On the 50th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War . . .
No Pasaran: the Jews who fought in Spain
I came to Spain because I felt I had to. Look at the world situation. We didn’t worry when Mussolini came to power in Italy. We felt bad when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, but what could we do? We felt—though we tried to help and sympathize—that it was their problem and wouldn’t affect us. . . . I took up arms against the persecutors of my people—the Jews—and my class—the Oppressed. I am fighting against those who establish an inquisition, like that of their ideological ancestors several centuries ago, in Spain. Are those traits which you admire so much in a Prophet Jeremiah or a Judas Maccabbeus bad when your son exhibits them? Of course, I am not a Jeremiah or a Judah, but I’m trying with my own meagre capabilities to do what they did with their great capabilities in the struggle for Liberty, Well-being and Peace.
—Chaim Katz, in a letter to his mother, Albacete, Spain, 25 November 1937
CHAIM. KATZ, an American Jew, and his brother Joseph were killed fighting for the Republican Government in Spain. Another brother Michael from Jerusalem also fought in the International Brigades and was later killed in World War II. Nearly 8,000 Jews served in Spain, yet the heroism of the brothers Katz and many others like them have virtually been ignored by World Jewry.
Arthur Koestler termed the Spanish Civil War “the apocalyptic flood”. Both sides regarded the struggle as greater than an internecine conflict and coloured it with the demonology and rhetoric of the times. It was thus an ideological war of Communist against Fascist, a holy war of believer against infidel, of the New Spain against the Old, of progress against tradition. It was all of these and more, but for many of the Jews who fought in Spain, it was the struggle of their small persecuted people against a surrogate of Hitlerite Germany. It was a chance to strike back. It was an opportunity to stop Nazism in its tracks and thereby repulse the tidal wave of Fascism. Ilya Ehrenburg commented later: “For some people, life was split in two on 22 June 1941, for some on 3 September 1939 and for others on 18 July 1936”.
The “last great cause” had its darker side. The attempted purge and suppression of non-Stalinist socialists and revolutionaries in Spain has been well-documented. John McGovern, an Independent Labour Party MP who visited socialists in Republican prisons in Spain, wrote that “there are two International Brigades in Spain, one a fighting force, drawn from the Socialist Movement of the world, and the other an International Cheka drawn from the Comintern’s paid gangsters”.’ The majority of ordinary volunteers went to Spain for the most honourable and decent reasons. In the past fifty years, between 1,500 and 2,000 books have been written about the Spanish Civil War. Few mention the disproportionate number of Jewish brigaders, which was actually larger than that of any other nationality. It may be that many brigaders felt that their Jewishness was simply one reason among many for their presence in Spain and that to emphasize it was unnecessary. As the years have passed, however, many have realized in retrospect that unacknowledged Jewish reasons for volunteering were important.
The Comintern, following the Leninist line on the Jewish question, would not have encouraged national Jewish sentiment or indeed the establishment of a separate international Jewish brigade. On the other hand, Jewish communal bodies did not acknowledge that the Spanish Civil War had Jewish ramifications. The Joint Foreign Affairs Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews did riot minute one single word about the war despite the fact that nearly 10 per cent of the British Battalion was Jewish. Neither was any comment made about Nationalist antisemitism which was reflected by supporters of Franco in Britain and by a number of British Catholics. In 1986, the Jews who fought in Spain are regarded solely as unidentified internationalists by the Eastern bloc and as Communists by Jewish communal organizations. Their role in Jewish history, in the struggle against Fascism, has gone virtually unrecorded.
The argument of the Nationalists—and even of a section of Jewish opinion today—was that Franco and his followers were not anti-Semitic. In a letter to the Jewish Chronicle on 19 Febri4ry 1937, Franco’s Press Officer strongly denied that the Nationalists were anti-Semitic. In comparison with Nazi Germany, antisemitism was minimal in Spain, yet it is incorrect to suggest that it did not exist. In addition to the strong influence of Nazi Germany, Spanish Fascism drew upon traditional sources of religious superstition and the rampant piety of anti-Communism.
One group around Onesimo Redondo Ortega which was active in the early thirties in Valladolid saw its task as “preserving the spiritual integrity [of Spain] in the face of the egotistical ‘pornographic’ Jewish influences corrupting the land”. An admirer of Torquemada, Ortega had lectured in Spanish at the Catholic College at Mannheim where he was highly receptive to rising Nazi ideas. The Spanish Right, concentrated around CEDA (the Confederation of the Autonomous Right) became increasingly anti-Jewish. When the Republic was instituted in 1931, its leaders Alcala Zamora, Miguel Maura and Fernando de los Rios were declared to be of Jewish origin by the Right. At an election meeting in Madrid in October 1933 where Gil Robles, the CEDA leader, gave the address, posters proclaimed the need to save Spain from “Marxists, Masons, Separatists and Jews”? The Right’s propaganda in the 1935 election projected a demonic contest between Gil Robles and a triangle of subversive forces—the corners of the triangle representing freemasonry, the hammer and sickle and the Star of David. The Carlists3 in particular regarded the Jews as God-killers and instigators of Communist insurrection. The Carlist periodical El Siglo Futuro warned against the influx of Sephardim from Morocco and reacted bitterly to the small trickle of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. The Carlist Lianas de Niubo wrote that many countries had been subjugated by the Jews because of the campaign of “the four horsemen of the Apocalypse—Judaism, Communism, freemasonry and death”.4 By 1935, Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion had predictably been translated into Spanish.
During the Civil War itself, anti-Semitic comments and incidents increased within the Nationalist camp. In Pamplona, books written by Jews were burnt. The Catholic Church was a dedicated supporter of Franco. Forty-eight out of fifty-one Spanish bishops signed an appeal to churchmen in other countries espousing the cause of Franco and the Nationalists. Cardinal Goma, the primate of Spain, explained in a radio broadcast celebrating the relief of the Alcazar, 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”.’ The local Nationalist paper in Burgos Correo Espanol went so far as to advocate the reintroduction of the Inquisition after a Nationalist victory. The Jewish community of Tetuan were requested to contribute half a million pesetas to the Nationalist coffers. This came in the midst of an economic boycott of all Jewish enterprises. Rents of properties owned by Jews were automatically lowered by more than a third and a ban was instituted on the import of matzot. Arthur Koestler noted in Spanish Testament that translations of German anti-Semitic literature and the inevitable Protocols were widely disseminated. Since Catalonia supported the Republic, the Phalangist press created an anti-Semitism without Jews. The region’s inhabitants were repeatedly labelled ludeo-catalanes” and its leaders, such as Luis Companys, were reported to be “secret Jews”. Phalangist posters utilized anti-Semitic cartoons from Der Sturmer as part of their propaganda campaign. General Mola who was a central figure in the military revolt praised Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy. The populist broadcasts of one of the five original leaders of the rebellion General Queipo de Llano were peppered with anti-Semitic insults–often referring to the French Prime Minister as “the Jew Blum”. The “Radio General”, as he was known, broadcast to an audience of millions for some eighteen months at ten o’clock each night.
Franco himself projected a mixture of attitudes towards the Jews. He is said to have influenced Primo de Rivera to pass the law in 1924 which allowed any person of Spanish ancestry living abroad to once more become a Spanish citizen. In this context of abrogating some of the effects of the Inquisition, Franco’s alleged Jewish ancestry is often invoked. On occasions, Franco distanced himself from the pro-Nazi faction within the Nationalist camp. In April 1937, he told British journalists that “in the religious sphere, we stand for that great and comprehensive spirit that allowed—when the unity of our nation was being wrought —Mosque and Synagogue to stand open in accordance with the spirit of a Christian state”. Yet on 31 December 1939, at the height of his friendship with Nazi Germany, he commented:
You will now understand the persecution of certain races which other countries, to safeguard their historic destinies, were forced to persecute and isolate because they had become a national peril. Thanks to God and the clear vision of our Catholic King and Queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, we were once freed from such a dangerous burden as all those speculators attached to earthly gains.
Franco was “neither as wicked as Hitler nor as foolish as Mussolini”,6 but he was concerned to provide a Nazi gloss for his policies as a political tool. Although he was no ideological anti-Semite—it was unnecessary in Spain—he was not averse to dabbling in popular anti-Jewish feeling if it was to his advantage in furthering domestic arid certainly foreign policy. Many contradictory utterances were produced by this attempt to walk a tightrope between the Axis and the Allies. When the tide began to turn against Hitler, Franco’s policy of not throwing his military lot in with the Nazis began to pay off. He was willing to allow passage through Spain of tens of thousands of Jews who escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe. He also authorized the Spanish Legation in Budapest to issue protective documents to Hungarian Sephardim during the period of Wallenberg’s heroic rescue mission. The possible motives for such a philosemitic policy are many and indeed open to conjecture, but clearly it was to Franco’s advantage to store up such good deeds as political counters against a day of reckoning with the Allies.
THE Second Republic itself manifested a distinct feeling of goodwill towards the Jews and particularly towards new emigrants from the Sephardi Diaspora, President Zamora regarded the contribution of the Jews as “one of the traditional features of Spanish culture”. The Minister of the Interior, a descendant of the Marranos, condemned religious intolerance and guarantees for the future of Judaism in Spain were offered on numerous occasions. At the same time, support for the traditions of the “Old Spain” were still strong. The sympathetic Republican Government often soft-pedalled the “Jewish issue” for fear of antagonizing clerical and reactionary political forces in Spain. Church and State were separated at the end of 1931 and there were very few Jews in Spain. The “Jewish problem” in Spain was thus very much a symbolic issue for the Republicans—and even more so in the light of the rise of Nazism. The Spanish Ambassador in Berlin Luis Araquistan, during the first few months of the Hitler regime, engineered the escape of numerous Jews and Leftists. In May 1933, the Spanish delegate at the Council of the League of Nations stated that “today when the Jewish question is to the fore, the Spanish Republic turns its eyes towards that great race to whom it is indebted for illustrious men of letters, lawyers, mystics, doctors and states-men.”7 In 1935, the year of the Nuremburg Laws, Spain commemorated the 800th anniversary of the birth of Maimonides at Cordoba. When the civil war broke out, virtually all the well-to-do Jews left the country. Some German Jews were actually assisted to return to Germany where, despite assurances, they were either imprisoned or required to leave within forty-eight hours. The Jews who remained—mainly Jewish pedlars or political exiles—were too poor to leave. In Barcelona, which remained in Republican hands, some German Jewish refugees joined militias to fight the Nationalists. Despite the virulent and indeed violent attitude towards the Church by segments of the Republican cause, the synagogue in Barcelona continued to function. The synagogue in Madrid was not as lucky and was forcibly closed by a Republican mob.
HOW many foreign volunteers went to Spain to fight the Nationalists? The most common figure quoted is between 40,000-50,000. Bill Alexander in British Volunteers for Liberty (1982) quotes a figure of 42,000, a high percentage of whom were killed, reported missing or totally disabled. Professor Hugh Thomas in The Spanish Civil War (1977) cites a figure of 35,000 foreigners in the International Brigades, 5,000 in other military groupings and between 2,000-3,000 Russians.
The earliest estimate of the number of Jewish volunteers appeared in the Barcelona periodical Catalans in June 1937 where a figure of 10,000 was suggested. It is, however, the figure of 3,000 Jews first quoted in The American Hebrew in May 1938 that has been cited most extensively. Recent research suggests that the true number of Jewish volunteers could be at least double that figure. The problem in calculating the number of Jews is that, apart from the Botvin Company, there was no solely Jewish fighting body. Jews from different countries joined different battalions which did not always consist of a specific national group even if it was stipulated as such. South African and Palestinian Jews fought in the British Battalion of the Fifteenth Brigade. A young Jewish Londoner Samuel Lee was killed at Jarama in February 1937 fighting in the Irish Connolly Column which also included a number of Dutchmen. Davy Levy of Dublin, who was also killed at Jarama, fought with the American Lincoln Battalion and the Chapayev Battalion boasted some twenty-one nationalities. Many Jews in Both Eastern and Western Europe travelled under assumed names—often non-Jewish ones—to limit attention from governments. And there were many Jews who simply did not wish to be identified as such and preferred to assimilate into a specific national grouping. Dr Joseph Toth of Vienna calculated a figure of 7,758 Jewish brigaders based on information culled from national brigade associations in numerous countries. If Professor Thomas’s figure of 43,000 is accepted, this means that 18.04 per cent of all those who fought in Spain were Jewish. Given that the population of World Jewry was 16.50 million in 1936, it was by far the largest contributor of any single nationality. The following statistics indicate the size of the Jewish contribution to the struggle of the International Brigades.
Number of Total % of
in general Year of
Country Jewish volunteers total volunteers % of Jewish volunteers % of Jews population year of census
Poland 2,250 5,000 45.00 10.10 1939
USA 1,236 3,200 38.63 3.78 1940
France 1,043 8,500 12.27 0.62 1936
UK 214 2,150 9.95 0.65 1931
300 volunteers also came from Palestine. Out of a total Jewish population of 350,000, this too was an extraordinarily large fraction. The foreign volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight for the Republican cause came from fifty-three countries. The very international nature of the struggle made it certain that an international people such as the Jews would be represented in its full diversity.
Many German Jewish Communists and Socialists were members of the Eleventh or Thaelmann Brigade. Most were refugees from Nazism and some had been inmates of Hitler’s concentration camps. Others had seen family and friends murdered by the Nazis. Gustav Regler in his book The Owl of Minerva (1959) describes the determination to resist Hitler.
My volunteers displayed an indifference to danger which I find hard to explain…. Most of them were emigres who for three years suffered humiliation at the hands of the Paris, Prague and Swiss police. Some had been obliged to report daily and apply for another day’s asylum. Now they had arms in their hands and a city to defend. The constant threat of death which they laughed at or at least ignored, restored their dignity. Many were Jews and their bullets in the darkness were aimed at Hitler.
German Jews occupied important positions in the International Brigades. Friedl Kassovitz, one of the lawyers who defended Thaelmann, was a company commander in the Fourteenth Brigade. Jews were often found to be in leading positions of authority and, contrary to stereotypical images of the time, were courageous fighters. The Italian commissar of the fifth regiment, Commandante Carlos was the Jew Vittorio Vidali. There were quite a few Jews amongst the Soviet advisors sent by Stalin. General Kleber (Lazar Stern) came from Bukovina. General Douglas (Yakov Vladimirovich Smushkevich) was a senior advisor to the Republican Air Force. General G. M. Stern was Soviet advisor to the Spanish High Command. The Soviet Ambassador to the Spanish Republic was a Jew (Marcel Rosenberg) as was his successor.
The lingua franca of Jews from many different countries was, of course, Yiddish which was used extensively. Other Jewish languages, Hebrew and Ladino, were also utilized as a means of communication between different national groups. Bulgarian Jews, for example, were able to interpret for their colleagues by speaking Ladino to the Spaniards. A knowledge of a Jewish language was therefore an advantage. Jonas Brodkin in Le Yiddishland Revolutionnaire recalls that one of the Palestinian Arabs, who came with the group of volunteers from the Yishuv, was requested to join a Polish brigade because he knew a few words of Yiddish!
THE highest number of volunteers came from France. The figure of 8,500 is actually misleading since it also includes many emigres originally from Central and Eastern Europe. A large number of these exiles were Jews. The Jew Leon Chajn was responsible for enabling many Polish volunteers to reach Paris via Czechoslovakia and the path to Spain was often precarious, involving arrest and imprisonment by hostile governments if caught. Geoffrey Cox in his book The Defence of Madrid (1937) wrote about a young Polish Jew who had been a clerk in a post office in Warsaw: “He had heard they wanted fighters in Spain, so he hid under a railway carriage and was carried across the border in Czechoslovakia and from there got to Spain.”
Cecil Eby in his book Between the Bullet and the Lie (1969) comments: “The large number of [American] Jewish intellectuals aboard the Normandie were abysmally green. All had done their stint on picket lines and were up on party theory, but few had ever fired a rifle. A major reason they gave for volunteering was ‘to take a crack at Hitler’ “. The highest ranking American, Lt. Col. John Gates (Sol Regenstreif), was a Jew as was the last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion Major Milton Wolff.
The volunteers from Palestine were mainly Jews, but included a number of Arabs and Armenians as well. Some of these Palestinian Jews were actually new immigrants from Eastern Europe and therefore had little difficulty in integrating into the Dombrowski and Dmitrov Battalions. Some even joined the British Battalion. Although adherents of the Palestine Communist Party played a central role, there were also volunteers from Hashomer Hatzair, Mapai and from numerous kibbutzim.” Albert Prago mentions the story of Ezekiel Pikar who volunteered for Spain whilst on a Haganah-sponsored pilot’s course in England.” Pikar served as a combat pilot in the Republic’s Andre Malraux Squadron and later fought with the Palmach.
The demand for a specifically Jewish unit was initially ignored by the leadership of the International Brigades for a combination of reasons. It is probably partly explained by the prevailing Leninist line on the Jewish question, but also by the practical problems of communication and coordination as a large number of Jews from English-speaking countries were unable to speak Yiddish.
Many probably did not think that a discrete Jewish company was necessary. Moreover the British leadership did not encourage separation. Frank Ryan, the Irish Nationalist, for example, received a “cool and unhelpful” response when he suggested that the Irish unit should be led by its own commander and later implied that “the representatives of the British CP wrecked the Irish unit”.” The Welsh group which consisted of a large number of South Wales miners did not go as far as the Irish, but “formed a cadre force which had more in common with the Bulgarian, French, German, Italian or Yugoslav contingents than with other British volunteers (with the possible exception of the Scots and those from the East End of London)”.’
In the latter half of 1937, Jews within the French Communist Party began to press for the establishment of a separate Jewish company, a course of action stimulated by their close contacts with Jewish emigres from Eastern Europe and with those actually fighting in Spain. On 12 December 1937, the formation of a Jewish company was announced which was named after Naphtali Botvin who had been executed by Polish authorities in 1924. A Yiddish newspaper was produced and even orders of the day were issued in Yiddish. Cultural events such as poetry readings and concerts by the company’s choir testified to the strong Jewish consciousness of the Botvins. Republican radio even permitted them to broadcast in Yiddish. On one occasion, the choir performed their version of “Avinu Malkenu” which earned a round of olés from an appreciative Spanish audience. David Diamant imaginatively interprets the enthusiastic Spanish response as the recognition of a Sephardic melody, originating at the time of the Inquisition. The formation of the Botvin company was important for Jews, but it also changed the perceptions of non-Jews. Karel Gutman, the first commander of the Botvins, wrote to a friend in Poland:
Anti-Semites [in Poland] will now certainly not have the audacity to write about Jewish “cowardice”. They will undoubtedly avoid commentary. The whole of Republican Spain resounds with stories of the heroism of the Jewish combatants. … You should witness the friendship that exists between Jews, Poles, Germans, Spaniards, between men of different backgrounds. Even the Polish workers who were convinced that they could not fight alongside Jews whom they believed would run away at the first sound of gunfire—they have changed their opinions since their arrival in Spain. When we receive information about a pogrom, they are not less moved than we Jewish fighters. We are all fighting for victory over Hitler and Mussolini in Spain in order that Poland too can be liberated from the fascist yoke. Therefore we must publicize the heroic struggles of the Jewish Company because this is the best answer we can give to the anti-Semites.”
The Botvins saw action on a number of fronts. They suffered heavy casualties in the battle for Hill 281 in the Ebro campaign where the Mickiewicz Battalion became the target for heavy fire from the Nationalists. Simon Hirschman, a Latvian-born Jewish brigader now living in London, witnessed the stand of the Botvins:
The next day [the Nationalist artillery] opened up and I saw it all. I was about 200 yards away. 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.
Most Jews served in the International Brigades which looked towards Moscow and the Comintern. Some such as Benjamin Levinski from Poland served with the forces of the independent left-socialist party POUM which was anti-Stalinist.
Few Jews attained positions of military leadership in the British Battalion, yet one of its best known commanders was the charismatic Major George Nathan who was reported to be the only Jewish officer in the Brigade of Guards during World War I. According to the 1931 census, there were 330,000 Jews in Great Britain of whom about a third lived in London’s East End. Another 20 per cent lived in Leeds and Manchester. It was from working class areas in these cities that many Jews volunteered to go to Spain. An overwhelming majority were the children of immigrants from Poland and Russia. To some extent, this English-born generation inevitably distanced themselves from the lifestyle of their parents yet often manifested a sense of Jewishness which rejected anglicization and assimilation. Anglo-Jewish luminaries such as Sir Basil Henriques and Lord Bearstead told them to aspire to a transformation into “Englishmen of the Jewish religion”—advice which was frequently ignored. Their identity was forged in the socio-economic climate of the twenties and thirties and sharpened by the advent of Nazi anti-Semitism at home and abroad. Some such as the Manchester brigader Maurice Levine joined the Communist Party as early as 1931 because of the formation of a National Government. Many Jews who sympathized with the Communist Party did so essentially because of the rise of antisemitism. Leopold Trepper, the legendary conductor of the “Red Orchestra” spy network in World War II, said that he became a Communist because he was a Jew. For many working class Jews, the Communist Party and the USSR seemed to be the only ones to actively stand up to Hitler and his imitators. Many were indifferent to ideology and did not concern themselves about Stalin’s methods, about which they knew little, but they did care passionately about building a fairer society—if not for themselves, then certainly for their children—and they demanded a confrontation with fascism. Most had elementary education but demanded to know more and “for a lot of young people, the Communist Party was a university ‘.15 Victor Gollancz’s orange-covered Left Book Club publications were required reading. David Goodman, a brigader from Middlesbrough, was initially influenced by Stephen Spender’s Forward from Liberalism which was published by the Left Book Club.” The Young Communist League seemed a greater attraction than either home or synagogue. Leslie Preger who was one of the first to go to Spain from Manchester came from an Orthodox home where Hebrew and Yiddish were freely spoken. Despite the fact that he attended a Jewish school, he rejected everything as soon as his father died.” The rabbinate were generally unworldly and unsympathetic. In Middlesbrough, the rabbi’s sermon about children who brought disgrace upon the community persuaded more young Jews to join the YCL. Even the Chief Rabbi referred to Nazism as “Brown Bolshevism” in 1938. The official leadership was perceived as soft-pedalling the issue of resistance to the fascists. Their role was thought to be a passive one. Their only concern was thought to be how to present the Jew in a more acceptable light to English society. They appeared to encompass and to manifest all the faults and weaknesses which had been rejected by this second generation of Jews. At its Fourteenth Congress, the Communist Party reported that 5,000 out of the 12,500 members were Londoners and most recruiting was carried out in the capital. At the next Congress in September 1938, most of the delegates present had joined the Communist Party in the previous two years and were aged between twenty and thirty-five. Clearly young Jews had swollen the ranks of the Communist Party, yet despite their newly found zeal and idealism, they were unable to psychologically confront the task of fighting their corner within the organized Jewish communal structure. At the Fourteenth Congress, Harry Pollitt, the Party leader, complained: “Far too many of our Jewish comrades who are amongst the most loyal and devoted and hardworking comrades we have got, will do anything rather than work inside these organizations.”
THE first British volunteers for Spain were Jews from London’s East End. Nat Cohen, Sam Masters and Alec Sheller were on a biking holiday.’ The Daily Express wrote: “The three tailors, Communist in sympathy, mounted their bicycles and sped to Spain to join the Red forces and have a go at the army chiefs there.” Sam Masters worked for his father, a master tailor in ladies’ wear. After his death in Spain, the Number Two branch of the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers sent an ambulance to Spain in his memory. Natty Steigman was the youngest of four brothers who helped their immigrant parents run a Jewish bakery. Steigman was intelligent but his parents, versed in other traditions, refused to allow him to go to university. He continued to work in the bakery and to sell beigels from a stall in the East End. His intellectual thirst eventually lead him into the Communist Party. He volunteered for Spain and was killed two weeks after arrival at the battle of Jarama. Harry Gross was a member of the Stepney Workers’ Sports Club. He seemed totally apolitical, yet he volunteered for Spain and was killed at Brunete in July 1937. Phil Richards (Caplan), who was also killed at Brunete, was a popular feather and lightweight boxer. Most did not inform their families of their destination. Basil Abrahams who fought in Spain twice took both the place and the name of a Mr Minsk who did not report to Communist Party headquarters in King Street. His brother only discovered his whereabouts when he identified him as a captured volunteer on a newsreel at the local cinema.
NON-Jews were affected and sensitized to the evil of fascism by the disproportionate number of Jews in the Party. Sam Wild, a commander of the British Battalion, was a Catholic married to Bert Maskey’s sister. Wild and Maskey, a Lithuanian Jew who was killed at Jarama, volunteered together for Spain. Wild recalled that on one occasion, in the heat of a dispute, a brigader had been called a “Jewish bastard”. The members of the battalion were ordered to attend a lecture entitled “Antisemitism and its origins”.19 Many Jewish refugees from Germany went to Liverpool. They worked in the tailoring trade, joined trade unions and eventually appeared as Trades Council delegates. The former trade union leader Jack Jones, who fought in Spain, said that “what was happening in Germany had a direct impact on us in Liverpool”.”
Fighting with outdated and unsuitable weapons and often the victims of illogical military tactics, many brigaders were killed or captured. Incarcerated in the old monastery at San Pedro de Gardena in 1938, plain-clothes Gestapo agents arrived to carry out “several tests consisting of oral tests, written tests and measurements of the body, of the head, the length of the jaw. The idea, apparently, was to prove that they were subnormal. Anyone who looked Jewish or was a bit abnormal was singled out”. Some prisoners died because there was no real medical treatment and were buried in coffins made out of fish boxes. “Irrespective of the fact that the person who died might be Jewish or orthodox Protestant, we were told that he had asked for the last sacraments so we were all forced to go to Mass even when we knew that so and so was Jewish or atheist.’
Many Jews left the Communist Party when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed (1939) and when the Jewish Doctors were accused of poisoning the leaders of the Kremlin (1953). Those who remained within the Party in the United States or continued to exhibit left-wing views were persecuted for their involvement in the Spanish Civil War during the McCarthyite years. In the USSR, Stalin liquidated many Jews who had served him in Spain including Kleber, Stern and Rosenberg.
Stalin saw conspiracy in the organization and the ideals of the International Brigades. When the show trials of leading Communists took place in Eastern Europe, a considerable number of defendants were former brigaders. Otto Sling and Andre Simone who were sentenced to death in the anti-Semitic Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952 were Jewish International Brigaders.
Many Jews who remained faithful to the ideals of Republican Spain eventually renounced the reactionary politics of the Soviet Union. For a time, it seemed as if the two were one and the same. Even within the Spanish struggle, it was apparent that this was not the case but this traumatic realization has taken longer for some than for others.
The Spanish Civil War has been painted in many political colours. It has also been romanticized but, like all wars, it was both terrible and terrifying. Stephen Spender, on visiting Spain, countered this imagery with a sombre message: “The final horror of war is the complete isolation of a man dying alone in a world whose reality is violence. The dead in wars are not heroes; they are freezing or rotting lumps of isolated insanity.”
From within the hypnotic embrace of Communism, a large number of Jews tried to make a stand when others refused to contemplate the impending horror and hoped that the danger would pass. The irrational events of the twentieth century have had a traumatic effect on such people. A few remain blinkered Stalinists, many in old age are still committed socialists and some have renounced politics altogether. The tragic course of Jewish history has flowed over the divisions of that apocalyptic period. The debt, fifty years on, should be acknowledged.
Jewish Quarterly Autumn 1986