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Elizabeth Carney, a Charles City student studying at the Minneapolis School of Art in the spring of 1935, must have been delighted when she learned the school had awarded her a scholarship to study abroad for a year in Spain. It would give her an opportunity to travel throughout Europe, studying the old master artists. It was a dream come true for a painter like Carney. But dangerous political events intervened, leading to a time of uncertainty for Carney and fellow Iowans as they became trapped in a rebel-held city.
Iowa History, a weekly column, appears at IowaWatch on Saturdays.
Cheryl Mullenbach is the author of non-fiction books for young people. Her work has been recognized by International Literacy Association, American Library Association, National Council for Social Studies, and FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
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In the summer of 1936 civil war broke out in Spain, with rebel forces attempting to overthrow the government. Carney, along with other Americans, including two Cedar Rapids teachers, Adah Seely and Rachel Witwer, found themselves in the midst of turmoil and unable to leave the country. Although the young women were not able to contact their families by phone or cable, the U.S. State Department reported on August 6 that the three women were “well and safe,” according to the Waterloo Courier. The American consul reported that the Iowans were in the city of Granada, and plans were underway to send a plane to rescue them.
Holed up in the Washington Irving Hotel for nearly a month, the Americans watched as chaos reigned in the streets. “…the sound of shooting continued daily and we were unable to go out of the hotel,” Witwer recounted. At one point, a bomb struck the hotel courtyard and another hit an elevator shaft in the hotel. The staff had fled when the fighting began, but the manager and his family provided meals for the hotel guests.
Finally a plane arrived and evacuated 18 Americans to the city of Seville. From there, they took a bus to the port city Cadiz, where they boarded the U.S. navy gunboat Oklahoma to Tangier, Morocco. Carney traveled by boat to Liverpool, England, hoping to book passage as soon as possible to the United States. Within a week she had a ticket for New York on the Acquitania.
Although she wasn’t able to paint while in Granada because of the bombings, Carney had completed over 100 paintings during her year-and-a-half-long study in Europe. She had been forced to leave the paintings as she was not allowed to carry any baggage as she escaped. She had asked a wealthy acquaintance who owned a private plane to take her work to France for safe keeping. She was thrilled to learn that he had fulfilled her wishes, and the paintings would accompany her on the Acquitania. Carney arrived in New York on September 1.
Witwer and Seely also had made their way to Tangier, where Witwer said, “We are very glad to be back on quiet, safe soil after twenty-three days of incessant worry and lack of communications.” But the pair weren’t about to let a little civil war spoil their summer vacation. They planned to stay in Morocco and continue traveling until it was time to return to their teaching jobs in Cedar Rapids.
“We are sailing for New York tonight,” Witwer told a news reporter on August 15, “but notwithstanding our experience we propose to return to Spain.”
- “American Girls Tell of Rescue From Granada,” Baltimore Sun, Aug. 15, 1936.
- “Charles City Woman Stranded in War Torn City of Granada Reported Safe,” Courier (Waterloo, IA), Aug. 6, 1936.
- “Charles Cityan Given Year’s Study Abroad,” Globe Gazette (Mason City, IA), May 30, 1935.
- “Experiences in Spain Are Told,” Globe Gazette, Sept. 9, 1936.
- “Flier Rescues 4 U.S. Women,” Daily News (NY), Aug. 12, 1936.
- “Iowa Women War Refugees at Tangier,” Courier (Waterloo, IA), Aug. 14, 1936.
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