Excerpted from Der Hamer, “Der Heldisher Shturm Ongrif fun der Botvin Companie” (“The Heroic Assault of the Botwin Company”), by G. Bogen,
November, 1938, Page 17)
When the International Brigade leadership decided to create the Jewish Naftali Botwin Company, there was no doubt that Karl Gutman, the 26 year-old weaver from Bialystok, one of the Dombrowski Brigade’s best military leaders and fighters, would be its first commander.
Gutman had both military ability and compassion. He had the organizational skills necessary to manage people and an abiding love for them. He exercised military discipline but was also concerned for the fate of the individual. He combined the rare character traits of inner strength and purpose with the modesty of a hero.
I first met him in the Aragon bunkers at the birth of the Botwin Company. He was calm, unassuming, and spoke little about himself or his past. When he did speak, it was of the Botwin Company; the love and enthusiasm he felt for the Company was obvious.
When Gutman issued orders to his fighters, it was as an equal to an equal, without arrogance or exaggerated authority–his words and gestures conveyed confidence and knowledge. I couldn’t help thinking as I observed him: Only an experienced and proven officer has the confidence to lead like this.
The Botwin Company was occupying a long length of the frontline and Gutman was familiar with every inch of it. He knew where each one of his subordinates were stationed and the relative strengths and weaknesses of their positions. Everything was orderly under his command: discipline, food supplies, political education, and brotherhood among the various people under his command.
When people asked him about the great, historical responsibility that the members of the Botwin Company had assumed [by becoming the first Jewish Company in centuries to be led by a Jewish commander], his eyes lit up. His slim, boyish body became even more confident. His entire being seemed to be saying: Be assured, we Botwinists will not shame the Jewish masses.
I ran into him once more when he and the Brigade were returning from the front. A truck transporting a cargo of Botwinists had taken a sharp curve too fast and overturned, flipping the truck and the Botwinists inside. Several of the men were severely injured and were transported to the hospital. That evening, when Gutman learned of the accident, he immediately begged the battalion commander, Tkatshav, for permission to visit the hospitalized men immediately. It was late and Gutman had worked all day transferring the Company and getting it settled in its new position. Tkatshav advised him to wait until the following morning but Gutman didn’t want to hear of it. He wasn’t tired, he said. His boys were injured and he wouldn’t rest until he could see them because they probably needed him.
There was so much love and concern in his eyes and on his face that Tkatshav, smiling, agreed to let him go. Gutman found his men, got them groceries, fresh underwear, everything they might need. It wasn’t until late that night that he returned to base camp, exhausted.
When I saw him the following morning, he told me with pride how his Botwinists had reacted to the accident. Although hurt and injured, they climbed into the nearby pool of water to gather the grenades and guns which had spilled out of the truck. It was only after they had finished gathering the materiel, Gutman added with a smile, that one of the boys finally “found the time” to faint from the pain.
Before I left the Brigade, Gutman and I discussed the Botwin Company’s future. He was anxious for the new recruits to arrive and was hoping for good, dedicated fighters. He was concerned about uniforms for the Botwinists, they needed warm clothing and blankets, he was hoping for more aid from foreign Jewish communities, the Botwin Company needed its own battle hymn. He was also focused on obtaining more provisions and ammunition, more military training for his boys, and … which Yiddish songs the Company should sing on New Year’s Eve.
Karl Gutman’s signature was the first to appear under the manifesto written to the Jewish masses by the Jewish volunteers in Spain, calling for a broad, democratic front:
In the name of the common blood that was shed by our fallen heroes, we call upon you, the Jewish people: Strengthen the unity of all antifascists.
Karl Gutman was mortally wounded on the night of February 16, 1938. He would die of those wounds the following morning in hospital, not living to see Fascism’s defeat. His blood and the blood of all his comrades calls to us. From the distant Extremadura plains, the fallen heroes cry out their last words: Unify all antifascists!
In distant Bialystok, under the heel of Polish Fascism, Gutman’s family, and those comrades with whom he fought, will always mourn him.
[This account of Gutman’s death contradicts Ephraim Wuzak’s account of Gutman’s death in Zikhroynes fun a Botvinist (A Botwinist’s Memoir), (Warsaw, Poland: Yiddish Bukh, 1964). In it, Wuzek states that Gutman died in battle and was buried in an unmarked grave on February 16, 1938. The Botvin newspaper, November 3, 1938, Issue No. 5, Page 32, agrees, but that may be because it was repeating Wuzek. Research is currently being conducted to learn if Karl Gutman’s name appears in any hospital records or grave listsA.]