Seventy-four years later, it is still difficult to understand the full impact of the bombing of the Spanish city, Gernika. The 1937 bombing that killed hundreds during the Spanish Civil War is the focal point of NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center’s current exhibit, “The Bombing of Gernika — The Exhibit — 75th Anniversary of Guernica/Gernika Bombing, 1937-2012.” It hopes to clarify this complex event and inform the public about the watershed moment in Basque history.
On April 26, 1937, German Luftwaffe planes conducted an aerial attack on the Basque town of Gernika causing mass destruction, destroying three-fourths of the city’s buildings. As their primary symbol of democracy, Gernika in ruins left the Basque people devastated.
Over half a century later, the implications still resound heavily with the Basque people. Aizpea Goenaga, the director of the Etxepare Basque Institute, which is based in Spain, explained Gernika’s significance.
“Gernika is not just a city,” Goenaga said. “It has become a symbol for the craziness in wartime and the ability to forgive.”
In 1997, former German President Roman Herzog offered a curt but formal apology to survivors for Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War. The effects were apparent.
“When Germany finally apologized, Gernika transformed into a symbol of peace,” Goenaga said.
At the exhibit’s opening on Oct. 3, this sense of positivity was apparent — people of a variety of cultures gathered to talk, sip Basque wine and reflect on Gernika’s relevance today.
The exhibit features panels detailing the events leading up to Gernika and the bombing itself. The display, a balance between written facts and photojournalism, features photographs of Gernika’s destruction and the political turmoil that followed.
“The center attracts a lot of members of the Spanish community in New York,” said Jo Labanyi, director of the King Juan Carlos Center.
At the exhibit’s opening, singer Amaya Arberas performed traditional Basque music that was written specifically for the event. She has personal ties to Gernika: Her family was living there when the bombing occurred.
“My grandmother woke up on the morning of the attack feeling nervous and decided to take my family out of the city. They were able to evacuate before the bombs hit,” Arberas said.
The most famous representation is Picasso’s “Guernica,” which he painted in response to the gruesome bombing. The painting has become a symbol of peace — much like the city itself.
“In Gernika’s initial impact, the government reached out to an artist to help portray the event’s importance,” Goenaga said.
“The Bombing of Gernika” exhibit is currently touring the world in an effort to familiarize people with Basque culture and history. The exhibit will be on display at the King Juan Carlos I Center through Dec. 17. Following its New York showcase, it will be displayed in several U.S. and international cities.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 4 print edition. Cleo Abramian is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]