From a Forgotten War, Images That Linger

By David Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, May 13 1997; Page C1
The Washington Post

New York— The ragtag recruits, young and bare-chested, are holding their rifles over their heads with both hands. They are obviously exercising in the blazing Spanish sun, but through the illusion of photography they appear to be doing something else as well: holding up the terraced fields behind them.

The symbolism may not have been intentional when the photograph was taken almost 60 years ago. But today is unavoidable.

The recruits are just a few of the 40,000 international volunteers who came to defend the Spanish Republic against Francisco Franco and his fascist allies in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Their weaponry was often primitive, but their idealism gave them strength. And in the photograph they seem to carry the full weight of the Spanish earth on their shoulders.

The image is one of 130 that went on display here last month in the Puffin Room, a SoHo gallery, in “Aura of the Cause: A Photo Album for North American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War”. A chronicle of the daily life of the international volunteers, the exhibit rarely rises to the level of fine art. But as journalism, it offers some riveting views of men caught up in a struggle that turned out to be a prologue for World War II.

Most of the photographs, taken by unknown photographers, haven’t been seen since the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, when they were shipped to the Soviet Union for safekeeping. Long presumed lost or destroyed, they didn’t resurface until the early 1990s at the Center for the Documentation and Preservation of Recent History in Moscow. And it was only last December that Russian authorities let negatives be made of the photographs (there are about 2,000 in all), which had been haphazardly packed away in boxes of old military records.

Only 160 of the 2,800 Americans who served in Spain -- mostly in what is now known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade -- are alive today. And of those, just a handful were able to attend the opening of “The Aura of the Cause.” But for Cary Nelson, the show’s curator and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the photographs bear witness to the soldiers’ courage and extraordinary prescience.

“Even now it is hard for us to grasp how much of our humanity was at stake during the Second World War,” he says. “Yet somehow this particular group of people saw ahead what the world faced and acted upon it out of a sense of idealism and commitment. Clearly to me, this is the first phase of the great worldwide struggle between fascism and democracy.”
In addition to the shot of the recruits exercising, several photographs in the exhibit, which runs through June 1, seem to have acquired symbolic freight with time. In one, an unidentified soldier stands watch in a deep trench, while two buddies, huddled at his feet, take advantage of a moment’s peace to read books. Universal literacy and intellectual freedom were the rallying cries of the Spanish Republic, and the humble photograph seems already to illustrate the principles at work.

In another, a group of naked volunteers is scrubbing down in a portable field shower, set up on a hillside. Below them spreads the Ebro Valley and a panorama of olive groves and vineyards. In a few months, the fields and trees would be so ravaged by warfare that the area would be nick-named “The Valley of Death.” For the time being, though, the landscape has a gauzy, almost Edenic aura and the soldiers, vulnerable, toy-like creatures, are touchingly unaware of the future.

A surprising percentage of the photographs in the Moscow archives, Nelson notes, turned out to be group shots. “I was astonished, still am, by all the different kinds,” he says. “There are groups of cooks, groups of every possible nationality from French to Ukrainians, groups representing different trade unions. Every time the volunteers had some kind of group identity, they seemed to want to commemorate it. It was how they saw themselves -- acting in alliance with one another.”
Leonard Levenson, an 84-year-old New Yorker who attended the opening of the exhibit, is depicted in one of the group photos. In 1937, following his best friend’s example, he enlisted in the cause. Posing casually in the photo are five young men who had been fellow students at New York University; Levenson is the darkly handsome one to the far left, smoking a cigarette.

“A picture like that can push you back very quickly in time,” he says. “It was taken in an olive grove outside of the town of Azila in the Ebro region. We’d been there about a week. It moves me very deeply now because I was the only one of that group to survive the war.”

Levenson discounts any notions of heroism, though. “We were doing what lots of generations of Americans have done from the American Revolution on -- joining a struggle for good....I guess idealism has been a property of the human race for as long as it has existed.”

Asked what those youthful experiences mean to him 60 years later, he allows a quiet chuckle. “That’s complicated. It would take an awfully long time to explain,” he notes. After a pause, he adds, “The world is not as simple a place as we thought it was when we went there.”

Still, Levenson found the exhibit “extraordinarily impressive” and says he hopes it will alert people “to the kind of role we played.”

The photographs were saved for that very reason. By the late fall of 1938 it was clear that Franco, greatly abetted by Mussolini’s Black Shirts and Hitler’s Condor Legion, had gained the upper hand. In Barcelona, a couple of volunteers whom Nelson dubs “emergency historians” set out to put together an archive, documenting the contribution of the international forces before it was too late. Even as the bombs were falling on Barcelona, the material was sent to Moscow.
Only about a third of the photos were labeled, and then somewhat randomly. Identifying the people in them has proved an arduous task, and most of the battlefield scenes can no longer be pinned to a specific date or place. What they do illustrate is the eternal cycle of warfare -- soldiers training, heading off to battle, digging trenches, fighting, then tending the wounded and burying the dead.

Nelson, 50, is a burly man with a flowing gray beard that gives him a decided resemblance to Walt Whitman. He came to his passion for the Spanish Civil War largely through the poet Edwin Rolfe, whose collected works he has edited. “Rolfe was the poet laureate of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and wrote some of the most evocative lyrical poems about the Spanish Civil War,” Nelson explains. “He considered it the defining experience of his life. In fact, his work changes totally thereafter. That got me interested in other people of his generation and how the experience changed them.”
Nelson is the co-editor of “Madrid 1937: Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade From the Spanish Civil War,” and curated “Shouts From the Wall,” an exhibition of Spanish political posters from the period that is currently touring the country. A handsome catalogue of “The Aura of the Cause” (Which will also go on tour) has been published by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

Without question the most accomplished photographer to chronicle the Spanish Civil War was Robert Capa, whose shot of “Falling Militiaman,” hit by a bullet and suspended midair between life and death, remains widely known today. None of the images in “The Aura of the Cause” has that transcendent intensity. Indeed, many are defiantly pedestrian. But in their historical context they loom large.

“Over and over again,” Nelson says, “It’s the intimacy of a particular shot in relationship to the enormity of the issues at stake that gives the show its meaning. The negatives that we got from Moscow are very small. When I first saw some of them, I thought they were pictures of volunteers never occurred to me that they could be anything else.
“Then I blew them up and I realized that they were actually images of dead volunteers. Some are terribly grisly shots and hard to take. I kept most of them out of the exhibit. But I felt obliged to include a few, just to show how much these volunteers sacrificed.”

© 1997 The Washington Post Company