60th Anniversary of Spanish Civil War Soldiers' letters featured in book, at commemorative dinner

By Andrea Lynn

An unlikely mix of Hollywood stars and Spanish Civil War veterans will meet
in New York City on April 21 to commemorate the moment in history when the
soldiers put their lives on the line for democracy.

The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, American men and women who
fought in many capacities and against all odds in the Spanish Civil War
(1936-1939), have invited actors Ed Asner, Susan Sarandon and Richard Masur
(the president of the Screen Actors Guild), among others, to attend their
60th annual anniversary dinner, and to give a dramatic reading of the
letters that the former soldiers wrote home from the front lines and
hospitals across Spain.

The event is scheduled to begin at noon at the Sheraton Hotel-New York,
52nd Street and Seventh Avenue. With VALB chapters in several U.S. cities,
including New York, San Francisco and Seattle, and a membership of about
180 (most of whom are now in their mid-80s), the brigade once included some
2,800 soldiers who, underequipped and poorly fed, valiantly fought to
preserve democracy in Spain and to prevent Hitler and Mussolini from
annexing chunks of Europe. It is believed that as many as 800 U.S.
volunteers died during the bloody and ultimately unsuccessful effort.

Still, at a time when many chose to appease or ignore Hitler, "These people
simply put their lives at risk because they thought the world was going to
catch fire, and then, of course, it did; 50 million people died in World
War II," said Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the UI who wrote the
script the actors will read.

According to Nelson, who based his script on his new book, "Madrid 1937:
Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War"
(Routledge), the veterans "represent a commitment to the common good that
seems so rare these days, when selflessness is not a controlling cultural

The sold-out anniversary dinner for 900 is co-sponsored by the VALB and the
Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. Other celebrities expected to take part
in the readings are Gail Buckley, Frances Chaney, Ring Lardner, John
Randolph and Peter Yarrow. Speakers include William Susman, vice chair of
ALBA; Milton Wolff, Bay Area Commander of VALB; and Henry Foner, retired
president of the Fur and Leather Workers Union. The New York City Labor
Chorus also will perform.

In conjunction with the dinner and the recent publication of "Madrid 1937,"
the book of letters, Nelson also is co-curating an exhibition of Spanish
Civil War posters and photographs brought from Spain by the American
volunteers; most of the items have never been seen in the United States.
The exhibition, "Shouts From the Wall," will run April 20 through May 27 at
the Puffin Room Gallery, New York, then travel over the next three years to
cities throughout the United States.

Exhibition items, which represent a cross-section of early modernist
styles, including Art Deco, realism, surrealism and photographic montage,
derive from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at Brandeis University and
from the Rare Book Room and Special Collections Library at the UI. The
works of such artists as Ramon Puyol, Josep Renau, Jos=E9 Bardasano and Sim
(or Rey Vila) are included in the exhibit. Peter Carroll, a Spanish Civil
War scholar who teaches at Stanford University, also is co-curating the

The catalog Nelson produced for the exhibit offers the first detailed
commentary ever to appear in English on these long-famous posters, and it
represents the first time biographies of major Spanish Civil War poster
artists have been gathered for publication.

In the catalog, Nelson writes: "Those 2,800 Americans came from all over
the country and from almost every imaginable occupation. Most were
communists; some were liberal democrats or socialists. All were
anti-fascists; that conviction and sense of historical necessity unified
them and kept them dedicated despite facing overwhelmingly superior
military equipment on the other side. These Americans had read the future
accurately; they knew that the world was in peril from fascism."

"Madrid 1937," co-edited by Nelson and Jefferson Hendricks, a professor of
English at Centenary College, is the first book-length collection of
letters from the war. It includes accounts of combat experiences, love
letters written under fire, tales of friendship, and reports of history's
first saturation bombing of civilian targets. It also has color and
black-and-white photographs, drawings and maps, as well as a glossary.

Nelson writes in the introduction to "Madrid 1937" that the American
volunteers ranged in age from 18 to 60; their median age was 27; and median
birth date 1910. About 18 percent hailed from New York; most of the rest
came from other cities. Perhaps a third were Jews. Occupations ranged from
auto worker to poet. Most of the American volunteers were unmarried,
approximately 70 were women, and 80 were African Americans. The
International Brigades "were entirely integrated," Nelson writes.

"In fact, the Lincoln Battalion was commanded for a time by Oliver Law, an
African-American volunteer from Chicago, until he died in battle. It was
the first time in American history that an integrated military force was
led by an African-American officer."

American volunteers "came because of their political convictions, but they
were also thereby isolated from most other Americans, the majority of whom
supported the Republic but did not recognize the reality of the world's
peril. They also came in violation of U.S. law, since both travel to Spain
and service in a foreign army were forbidden. So the need to communicate
with sympathetic friends and family was especially intense, as was the need
to be reassured that those back home were doing everything possible to
support the cause."

Nelson and Hendricks garnered letters from archives at Brandeis University,
the University of California at Berkeley and the UI, then solicited letters
from VALB members. What resulted was more than 15,000 pages of letters
written home by Americans in Spain. From those, they selected for
publication "not only letters of obvious general historical interest but
also letters that give an intimate sense of the voices, characters and
experiences of individual American volunteers." Samples of letters from the
book include:

From Canute Frankson: "These ghostlike walls; household furnishings perched
on the edges of broken floors; kitchen utensils; tables set for meals which
were never eaten; the blood which stains the walls from which human flesh
had been scraped."

From Hyman Katz: "Yes, Ma, this is a case where sons must go against their
mothers' wishes for the sake of their mothers themselves. So I took up arms
against the persecutors of my people - the Jews - and my class - the
Oppressed. Are these traits which you admire so much in a Prophet Jeremiah
or a Judas Maccabbeus, bad when your son exhibits them?"

From Len Levenson: "A blond college kid from Chicago, right beside me
caught an explosive in the gut and passed away shrieking his own dirge. By
dint of frantic digging with my bolo I got by with a crease that just broke
the skin of my shoulder. I lay waiting for the blessed night to come."

From Leon Rosenthal: "I am glad that I came here - the tales of heroism and
courage and sacrifice that I have heard here convince me that this is the
place for all those who want to build a better society and a fuller life."

One of the veterans, Robert G. Colodny, a professor emeritus of history at
the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in a recent review of "Madrid 1937,"
that the authors and the press produced "a memorial for the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade more beautiful and everlasting than any monument cast in bronze or
carved in marble or enduring granite."

He also said that: "... in an epoch when even in our own country there lurk
the lengthening shadows of right-wing reaction and potential fascism, where
a great chunk of western Europe is now a moral swamp, where in the Italian
parliament the granddaughter of Mussolini proudly sits, where skinheads and
neo-Nazis flourish, where militias lurk in the forests of Montana and
Wisconsin, when all of this comes to fruition and the call goes out for
Americans to rally against the potential thrust of local domestic fascist
barbarism, then our voices will be heard again and what we saw and what we
wrote about in Spain will steel our children and our grandchildren to make
a stand and to be able to say ultimately, successfully, 'They shall not
pass. They did not pass. They never shall pass.' "

UIUC -- Inside Illinois -- 1996/04-18-96