to Europe to fight in the French Foreign Legion during the First World War, and then again in the mid-1930s to fight Franco’s Nationalists, which were supported by Hitler’s Nazis.

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