They stood on the stage of the Great Hall at the Cooper Union in New York City in the spring of 2006, where in 1860 Abraham Lincoln had publicly committed himself to the destruction of slavery. “Let us have faith that right makes might,” the future president had said, “and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
One hundred and forty-six years later on the same stage a group of old men recalled for the auditorium audience how they had answered their own call to duty. Now in their 90s, George Sossenko, Abe Smorodin, Jack Shafran, John Penrod, Al Koslow, Matti Mattson, Hy Tabb, and Moe Fishman had once been young men when they joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in a crusade against the tide of Fascism then sweeping across the world. They spoke of their fallen comrades, their sacrifice, and their commitment to democracy and peace.
They lost almost everything when they returned home to the US in 1939. The hopeful, progressive Spanish Republic that they had fought to defend lay in smoking ruins, transformed into a Fascist dictatorship under Il Caudillo, Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Labeled “Premature Anti-Fascists” by their own government, they lost their passports and freedom of movement, continually under surveillance. Even decades later, on that day men with surveillance equipment watched carefully from the corner of the Bowery and Cooper Square.
Sossenko chuckled. “I’m a dangerous old man now,” he said. “I was certainly a dangerous young man then.” They were dangerous, indeed, because even 70 years later, they had no doubt that the hardship, the struggle, the sacrifice had all been worth it. I asked Sossenko if he had any regrets. “None,” he said. “We stood up to Fascism and said ‘you shall not pass.’ We must always stand up to Fascism.”
II. Opening Shots
Bernie Danchik loved Barcelona. There was no other word for it. The twenty-one year-old clerk and part-time gymnast was abroad for the first time in his life as a member of the American team at the 1936 Olimpiada Popular. Tough-as-nails coach Alfred “Chick” Chakin was putting the team through its paces, but Danchik still had ample opportunity to sample the Catalan capital’s many distractions after night fell: “… we go to the stadium and it certainly is beautiful,” he wrote in his journal on July 18, 1936. “I hope I make good. Send out an awful lot of mail and it puts a dent in the bankroll. During the day, we train faithfully and the eves, (Viva la Espana) Petite’s, Albina’s, Shanghai etc.”
The organizers of the Olimpiada Popular hoped that the event would be a dramatic gesture of international solidarity against the rising tide of Fascism in Italy, Portugal and Germany. Sport was a vehicle of idealism and, by competing in an atmosphere of fraternity on the field in Spain, the athletes could express what they felt was a true spirit of sportsmanship. The day before he sailed for Europe, the American Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker reported that Chakin was “most interested in the Barcelona Peoples’ Olympics because he thinks these games will be a powerful demonstration against Fascism.” It was the beginning of a drama of personal commitment for Chakin and a generation of Americans in Spain.
Fascists were no longer the bizarre crackpots with a flair for the theatrical that they had seemed to be when Mussolini’s Blackshirts marched on Rome in 1922 and the Nazis attempted a bumbling putsch in Munich the following year. They had come to power in both countries, suspending civil liberties, violently suppressing dissent and implementing racist policies. Hitler was making ominous noises about “lebensraum” and Mussolini marched into Ethiopia to carve out a new Roman Empire. And the Western democracies that should have opposed Italian and German Fascism appeared to treat it as just another normal political ideology to be appeased rather than confronted.
Fascist political successes in Europe seemed to encourage the growth of domestic right-wing extremism in America. Chicago social worker and Party activist Virginia Malbin would later recall that hearing Father Charles Coughlin’s nativist, anti-Semitic and reactionary screed on the radio amid the worst days of the Depression made Fascism seem both close-by and dangerous. There were lynchings in the South, unapologetically pro-Fascist organizations like the Silver Legion and the German-American Bund in the North and breadlines everywhere. “We were engaged first-hand with people… who were suffering from the effects of the Depression and injustice,” Malbin said, expressing the feelings and motivations of many of her contemporaries. “How irrational! Unacceptable! We had to change it!”
The atmosphere at New York’s City College, where Chakin was a physical education instructor and wrestling coach, was typical of much of the United States in 1936. Students and faculty marched against war and Fascism. Chakin married Jennie Berman, a social worker and Party firebrand, in 1935. Berman had made headlines the previous spring when she led 500 employees of New York’s Jewish community social service agencies on a walkout for union recognition. She had moved to New York City after graduating from Syracuse University in 1925 with the express intention of joining the Communist Party. By the time Berman met Chakin, she was already an experienced Party militant, and her commitment exerted a powerful influence on her new husband. His parents certainly saw it that way; they blamed Berman for their son’s decision to join the Party.
An active member of the Teachers Union and the college’s Anti-Fascist Association, Chakin was deeply involved in on-campus campaigns for academic freedom, peace and free speech. The Anti-Fascist Association’s October 1935 unanimous resolution called for a boycott of the Berlin Olympics and “advocating the transfer of the games to a country that does not have race discrimination as a national policy.”
Republican Spain was just such a country. Yet, Spain was teetering on the brink of disaster as the American athletes’ train from Marseilles crossed the border into Catalonia. The “People’s Olympics” were taking place in an atmosphere of rising tension. President Manuel Azaña’s Popular Front government had made implacable enemies in the Spanish army, aristocracy and Catholic Church with a series of radical reforms. The Popular Front had always expected resistance from the higher aristocracy, but wealthy Spaniards of all kinds, including minor hidalgos and latifundistas, had begun moving capital out of the country. A substantial and growing amount of Spain’s hard currency was now in foreign banks, and the resulting inflation and currency devaluation precipitated a series of general strikes in May and June.
Leaders of the rightist National Front promised stability and openly advocated a violent seizure of power. In June, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the leader of the Fascist Falange movement and the son of Spain’s former dictator, was arrested for stockpiling weapons. On July 12, Falangists murdered Republican Guards officer and prominent Socialist Party activist José Castillo in Madrid. The next day, Socialist militants responded with the assassination of Monarchist Party leader Jose Calvo Sotelo. Army officers with close ties to the Falange and other National Front parties began to prepare for a military coup.
As Chakin, Danchik and the rest of the team mailed postcards, took photos, trained at the stadium and drank cervesas at Barcelona’s nightspots, the Army had already seized control of Seville and Spanish Morocco. Neither they nor their hosts in Barcelona thought there was anything to worry about. On July 18, Danchik wrote to his parents in Brooklyn to share his excitement and allay their concerns about his safety: “Don’t worry about me because there is nothing to worry about.”
Danchik and some of his teammates stepped out briefly on Sunday morning, July 19. Shortly after they returned, and as they prepared to take a bus to the Olympic Stadium for training, rebel army units opened fire on troops loyal to the Republic. The Spanish Civil War had begun. “Rifle and pistol fire, stuttering machine guns, bombing and shelling,” Danchik wrote in his journal. “They don’t do things by halves out here. We are locked in our hotel and every time we shove our heads out of the windows, we are shot at.” A rebel plane strafed the hotel.
Republican troops regained control of the city by the afternoon. Small groups of Fascist soldiers occupied positions in churches and public buildings throughout the city. However, government forces and hastily-formed militia units organized by Spain’s largest labour unions and armed by the government had isolated the bulk of the Fascist forces north of Barcelona. An anonymous American observer later described the militiamen and women in the Daily Worker: “There, on the narrow winding streets below us, were the defenders of the Republic – simple workers, some clad in blue denim overalls, others in civilian clothes, the inconsistency of which was emphasized by the hastily donned cartridge belts and steel helmets, their pale, taut faces betraying their inner excitement and grim determination to fight off the Fascist attack.”
The athletes ventured out of the Europa Hotel to view the damage once the shooting stopped and Republican forces had restored some semblance of order and imposed an evening curfew and martial law. “We go around picking up bullets and taking pictures,” Danchik wrote in his journal. “This beautiful city is a mess. Churches are burning all over the town.” It was not immediately clear that evening whether the Olimpiada would go on as scheduled, but many of the athletes expressed their solidarity with the Republican cause by raising their fists to the cheers of patrolling militiamen and women.
Calm returned to Barcelona the following day, despite pockets of Fascist resistance. With rebel forces in control of the provinces of Castille-Leon, Andalusia and half of Aragon, organizers of the Olimpiada Popular decided to cancel the games. On Tuesday, July 21, the athletes made one last gesture of solidarity before leaving Spain. “We have a march to the stadium with all the nations,” Danchik wrote. “We are cheered in the streets have a very colorful procession.” But it became abundantly clear that the Civil War was far from over. “As soon as we began entering the stadium, the sound of machine-guns started again,” reported a member of the French team. “The Fascists appeared and started throwing grenades at us even in the very midst of women and children.” That night, Danchik, and most the athletes who had gathered for the “People’s Olympics,” boarded trains that would take them to the French border. Many would return to fight for the Republic.
News of the Fascist uprising arrived in the United States while the returning athletes cooled their heels in Marseilles and impatiently endured the long Atlantic crossing aboard the SS Normandie. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, including the New York Evening News and the San Francisco Examiner, printed verbatim reports from Fascist-controlled radio. The Daily Worker warned readers that the Hearst newspaper reports were “advance notice of the Fascist strategy for America – when they think the time is ripe.”
The Communist Party took the lead in organizing a massive rally in New York’s Union Square on July 31 under the aegis of the newly-created United Committee in Support of the Struggle Against Spanish Fascism. The rally attracted several thousand people and delegations from most of New York’s trade unions, the Socialist and Communist parties. Socialist leader Frank Trager, rarely more than an uneasy ally of the Communists, declared that “every worker in New York should plan to be at this demonstration so that our comrades and brothers in Spain, learning of our loyalty, will be encouraged to victory.”
The National Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy organized similar demonstrations in other cities. Fascism had leapt beyond the borders of Italy and Germany to threaten the one western European republic that the American Left had seen as a promising model for workers’ democracy. Communists, Socialists, liberals and various shades of fellow travelers were primed for news. When the Normandie finally docked in New York harbor on August 3, they were enthusiastically prepared to meet it.
The athletes returned with tales of Republican heroism and personal transformation. Irving Jenkins told Daily Worker reporter Mark O’Hare that “it seemed inconceivable that we were in the midst of a raging civil war.” Yet Myron Dickes wanted to make it absolutely clear that “we are all pro-labor and emphatically behind the government…” Seeing Jennie on the pier for the first time in a month, Chakin told the reporter that being in Barcelona as the Civil War began was a transformative experience. For everyone involved it was deeply politicizing. “If [my teammates] weren’t class conscious before coming here, they quickly became so when they saw the workers…” Almost immediately, the American team became the one sure source of information about the heroic resistance of the Spanish workers to the Fascist threat, speaking widely beginning with a public meeting at New York’s Hotel Delano on August 6.
Talk was was not the same as fighting. Two Belgian athletes had volunteered for the workers militias before their train had left for France on July 20, but the Spanish authorities had sent them back at the request of the Belgian government. In fact, for most of the summer, when it appeared that the Republic had the upper hand in the Civil War, the Azaña government went out of its way to publicly discourage foreign volunteers.
The Republican war effort was fairly successful for the first month. The Navy had mostly remained loyal and the Fascists had suffered a major setback in the earliest days of the uprising when their leader, General José Sanjurjo Sacanell, was killed in a plane crash. But Germany and Italy had begun to supply the Fascists with weapons, materiel and the first contingents of soldiers. France closed its borders and announced a policy of non-intervention, followed two weeks later by a similar announcement from Britain. Holding onto the slim hope of a policy change, the Spanish government did not want to publicly offend the western democracies.
Privately, Madrid accepted an offer from the Comintern to organize a brigade of international volunteers as early as July 26. It had become clear that the governments of France, Britain and now the United States could not be convinced to provide aid, though the first shipment of Soviet arms was already on its way. Most of the first volunteers came from the community of exiled Italian and German leftists then living in France. They began to arrive in Spain on August 12, just two days before Fascist forces crushed the Republican garrison at Badajoz. The Fascist general Juan de Yagüe reportedly ordered the execution of 1,800 prisoners before sacking the city.
By the middle of September, the Communist Party in New York began recruiting a unit to be known as the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. It was an underground recruiting drive. There were no ads in the Daily Worker, and no editorials calling for enlistment. Volunteers faced severe legal consequences for enlisting in the service of a foreign power, though Washington ignored the sanctions when – as with the American Volunteer Force in Nationalist China – it was politically expedient. The location of the recruiting office on 23rd Street in Manhattan was an open secret for anyone immersed in the Party culture of meetings, labour sports organizations and John Reed Clubs. “Where to go was no big mystery,” New Yorker Abe Smorodin remembered. “Not to me. Maybe to the FBI, it was a mystery.” The first contingent of American volunteers sailed from New York harbor on Christmas Day.
Chakin returned to teaching at City College but the was never far from his thoughts. Ben Leider, an erstwhile New York Post labour reporter and a one-time City College student, was shot down by an Italian fighter in a dogfight over Jarama on February 19. He was the first American to be killed in action in Spain. Comrades kept disappearing from Party meetings as they quietly slipped out of the country to fight in Spain.
Chakin and Jennie Berman talked often about the war and the International Brigades in their apartment at 43 East 27th Street. Their comrade Ralph Brage, from East 22nd, volunteered with the Lincolns, as did Bill Horowitz and Gus Heisler from East 21st. Carl Geiser, who had lived on West 27th, was already a political officer in the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (the “Mac-Paps,” named for the leaders of the 1837 Rebellions in Canada). For a committed Communist, who had been on the ground in Barcelona when the fighting started, putting students through daily calisthenics while friends and comrades were already taking heavy losses at the Battle of Jarama was a special kind of torture.
At the end of the spring semester ended, Chakin quietly packed-up a few belongings and made his way to Canada, where he enlisted in the Mac-Paps. Berman obtained official permission to travel to Spain as the executive director of the Social Workers Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy and followed shortly afterward. She would study the plight of refugee children as part of the Committee’s Child Care Commission and set up a resettlement facility called Colonia Ben Leider
IV. ¡No Pasaran!
To a man, the American volunteers believed that the final reckoning between freedom and Fascism had finally come. Their ideals and rhetorical opposition to Fascism in the U.S., where they heard it on the radio and read it in Hearst’s newspapers, found its fullest expression in the act of opposing real Fascists armed with machine guns and bombers in Spain. By the summer of 1937, there were thousands of German and Italian troops in the country; the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe had bombed Guernica. Dolores Ibarruri, La Passionaria of the Spanish Left, gave anti-Fascism its slogan: ¡No Pasaran! “They shall not pass!” The struggle was personal as much as it was political; a line had to be drawn, and it had to be drawn in Spain. Smorodin would later recall that the decision to volunteer came down to a question of commitment. “Am I ready to put my body where my mouth has been for so many years?” He asked himself. “There was no doubt who were the murdering sons of bitches and who were the good guys.”
That spring, Carl Geiser, at the International Brigades training camp at Albacete, explained it all to his brother Bennett, back in the United States. Anticipating Bennett’s objections that he was “fighting for the Reds,” and that the presence of American volunteers risked a world war, Geiser wrote: “If these things were true, then I certainly should not be here… And in the time that I have been here, I have been able to ascertain without doubt, that the fight here is between democracy and Fascism, and not between communism & Fascism or democracy.” It was a matter of stopping Fascism once and for all, of drawing that line. “We ought not think that if the Fascists take Spain, we are safe, no more than we ought to think our house is safe if the neighbor’s is on fire,” he wrote. “Protect yours by helping your neighbor put out his fire. That is why the idea of ‘neutrality,’ of keep out of Spain, is very wrong and harmful. Everyone who wants democracy and peace must help the Spanish government. And right away.”
Berman was overwhelmed by the commitment and “fearlessness” of the Spanish people. In her “Case History of the New Spain,” She praised the “character and personality” of the Spanish people. Berman lauded “the courage and unity which animate them in support of their democratic government; the determination which drives them, at whatever cost, to win this war of Fascist aggression so that they may retain and advance the gains toward culture and freedom from feudal exploitation, which they have begun so painfully, so hopefully.”
Berman returned to the United States after making a radio broadcast from Spain on the New York radio station WQXR at the end of September. She expected to see Chakin again later the next spring, when the Social Workers Committee planned to return to Spain to continue its child welfare study and resume the work at Colonia Ben Leider. But after August, things had started to go wrong for the Republic. German and Italian troops kept coming as attrition thinned the Republican forces. The government was paralyzed by factionalism. Communist demands forced the resignation of Premier Francisco Largo Caballero in October. The following month, the Anarchists bolted from the Popular Front government. In December, the Fascists bombed Barcelona for the first time.
By the end of 1937, the Fascists were in control of more than half of the Spain. A week before Christmas, the Republicans launched an offensive to capture the Aragon town of Teruel. The Fascist garrison surrendered on January 9, 1938. Republican morale was high over Christmas, but Generalissimo Franco brought up as many as 60,000 troops, including 10,000 Italians, from Guadalajara. Republican commanders expected the counterattack and reinforced the lines around Teruel with the XV International Brigade, including the Lincolns and the Mac-Paps.
XV Brigade dug in and repelled the first Fascist counterattack, but the volunteers were tired, cold and wet from the uncharacteristically heavy snowfall. To make matters worse, supplies and ammunition were starting to run short all along the front. Chakin, by now the Mac-Paps’ armory officer, scrambled to gather what reserves of cartridges and shells he could scrape together. Everyone expected another counterattack, and when it finally came on February 7, it was a catastrophe, culminating in a bloody battle in a driving snowstorm. The Fascists broke through the Republican lines north of Teruel, flanking XV Brigade, forcing a slow, difficult Republican withdrawal.
The Fascists threw ten divisions at the weakened Republican line on March 9. The Lincolns held the position at Belchite, with the Mac-Paps a few kilometers to the northeast at Azuara. The Fascist assault began with an artillery barrage that destroyed the Lincoln Battalion command post. Then, Nazi Stuka dive-bombers gave cover to an advance of massed infantry and armor. The line began to buckle. Edwin Rolfe, in Spain to cover the war for the Daily Worker, later wrote: “Here at last was the beginning of the pressure no man could withstand.”
The Republicans retreated in increasing confusion over the next few days. The Mac-Paps withdrew to Albalante and reformed with the Lincolns just in time to continue the retreat toward Caspé. Morale was falling quickly. “The trek over the mountains was grim and silent and exhausting,” Rolfe wrote. Hungry, tired and almost out of ammunition, the volunteers formed a ragged line at Caspé in the mud and slush. The Fascists attacked on March 15, again with aircraft and tanks and overwhelming numbers. “Most of the Americans’ equipment was gone, strewn in the path of their defeat,” Rolfe wrote. “Only a few had been strong enough to lug their heavy machine-guns all the way; of the men who still remained to fight, few had heavier arms than their rifles, and some had lost even these.”
The Lincolns and Mac-Paps held the line for two days, but they were outgunned and outnumbered. At first, they managed an orderly withdrawal into the town, hoping to regroup, but the withdrawal became a retreat, and the retreat a rout. Already weakened by a year of fighting, the Battalions lost half their strength. Hundreds of volunteers had been killed or captured. It was only when the retreat came to a halt at Corbrera to the west of the Ebro River that the volunteers could form their companies and count who remained. Chakin was missing.
Berman wasn’t with with the Social Workers Committee when it returned to Spain that spring. Spain, and the Aragon front in particular, was in such a state of chaos that she knew she stood a better chance of hearing something about her husband if she remained in the United States. “… I used to visit the headquarters, you know, the office of the vets,” she would later recall. “‘Was there any information?’ No, there was no information. I was convinced that it couldn’t happen to him, you know. It just couldn’t happen to him. But it did happen.”
The Republican war effort fell apart after the retreat from Teruel. By April, the Fascists had pushed through the Aragon front toward the Mediterranean coast and threatened Valencia. More ominously, they had almost completely encircled Madrid. Premier Juan Negrin dismissed Indalecio Prieto from the cabinet in April when the war minister publicly advocated peace negotiations with the Fascists. A month later, Negrin proposed peace terms. Holding positions on the East bank of the Ebro since April, XV Brigade re-crossed the river on July 25 in an effort to relieve Madrid. By early August, the Lincolns had only advanced as far as Corbrera.
Fighting in Aragon continued into September but by then the Spanish government was desperate for a way out of the war. On September 21, Negrin announced to the League of Nations that he would withdraw foreign troops from the Republican army. Britain and France faced Germany across the negotiation table at the height of the Munich Crisis. Negrin hoped that the withdrawal of the International Brigades would persuade them to intervene on the side of the government and force Germany and Italy to remove their own forces from the Fascist army. According to International Brigades Inspector General Luigi Gallo, it was “a demonstration of the desire of the Government to do away with all the pretexts of Fascist intervention and with the tolerance and complacency with which certain democratic nations regard our struggle.” The western democracies remained unmoved.
The news came as a shock to the volunteers. As the last internationals left the front lines at the beginning of October, the Brigades’ official newspaper, The Volunteer for Liberty promised that the fight would go on, though not in Spain. “Our fight against Fascism does not end with our departure,” the editors wrote in the final issue. “Fascism has to be fought wherever it raises its ugly head.” On October 29, the international volunteers formed up to march for the last time through the same Barcelona streets where the athletes of the Olimpiada Popular had demonstrated their solidarity two years before. “It was the most thrilling sight, we agree, that we had ever seen,” Rolfe wrote. “As the Internationals went by, hundreds of girls in native costumes rushed forward, kissing them, pressing huge bouquets into their arms.” Within two weeks, most of the surviving Lincolns and Mac-Paps had taken the train to the French border.
Barcelona fell to the Fascists on January 26, 1939. President Azaña escaped into France one week later. Madrid finally surrendered on March 27, and Valencia held out for three more days. On April 1, Generalissimo Franco, now Caudillo of Spain, proclaimed victory.
The City College Teacher and Worker published a column-length memorial to Chakin in February 1939. There was no way to confirm rumours that had returned with International Brigade veterans in 1938 that he had been executed. No one had witnessed Chakin’s death, but it was common knowledge that the Fascist forces routinely shot any prisoner found with a Communist Party card. The Teacher and Worker optimistically noted that XV Brigade listed his official status as missing in action: “Hope for Him, therefore is not completely gone, although in time of war many a brave fighter is lost under conditions where death or capture is impossible to confirm.”
Berman held out hope longer than anyone, but soon she too had to accept that he had been lost. It was, her niece Frances Bower Riel remembered, “a blow from which she never recovered.” In the years after the Republican defeat and the world war that followed, Berman returned to Spain twice, spending several weeks searching for any trace of her husband. “She looked through the cemeteries, but she never found him.”
Hope faded into grief and guilt. Berman remained politically active throughout the 1950s and 1960s, marching for civil rights and accepting arrest with the same idealism and commitment that had sustained her generation in Spain. As a social worker, she worked in child protection and foster placement in Brooklyn and Manhattan. But Spain had been the pivotal experience in her life. She never remarried.
The 2,750 Americans who served in the International Brigades returned to official suspicion, harassment and prosecution. Labelled “premature anti-Fascists,” they were not even rehabilitated in official eyes when the world war they had warned of began later in 1939. Many had more experience fighting Fascists than anyone else, but when they tried to enlist in 1941, the Army viewed them with distrust. Some of those who were accepted for service were kept stateside due to “doubt aroused by the confidential file in this area.”
Yet, for others, the fight continued. Sossenko, who had begun his service in Spain in an Anarchist militia, served with the Free French forces, and later with the US 5th Army in Italy in the Second World War. Ed Lending was cleared for overseas duty in the US Army on June 30, 1944, just in time to ship out to Europe with his Unit. Serving with the US Army in the Pacific, Herman Boettcher was awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery. He was killed in the Philippines at the end of 1944. Bob Thompson was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for action in New Guinea. After the war, and until his death in 1965, he was a passionate activist for labor and peace.
Virtually all of the Lincoln and Mac-Pap veterans are gone now. Sossenko died at the age of 94 in 2013. But when I met him on that bright April day in New York 2006, he did not seem that old. “The struggle keeps me young,” he joked. Then he became more serious. “And the struggle against Fascism never ends.”