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Around the Jewish World Jewish War Vets Fight for Recognition for Role in War Against Franco’s Fasci

September 15, 2003
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The dining hall in the rural village was packed with elderly war veterans who thrust clenched fists into the air as they sang an old Communist fight song.

They had come from around the world for a reunion commemorating the Spanish Civil War — the first major European battle of the 20th century against fascism.

Among them was 60-year-old Jack Shafran of New York City.

“If push comes to shove, I suppose I’m Jewish,” he said, when asked to comment on his motivation for fighting in the 1936-39 war against Gen. Francisco Franco.

But Shafran, who never had a Bar Mitzvah and has lived a mostly secular life, said the real reason for his fighting was his deep Communist convictions, inspired by his Aunt Eva, who had immigrated from Eastern Europe.

Around 35,000 young men and women from around the world, many of them from assorted leftist movements, volunteered to fight against Franco in the so-called International Brigades.

They did so after the United States and its European allies refused to come to the aid of Spain’s democratically elected government against Franco’s rebel army, which was aided by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.

According to Rachel Ibanez Sperber, a researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at least 7,000 of the “brigadistas” — or one-fifth — were Jewish.

But while countless exhibitions, books and seminars have been devoted to the dozens of contingents from the United States, France, Holland, Poland and other countries, little attention has been paid to Jewish fighters as a specific group.

That is slowly changing, thanks in part to the efforts of Sperber, whose father fought in the war.

Sperber organized an exhibit on Jews in the Spanish Civil War held earlier this year at Hebrew University.

Israeli radio recently interviewed two Jewish brigadistas in a program devoted to the issue. And Israeli television broadcast a documentary on the 300 or so Jews and the handful of Arabs who went from Palestine to fight in Spain.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, named for a group of American brigadistas, now has an educational module on its Web site,, called, “For Your Liberty & Ours: Jewish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.”

But when Sperber started researching the exhibit several years ago, she said it was almost as if Jewish participation didn’t happen.

Part of the reason is that few Jews, especially Americans — who defied an American travel ban to fight in Spain — identified themselves as Jews.

“They went as anti-fascists, not as Jews,” Sperber said.

This was the case even though approximately one-third of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade members were Jewish. The highest ranking American, Col. John Gates, actually was a Jew named Israel Regenstreif fighting under an assumed name.

In the Romanian contingent, the level of Jewish participation was 80 to 90 percent.

And nearly half of the volunteers in the Dombrowski Brigade from Poland were Jewish.

In that brigade, a specifically Jewish unit of 200 men was formed and called Botwin Company. The company was named after Naftali Botwin, a young Jewish Communist who was executed in 1925 in Poland after he assassinated a police provocateur.

The unit’s banner bore the motto “For your liberty and ours.”

Interestingly, historical sources indicate that not all members of Botwin Company were Jewish.

One was a German who joined the unit to spite his Nazi father, and another was a Greek who thought he should fight alongside Jews because both cultures were the parents of modern Western civilization.

Even though there is little recognition of the Jewish element in Spain’s civil war, many exhibits show photos of fighters reading Yiddish newspapers or posing in front of a banner in Hebrew letters.

Robert Coale, a professor of Spanish history, says Abraham Lincoln veterans have told him that often in the brigades, “you couldn’t always find someone who spoke Spanish, but you could always find someone who spoke Yiddish.”

Still, Jewishness usually was secondary to identification with Communist ideology, even though many Jewish Communists later became disillusioned with the movement, Coale said.

“Mostly, they were cultural Jews,” he said.

In America, during the McCarthy era, many former brigade members were harassed by the authorities after the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades organization was labeled a “subversive” group.

The lack of a focus on many fighters’ Jewish background is striking, some say, given that Franco’s fascists — who were inspired by centuries of anti-Semitism dating back to the Spanish Inquisition — saw Jews as one of their principal enemies.

In a radio speech at the outset of the war, fascist Gen. Queipo de Llano told the nation: “Our war is not a Spanish civil war. It is a war of Western civilization against the Jews of the entire world.”

Against such hostility, there were some Jews who saw themselves very clearly as such.

One of them was Wilfred Mendelson.

In a letter to his father dated June 22, 1938, he wrote, “Today Jews are returning, welcomed by the entire Spanish people to fight the modern Inquisition . . . Yes, Pop, I am sure we are fighting in the best Macabbean tradition.”

Another American brigadista, William Harvey, told a reporter for Life magazine that he came to fight because “I know what Hitler is doing to my people.”

But they were a minority. And the relative lack of attention to the Jewish contribution to the war has endured despite an article published in 1979 by Spanish Civil War veteran Alberto Prago, who cited the remarks by Mendelson and Harvey.

Prago argued that Jewish participation in “the first armed resistance to European fascism” was proof that “not all Jews went passively to the concentration camps and crematoria.”

After three years of intensely bloody warfare, Franco defeated the government’s forces and established a dictatorship that was to last until his death in 1975.

As the Spanish war ended, World War II broke out. Hitler used the tanks and war tactics such as carpet-bombing that he had tested out in the battles across the Iberian Peninsula.

After Franco took control of Spain, what remained of the International Brigades fled across the Spanish border into France. And, in a tragic irony many, both Jewish and gentile, ended up perishing in Nazi death camps.

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