On the frontlines of identity

Sarah Sackman asseses the experiences of the Jewish volunteers who fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War

Ever since Joseph served in Pharoah’s court, Jews have struggled to balance the desire to belong against maintaining a central kernel of Jewishness that keeps them separate. The particular difficulty facing the volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War when the particular battle was to reconcile an ideological universalism with an identity that was specifically Jewish.  Between 1936 and 1939, over 7,000 Jews from 45 countries went to join the International Brigades to defend the democratically-elected Republic against Franco’s fascist uprising. Their struggle is one that continues to resonate with contemporary significance.

Many Jews joined ‘the good fight’ in response to the Popular Front ideal that workers of the world should transcend differences of nationality and creed to unite against the common fascist enemy. They also hoped that their involvement in such action would enable them to assimilate more easily into wider society. Paradoxically, such universalism was also the product of a particularly Jewish imagination, the shared mindset of those involved a reflection of ideas and experiences that were specifically Jewish.

The letters, diaries and poems written at the time of the war suggest that the majority of the volunteers were left-wing ideologues, who did not feel that being Jewish inspired their presence in Spain. ‘We didn’t volunteer as Jews, but we felt the fascist threat because we were Jews’, Moe Fishman, a member of the American Lincoln brigade, commented. Yet while they may not have acknowledged it, the inescapable fact of their Jewishness undoubtedly affected how they experienced and interpreted the war.

Jewish volunteers from the US and Britain were, in the main, the children of Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European immigrants. The majority were born into the radical milieu of New York’s Lower East Side and London’s East End, where Jewish garment unions, fraternal orders and a Yiddish and socialist press contributed to a world in which left-wing activism was a way of life. As British volunteer Frank Lesser recalled ‘the East End was full of street corner meetings…it was impossible not be interested in politics’.

Many young people were attracted by the way Socialism abrogated ethnicity in favour of a cosmopolitan ideal of proletarian solidarity, encouraging them to reject the parochialism of their parents’ generation. Joining a People’s Army presented them with an opportunity to shed the elements of their identity that were uniquely Jewish, and remould themselves as universal citizens; as one volunteer put it, ‘looking back on the Spanish Civil War, you can see the Jews were tearing up roots’.

Although few denied their background, hardly any volunteers went to Spain outwardly identifying as Jews, and in letters home to parents and girlfriends, they emphasised class struggle as the primary motivation for their action. Jewish-American volunteer, Alvah Bessie, explained in his diary: ‘My decision to come here was to achieve self-integration…I wanted to work in a large body of men, to submerge myself in the mass seeking neither distinction nor preferment’.

Similarly, British volunteers tended to downplay their origins, although their closer encounters with anti-Semitism gave them a more explicitly Jewish angle on the benefits of fighting fascism; the Spanish Civil War coincided with the famous Battle of Cable Street, which took place on 4 October 1936. The Jewish Establishment, represented by the Board of Deputies, adopted a defensive position that was far removed both from working class opinion and that of youthful firebrands. It published a warning in the Jewish Chronicle urging that people ‘keep away from the route of the Blackshirt march and from their meetings. Jews who however innocently become involved in any possible disorders will be actively helping anti-Semitism and Jew baiting…KEEP AWAY’.

Unsurprisingly, such warnings went unheeded. An estimated 100,000 people, many of them Jewish, took to the streets to resist a proposed rally by Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists. It was no coincidence that the protestors’ rallying cry ‘They shall not pass’ was a translation of the Spanish Republic’s ‘No pasaran’.

It was not long before the Communist Party became the leading anti-racist organisation in both the US and Britain. For the large number of Jews already sympathetic to left-wing causes, joining the party became the best way of resisting fascism at home and abroad.

For some, this was not enough, and they took their conviction to its natural conclusion by travelling to Spain to fight. Many changed their names in an attempt to become truer partisans – Solomon Regenstreit became Commander John Gates, Eli Begelman, Ellis Beal and William Horvitz, William Herrick. A change of name meant a reinvention of self, and the acceptance of a white Anglo-Saxon identity, free of Jewish association.

In the event, the realities of the conflict in Spain challenged the cosmopolitan self-image of many Jewish volunteers. Many found themselves fighting alongside thousands of other Jews – it is estimated that 20% of the International Brigades were of Jewish origin. With fighters from around the world, a common language proved a more practical unifier than Marxist politics and Yiddish became the lingua franca of the brigades, with Yiddish newspapers produced at the battlefront. Wilfred Mendelson observed that ‘the real international language is Yiddish. Jews from Germany, France, England, Poland…have come to battle the common enemy of the workers and of the Jews as a special oppressed minority’.

Volunteers from Eastern Europe had a more pronounced sense of Jewish solidarity than those from America and Britain, not least because of they had experienced anti-semitism of the most virulent kind. Those from Poland formed an all-Jewish unit, named after the Polish-Jewish and Communist martyr Naftali Botwin, news of whom had spread to communities worldwide. The Morgen Frayhayt, a New York-based Yiddish-language Communist newspaper, reported that they represented ‘a new type of Jewish hero that has already during its life become a legend, the Jewish freedom-fighter’. Mendelson saw his contribution in an even wider historical context, commenting in a letter to his father that ‘I am sure we are fighting in the best Maccabean tradition’.

The differing desires of the volunteers to shed their ethnic identity and take pride in their background stemmed from their mixed feelings about what it meant to be Jewish. A visit by two Jewish-Americans to a Barcelona restaurant run by German Jewish immigrants illustrated this dichotomy.

One of the men, Harry Fisher, expressed a longing for familiar Jewish culture. ‘The meals were delicious – just like mom’s. I heard Jewish spoken again. Was I homesick’. Harold Smith, his companion, also enjoyed his meal, but was contemptuous of the other Jewish restaurant-goers. He described them as a ‘disgusting lot…incapable of seeing beyond the ends of their noses. Spain is at war with exactly those people who are persecuting Jews. But do you think these bastards would do what one would expect any man to do and join the fight?’ For Smith, an ideological communist, these non-partisans had failed, ‘in their duty as Jews if nothing else’. He consoled himself with the knowledge ‘that we have others of a different type who have proven themselves in the International Brigades’.

The ambivalence of some volunteers towards their Jewishness was replicated in their feelings towards Zionism. Among the International Brigades were three hundred volunteers from Palestine. The majority were drawn from Communist Party ranks, and broadly believed in Jewish-Arab working-class co-operation, rather than partition along ethno-religious lines. This was in step with Comintern’s official position at the time, which rejected Jewish nationalism in the belief that unity based on ethnic or religious ties would divert energy from the fundamental class struggle.

Paul Sigel, a Jewish-American volunteer, felt an added responsibility to fight discrimination on behalf of all oppressed minorities. To him it was inconceivable that Jews, so often the victims of persecution themselves, should fail to act on behalf of the Arab population. This same duty was later reflected in the prominence of Jewish activists in the American civil rights movement and the struggle against apartheid.

The anti-Semitism with which many volunteers were confronted caused them to reflect on the inescapable nature of their Jewish identity, and echoes of Jewish persecution in Spain were not lost on them. One letter home read ‘Spain is perhaps a fit arena for this struggle. Here it was that the Medieval Inquisition drove the Jews from their homes. Today Jews are returning to fight the modern Inquisition’.

Jack Freeman, another American volunteer, described his visit to a Republican hospital which had yet to admit any Jewish patients:

‘Name?’ asked the Spaniard. I told him my first name. He didn’t know how to write it. So I showed him. Then he asks ‘Father’s name?’ Samuel, I say. He looks at me crooked but he writes. After that he wants Mom’s names and I tell him Eva. Suddenly he springs up. ‘Now I know’ he says ‘you’re a Yid’ and he runs immediately to bring in his friends in order to show them the ugly animal, a Jew. I must have been the first Jew they’d seen in their whole lives.

This experience reminded Freeman of his Jewishness; his war correspondence until that point suggested that his ideological commitment to Communism overwhelmed any attachment to his background. In a sense, it was not only the Spanish staff seeing a Jew for the first time, but Freeman too.

The Jewish volunteers who fought in Spain were idealists, and like many of their kind, they achieved a great deal, but were also the victims of grand expectations. The hope that they could defeat fascism and establish a utopian socialist society in Spain was shattered, first by Franco’s victory and then by the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939. Moreover, the expectation that they could transcend the politics of identity by their submersion in a People’s Army was naïve; they were identified by the right as specifically Jewish heroes, whilst others on the left refused on principle to separate them from the masses.

For the majority of Jews, the ideological battles of the 1930s are a thing of the past. Today’s political landscape is rendered in shades of grey rather than black and white. The left has undergone massive changes, with Soviet repression and the collapse of Communism discrediting its radical wing. At the same time, the migration from the Lower East Side and East End slums to the leafy suburbs has been accompanied by a political shift to the right.

Yet despite these developments, questions of Jewish identity politics persist, albeit in a different context of affluence. The ‘double-consciousness’ experienced by the volunteers — the disparity between how others saw them and how they wished to be seen — is as much a part of today’s Jewish dilemma as it was then. Rooted in a liberal individualist, rather than a socialist perspective, the story of Jewish volunteers in Spain reflects the contemporary struggle of a people striving to vindicate their cosmopolitanism, while simultaneously maintaining their unique identity within the community of nations.

Sarah Sackman read history at Queen’s College, Cambridge, where she specialised in Modern American and British History.  Her research into Jewish and African-American volunteers in Spain received prizes from New York University and Cambridge University and was presented at Madrid University in 2006 and Limmud Conference in 2007. She is currently working as a pupil barrister in London and volunteers as a legal advisor at Toynbee Hall.

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