Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Fateful Month

Sharp-eyed regular readers (ha!) will have noticed that two almost completely different avenues of investigation in this blog have dovetailed.

Last week, I wrote about how family history provides a way into the larger history of the times. That post revolved around a picture of my mother, Betty Smith (as she was then), sitting in Victoria Park with our future Aunt Ollie, holding a newspaper with part of the front page legible. “Besieged,” the headline reads. The picture was taken in May 1937.

Then yesterday, I revealed that it was on the 17th of May 1937 that grandpa Tom H Smith was sentenced to 60 days in jail for fraud.

Pure coincidence, of course. But what was it about May 1937?

A lot was happening in the world that month – in the Smith world and in the bigger world. I’ve been looking at newspapers from the period, trying to find the edition my mother was reading that day. I’ve now checked all the May editions of The Toronto Star, The Toronto Telegram, The London Free Press and The Globe & Mail. Or at least all the editions available on microfilm. No luck.

But I did do a keyword search of Globe & Mail front pages for that month, using the term, “besieged.” In all but one of the several passages in which the word appeared, it was used to describe the northern Spanish city of Bilbao, which was under attack by Nationalist (fascist) forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Civilians in Bilbao waiting for the bombs to fall Robert Capa, 1937

Outnumbered and outgunned the Basque Republican stronghold fell on June 19. Which led, at least indirectly, to the Nationalist victory in the war two years later and the establishment of Francisco Franco’s repressive right-wing dictatorship – a dictatorship that survived until 1975, causing untold misery for the Spanish people.

So I’m pretty sure the headline in the newspaper my mother was reading that day in the park referred to Bilbao. But much else was happening in May 1937 that we still remember.

King George VI was crowned – and just like the recent royal baby hoopla, the coronation dominated news pages, with day after day of adoring stories and photos. Wallis Simpson’s final divorce decree came through that month as well, paving the way for her to marry the abdicated Edward VIII.

The Hindenberg, the German airship, crashed and burned in New Jersey after an Atlantic crossing, killing 35. Herbert Morrison's recorded radio eyewitness report – “Oh, the humanity…!” – was the YouTube video of its day. It went viral, and it’s still viral 75 years later. (If you're one of the small number of adult North Americans who has not seen the famous newsreel footage and commentary, see below.)

And the British and French were warning Hitler in May of 1937 that he was perilously close to crossing a line that would lead to open conflict. The situation in Europe, the British prime minister said, was “grave.”

Meanwhile in little London, young Betty Smith met up with pal Ollie, now her sister-in-law, down for a visit from Timmins. On a brisk spring day, they strolled through Victoria Park with another friend, Jean Clement. Betty is clutching a newspaper. Her heart must have been heavy that day with the knowledge that her father was awaiting sentencing – or perhaps was already in jail. It was an event that would bring shame to the family and cast the Smiths onto harder times than they had ever known.

Betty Smith (right) with Jean Clement, Victoria Park, May 1937

Was there any common denominator in all of this?

Well, economics. If not for the depression, would our grandfather have been tempted to step outside the law? If not for the depression, would Europe have unravelled the way it did, providing an opening for the Francos and Mussolinis and Hitlers?

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