By: Peter N. Carroll, Fraser M. Ottanelli & Rajel Ibañes Sperber

“I have no time to recall for you my life, but I know that it has been hard and beautiful”
– From the last letter of Leon Pakin, one of the founders of the Jewish Botwin company, before being executed by the Nazis in Paris in 1942.


Internationalism & the Spanish Civil War

During the 1930s, the rise and consolidation of Fascism and Nazism affected the basic context of European politics and diplomacy. Thus, the war that began in Spain in July 1936 was more than just a civil war or a struggle of the Spanish people to defend their democratic rights and national independence. Indeed, the Spanish Civil War came to embody the struggle of all peoples around the world against exploitation, oppression, and racism. The clearest example of this global connection was the decision by over 35,000 men and women from 52 countries to volunteer and fight in defense of the Spanish Republican government.

Jewish men and women accounted for over one fourth of all international volunteers and played a prominent role in most of the national groups that went to Spain including those from the United States. Among other countries, they came from France, Poland, Britain, Canada, and Palestine; they were Socialists, Communists, Zionists, or Bundists. Wherever they came from, whatever their political convictions, all volunteers understood that Fascism represented the greatest threat for Jews and the rest of humanity. The battlefields of Spain gave Jews the first opportunity to offer organized armed resistance against Fascism and Nazi anti-Semitism.

Madrid will be the tomb of fascism.” That slogan indicated the hope that a victory over Fascism and Nazism in Spain would prevent further aggression and avoid a second world war. But it was not to be. Unable to obtain sufficient weapons and aid from the western democracies and facing a professional Spanish army backed by Germany and Italy, the Spanish Republic died in March 1939. Fears of World War II proved justified, indeed the terror of that war exceeded the predictions made in the 1930s. Fifty million people died during World War II, including at least six million European Jews.

Anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s

Ed Balchowsky, Illinois-born volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, recalled later in life that he had “learned about oppression at a very early age because for years I was the only Jewish child in my hometown.” Unable to strike back against bigotry in the United States, with the onset of the Spanish civil war, Balchowsky felt “grateful for the opportunity to fight what I had found no way to fight at home.”

Anti-Semitism did not originate with Hitler. Based on the traditional hostility of Christianity to Judaism, Jews had been persecuted since at least the Middle Ages. Anti-Semitism existed in America from early colonial days. Until the Civil War, however, as long as Jews were only a small percentage of the country’s population, it remained latent. Anti-Semitism became more open in the 1880s with the arrival of approximately two million Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They came mostly from areas of the Russian empire where religious persecution was common. By the end of the nineteenth century conditions for Jews worsened with the passage of more restrictive legislation and recurrent government sponsored violent attacks against Jewish communities called pogroms. Jews began fleeing in great numbers to the United States. Many Americans who traced their roots to northwestern Europe and Scandinavia grew increasingly concerned with the arrival of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe whom they considered to belong to inferior “races” and additionally in the case of Jews, because of their religious beliefs.

Anti-Semitism was based on a combination of pervasive and contradictory Jewish stereotypes. Jews were portrayed as vulgar “money grabbing” capitalists as well as dangerous revolutionaries. Anti-Semitism spread through every aspect of American society: Newspapers and magazines commonly printed anti-Semitic articles and cartoons; anti-Semites held high positions in the federal government particularly in the State department; Jews were excluded from social clubs and faced discrimination in employment opportunities, especially in the professions; many towns adopted zoning regulations to prevent the sale of land and houses to Jews. Starting in 1922, following the example of Harvard, many prominent northeastern universities imposed strict quotas on the numbers of Jews they admitted.

During the 1920s, automaker Henry Ford’s weekly newspaper, the Dearborn Independent (with a circulation of 700,000) launched a vicious campaign against what he termed “The International Jew” which he accused of everything from threatening the capitalist system to undermining the moral values of the nation, and finally he even held them responsible for World War I.

Half a world away, Ford’s tirades against the “international Jewish conspiracy” were enthusiastically received by Adolph Hitler and reprinted in Nazi publications. Hitler saw the Jews as the source of all of Germany’s troubles. The Nazi leader articulated his ideology and program in Mein Kampf (My Struggle) published in the mid-1920s. In this book Hitler expressed the antidemocratic, racist and expansionist views that would eventually be put in practice.

In early 1933, soon after he had risen to power, Hitler proceeded to establish complete Nazi control over Germany. Laws were passed outlawing labor unions and all political parties except for the Nazi. A first concentration camp was also established in Dachau for opponents of the new regime.

In public rituals, books written by authors unacceptable to the Nazi were burned across the country. As a believer in Aryan superiority, Hitler set up a new racial state that he believed was destined to dominate Europe and possibly the rest of the world. Hitler viewed Jews as the archenemies of Aryans and demanded that they be exterminated. The new Nazi government ordered a boycott of Jewish businesses. Other laws excluded Jews from government jobs, from the legal and medical profession, from holding teaching positions, and from entertainment and cultural activities. In September 1935, the Nazi regime adopted a new series of anti-Semitic laws known as the “Nuremberg laws” that deprived Jews of German citizenship and instituted other provisions to deny them civil rights. German anti-Semitism adopted more violent tactics with the pogrom of November 9-10, 1938, the infamous Kristallnacht, during which over 100 Jews were killed, approximately 400 synagogues were destroyed or damaged together with over 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, and 30,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps.

While Hitler did not “invent” anti-Semitism, with the onset of World War II and the implementation of the Nazi’s “final solution” to the Jewish problem, the world had never before experienced such a systematic attempt to exterminate an entire population.

Jews in the United States were deeply concerned by Hitler’s rise to power. As German Jews faced increasing persecution and began to seek refuge in other countries, many prominent Americans denounced Hitler’s vicious anti-Semitism. Despite pressure from various Jewish groups, however, the U.S. State Department and Congress refused to alter immigration policies to ease the admission of Jewish refugees. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed several Jews, such as Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau, to high office and recognized the importance of Jewish support of his New Deal programs, but he did not challenge the prevailing anti-Jewish sentiments among leadership groups. Refusing to challenge existing immigration quotas, Washington allowed selected Jews, such as the physicist Albert Einstein, to enter the country but did little to help the mass of Jewish refugees.

Why Spain?

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War intensified conflicts between Nazi and Fascist expansion in Europe and the efforts to preserve democratic governments. When Spanish military officers, led by General Francisco Franco, rebelled against the legally elected republican government in July 1936, the Spanish people spontaneously organized loyal military forces and civilian militia groups to suppress the uprising. But within weeks, Hitler and Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini agreed to provide military support for Franco’s rebels. With such assistance, Franco’s forces marched toward the capital city of Madrid. The elected Republic then asked for help from other nations. England and France, fearing the outbreak of another world war, tried to “appease” Nazi Germany and refused to help the Republic; instead, they adopted a policy of “non-intervention.”

The United States followed similar policies. Although Roosevelt criticized German and Italian support of the rebellion and in 1937 suggested a “quarantine” of such aggression, he lacked domestic support for an interventionist foreign policy.

In response to the Spanish Republic’s request for assistance, the Soviet Union sent supplies and military advisors, and the Communist International (a coalition of Communist parties based in Moscow) urged individual volunteers to form an International Brigade to fight against Franco and his fascist allies. Over 35,000 men and women from 52 countries responded to the call and journeyed to Spain. Recent research shows estimates that from 6,000 to 10,000 of these volunteers were Jews.

Read an interview with driver Evelyn Hutchins on her reasons for joining the fight against fascism. James Lardner, the son of humorist Ring Lardner, writes a thoughtful letter to his mother explaining why he has decided to fight in Spain.  The Don Henry Story is a case study of one man’s decision to fight in Spain.

Jewish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War saw the conflict as an opportunity to fight against international oppression. “For the first time since Fascism began systematically throttling and rending all we hold dear,” wrote Gene Wolman, a volunteer from New York, “we are getting the opportunity to fight back.” For Jews, the Fascist menace embodied both political oppression and racist anti-Semitism. In 1939, as part of his testimony before a the Dies Committee set up by the US Congress to investigate so-called un-American organizations, Milton Wolff said, in explaining why he enlisted in the Spanish Civil War: “I am Jewish, and knowing that as a Jew we are the first to suffer when fascism does come, I went to Spain to fight against it.”

The International Brigades became the vehicle through which Jews from all over the world could confront this raging enemy. “Here, finally,” said Wolman, “the oppressed of the Earth are united, here finally we have weapons, here we can fight back. Here, even if we lose, in the fight itself, in the weakening of Fascism, we will have won.”

Even before the formation of the International brigades, Jews were among the first to take up arms in Spain. Among them were many who had fled Germany when Hitler rose to power and had been welcomed by the Republican government, as well as members of athletic groups who had arrived from various countries to take part in the People’s Olympics scheduled to begin in Barcelona in mid-July 1936. The People’s Olympics had been organized to protest against the World Olympics scheduled for August in Hitler’s Berlin.

The earliest foreign volunteers to fight against the Franco uprising joined Spanish units or formed small columns that spoke the same language. As the number of foreign volunteers increased in the autumn of 1936, they organized separate brigades, continuing the practice of consolidating volunteers who spoke the same language. Anti-Hitler Germans formed the Thaelman Brigade; anti-Mussolini Italians formed the Garibaldi Brigade; French volunteers formed the “Commune de Paris.”

Within the International brigades there was a high proportion of Jews among the volunteers from many countries including Poland, France, Britain, Germany, Canada, and Palestine. Among the medical personnel who went to Spain from many countries, by some estimates 70% were Jews and accordingly the Yiddish language was often used in the operating rooms as a common language to overcome national differences. The largest number of Jews in Spain came from Poland; US Jews were the second largest contingent.

Of the approximately 3,000 volunteers from the United States who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, some estimates suggest that one-third were Jewish. Many were children of European immigrants, who had arrived in the U.S. during the early years of the century. They had received an “Americanized” education in school, but still felt family ties to Europe. Most volunteers came from large cities, where immigrants had settled. In addition, two-thirds of the volunteers were Communists. But many Jews were not Communists and went to Spain to fight back against Nazis and fascists. “I am as good [an] antifascist as any Communist,” wrote one volunteer to his commissar. “I have reason to be. I am a Jew and that is the reason I came to Spain. I know what it means to my people if fascism should win. (And I know they won’t.)”

Hyman Katz was one volunteer from New York. He went to Spain without telling his mother because he did not want to upset her. But when he was wounded in action in 1937, the young volunteer decided to explain to his mother why he had enlisted against her wishes. His letter home reveals the motives of many other Jewish volunteers. “Don’t you realize that we Jews will be the first to suffer if fascism comes?” Among the US volunteers was Samuel Levinger of Columbus, Ohio, who was the son of a rabbi. He was killed at Brunete in July 1937. His father, Rabbi Lee J. Levinger remained a loyal friend of the Lincoln Brigade. Many Jewish women, including Esther Silverstein, also volunteered to serve as nurses as part of the American Medical Bureau to Save Spanish Democracy.

The high percentage of Jews among the antifascist volunteers prompted the leadership of the International Brigades to consider forming an all-Jewish brigade. The purpose of this unit was to express the direct participation of Jews alongside other national groups in the fight against Fascism. High casualties made this impossible, but a Jewish company was formed within the Polish Dombrowski brigade, named after Naftali Botwin a Communist martyr of the Polish-Jewish labor movement. Embroidered on the company’s flag in Spanish, Polish and Yiddish was its motto “For your liberty and ours”

Members of the Botwin Company included Jews from Poland, various European countries, and Palestine, but also a Greek, two Palestinian Arabs and a German who after deserting from the Nazi army insisted on serving with this Jewish unit. Yiddish language publications Der Fraihaits-Kempfer and Botwin were also published for all the Jewish volunteers scattered among the various national units.

Jewish Spanish Civil War Veterans during World War II

In October 1938, the Spanish government ordered the withdrawal of the International Brigades, hoping that the gesture would press Germany and Italy to remove their troops from Spain. But the Fascist countries ignored the withdrawal. By March 1939, Franco captured Madrid and proclaimed the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Surviving volunteers in the International Brigades crossed the border into France. Heroes in Spain, the moment they entered France, they typically became unwanted guests of the French government. For most of them, the war against Fascism was not over. While volunteers from France, Great Britain, and the United States and other countries could return to their homes, their own governments often stigmatized them for participating in the International Brigades. Worse, volunteers whose countries were under Fascist or Nazi control could not return home at all. Among them were large groups of Jewish volunteers from Poland, Germany, Rumania, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Most were interned in detention camps in southwest France set up by French authorities expressly for thousands of Spanish republican soldiers and the surviving members of the International Brigades who could not return to their countries of origin. In these closely watched camps guarded by French colonial troops and surrounded by barbed wire, the cold, the lack of food and drinkable water and the want of elementary hygienic conditions, caused epidemics. The death rate among Spanish refugees reached 500 a week.

Wartime experience weighed heavily on the subsequent activities of all volunteers. For many Jewish volunteers the end of the Spanish Civil War meant a resumption of the antifascist struggle on different battlefields. With the onset of World War II in September 1939, some former Jewish brigadiers in the camps, together with other foreign born Jews living in France, joined the French army. The fate of most prisoners was sealed following the fall of France to Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940. The French collaborationist Vichy government transferred the remaining inmates in camps under their control to the Nazis who then deported them (together with the Spanish Republicans captured while serving in the French army) to death camps in GermanyAustria and Poland. Few of them survived.

Many Jews who eluded capture and imprisonment joined the Resistance against the Nazi occupiers and their puppets throughout many countries Europe. In France, where most European Jewish brigadiers settled, former “Botwins” Abraham Lissner and Leon Pakin joined Sevek Kirschenbaum to form the Jewish “Second Unit” which achieved considerable fame for its bold actions against Nazi occupiers. Others were Marcel Langer, founder and commander of the 35th Brigade of the Resistance, Josef Hauptmann, member of the Resistance’s staff in South France, and Joseph Epstein, chief of the Resistance in the Paris region. Several Jewish women had either gone to Spain or been active in support of the Republic also participated in the resistance, among them were Palestinian-born Simone Bronstein, Olga Bancic from Rumania, Sarah Kowalski and Sarah Vronsky-Rozenblum from Poland, and Connecticut-born nurse Irene Goldin who after the fall of Spain had remained in France. Of the previous group only Abraham Lissner, Joseph Hauptmann, and Irene Goldin survived the war.

Former Jewish brigadiers were prominent leaders of the Resistance movement throughout Europe as well as in the “Red Orchestra,” the most important Allied military intelligence operation of World War II.

Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, many Jewish brigadiers who lived in Soviet territory joined the Red Army or the Soviet-backed Polish army. Capitalizing on their contacts in occupied territories some, after being trained by fellow Jewish Spanish veteran Henryk Torunczyk parachuted behind enemy lines. Among them were Pinkus Kartin and Bernard Volkas who, together with veteran Abe Osheroff and Jack Freeman, were survivors of the sinking of the ship Ciudad de Barcelona in Spain.

Pinkus Kartin was dropped in Poland where, together with another veteran from Spain Abram Fiszelson and two others, he headed the operative military section of the “Antifascist block” in the Warsaw ghetto. Arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, Kartin committed suicide in prison in June 1942. Volkas was sent behind Nazi lines in the autumn of 1941 to organize partisan groups. Arrested and deported to Auschwitz, Volkas helped two other Jewish inmates escape carrying with them photographs taken by David Szmulewski, yet another veteran of the International Brigade and one of the leaders of Birkenau’s underground. These photographs documented the atrocities committed in the Nazi camps. Volkas later resided in the United States.

Following U.S. entry into the war, over 400 Lincoln brigade veterans enlisted in the armed services while many others served in the merchant marine. Many earned battlefield commendations and medals for heroism in action. Twenty Lincoln veterans were killed during World War II, including Herman Bottcher, himself a refugee from Germany. As members of the U.S. Army, Jewish Lincoln veterans fought around the world. Several participated in action inside Germany. Some including vets Al TanzLou GordonMorris Cohen, and Jack Lucid helped to liberate Nazi concentration camps in 1945.

Spanish Civil War Veterans after World War II

After World War II, Jewish veterans of the Spanish Civil War typically returned to their home countries, in whose economic and political infrastructure some of them reached high positions. This was not the case for all of them. In the Soviet Union, many Soviet Jewish advisors to the Spanish Republic became victims of Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s. Among them were Yaakov Shmushkevitch, who had helped organize the Spanish Republican Air Force, Grigori Stern, chief military adviser, Mikhail Koltzov, correspondent of Pravda during the SCW, and Marcel Rosenberg, Soviet ambassador to Spain.

In the late 1940s in the Soviet Union General Manfred Stern, who had commanded the International Brigades on the Madrid front, was accused of “Zionism” and Jewish nationalism and sent to Siberia where he died. In other Soviet bloc countries anti-Semitic campaigns were among the factors that led to the arrest and persecution of Jewish brigadiers including Arthur London, then Deputy of Foreign Affairs in the Czech government, who was sentenced to life imprisonment (rehabilitated in 1955), and forced Eva and Benko Litwak, who had served as medical doctors in Spain, to flee the German Democratic Republic.

In Poland the anti-Semitic campaign escalated after the Six Days War of 1967. The government accused all Jews, including veterans of the Spanish Civil War, of disloyalty as supporters of Israel. Ostracized from posts and places of work, many Spanish veterans lost their pensions and other social services and some were forced to renounce their Polish citizenship and to emigrate to Israel. The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade formally protested the Polish government’s policy toward Jewish veterans.

With the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, the Lincoln Brigade felt vindicated in their struggles against Fascism and Nazism. However, many remained bitter and frustrated that the victorious Allies permitted Franco to remain in power in Spain. After World War II, U.S. presidents accepted Franco as part of the anti-communist alliance of the Cold War. The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) nevertheless continued to support Franco’s opponents inside Spain and celebrated the dictator’s death in 1975.

During the Cold War era, both the VALB organization and individual Lincoln vets faced government investigations for alleged communist ties as well as private harassment by employers. Since about 70 percent of the members of the brigade had been affiliated with the Communist party (or a related group), all were treated as potential subversives. Many Lincoln vets broke with the party during the 1940s and 50s. In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the VALB’s protest against being listed as a subversive organization. Meanwhile, as individuals and as a group, veterans of the Lincoln Brigade remained political activists, taking public stands in favor of the civil rights movement, against the war in Vietnam, opposing the Pinochet coup in Chile, protesting U.S. support for the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and providing humanitarian aid for Cuba and countries in Central America.

As they aged, Lincoln veterans paid more attention to their personal heritage both as radicals and, in many case, as Jews. Some, like the Ukrainian-born musician Lan Adomian, focused primarily on Jewish themes in their work.

Another veteran, Albert Prago, presented historical research that questioned whether Communists who were also Jews should not be also considered Jews who were also Communists. His essay, “Jews in the International Brigades,” republished in the anthology of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Our Fight, edited by Alvah Bessie and Albert Prago (1986), emphasized the role of a Jewish consciousness in inspiring individuals to volunteer in the fight against fascism. Many other surviving veterans acknowledge the importance of Prago’s research. “Let us herald the fact,” he wrote, “that more Jews, proportionately, fought in Spain than any other minority or any other nationality in Europe!”

Curriculum Materials

Read and download ALBA’s lesson plan for Jewish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.