Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Mass Grave at Monte Costajan

A photo of Moises and Anacleta Rojo with their children,
but Moises's face was pasted in after the Spanish Civil War

The Church of St. Nicolas de Bari,
in the village of Sinovas, Burgos, Spain

A photo of the mass grave found at Monte Costajan,
during excavations near Aranda de Duero

Sometimes modern history can be more interesting than something that happened in the 1600s. And events of the 20th century certainly have more impact on us than the doings of our Mayflower forebears. However, recent history can be painful, and even hard to write about.

My father-in-law was born in Spain, and grew up during the Spanish Civil War. Any civil war is a horrible experience. If you watched Ken Burns’ PBS special, you know the emotions of hearing about brother versus brother, cousin versus cousin, neighbor versus neighbor. This war in Spain was no different, and when my father-in-law was only about four or five years old, in 1936, his father was arrested along with a large group of other men from the area and imprisoned in the wine cellars beneath the town of Aranda de Duero, in Burgos.

When I was first married, we took a trip to Aranda to visit relatives, and it was my first trip to Spain. No one mentioned the civil war, and the extended family took me on a tour of the wine cellars. The farmers in the area, including family members, store the wine beneath the city, and it is a popular tourist attraction. I remember that I barely spoke Spanish, but after a few tastes of wine I was chatting up the grandmother, the aunties and all the cousins! No one seemed to be bothered by the fact that similar wine cellars had been used as prisons during a recent war.

Even on subsequent trips to Spain, and visits with my father-in-law here in New Hampshire, no one spoke about Moises Rojo, the farmer captured during the Spanish Civil War. Over 25 years of marriage, I’ve learned small facts: he was executed and buried in a mass grave, or his wife was still placing flowers in the forest at Monte Costajan where the execution was supposed to take place, or that his son was given to the care of the Jesuit fathers- who took him to South America for an education away from the Civil War. I didn’t even know that Moises’s wife had remarried until we attended her funeral in Madrid in 1998, and she was buried next to the second husband at the Almudena Cemetery.

Later, on trips years later, I was able to trace the Rojo Family back to the mid 1700s with help from parish records from the 11th century church in the village of Sinovas, outside of Aranda de Duero. Cousins would tell us the story about the mass executions during the war, and my husband would translate these for me. Then, about five years ago, when I Googled the words “Monte Costajan” images of the recently uncovered graves appeared on my computer monitor.

81 bodies were found, and the researchers at the University of Burgos had catalogued each one with surprising detail. They measured the approximate height of each man, listed the approximate age, and described the clothing, coins and buttons. Most were wearing the rubber soled cloth shoes still worn by farmers in the area, and were between 20 and 35 years old, except for one boy about 16 years old. Executed by Francists, the head wounds were detailed and the positions of the bodies look, well, like something out of the archeological excavations of an ancient Roman war zone. It’s hard to remember that these men were the fathers and grandfathers of living people.

I’ve heard stories about the silence surrounding this execution. About weddings taking place now and how the old women in the village won’t tell the bride and groom that their grandfathers were on opposite sides of this event. About families that don’t want to help identify the bodies. About families who have moved away from Aranda, away from Burgos, or away from Spain to escape the memories.

As a genealogist I found it hard to understand the silence. I’m hungry for any detail surrounding my family history. However, many decades, many centuries separate me from the uglier details of my family tree. I grew up in the Salem, Massachusetts area, and no relatives ever mentioned the witch trials in our background, even though we are descended of several victims, a judge, a jailor, and many witnesses for and against the accused. I wondered why grandchildren of the witchcraft trial victims would marry grandchildren of those who accused them. Now I realize that this same shameful silence probably existed in Massachusetts in the decades after the witch hysteria. Is this an endless cycle, repeated through the years, and around the world?

In the 1990s someone proposed a plaque for the New Hampshire Statehouse, memorializing the Americans who fought in the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade" during the Spanish Civil War. The idea was squelched by those who didn't want to remember that some US citizens were on the Socialist side of the war. The plaque was never installed, and most New Hampshire citizens will never know about our part in in this war in Spain. But my father-in-law remembers being a poor little orphan boy in Spain, getting food from American and Italian foreign soldiers. He did pass along this small part of his story....

The Rojo Family Tree:

Gen. 1. (the records probably go further back in Sinovas, but this is my starting point, many of the previous records disappeared during the Napoleonic Wars) Manuel Rojo b. about 1750 m. Juanna Arauzo in Sinovas, Burgos, Spain.

Gen. 2. Tomas Rojo b. 7 Mar 1783 in Sinovas; married to Narcisa Palomo, daughter of Blas Palomo and Maria Gomez

Gen. 3. Manuel Rojo, b. 27 May 1818 in Sinovas; married on 7 Oct 1844 in Sinovas to Andrea Penacoba, daughter of Eusebio Penacoba and Candida Alameda

Gen. 4. Higinio Rojo b. bef 19 Aug. 1860 in Sinovas; married on 27 Nov. 1884 in Sinovas to Brigida Torres, daughter of Gregorio Torres and Justa Pena

Gen. 5. Moises Rojo, b. 25 Nov. 1902 in Sinovas, executed in 1936 at Monte Costaj├ín, near Aranda de Duero, Burgos, Spain; married to Anacleta Benito in Quemada, Burgos, Spain. Anacleta was the daughter of Gregorio Benito and Jacoba Alvaro, b. on 26 Apr. 1909 in Quemada, d. 30 Dec. 1998 in Aranda de Duero. Moises and Anacleta were my husband’s grandparents.

UPDATE  2013  - Please read about the reburial of the bodies found at Monte Costajan

Copyright 2009, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Awesome Coverage. I love connecting history to the family I am studying and you do a wonderful job of it.
    Thanks for the post.

  2. Heather, this is such an amazing piece. I'm so glad I found it, and more important, I'm glad you wrote it. Thank you.

  3. Wonderful writing; hope to hear more. When will we ever learn...?

  4. Thank you for writing a very unusual history and family story, Heather. Excellent story-telling, with a thoughtful heartfelt theme.