The Fight against Fascism 70 Years ago

I came to Spain because I felt I had to… 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 – although 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.

The author of this letter, an American Jew, Chaim Katz – and his brother, Joseph – were killed fighting for the Republican cause in Spain shortly afterwards.

The Spanish civil war commenced exactly 70 years ago this summer and 8,000 Jews heeded the call to join the International Brigades and fight fascism. Over 200 British Jews fought, 10% of the British Battalion, yet Jews were only 0.65% of the British population. In the United States, the pattern was repeated, where just under 40% of all American brigaders were Jews. Yet Jews were only 3.78% of the US population. And 300 Jews and Arabs came from Palestine. Most were working-class Jews who had joined the Communist Party because it seemed that only the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s was actively standing up to Hitler. Quite often they were indifferent to ideology and knew little about Stalin’s methods, but believed in a fairer society and a better world. For many decades this disproportionate contribution of the Jews was deliberately overlooked. The Communists, adhering to the Leninist line that the Jews are not truly a nation, regarded them as unidentified internationalists. Jewish communal organizations, in contrast, viewed them solely as Communists.

Young men reacted to communal figures such as Sir Basil Henriques, who told them to aspire to be “Englishmen of the Jewish persuasion” and to the political ignorance of the British chief rabbi who referred to Nazism as “Brown Bolshevism.” Many Jews served under assumed names. The highest-ranking American, Lt.-Col. John Gates, was born Sol Regenstreif. The Italian commissar, Commandant Carlos, was the Jew Vittorio Vidali. As were the Soviet advisors sent by Stalin, Gen. Kleber (Lazar Stern) and Gen. Douglas (Yakov Smushkevich).

In December 1937, a specifically Jewish company of Polish Jews was formed called the Botvin Brigade. Naftali Botwin had been executed by the Polish authorities in 1924. The orders of the day were issued in Yiddish, and they published a newspaper in the language. Many of them were killed in the Ebro campaign. An eyewitness recalled the scene 50 years later in London. “They had 40 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. Then suddenly as the dust began to subside, the Spanish Foreign Legion overran them. Over 100 Jewish boys perished there.”

The Communist party for many working-class Jews was their university and the Left Book Club, their library. Natty Steigman was the youngest of four brothers who helped their immigrant parents run a kosher bakery in London’s East End. Steigman was intelligent, but his parents, versed in other traditions, refused to allow him to go to university. He earned his living from selling bagels from a stall. His intellectual thirst led him into the Communist Party and to volunteer for Spain. He was killed two weeks after his arrival at Jarama. Phil Richards (Caplin) was a well-known featherweight boxer. He was killed at Brunete. Many young men did not inform their parents of their intentions. Basil Abrahams’ brother discovered his whereabouts on seeing a group of captured brigaders in a newsreel at a local cinema.

Franco, of course, gently rebuffed Hitler’s entreaties to join him. He was the great survivor and, indeed, began to help Jews once he saw which way the world war was going. He authorized the Spanish Legation in Budapest to provide protective passports for Hungarian Sephardim during the period of Wallenberg’s heroic exploits in saving Jews from the hands of the Nazis. Yet in 1939 Franco was quite content to praise the expulsion from Spain in 1492. “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.” The Spanish church was no better. Forty eight out of 51 Spanish bishops signed an appeal to clergy in other countries asking them to support Franco and the nationalist cause. Cardinal Goma, the primate of Spain, explained in a radio broadcast that the nationalists were fighting “the Jews and the 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 called for the reintroduction of the Inquisition. Phalangist posters utilized anti-Semitic cartoons from Der Sturmer as part of their propaganda campaign. Inhabitants of Catalonia, the stronghold of the republic, were often referred to as “judeo-catalanes.”

From within the hypnotic embrace of Communism in the 1930s, a large number of Jews tried to make a stand when others refused to contemplate the impending horror and hoped that it would pass. As the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg commented, “For some people the world was split in two on September 3, 1939, and for others on July 18, 1936.” Events such as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939 and the Doctors’ Plot in 1953 caused a mass Jewish exodus from Communist parties worldwide. Some remained committed to social democratic ideals, others dropped out of the cauldron of politics altogether.

A few weeks ago, I was in Barcelona and located a field at the very edge of a Catholic cemetery. At one end was a monument to the Holocaust. At the other were numerous monuments and graves of the international brigaders. One, unveiled by president Chaim Herzog in 1990, was dedicated to the Jewish volunteers. Not holy ground in a formal sense, but sacred nonetheless. I placed a stone on the monument, said Kaddish silently, and remembered.

Jerusalem Post 14 August 2006

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