‘For some people, life was split in two on June 22 1941, for some on September 3 1939 and for others on July 18 1936.’
So wrote the Soviet Jewish writer, Ilya Ehrenburg about the start of war against Nazi Germany.
Ninety-nine year old Ubby Cowen in his nursing home in Golders Green remembers that date in July 1936 very well – for 80 years ago this week the Spanish Civil War broke out. Disproportionate numbers of Jews joined the International Brigades to defend the legitimate republic against the armed might of the Spanish fascists, supported by Hitler and Mussolini.
Cowen was due to go to the Barcelona Olympiad – a parallel to the Nazi Olympics in Berlin – and planned to cycle through France with friends. His bicycle was stolen on the eve of departure and the friends, East End Jews named Nat Cohen, Sam Masters and Alec Sheller, went on to Spain without him. They subsequently found themselves at the onset of an armed conflict, ignited by General Franco.
The Olympiad was forgotten and they rushed instead to defend the Spanish republic. Sam Masters was killed in the Brunete offensive in July 1937 in which the Republic suffered 25,000 casualties. He had worked for his father, a master tailor in ladies’ wear.
Later that year, Cowen and his friends participated in the battle of Cable Street, when thousands of East End Jews stood their ground and prevented Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists from marching through their neighbourhood. Many of those who participated in this resistance went to fight in Spain. The slogan in both London and Madrid was “No pasarán!”, “they shall not pass”.
Natty Steigman was the youngest of four brothers who helped their immigrant parents run a bread shop, the forerunner of Beecholme Bakeries. Steigman wanted to go to university, but his parents refused and persuaded him to continue selling bagels from a stall in the East End. He volunteered for Spain and was killed two weeks after arrival at the battle of Jarama.
Most of those involved were members of the Communist party of Great Britain (CPGB). They joined because it aggressively resisted the spread of fascism.
Jewish organisations were regarded as moribund, docile and ineffective. The rabbinate was unworldly and often viewed the militant activities of Jewish Communists as bringing disgrace upon the community. Jews however flooded into the party. For many, the CPGB was a university where they could indulge their intellectual and political interests and meet like-minded Jews.
The desire to resist Hitler was widespread among young Jews throughout the world. They understood the Spanish civil war as the opportunity to stop fascism in its tracks and avert a greater tragedy. In contrast, the British government had buried its head in the sands of non-intervention while the German Condor Legion bombed Guernica.
In December 1937, a Jewish company, the Botvin Brigade, was formed from mainly Polish Jews and political emigrés from France and Belgium. It was named after Naphtali Botvin who had been executed by the Polish authorities in 1924.
The Botvin Brigade suffered heavy casualties in the Ebro campaign. The late Simon Hirschman, a Latvian-born Jewish brigader, who subsequently lived in London, witnessed its last stand.
“We had got used to the terrible bombardment, but I had never seen anything like this. They had forty batteries to our four. It was overwhelming, we had no chance. They concentrated on the positions where the Botvins were situated.
“It was intense, the dust joined the sky. It was eerie. Never again would I experience anything like it. Absolutely unnatural. Then suddenly as the dust began to subside, the Spanish Foreign Legion overran them. Over a hundred Jewish boys perished there.”
It is estimated that 35,000 brigaders fought in Spain and between 2,100 and 2,300 came from Britain. Over 500 British nationals were killed instantly or died from their injuries.
Many Jews fought under assumed names. Hymie Jacobs of Stepney became Harry Jackson. Others did not wish to be known as Jews. For others their Jewishness was perhaps one reason among many to fight.
Some joined the brigades of other countries. Londoner Samuel Lee was killed at Jarama, fighting in the Irish Connolly Column while Davy Levy, a Dubliner, fought with the American Lincoln Battalion.
Brigaders came from 53 countries and Jews were disproportionately represented in their ranks – probably just under a fifth of all those who went to Spain. Comparing this number to the world Jewish population, it is likely, albeit unscientific, that the Jews were by far the largest contributor of any single nationality which fought fascism in Spain.
Such a notion was not welcome in some quarters. There were those who protested that they went to Spain as internationalists and not as Jews. Others were assimilated and acculturated. Still others wanted to escape the ghetto mentality of their parents.
Some therefore welcomed the approach of the Communist International (Comintern) which followed the Leninist line that the solution to the Jewish problem was to assimilate and to disappear from the pages of history. The Comintern was ironically abetted by leading Jewish organisations in this country which did not wish to draw attention to the high number of Jews in the International Brigades since it validated Mosley’s claims of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. The Joint Foreign Affairs Committee of the Board of Deputies did not minute one single word about the conflict despite the fact that nearly 10 per cent of the British Battalion was Jewish.
Franco wished to ensure that Jewish organisations were not openly organising against him. In a letter to the Jewish Chronicle in February 1937, Franco’s Press Officer strongly denied that the Nationalists were antisemitic. In comparison with Nazi Germany, of course, antisemitism was minimal, yet it certainly did exist in Spain. Even the most assimilated, internationalist Jew was not unable to escape the anti-Jewish sentiment of Catholicism in Spain. After all, 48 out of 51 Spanish bishops supported the cause of Franco.
Cardinal Goma, the primate of Spain, explained in a radio broadcast that the Nationalists were fighting ‘the Jews and Masons who had poisoned the ingenuous pueblo with Tartar and Mongol ideas and who were erecting a system manipulated by the Semitic International’. As in Vichy France later and in many other European countries, the Catholic attempt to push back the influence of the French Revolution and the European Enlightenment was coated with the veneer of antisemitism. Since Catalonia was a stronghold of the Republic, an antisemitism without Jews was promoted. Its inhabitants became “judeo-catalanes” and its leaders, such as Luis Companys, were reported to be “secret Jews”.
Franco kept Spain out of World War II, but his desire to help Jews only became apparent when he realised that the tide of war was turning against Hitler.
While many Jews joined the CPGB to fight fascism at home and abroad, many logically left when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed in August 1939. Only diehard believers remained after the Doctors’ Plot (1953) and the invasion of Hungary (1956). Many began to understand that Soviet national interests and the cause of international socialism were not one and the same. The hypnotic spell of Communism was painfully broken for those who returned from Spain.
For over fifty years the contribution of the Jewish brigaders was therefore hardly mentioned during public communal events as well as at Communist party meetings. The gradual change came about by a new generation of researchers – and from Israel. Three hundred Jews and Arabs came to Spain from Mandatory Palestine.
But it was only in 1986 that President Chaim Herzog marked the fiftieth anniversary by commenting that ‘I salute them as comrades-in-arms in the war against the Nazis’. This was followed by the establishment of a Forest of Peace and Friendship in Beit Shemesh.
Herzog had a personal reason to include the brigaders in his speech. As a student at the University of London in 1937, he demonstrated in support of the Spanish Republic and fought in the British forces during World War II. In 1990 Herzog’s words were inscribed on a monument to the Jewish volunteers, situated at the base of Barcelona’s Montjuic.
Moreover Martin Sugarman, the indefatigable AJEX archivist at the Jewish Military Museum, recently published an extensive list of Jews who served in the International Brigades.
Stephen Spender called it ‘the poets’ war’. It has indeed been romanticised and mythologised, yet the truth remains that many individuals possessed the vision to oppose and the courage to resist. The tale of the Jews who fought fascism in Spain has become part of our folklore because it encompasses the best in Jewish tradition – the national and the international. Their purpose was to repair a fracturing world.
The title of ‘premature anti-fascist’ is not one bestowed by monarchy, but one that has been earned through acting in dark times. We should respect, honour and remember them – and hope that we, too, would have met that challenge with such conviction.
Jewish Chronicle 15 July 2016