Jewish Imaginaries of the Spanish Civil War:
In Search of Poetic Justice
Deborah A. Green, ‘The Holy War on Fascism’ in Jewish Imaginaries of the Spanish Civil War: In Search of Poetic Justice, ed. Cynthia Gabbay (London:Blomsbury Academic, Oct. 6, 2022).
Chapter Description: “Holy War on Fascism”: A short overview of the Naftali Botwin Company’s formation and translated excerpts of first-person memoirs from the Company’s members who held opposing views with respect to the International Brigades.
Book Description: Jewish Imaginaries of the Spanish Civil War inaugurates a new field of research in literary and Jewish studies at the intersection of Jewish history and the internationalist cultural phenomenon emerging from the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), the Republican exile, and the Shoah. With the Spanish Civil War as a point of departure, this volume proposes a definition of Jewish textualities based on the entanglement of multiple poetic modes.
Avrom Ovinu Receives a Letter
Chapter Description: “Letters from the Spanish Civil War: Selected Letters from Memories of a Botwinist” by Efraim Wozak. The chapter contains translated letters of farewell written by three former members of the Naftali Botwin Company. They joined the French Resistance during World War II, were captured, and executed by the Nazis. The letters were written to their loved ones, hours before they died.
Book Description: A compendium of translations of Yiddish correspondence and literature about correspondence covering a wide spectrum of human experience: intimate revelations, everyday issues, political activism, and literary creativity. The personal letters illuminate the relationships and struggles of great Yiddish writers. Letters published in the Yiddish press served as public and sometimes political statements.
Books by Deborah A. Green
Coming in 2024: Kaddish for the Fallen
While democracy was crumbling throughout much of the world, it was blossoming in Spain until 1936, when a group of Spanish generals rebelled against the idea that the Spanish people could rule themselves. Ninety percent of Spain’s military attacked their own country. They were supported by Spain’s upper classes, monarchists, and clergy. All had a vested interest in restoring a military dictatorship that allowed the upper classes to exploit the poor, the military to rule the country, and the clergy to control civil liberties.
Then as now, politics was both complicated and cynical.
The United States, France and England were not interested in aiding a leftist government, even if that government was democratically elected. Stalin stepped up to help but he demanded the entire Spanish treasury in exchange.
It was then that 40,000 men from 53 countries volunteered to help the Spanish Republic defeat the Fascist coup; one third of them were Jewish. Why did they come to Spain?
Good Jewish boys didn’t run off to fight for Communist causes, and good Communist boys didn’t chant the Goyml, the Jewish prayer thanking God for rescue from imminent death. So … who were these Jewish boys that could quote both Marx and the Jewish prayer books with equal facility? None of them received more than some food and clothing, if that. They lived and fought in horrid conditions. When they returned home, if they were allowed to return home, they faced humiliation and discrimination. Some were unable to get jobs; some were ostracized for fighting an unfashionable enemy too soon; some were deprived of their civil rights and citizenship; some were considered criminals. And those were the lucky ones.
Volunteers deemed “stateless”, such as those who had come from Poland, Germany, and other Fascist countries, who would be imprisoned or worse on their return, were interned in concentration camps in northern Africa and southern France. After the start of World War II, the Vichy government shipped the truly unfortunate to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex in Germany and Austria; the Jews among them to Auschwitz. And then there were those who would remain in Spain forever, most buried in unmarked graves.
So the question remains—why did these Jewish men fight for Spain? Why did they leave their families, homes and livelihoods to risk their lives for a country that had expelled, tortured and killed their ancestors? For them there was only one rational answer–they went to Spain to destroy Fascism. And when the Spanish Republic was defeated on April 1, 1939, and World War II began with Germany’s attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, many of these Jewish volunteers escaped the French internment camps and returned home to form partisan and resistance groups in the cities, ghettos, forests, and camps. They held true to the vows they had taken upon joining the International Brigades—they continued the battle.
This is their story.
Take a Deeper Dive Into the Book
We reached some burnt-out vehicles on a wide road. The Commandant told us to take shelter under the cars’ metal chassis. Inside the cars were corpses of Fascist officers, their faces and uniforms coal-black. The sudden calm led me to believe that today’s assault was over but the automobiles meant that we were behind enemy lines.
We were on our backs, lying in the dust alongside the filthy road, breathing hard. Some of the men plundered the vehicles, pulling out burnt cases of sardines and preserves. The respite didn’t last long. The Fascists released another storm of bullets, shrapnel, and cannon fire. The earth beneath our feet shook from the impact of the heavy artillery being thrown at us. The Commandant jumped up and ordered:
The air itself seemed to split into a thousand pieces, each piece screwing itself into our eyes, our ears, our noses. The Commandant was suddenly gone – caught by a bullet. We kept running but, confused by the unending barrage, the bullets screaming by, half-crazy from the screams and blood, and without our Commandant to lead us, we ran off in different directions.
Somehow, I still held my gun. To my right was a tall cliff. I turned in that direction. Someone was following close behind me but I didn’t dare turn around, I just kept running. Reaching the cliff, I spied a sheltered spot and threw myself at it. My breath was heavy and painful, my lungs were shredded. Someone collapsed beside me, it was Velvel, another Botwinist, a Polish Jew from Volin.
We both lay silent for a few moments, trying to calm our breathing. In the distance we saw militiamen running forward and falling in waves, but we were too far to hear the sounds. It was a silent nightmare.
Velvel tried to get up but fell back, his entire face in spasm, his crying out of control. Inhuman sobs ripped from his throat as tears poured from his eyes. He was a simple man, hardly able to formulate a sentence, but he was babbling:
“A slaughter! They sent us like calves to the slaughterhouse!”
The fighting calmed on the distant field and the smoke cleared. Nothing moved. I could see waves of bullets crashing into the sand, grass and stones, but the barrage became smaller and was coming less often.
I signaled to Velvel:
“Come on, let’s go! The Fascists will be on top of us soon.”
I started to stand but Velvel stopped me, pointing with his finger. A Moroccan cavalry unit was racing out from between two mountains, galloping wildly. They were wearing long, red cloaks, holding rifles and glittering swords. Their horses seemed to fly while smoke rose from their blazing guns. It was over for us. We pressed closer to the sheltering corner of the cliff but there was no real place for us to hide. I was trembling with fear. I knew that the first thing they did to their prisoners, particularly the International Brigade soldiers, was to blind and castrate them. The Arab riders were getting closer and closer. We could hear their wild ululations and even wilder shooting…