Jews fighting Fascism
Kaddish for the Fallen
“Fascism is not to be debated, it is to be destroyed!”
“The only truly dead are those who have been forgotten.”
The Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War Begins
On February 16, 1936, Socialists won the Spanish general election by a resounding margin of one percent. Despite their underwhelming mandate, they immediately instituted changes to a system that had existed for millennia. In their zeal to correct centuries of exploitation, the Republicans lit the fuse on a political situation poised to explode for years.
The Spanish military, accustomed to power, was humiliated and curtailed. Their numbers were reduced, and many military schools were closed, its most senior officers were involuntarily retired or transferred to distant colonies. As a result, the reactionary Spanish generals attacked the fledgling government within five months of its election. The military expected the new government to hang its head and limp away as previous governments had done under similar circumstances. Not this time. The Spanish people, with no arms, no training, and no army, rose up and fought. They had tasted freedom, even if for only a few months, and were prepared to die for their duly elected government. Then as now, politics was both complicated and cynical. The precursor to the Second World War had begun.
Coming in 2024: Kaddish for the fallen
Despite, the possibility of imprisonment or death, 40,000 anti-Fascists from 53 different countries left their homes and families to fight fascism in Spain. These people were the International Brigade Volunteers; more than 25% of them were Jewish and they comprised the largest percentage of volunteers in the Brigades. There were so many Jews in the medical units that Yiddish became the second most popular language spoken in Spain after Spanish. Who were these people and why did they risk their lives to fight for a country that had tortured and burned their ancestors at the stake? What happened to them after the Spanish war was lost? What did they believe in then, and what can we learn from them now? These are the questions that Kaddish for the Fallen answers
While translating Yiddish Yizkor books (memorial books written by Jewish survivors after World War II), I came across references to Spain while writing about Jewish WWII partisans:
“Moshe was in Madrid so he knew how to blow up a train”
“Duvid was in Barcelona so he could handle a machine gun”
“Shlomo was a sapper in Catalonia so he could clear mines”.
What were these Jews doing in Spain, I wondered? No Jews were left in Spain–they had all been exiled or burned at the stake in 1492. Curious, I wanted to learn more only to find that there was practically no information about these men in English language sources. I was going to have to access the information in Yiddish if I wanted to learn anything.
My search started in New York, in the archives of YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research), continued on to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, where almost every Yiddish book ever published has been digitized (and is available at no cost in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library), detoured to the former Soviet Union’s archives, and ended on the mountain trails of the Catalonian Pyrenees where hidden graves of fallen Jewish fighters are still maintained by local townspeople.
It was in Spain that Alan Warren, my amazing guide, led my husband and me to the sites where these Jewish boys had fought, died, and were buried.
Alan asked that we chant Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for these men who had given their lives so that others could live free. That was probably the only time that this prayer was spoken over their graves. It was because of Alan’s wish that Kaddish be said, that the name of my book, Kaddish for the Fallen, came to me. I thank him for that and for sharing with me some of his great store of knowledge during that incredible journey.