Jewish Journal

Remembering the Lincoln Brigade

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Jan. 20, 2000 at 7:00 pm

The long-ago voices of Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie crackled over a loudspeaker, once more spurring on the soldiers of the International Brigades and vowing the defeat of Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

Most of the 200 people gathered at the University of Judaism knew the songs by heart, recalled the brave hopes of the American volunteers fighting for Spain's freedom, and remembered the agony of defeat when Barcelona and Madrid capitulated in 1939, after three years of brutal combat.

The occasion was last Sunday's opening of the "Aura of the Cause," a photo exhibit celebrating the deeds of the 2,800 Americans who fought and died in Spain under the banner of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

On display were the striking posters of the era, one depicting a peasant's shoe grinding a cracked swastika into dust. Another showed a dead child in the wake of a bombing raid, with the prophetic legend, "If you tolerate this, your children will be next."

On the walls were photos, some by the great Robert Capa with his famous shot of a falling militiaman, a split second after being hit by a fatal bullet. Other pictures were by amateurs of comrades posing next to a machine gun or a tank.

Best there was Milton Wolff, who, at age 23, turned from pacifist to become the last commander of the original Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Now, at 84, he is not only surviving but is fully alive, with a sharp mind and wit, and looking like a latter-day Don Quixote.

Historian Peter Carroll of Stanford University, who directs the Lincoln Brigade Archives, cited some of the basic statistics in an interview.

Of the 2,800 American volunteers, nearly 40 percent were Jewish, one-third were killed in battle, and some 70 percent were Communists or members of the Communist Youth League.

Thousands more Jews fought or served as medical personnel in the other international brigades, with contingents from 50 countries, including a Yiddish-speaking unit from Poland.

Another 84-year-old veteran, Benjamin Lane, came up from La Jolla for the exhibit. A flight engineer for Pan Am as a civilian, he went over to help the outmoded Spanish Air Force fight a hopeless battle against Hitler's newly minted Luftwaffe.

Like most of the volunteers, he rejoined the battle against the Nazis with the U.S. armed forces during World War II, although few were ever able to shake Washington's suspicions of the "premature anti-fascists" of the Lincoln Brigade.

Also on hand were half a dozen widows of veterans, among them Millie Rosenstein of Santa Monica. Like most of the volunteers, her husband Herman, nicknamed Gabby, and she, remained activists for the rest of their lives as trade union organizers, civil rights advocates and supporters of leftist causes.

Today, an estimated 120 survivors of the long-ago war remain, many living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a reunion is scheduled for next year.

Perhaps the most uplifting words of the afternoon came from Ignacio Moreno of the local Spanish consulate, who shook Wolff's hand, saying, " Today we have a Spanish democracy, so your efforts were not in vain."

The " Aura of the Cause" exhibit will continue at the University of Judaism's Platt and Borstein galleries through March 12. For hours, call (310) 440-1282. For docent tours, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 203.

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