United They Stood

Spain's fight against fascism rallied a motley corps of American amateurs to the cause

By Merrill Goozner
Tribune Staff Writer

May 30, 1997, Section 2, Page 1 and 10
Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK - Three shirtless soldiers with rifles in hand begin their advance from a shallow trench clawed in the rocky Spanish soil. One wears wire-rim glasses and sandals. Another is so scrawny, his antiquated rifle seems an unbearable weight. The third's hair is wrapped in a kerchief, always a symbol of rebellious youth.

The 60-year-old photograph paints a revealing portrait of the Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939. Idealists all, the 2,900 members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade joined 40,000 international volunteers who had flocked to Spain to defend its fledgling democracy against the overwhelming onslaught of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his fascist allies, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

The volunteers were intellectuals and workers, communists and anarchists, writers and poets, black and white. Above all, they were amateurs both as soldiers and as photographers.

As soldiers, they left behind a rich legacy. At a time when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was adding the word "appeasement" to the diplomatic lexicon, they showed the world what it meant to sacrifice for a cause. Their belief in democracy and the need to confront fascism gave them the strength to risk their lives in someone else's fight. A third never returned home.

For more than 60 years, their photographic legacy, equally enduring, moldered in a Russian warehouse. But thanks to the dogged determination of some of the 160 surviving members of the brigade, 130 of those photos can now be seen at the Puffin Room Gallery here through Sunday and in "The Aura of the Cause: A Photo Album for north American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War." The handsome catalog was compiled by University of Illinois English professor Cary Nelson and distributed by the U of I Press.

"The soldiers saw it as a historical record of a war they knew was very important," said Nelson, whose own interest in the Spanish Civil War was sparked by Edwin Rolfe, a well-regarded poet of the 1930s who joined the Lincoln Brigade and became its poet laureate. "They saw the world imperiled by fascism, and they were the first to go do something about it."

The exhibition has few of the action photos that came to define photojournalism during the Spanish Civil War. The single most famous picture was Robert Capa's "Falling Militiaman," which captured a Republican soldier at the moment of death, his lower body still moving forward, his arms outstretched and letting go of his rifle, his head tilted back with eyes already shut forever.

Rather, most of the photographs in "The Aura of the Cause" seem like they were snatched from someone's family album. There are simple snapshots of soldiers in training and at play, nurses at work and dozens of group photos and portraits that have all the pizazz of yearbook pictures.

Yet the display also contains pictures of a nation under assault that can still tear one's heart out more than a half-century after the fact the smoking rubble of a Madrid street under German air attack: peasant refugees crowding into a truck, a dead volunteer lying in a pool of blood as his comrades march past.

Records Saved, Then Lost

Late in 1938, with the Luftwaffe pounding Spanish cities and all hope of Allied intervention gone, the Lincoln Brigade's leaders began preparing to flee Spain. They knew they had to keep their battle records and photographs out of Franco's hands. The records would be a death sentence for any Spaniard who had cooperated with the international brigades.
So they boxed thousands of photographs, hundreds of thousands of documents and much of the memorabilia that had been collected by the volunteers during the course of the war. They then put the archives on ships bound for the Soviet Union, hoping they might survive the perilous journey.

For decades, no one knew where the records were, or even if they had arrived safely. Whenever veterans of the war would travel to Russia and ask about the archives, they would get evasive answers.
Lincoln Brigade veteran William Susman, now 81, made his first trip to Russia in 1969. He asked the head of the veterans' organization there about the archives.

"He denied having them or even knowing if they existed," Susman recalled. "Had they not arrived, it would have been very easy for them to say that the ship was sunk. But they never said that."

In 1975, the Lincoln Brigade veterans established the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at Brandeis University. They contributed letters, memoirs and whatever memorabilia they were able to carry away from Spain by hand, including a spectacular collection of Republican war posters that had been used by the democratic government to communicate with the mostly illiterate Spanish peasants. But they continued to pursue the trove they suspected was in Moscow.

Shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Lincoln veteran Leonard Levenson, now 84, made the first breakthrough. He sough and received pictures of himself from the Moscow Institute for the Study of Documents of Recent History.
"It was obviously grounds for thinking there was more, " said Nelson, who sits on the board of the Brandeis archives. "A year after the Soviet Union fell, they finally admitted they had the archives."

That didn't end the battle to get access to them, however. The Russians finally agreed to microfilm some documents and make negatives of photographs for a fee. It took four years for the veterans to raise the $100,000 needed to bring the current sampling to light.

The exhibition provides a graphic reminder of the egalitarian impulse that motivated the volunteers. The Lincoln Brigade marked the first time black and white Americans fought together in the same unit, a step no taken by the U.S. Army until the Korean War.

It also marked the first time white Americans were led by a black officer. One picture shows the brigade's first commander, Oliver Law, a black Chicagoan who later died in combat.

The nurses' corps was integrated as well. Salaria Kee is shown holding a wounded Spanish child on the operating table while a doctor stitches a wound. Kee joined the brigade after the Red Cross turned down her request to help Ohio flood victims because she was black.

A third of the brigade's ranks were Jews, who had a special motivation for wanting to turn back the rising fascist tide. "The Holocaust hadn't started yet, but the arrests and the concentration camps had," Susman said. "When I hear people say they didn't know what was going on in Germany until it was too late, it makes my blood curdle. We knew, so the government knew."

Message Comes Through

Nelson hopes the photo exhibition, which will go on tour later this year, will renew interest in the history of the Lincoln Brigade and help the dwindling band of veterans raise the money needed to get more of the archives microfilmed in Moscow and returned to the U.S. "The photos give us a picture of daily life among these mean and women that we've never had before," Nelson said. "But many more stories will come out of the archives."

Perhaps the single most powerful message one gets from the exhibition is that individuals make history, and for Susman, even though he fought in a losing cause, it's a message worth sharing with younger generations.

"We knew World War II was coming," Susman said. "We thought, if we can stop them here, then we could stop what would come later. … When I speak at colleges, they're all puzzled by that kind of commitment."

Susman, like most of the volunteers who survived the ordeal, was wounded in Spain. He then joined the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor. Considered a security risk by the military (the euphemism of the day was "premature anti-fascists"), he remained stateside until 1944, when he was shipped to Europe in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.

In the book that accompanies the exhibition, Nelson has included several poems by Rolfe, letters from the volunteers to their loved ones in the U.S. and the farewell speech to the international brigades by Dolores Ibarruri, the Spanish Republic leader known as La Pasionaria.

He also reprints Ernest Hemingway's 1939 prose poem, "On the American dead in Spain."

It begins: "The dead sleep cold in Spain tonight."

It concludes: "The dead do not need to rise. They are a part of the earth now and the earth can never be conquered for the earth endureth forever. It will outlive all systems of tyranny."

"Those who have entered it honorably, and no men ever entered earth more honorably than those who died in Spain, already have achieved immortality."