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Fighting Fascism

60 years later, we're retrieving the hidden history of American Jewish women in the Spanish Civil War

Say the words “Spanish Civil War” and “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” and the responses are mixed. Some raise an eyebrow and wonder, “Spanish-American? War?” Others, better informed, think “Ernest Hemingway.” And a small group of fellow-travelers quickly rewind to 1936, when the fascist uprising in Spain spurred a deeply bonded community of left-wing Americans to put aside the comforts of home in favor of foxholes in the century’s first confrontation with fascism.

Even among those insiders, many are unaware of the nearly 100 women—half of them Jewish—who faced war abroad and political ostracism back home to join in the defense of Spanish democracy. These were women who, in the decades between the two world wars, crossed the Atlantic to fight, organize supply lines, tend to the wounded and report for the press on the battles of the war. These women made the political personal decades before the phrase became a feminist rallying cry.

Sixty years ago, the last of these American women returned to the U.S. Their efforts raised the country’s awareness of fascism and helped slow its advance across Europe. The volunteers also continued a legacy of progressive activism within the Jewish community that for many presaged a lifetime of commitment to social justice. Their stories are an important part of our history.

Yet their efforts remain virtually absent from the Jewish-American record. The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia has no mention of the Spanish Civil War in its permanent exhibit; neither does the National Museum of American Jewish Military History. None of the women inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, in Seneca Falls, New York, were among those who volunteered to fight in Spain.

Cold War anti-communist rhetoric has done much to erase their efforts from history. Old-fashioned male chauvinism has done more. Even today, a decade after the Cold War was “won,” Spanish Civil War veterans are burdened by detractors who link their service to Soviet-style communism and the excesses of Stalin. At a time when Americans embrace war epics like Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and explore unsung heroes of the American Civil Rights movement, the story of Spanish Civil War vets remain at the periphery of American popular history. In the British Isles alone there are more than 40 monuments paying tribute to the international volunteers. Here, in contrast, there is one lone sculpture in Seattle, dedicated in October.

Why Did Women Go to War?

The Spanish Civil War erupted on July 18, 1936, after right-wing officers, led by General Francisco Franco, attempted to supplant Spain’s democratically elected, left-leaning government with a fascist dictatorship. Western powers pledged neutrality and embargoed military aid. Hitler seized the opportunity to test his rebuilt military machine. Along with Benito Mussolini, Hitler provided military and tactical support to Franco. Out-gunned and stymied by political infighting, Madrid fell, nearly three years later, in the spring of 1939.

Thousands of women and men on the American left— socialists, communists and anti-fascists—fought against the isolationism America had embraced. The United States was suffering from “a spiritual fatigue” and “a lack of moral stamina [and] of faith in the principles of democracy,” writes historian Robert Murray in Red Scare. Fascism was gaining currency. On April 20, 1935, pro-fascist Los Angelenos openly celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday, and later that year 22,000 supporters marched into Madison Square Garden to support his regime. Throughout the decade, Father Charles Caughlin promoted anti-Semitism, fascism and “America for Americans” on his popular radio program.

The women who fought for Spanish democracy were “trying to make the world more fair, to create a society that was more just than any society that had ever been,” says Julia Newman, project director for a documentary, “Their Cause Was Liberty: American Women in the Spanish Civil War.”

When news of the fascist uprising in Spain first circulated in urban immigrant communities like Brooklyn, San Francisco and Chicago’s Hyde Park, young progressive women living in these communities were galvanized. They saw Franco’s fascism as a grave threat. They also saw Spain—in optimistic socialist terms—as a historic opportunity to replace old hierarchies with a new, equitable society. For many Jews, abiding American neutrality was not an option.

“The fascist movement was not just isolated in Europe,” recalls Virginia Malbin, a Jewish social worker from Chicago and Spanish Civil War volunteer, about the threat she felt even on America’s neutral shores. “Between what was happening at home and what was happening abroad, many of us made it our business to be as active politically as we could be to struggle against fascism in any way we could.”

The small minority concerned about the threat used whatever means at their disposal to respond. Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Nancy Cunard, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Martha Gellhorn wrote about the injustice of fascism in Spain. Garment workers in New York City bought ambulances to help the Spanish Republic’s wounded. Cigar workers in Florida and their families donated portions of their weekly wages to Republican Spain. Anti-fascist groups held dances to raise money. Thousands of women contributed time, energy and money without ever leaving the U.S.

For many Jewish women, the Communist Party offered them opportunities to react aggressively to the fascist threat. At least in theory, Party ideology promoted gender equality, and women were recruited to participate in the defense of Spain. The volunteers talked about Spain in clandestine Young Communist League discussion groups open to women and men. Early in the war, the Party’s official paper, the Daily Worker, a must-read in tens of thousands of homes, ran an appeal from Dolores Iburruri, a key Spanish leader known as La Pasionaria, aimed at female volunteers: “Friends, sisters, the International Antifascist Solidarity asks you through me as a woman and a mother, as a fighter in this struggle, for your support.”

For Jewish American women intent on going to Spain, the Communist Party was the expedient way of getting there. The Roosevelt administration in 1937 outlawed military aid to Spain and frowned upon most efforts to support the democracy. Mainstream political organizations were loath to run headlong into U.S. policy.

The Party, on the other hand, fostered the idea of a “popular front” against fascism. It was the only political organization to mobilize, recruit and send volunteers to Spain on a national level, contributing the 2,800-man Abraham Lincoln Battalion to the 40,000-person International Brigade that gathered fighters from 52 countries to defend the Spanish Republic.

The Party also paid for the passage of 150 medical personnel through the American Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. Among them were about 60 women; one doctor, 48 nurses, two lab technicians, two ambulance drivers, two translators/administrators, and a handful of social workers, according to records kept by the Veterans of Abraham Lincoln Brigades in New York. Most of these women came from urban centers with large immigrant populations and vibrant Jewish communities. The women didn’t have children, most were unmarried and almost all were college-educated.

Volunteers like Ruth Davidow found it difficult to balance their domestic social activism against the need to fight fascism in Spain. To go to Spain meant leaving behind the labor organizing efforts, rent strikes and political activity that defined many volunteers’ lives. At first, Davidow didn’t jump at the chance to go.

“Everyone was saying to me, ‘God, if I were a nurse, I’d be going already,'” remembers Davidow. “These were the kind of people I was going around with. They were supporting Spanish democracy before I did. I came to it because I believed it was absolutely essential. But it took a number of months and quite a lot of soul-searching on my part, quite a lot of agony [but] I realized that fascism wasn’t going to stand still.”

How’d They Get so Tough?

At a moment when women’s work still relegated them to the domestic sphere, these volunteers rejected the domestic patterns of their day by seeking higher education, taking a career and asserting their own priorities. Like many volunteers, Clara Leight, a Russian-born Jewish nurse, received support and encouragement from her family. In Leight’s single-parent family, her mother used a book of 16th-century Yiddish folktales to counsel her daughters and, later, her granddaughters to be cognizant of the people in their communities, Leight’s niece, Gloria Sharfin, recalls. Leight’s family included many suffragettes, labor organizers and leaders of tenant councils. “There was always activism, there was no choice,” Sharfin says.

“My mother took us to the picket lines when we were four,” Davidow says about her early activist models. Her mother, Maria Davidow, was a popular organizer and negotiator among immigrant laborers in New York’s and San Francisco’s garment districts. She was also stubborn. “One day after haggling with management,” Davidow recalls, “the shop owner calls my mother in and says: ‘I get so mad at you that sometimes I’d like to throw you down the stairs.’ … I am my mother’s daughter,” Davidow concludes with satisfaction.

Like many volunteers, Davidow’s first activism was born out of Depression-era need. “We had a house where during the days when there was no food, my mother fed all the kids [in the neighborhood], put another potato in the pot. I mean there was no time we weren’t concerned about the communities we were in.” Before serving in Spain, Davidow worked with tenant committees to prevent landlords from evicting destitute tenants.

Malbin, who shipped off to Spain with the Medical Bureau, got her first taste of politics in a working-class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. As a student on scholarship at the University of Chicago in the early 1930s, Malbin was dismayed by the poor facilities allocated for black students and by poverty in the surrounding community. “We picketed and protested the university’s [discriminatory] housing policy and our names made it on to the local Red Squad lists of people to be watched,” she said, referring to the police practice of placing supposed radicals under surveillance.

Sexism Got in their Way

Spain provided a host of challenges for the American women who volunteered. For starters, like their male counterparts, they would be required to work closely with Spanish loyalists, few volunteers spoke Spanish and almost none of them had any wartime experience. The women volunteers faced an added difficulty: the male-dominated culture of war both in the regional committees charged with selecting American volunteers and in their compatriots in Spain.

“A lot of [male] veterans gave lip service to egalitarianism but their [attention] just wasn’t there. They’re well intentioned, lovable, but chauvinist nonetheless,” says Abraham Lincoln Brigade documentarian Judy Montel.

Evelyn Hutchins, a dancer-turned-truck driver from Washington State, faced this machismo before ever setting foot in Spain. Like many would-be volunteers, Hutchins underwent a clandestine interview with a regional Communist recruitment committee. Because resources were scarce, volunteers were selected in order of greatest utility—men with military experience and medical personnel first, followed by truck drivers, then construction workers.

“She applied and they turned her down because they had no experience having any [female] truck drivers, and they were just plain against it,” recalls Moe Fishman, a Civil War veteran and friend of Hutchins. “She kept nagging the committee— I think it took more than one visit—and told them on no uncertain terms that she was as good if not better then any of those that had been recruited.”

To prove it, Hutchins said she would take them back to her house where she would break down her truck and put it back together. “The committee went with her and she broke the damn thing down and put it back together again,” Fishman says. Hutchins was approved and was on her way to Spain. Several dozen other women, unable to find sponsorship, entered Spain independently by sneaking in from France in a two-day hike over the Pyrenees or stowing away on Spain-bound cargo ships.

The first American medical team, led by Dr. Edward Barsky and Fredericka Martin, a Jewish woman and the Medical Bureau’s head nurse, arrived in Spain in February 1937, two days before American military volunteers, members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, saw combat for the first time. Within 48 hours of their arrival, their newly established schoolhouse-turned-hospital faced a deluge of shattered soldiers wounded at the Jamara front.

In Spain, the American women were charged with establishing, fortifying and maintaining eight hospitals and a bevy of first-aid field stations on the front lines. In the hospitals, nurses, administrators and translators spent the bulk of their 14-hour days training Spanish women to perform basic medical tasks, rationing medical supplies and husbanding foodstuffs, all of which were in short supply. They wrote letters back to the States with requests for gauze, cots, wool blankets and hypodermic needles. Hutchins, one of only two female ambulance drivers in Spain, worked with Davidow out of an auto-chir, a converted truck-turned-mobile-hospital, throughout much of 1938.

“The town where we had our first front hospital was bombed every day—and such bombing I had never seen,” wrote Barsky to a letter to supporters in New York City. “One day from 10 A.M. to 4 in the afternoon, planes were overhead all the time going through all maneuvers and dropping bombs about us and diving down to machine gun us. When we weren’t working, we stood about—ready to dive into the trench—trying to measure whether we were just beyond bomb-range or not.”

In another letter, Martin described the wounded: “At a neurological hospital I saw many cases sent back from the front. A mass of injuries, fractures, and shrapnel wounds, etc. The combination is terrible. We are going to need iron-lined guts for this job all right.”

In the autumn of 1938, near the end of their Spanish Civil War service, the women helped evacuate wounded International Brigade volunteers in a series of hasty retreats across the Ebro River in northern Spain. Retreating international volunteers were constant targets for fascism bombers.

As fighters planes prowled the Spanish skies, Davidow bit down on a stick to protect her eardrums from the exploding bombs. Hiding out in a dank cave, she sat listening to the moans of wounded soldiers and waited for the aerial bombardment to end.

“All I was thinking was, ‘How soon are these guys going to stop so we can get the ambulances running,'” Davidow recalls. “In the bombing you faced your own mortality but by concentrating on what you were doing you overcame it. We really had a purpose and the purpose was so strong it overcame the fear. I had no miracle, [no] way of dealing with it otherwise. I just knew I had to do it,” she said.

McCarthy’s Thank-You

Like Vietnam veterans thirty years later, Americans returned from Spain to a hostile homecoming. A FBI file marked P.A.F.—Premature Anti-Fascist—greeted each returning Spanish volunteer. Though the Roosevelt administration was increasingly aware of the need to confront fascism by easily 1939, Spanish Civil War veterans were suspect due to the “premature” nature of their anti-fascism. “You had to be careful who you told,” said Clara Leight, who paid her own way to Spain and served as a nurse in the Medical Bureau.

More than a decade later, veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade found themselves atop Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the lexicon of mid-century Cold War rhetoric, if you had been in Spain or sympathetic to Spain, then you were either a Communist or sympathetic to communism. Such a designation could ruin a nurse’s career or blacklist a doctor.

Even late into the 1950s, officials at a Westchester, NY, hospital where Leight worked threatened to fire her after they found out about her Spanish Civil War service, recalls, Gary Sharfin, her great-nephew. At the last moment, an administrator whom Leight had befriended after she corrected the misdiagnosis of his child’s illness intervened to prevent Leight’s dismissal, Sharfin says.

“There was an atmosphere of real anxiety around the House Committee on Un-American Activities,” recalls Julia Newman, who grew up in the 1950s surrounded by leftist activist and Spanish Civil War veterans. Though her parents had not served in Spain, they supported the effort and were close to many returning New York volunteers. This association made Newman’s family suspect as Communists or sympathizers. There was “a kind of oppressive atmosphere about left-wing political thinking that [today] is hard to understand,” Newman notes. “The atmosphere was malevolent,” she says, and many people whom fought in Spain often had their houses watched and cars tailed. Newman’s mother threw away books by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels while moving apartments in the late 1950s in fear that the movers might spot books in transit.

The intensity of the anti-communist rhetoric and red-baiting that washed over the United States between the 1930s and 1960s created an inhospitable environment for the American women who served in Spain. Given the vitriolic nature of red-baiting following the Second World War “there should be little wonder why” the volunteers’ stories weren’t openly discussed or widely disseminated, says Cary Nelson, a Spanish Civil War scholar at the University of Illinois and co-editor of Madrid 1937, a collection of letters from American volunteers in Spain. However, with the last women survivors now in their 80s, a handful of scholars, documentary filmmakers, archivists and others have devoted themselves to recording the hidden histories.

In her documentary film slated for completion this year, Newman, eager to distance the volunteer’s effort from communist taint, has airbrushed Spanish Civil War posters to remove the hammer and sickle. Though this editorial decision may blur the line between history and public relations, “people do get a knee-jerk reaction to [these] symbols,” Newman says. The word “communist” and the hammer and sickle have been used to dismiss the efforts of the women, who served in Spain, she adds.

For a collection of scholars, journalists, filmmakers and a dwindling number of left-wing activists, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the women who served in Spain are powerful and inspirational reminders that injustice can be challenged. At the same time, their very history is a story of another injustice: the injustice of their omission from the historical record of the anti-fascist effort.

“They did everything they could to get to a place where they could contribute to the righting of a wrong. They took it personally. It’s not a very contemporary way of thinking,” Julia Newman says, “but I think it should be.”

Ian Halpern is a financial reporter and freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.


The Road After Spain 

by Ian Halpern

In the years after the war, the women who volunteered continued their humanitarian efforts in other areas. Clara Leight joined the U.S. Army and was stationed at a hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during World War II. In Alabama, white soldiers ate first in the cafeteria, while the black soldiers waited. This was just the way it was, Leight told a relative. Accustomed to the interracial fighting force of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, Leight was appalled. One day, when the lunch bell rang, Leight wheeled in two black soldiers with the white soldiers. The Army threatened to court-martial her. Instead, supervisors gave Leight the option of nursing on a soon-to-be opened second front in Europe. Less than four years after Spain, Leight found herself steaming back to Europe for a rematch against fascism on the eve of D-Day.

From the 1950s to 1970s, Ruth Davidow worked as a nurse in Cuba, led students to Mississippi to register black voters, and worked to organize California migrant workers. In the 1980s Davidow’s daughter, a documentary filmmaker, urged her to use film as a medium of protest. As a filmmaker, Ruth Davidow went on to document the women’s movements in Beijing, the Cuban Revolution and, recently, Boris Yeltsin’s defense of the fledgling Russian democracy. Now 87, Davidow lives in San Francisco and has recently completed a documentary about the fall of the Soviet Union and about her brother, Michael Davidow, a Russian-based journalist and Communist activist.


For More Information…

about the women who went, or to contribute materials

  • Julia Newman, project director for “Their Cause Was Liberty: American Women in the Spanish Civil War,” can be reached by fax: (212) 866-3815. The documentary film will be the first to focus exclusively on American women who fought in Spain and explores the changing roles and expectations of American women during the 1930s.
  • The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives offer books, films and videos, including “Forever Activists,” a documentary by Judy Montel about American Spanish Civil War veterans and their activism before and after Spain. The VALB can provide information about “Shouts From The Wall,” a traveling poster exhibit slated for Zoeller Art Gallery at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, April 7-June 6 and “The Aura Of The Cause” photography exhibit. VALB, 799 Broadway, Rm 227, New York, New York 10003; (212) 674-5552; www.alba-valb.org
  • Brandeis University’s extensive Spanish Civil War Collection includes photographs, oral histories, correspondence, interviews, 5,000 books and pamphlets, several hundred propaganda posters, the Fredericka Martin Collection on American doctors and nurses who served and more. Hours are by appointment. (781) 736-4688; www,library.brandeis.edu/spcoll/spcvwr.html