On September 23, 1938, Republican Spain’s Prime Minister, Dr. Juan Negrin, issued an “Order of the Day” dissolving the five International Brigades. The Order thanked the International Brigades for their immense role in defending against the Republic against Franco’s fascist attacks. The purpose of the Order was to show the world Germany and Italy’s blatant disregard for the infamous and unjust Non-Intervention policy.
The International Brigades were created by the People’s Front in the name of freedom and international solidarity. Today, there are no longer any foreign volunteers in the Republican Army, but the world will always remember these workers who were the first to take up arms against fascism.
Coming to the aid of nations fighting for their freedom is not a new concept. Brave and enthusiastic supporters have come to the aid of people fighting for independence throughout history. Lord Byron, the English poet, came to Greece as a freedom fighter on behalf of that tiny country’s freedom in its struggle against Turkish rule. Lafayette and Van Buren did the same, helping the North Americans as they battled England for independence. But those were singular men and singular facts. What made the Spanish Civil War unique was the methodical help given by thousands of men and women who streamed into Spain from 53 nations, representing every level of society, every political party, and every social ideology.
The first group of “Internationalists”, as they were originally referred to in Republican Spain, arrived in number in September 1936, although some came as early as August. Without training or language, they joined the ranks of workers, students, and intellectuals that comprised the Spanish militias. These Internationalists fought at San Sebastian, Irun, Curiña, and Toledo. They and the Asturian “dynamiters”, unarmed except for hand grenades, defended Casa de Campo, Parque del Oeste, Ciudad Universitaria de Madrid, Puente Caral, El Escorial, and Huesca in the early battles. These men were the first to volunteer to fight for Republican Spain: Frenchman, Polish, and German emigres from France, and… Jews.
These Jews were in Barcelona to take part in and support the workers’ sports Olympiada that was to start on July 18, 1936. Hundreds of athletes, delegates, and guests from all parts of Europe gathered for what would be a significant counterdemonstration [to Hitler’s Olympics] of proletarian sportsmanship, youthful energy, and the joy of life. About 300 Jews from Belgian, Parisian, and Austrian sport clubs, as well as children from the French worker’s Jewish schools, had traveled by train from France on the evening of July 17, 1936. They sang and shouted as they passed through the welcoming, fertile Spanish countryside. Feeling a solidarity with the workers and the socialist and communist youth, they were animated by the spirit of the People’s Front.
On the morning of July 18th, they heard gunfire, explosions, and artillery fire in the Barcelona streets and learned of the attacks on the barracks near the Alburquerque hills. Militia from the workers’ syndicates, Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (anarcho-syndicalist trade union) and Unificado de Catalunya (anarchist and communist-socialists), quickly organized and captured the rebel-held garrisons.
The first response to the ensuing chaos was to send the children and teenagers back to France; the second was to defend the city. German Jews who had previously emigrated to Spain joined Jewish athletes from Belgium, Paris, Nancy, and Mandate Palestine in their defense of Barcelona.
So began armed Jewish opposition to fascism.
What possessed these Jewish young, middle-aged, and even elderly men and women to leave their homes in Hungary, Mandate Palestine, Poland, Bukovina, and Bessarabia, and travel to the maelstrom of bombs that was the Spanish Civil War? In his foreword to Los Judeos–Luchadores de la Libertad [Jewish Freedom Fighters in Spain], (Madrid, October 1937), written by [Gina Medem], the author of this article, the Italian antifascist, Luigi Gallo, Inspector General for all International Brigades, provided a brief explanation:
I remember as if it happened yesterday. An intense young man with black hair entered my office. This occurred in the early days, when Jewish volunteers first started coming to the International Brigade base in Albacete. Good-looking, charming, and determined, he had gathered a group of 15 Jewish volunteers and led them proudly through the streets of Albacete. He now spoke on their behalf.
He wanted to know whether the Brigade leadership would allow Jews to organize an independent military unit within the International Brigades. “We want to show the world what Jews can do. The fascists accuse us of cowardice and of being parasites. We want to show the world that we fight like heroes,” he said.
I understood and agreed with his feelings and political motivation. I told him that Andre Marty, the brilliant organizer of the International Brigades, and I would inform our Jewish volunteers they were free to form a new Jewish unit if they so wished.
The young comrade left me with tears of joy on his face, happy to be given the opportunity to take revenge for all the vulgar slander and lies spread by fascists about his people… Unfortunately, the comrade’s wish would not be immediately realized. The difficulties of language, the danger during those first few days, and the disorganization of our forces didn’t allow us to proceed. He and his 15 young men from Paris set off for Madrid. I arrived a week later and looked forward to meeting him again, but learned he was killed during the first days of the battle at Ciudad Universitaria. He died bravely and showed the world Jewish heroism. I can still see his face.
The young man Gallo spoke of was Albert Neramivokh. He had left his native Poland as a youth and emigrated to Mandate Palestine. From there, he went to Paris, and then to Spain, where he would die for Madrid. But Franco’s Moors, Raquete, and fascists of all stripes, still have not advanced from where Albert Neramivokh left them 31 months ago.
Albert Neramivokh’s anguished request answered the question initially posed: what prompted Jews of every social class and age to go to Spain? The answer is simple; they wanted to fight the fascists in a separate Jewish military unit. I was told that if a Jewish unit had existed at the start of the war, many more Jews would have joined the International Brigades.
One year after Albert Neramivokh’s death, his dream of a Jewish unit became a reality. On December 13, 1937, the XIII Dombrowski Brigade renamed its Second Company the “Naftali Botwin Company”, in honor of the martyred Jewish hero. This new Jewish company unified Jews, Spaniards, and Pol. into a single fighting unit. [Naftali Botwin’s story will be told in later translations. If you are interested in reading more about him, please sign up and you will be notified of its publication.]
The Botwins received orders to retreat in the face of large Moroccan cavalry units on February 16, , in Extremadura. Their response: “We came to Spain to advance! The Botwin Company does not retreat!” Moroccan troops soon surrounded the Botwins. Shtamler from Tel-Aviv, Zavadnik, Eli Weintraub, and Eisen pulled the pins on their hand grenades, blowing themselves and the approaching Moroccans to pieces. [Sigmunt Stein witnessed this event and described it in his book, Der Birger Krig in Shpanye (The Civil War in Spain), currently being translated from the original Yiddish into English by Deborah A. Green. If you are interested in receiving the excerpt, plus other translations, please sign up and you will receive your copy by email.]
The Botwin Company gained fame fighting in Aragon, Extremadura, and most recently, during the Republican offensive on the Ebro River, where the Botwins were first to cross the river in pontoons. There were also many other Jews in the Brigades, professional officers such as the English career officer, Major George Nathan, who exemplified fearlessness. As grenades flew over the olive tree he used for shade, Nathan studied his maps and smoked his Capstan cigarettes, as calmly as if sitting in a cantina.
Former Jewish officers of the Polish Army taught other Jews and Spaniards how to use artillery and formed the Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Liebknekht and Baratsch Zlavarski artillery batteries. Young Jewish-Moroccan men also played an important role on the front. They were fearless ammunition-truck and ambulance drivers, pilots, telephone operators, liaisons, patrolmen, and soldiers, bringing their technique, athleticism, conscientiousness, stability, and discipline to the front.
The American Jews brought with them the spirit and traditions of their European fathers, who had fought in 1905. They were the most confident. Their role, as well as that of the Negroes in their battalion, was to lift the primitive, down-trodden Spanish peasants, the former slaves, and teach them to resist and attack. Abraham Lincoln’s spirit lived within these young American men. They had been icons of the workers’ movement, boldly walking the picket lines. Now they showed other Jews, Negroes, and Spaniards the road toward freedom.
In August 1937, I met Max Stark in Albacete. Of all the fighters I met in Spain, he most impressed me. A young Jewish captain from Lemberg, Poland, he had worked as a barber in Antwerp. Born into a working family, his father worked in the Drohobych coal mines, and the family often went hungry. Young Stark struggled to make a living. He moved to Belgium, where he worked illegally, spending his days playing cards in cafés, making bread deliveries, taking any kind of job—reading held no interest for him.
Finally, Stark learned a trade. Although he became a barber and made decent money, he wanted to supplement his earnings, so he leased his apartment to the illegal “Red Militia” as a place for them to hold their clandestine meetings. He listened to the political discussions, learned about the workers’ struggles and revolutionary activism, and became radicalized. His girlfriend, whom he respected and loved, because she had raised his worker’s consciousness, encouraged him to become an activist.
Although Stark was doing well financially and supporting his family in Poland, he left for Spain in November 1937, together with several Antwerp comrades. While on the Madrid front, his friends sent him letters of encouragement. He fought in Madrid and on other battlefields and the High Command sent him to Officer Training School, where he became a disciplined fighter. As a lieutenant on the Brunete front, he endured a juggernaut of bombs dropped daily on the Republican army by 70 fascist planes. Despite the endless bombing, he displayed initiative, coolness under fire, and experienced the brotherhood known only among soldiers.
The Edgar André Company lost its most forward trenches to a Moroccan attack. The fascists then assaulted the Company’s flank, destroying it almost entirely. Communication was immediately cut between Stark and headquarters. Without hesitation, Stark chose 15 men. They grabbed hand grenades and a machine gun and moved to the edge of the positions captured by the enemy and attacked. The assault was so strong, and the surprise so great, that soon 200 fascists lay dead, and Stark recovered one- and one-half kilometers of lost ground for the Republic. Stark and his men then caught up with the Edgar André battalion’s remnants and joined its flank.
Stark’s actions astonished the Brigade leadership which described his heroic exploits in the “Order of the Day”. Promoted immediately to captain because of his abilities as a strategist, assigned to the Military Academy to help craft a dangerous strategy to be used behind Franco’s lines. But first, he was granted leave to see his wife, who worked in a Spanish hospital. Before leaving for the Academy, Stark rejoined the Edgar André battalion, which was fighting the fascists in Teruel. Seriously wounded in January 1938, he died of his injuries two days later.
These Jewish fighters now represent our people—they are our new leadership. Although they have no titles nor university degrees, they are the vanguard of history’s first armed response to fascism. They focused their hatred on the Spanish insurrection and international fascism. Every antifascist returning from Spain should find solace in the 31 months spent defending and fighting for Spanish freedom, purchased with the blood of their comrades.
The International Brigades Inspectorate and the Republican Army leadership allowed me to write Los Judeos–Luchadores de la Libertad (Jewish Freedom Fighters in Spain), (Madrid, October 1937), a Spanish language book about these first Jewish freedom fighters in honor of the incredible courage shown by the Jewish anti-fascists who fought side-by-side with their Spanish and international brothers.
GINA MEDEM (1886-January 29, 1977)
David Diamant, author of Yidn in Shpanishn Krig 1936-1939 * (Jews in the Spanish Civil War) (Warsaw, Yiddish Bukh, 1967), called Gina Medem one of the most striking Jewish figures of her time. Upon graduating high school, she became a revolutionary in Lodz, Poland. Working on behalf of the Bund, she traveled throughout Lodz and provincial towns in the region, spending months in Polish jails for her efforts.
Medem went to Spain as a reporter for New Masses, a New York-based magazine. While there, she spoke on Madrid radio in Yiddish**, as well as reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the American Morgn Dzshurnal, the Paris Naye Prese, the Kharkov Shtern, as well as other Soviet-Yiddish newspapers.
Medem published her reportage in Lender, Felker, Kamfn (Countries, People, Battles) (New York, 1963) ***. She also wrote Los Judíos, Voluntarios de la Libertad (Un Año de Lucha en las Brigadas Internacionales) (Jews, Volunteers for Freedom (A Year of Fighting in the International Brigades) (Madrid, 1937), as well as other books. She went to every Spanish front and visited every hospital where a Jewish volunteer might be found. She was tireless in her support of these men, holding long conversations with them, encouraging them, and popularizing their struggles in her reportage. Her articles about Jewish militiamen provided insight into the motivating force that propelled Jews into the fight for the Spanish Republic–their desire to fight fascism.
* The author of this website is currently working on a translation of the Diamant book.
** A translation will soon be available on this webpage.
*** The author of this website is currently working on a translation of Shpanye (Spain), a chapter in Medem’s Lender, Felker, Kamfn (Nations, Peoples, Battles). A translation will soon be available on this webpage.