Maria Luisa Olaizola Martinez came to Cambridge with her brother, Alvero, as part of the rescue of Basque children in 1937. She was eleven and her brother was nine. Their father had been killed in the Civil War and they were put in a children’s home in Bilbao. Their mother and sister stayed behind but later fled over the mountains to France.
Maria Luisa and her brother were part of the 29 niños who came to the Cambridge area. She recalls that they were very lucky to be in Cambridge as other children around the country were not so happy. Some, she says, ran away from their hostels.
They were housed at the vicarage in the village of Pampisford. Dons and undergraduates from the university had worked hard to restore the old building and create dormitories and classrooms. They stayed there for six months, but the children were then asked to leave. According to Maria Luisa, ‘We made too much noise. We were just playing together, but they (the villagers) said we were too loud.’
Image: Maria Luisa and her brother Alvaro (with unnamed girl) on the steps of Salisbury Villas, the hostel in Cambridge. Around 1938.
A new home was found for them at Salisbury Villas, on the corner of Station Road and Tennison Road. Maria Luisa says, ‘We were very happy there.’
There were sad times too. She recalls, ‘My brother, he was only nine, he used to cry at night – you know, for mother and all that; and I said, ‘We’ll see her soon.’ In reality, they didn‘t see their mother until after the Second World War.
How did the children keep occupied at the hostels? Maria Luisa says:
‘We had a routine – of study, and housework… and gymnastics… we had lessons, and then we had singing as well… And I used to dance. We used to give concerts, to get some money for the housekeeping, although we were children, and we always started off with this Basque dance… you don’t have castanets, you (snap) your fingers. And we danced a Basque dance called “El pañuelo…”, with a handkerchief. And we raised money, to support ourselves.’
After the closure of the Cambridge hostel in November 1939, Maria Luisa became a nanny to a local academic family, the Downies. It was a happy home and she remembers meeting a friend of the family, the scientist Alexander Fleming.
She also met her future husband at a student dance in Cambridge. It was love at first sight and soon they were celebrating their wedding at the Downie’s house.
They went to live near his work in Lancashire, were married for 35 years and had four children.
Looking back over her long life, Maria Luisa says, ‘I’m very proud of my story. I like to tell the story about where I’m from, and about the Habana… Time flies, doesn’t it?’