Homage to my father, who passed away from coronavirus
My father belonged to the generation who brought democracy back to Spain. Misplacing his faith in those advocating the virus was merely another strain of flu, he fell foul to its deadly charms, and passed away after only a few days of illness. While the most severe humanitarian and economic crisis in decades hounds Catalonia, this is his story.
Trobareu aquí la versió en català d’aquest article.
« A previous article depicts the seduction of the public by politicians and mainstream opinion, indicating that there was no need for extra precautions to be taken, assuring us that we were under no particular risk. Now, more than 9.000 covid-19 deaths later within a matter of weeks, it is time to start telling their stories »
During 1942, the year of my father’s birth, Nazi Germany was at the height of its military expansion, reaching from Libya to Norway, from France to Russia. Despite the fact that Spain was deemed to hold neutral status, Franco had sent a full Infantry Division to fight alongside the Nazis in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Volkhov and Krasny Bor, in Russia. Back then, it was not unusual to see nazi flags ostensibly displayed on the facades of public buildings in Barcelona. The very same Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, visited Montserrat Abbey, located at the heart of the sacred mountain of the Catalans, convinced that the Benedictine monks were hiding the Holy Grail. The irony is, without his powerful allies Hitler and Mussolini, Generalísimo Franco would have never won the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, Pablo Picasso painted Guernica as a graphic illustration of an episode of their joint atrocities. Paul Preston, the “eminent and prolific British historian of modern Spain”, according to The New York Times, called it “The Spanish Holocaust” in his book about “inquisition and extermination in twentieth-century Spain”. During the Civil War, my father’s family had suffered a lot under the chaos of the Red Spanish Republic, because the anarchists disapproved of Christians like them. Under Franco, they suffered once again, firstly for being Catalan, but also because Spain was exhausted after a war that served as a privileged rehearsal for World War II.
« My father belonged to the generation that brought democracy back to Spain »
My father belonged to the generation that brought democracy back to Spain. The dictator had ruled for decades; in his final years, he was senile, yet his influence lingered on until long after he died in 1975. As the Cold War started, Franco had both the intuition and the survival instinct to become friends with Eisenhower, thus bringing new allies to the isolated regime, some prosperity and many tourists to the country. Yet Spain was still far from becoming a democracy.
In the 70s, my mother was a young teacher in her twenties, when the secret police went to the school to interrogate her. This ‘privileged’ visit was the result of a neighbour reporting her for organising a local art exhibition featuring Picasso. Ultimately, they rattled her with questions and left, but it was a terrible shock for her. That peculiar situation brought my parents closer together in their love for culture and the Arts. They knew, in their struggle for freedom and democracy, their goals were but one. Their later home reflected this devotion in the thousands of books and several paintings and works of art that my father liked to collect and display. As the Catalan culture began slowly dragging itself up, out from under the dark cloud of prohibition and ostracism, Dr Agustí Casals made contributions to the first Catalan Encyclopaedia, the first Catalan daily newspaper since the Republic, the first children comics in Catalan. In his spare time, he became a volunteer teacher of the Catalan language, grammar and literature. He would teach strangers and Catalans alike, because he was convinced about the efforts to bring the language back to life through common and universal, daily use. Most of the Catalans of that time, like my mother, a teacher herself, hadn’t had the opportunity of learning how to write their own mother tongue at school, simply because it was not a part of the curriculum until after the arrival of democracy.
On a business trip many years later, I would be introduced to the brilliant initiative Cymraeg 2050, launched by the Welsh government in 2017 aiming to reach a million Welsh speakers over the following decades. The Guardian wrote how speaking Welsh became cool. «Cymru am byth!» Even The Crown series dedicated one episode, Tywysog Cymru, to that. In Wales, I met people truly devoted to their language, culture and heritage, just as my father had done in Catalonia during his whole life. As we stand today, Catalan is spoken by more than 9 milion citizens in Spain, Andorra, Southern France and the island of Sardinia, in Italy.
There were many facets to my father, Agustí Casals. He was a prominent engineer, who contributed to civil society through his engagement in various Institutions. He was a proud member of the Chamber of Engineers and the Engineers Savings Bank. He contributed to the National Science and Technology Museum project, that culminated in it opening its doors in Terrassa in 1984, and to the restoration of old industrial heritage across the country, dating back to the First Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century.
During the Transition period, the ancient Institution of the Government of Catalonia was the first to be reinstated in Spain, even before the democratic Constitution of 1978. His brother Dr Josep Maria Casals became a Member of the reinstated Catalan Parliament in 1980. Their dream was that of helping to establish subsidiary policies, and the rebuilding of Catalan self-government Institutions; to the consolidation of democracy, to achieving full integration in Europe as a means to grant stability and rule of law. In fact, Spain would join NATO in 1984 and the present-day European Union in 1986. It wasn’t long before my father decided to devote his career to public service, to several Ministries of the Catalan Autonomous Government. My parents knew all too well what it meant to live under a dictatorship. They had always been staunch supporters of the causes of liberty and human rights. Agustí’s cousin, the Claretian Rev Manel Casanovas, was one of the founding members of Amnesty International in Spain. In 1988, Amnesty’s “Human Rights Now!” Tour arrived at the FC Barcelona Nou Camp stadium. The RollingStone magazine wrote an “inside story” on “how Amnesty rocked the world”, with stars like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracey Chapman, Youssou N’Dour and the legendary Catalan group El Último de la Fila. My father was a small cog in that tremendous wheel.
From engineer, to public servant, musician was yet another string to his bow. Indeed, music was integral to his quality of life. A tenor, he adored singing and performed in multiple choirs. He dedicated many years to the semi-professional choir of the Orfeó Català, the Institution that owns the famous Art Nouveau Concert Hall of the Palau de la Música in Barcelona. During the 90s, I remember attending one of his concerts abroad, this time at the Berliner Philarmoniker, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Potsdamer Platz was then still in no man’s land; all that existed was a basic, tiny visitors centre, with pictures of how the new unified Berlin would look like in a few years, as magnificent as it is now. Those were times of hope and optimism. The Spanish economy was swelling; the country was able to organise the Olympic Games in Barcelona and a World Expo in Seville, both in the same year. As proud Barcelonians, my parents mobilised to support both venues. In our family, we all volunteered to contribute to the success of the endeavour in that magic summer of 1992. Again, my father played his part, singing. This time, with the choir during the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, alongside José Carreras, Sarah Brightman and Montserrat Caballé. During those years, he would perform several times at Madrid’s Teatro Real or at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. I remember visiting him during a rehearsal of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. After they finished, we would wander backstage and my father, wearing his engineer hat, would say: «This is rather chaotic here, this old wood, ropes and stuff. If they don’t watch out, this could all burn down!» Literally and to my astonishment, it actually happened just a few months later, in 1994. Luckily for all Opera fans, like with Venice’s La Fenice, the theatre was rebuilt at the very same location and opened its doors once more in 1999.
A major defining contributor to the man who was Dr Agustí Casals, was his faith. My father was a devout Christian. For forty years he led the choir at the Sunday’s Holy Mass at the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s iconic Basilica in Barcelona. I hold a faded memory of a couple of young Japanese tourists asking my mum if she would take some pictures of them with me in front of the old towers. We were very little kids as Pope John Paul II visited the Art Nouveau façade in 1982. We watched in awe from the terrace with a magnificent view of the Temple, that other times has been for the use of international news channels. The Polish Pope was devoted to bringing democracy to Eastern Europe. Spanish democracy, fresh and in its infancy, managed to prevail after a frustrated military coup, barely one year before. UNESCO declared the Sagrada Familia as World Heritage Site in 1984, for its “outstanding universal value”. Another Pope, the beloved Benedict XVI, performed the opening ceremony for the magnificent nave of the cathedral in 2010. True to form, there he was, Agustí, singing with the choir.
During the last decade, after having retired from public service, he felt motivated by yet another cause. The pipedream of an independent Catalonia had inspired many people of his generation as if they were young again. The spectacular rallies on Catalonia’s National Day were compelling and breathtaking. Typically, my father would volunteer to escort people with disabilities who wished to attend. For example, during 2013’s Via Catalana, as 1,6 million citizens formed a 400 km long human chain across Catalonia to emulate the Baltic Way and ask for an independence referendum, similar to that which would be held in Scotland in 2014. Back in 1989, several million people had joined hands forming a 600 km long human chain through the Baltic countries, prior to the collapse of the USSR. But the situation in Catalonia was very different, and the Catalan leadership made many mistakes that ended up with the 2017 fiasco. The whole thing saddened my father, and affected him to such an extent that he progressively turned his back on politics and unskilled politicians, in order to dedicate more time to social issues. Agustí always believed in an inclusive meritocracy as the utopia of democracy. No matter where you came from to become a Catalan, the important thing was that you lived and worked in Catalonia and you desired to be a good fellow Catalan. All these years, he had been volunteering to teach maths to socially disadvantaged children in Barcelona’s banlieues. He did so until the end.
On March 8th, 2020, my father attended his last service at the Church. That day, he had lunch with friends at the Palau de la Música, as a former singer colleague of the ensemble was celebrating his jubilee. Both the Spanish and the Catalan Government had ignored, de facto, the warnings of the European Commission and the World Health Organisation. It was Women’s Day, and hundreds of thousands rallied through Spain’s main cities, supremely unaware of the gravity of the threat. The Catalan Health Minister, Alba Vergés, attended the demonstrations. On March 10th, she would continue to maintain that Catalonia was not “at risk” concerning covid-19. The main concern during her radio interview at the Catalan National Broadcast seemed to be if FC Barcelona would be able to play the next match. The Regional Minister didn’t have a clear position on that either.
A few days later, my father developed what he thought was a common cold. Yet he felt listless, lacking in energy. Two doctors visited him during the following week. He was x-rayed, but never tested. At the grand old age of 78, he had literally never visited a hospital during the last 40 years. He was as fit as a fiddle, both mentally and physically, no previous illnesses. Okay, so he was only a male over 70, yet both his parents and their brothers and sisters had made it up to their 90s. The night before he was admitted to the hospital, where he would be finally diagnosed with covid-19 and die three days later, he still managed to set up a Netflix account. It had taken me some time to convince my parents that during the confinement, it might be a good idea to enjoy some entertainment. From Vienna, I had helped my mother with the remote setup of the smart tv. They did never tell me that my father was in such a severe condition until he was dying in the intensive care unit. I still think they could not take in the frightening reality of what was really happening. The overall, main stream, insane perception in Catalonia was still that they were not really “at risk”.
We haven’t been able to say goodbye yet. We can’t bury my father in his hometown, the beautiful medieval city of Vic, nor celebrate any kind of funeral. Because of the pandemic, he had to be incinerated, going against his very wishes. The weekend after his death, good friends managed to dedicate a Holy Mass to him in Seville, another one in Jerusalem. I know he would have liked it.
« All of the thousands of casualties, like Agustí, had names and surnames, and every last one of them has a story to tell »
My father’s story is just one among the more than 9.000 deadly casualties of coronavirus in Catalonia, more than 22.000 in Spain. All of them, like Dr Agustí Casals, had names and surnames, and every last one has a story to tell. The horrifying numbers are expected to rise within the coming days and weeks. Yet we should not forget that, along the huge lists of casualties, we are talking about individuals; loved ones, family members, friends, colleagues, neighbours, even strangers; all of them fellow citizens with the Constitutional rights and duties of having lived in a Western liberal democracy within the European Union.
The first and last movie that Agustí would ever watch on Netflix was The Two Popes. My mother says that he really enjoyed it.
Agustí has left us, yet his family members and friends will not forget him. Telling his story is one way in which I can pay respect to his memory. May he receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord. May his soul, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Visit the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center for more information about the official figures of covid-19 deadly casualties in Spain. Diari ARA keeps an own counter for Spain and Catalonia.
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