In the last three decades, since the publication of Albert Prago’s Jews in the international brigades in Spain in 1979 by Jewish Currents, there has been considerable interest in the massive role of Jewish fighters in the Spanish civil war. Most of them were within the orbit of the official Communist movement, which controlled and dominated the International Brigades – and also the narration of its later history. As Gerben Zaagsma and Martin Sugarman argue, the Stalinist version of that history obscured the specifically Jewish dimension to their motivations. This Jewish dimension was retrieved in the 1970s and 1980s by Jewish radical groups like Jewish Currents in the US and Jewish Socialist in the UK. However, their important commemorative work tends to focus on the Communists of the International Brigades. Lenni Brenner’s polemic Zionism in the Age of Dictators approached the issue from a different angle: showing that the Zionist movement had no interest in anti-fascism in Spain. However, although he also provides some interesting exceptions, his emphasis confirms the Stalinist historiography in marginalising the specifically Jewish motivations and the non-Stalinist participants.
In this blog post, I want to simply mention some of the Jewish participants in the Spanish Civil War who were also part of the anti-Stalinist movement, and specifically participants who were associated with the “Three and a Half International”, the anti-Stalinist socialist international that also included the Spanish POUM and the British ILP. The information is taken from Martin Sugarman, of AJEX, Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, and his booklet Against Fascism. I have added hyperlinks. Material in italics comes from other sources, as given at the end of the extracts.
Jaques Penczyna – one of 13 members of Palestine Jewish Hapoel who fought in Barcelona in June 1936; they were in Spain for the Workers’ Olympiad, a protest against the official Nazi Berlin Olympics; when hostilities began they joined the Barcelona Militia – Prago and JWC.
Another was Ishai Kinderman. [source]
Thaelmann Battalion, Germany
Peter Blachstein – writer and journalist – b. Dresden 30.4.1911, Socialist – Zionist arrested 1934 Hohenstein concentration camp, , via Oslo to Spain 1936 with Willy Brandt and Max Diamant, became a Lieutenant at front, escaped to Sweden via France, then returned to Germany in 1947, MP and Ambassador to Yugoslavia – died Hamburg 4.10.1977
Blachstein was the representative in Spain of Neuer Weg, a pro-POUM split from the SAP, the POUM’s German sister party. Arrested in Barcelona by Republicans in the clampdown on the POUM in May 1937. [source]
Carl Einstein – b. Karlsruhe 26/4 1895 or 85 , fled to France, to Spain 1936 with wife, fought with the anarchists, interned Argeles. When Germans occupied France he committed suicide.
In 1936 Einstein headed to Spain along with other compatriots like Helmut Rudiger, to fight on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War with the anarchist trade union, the CNT. He fought with the international group of the Durruti Column, and was wounded in combat. On November 22, 1936 he gave the funeral oration for the slain Durruti in Barcelona. An extract from his speech was later inscribed on a plaque in the Boel-Bezing cemetery in the Atlantic Pyrenees; ‘Where the Column advances, one collectivises. The land is given to the community, the agricultural proletarians, slaves of caciques which they were, metamorphose themselves as free men. One passes from agrarian feudalism to free Communism’.
Following defeat of the revolution, he crossed the Pyrenees and was interned in the infamous camps in Southern France containing the antifascists combatants and the Spanish population fleeing the exactions of the pro-Franco troops. He was liberated later in the spring of 1940 as a result of the chaotic circumstances in the face of the rapidly progressing German invasion. Finally the implications of the geopolitical advances of the German army isolated and eventually trapped Einstein on the French border with Franco’s Spain. In July 1940, to escape Nazis persecutions, Einstein committed suicide in Lestelle-Bétharram (Basses-Pyrenées), France. [source, source, source]
The Jaroslav Dombrowski Brigade, Poland
Lt Gerszon Rothalc, kia 1938 Gandesa – machine gunner – member of Poale Zion.
General Waclaw Komar 1909-72 – TSD – comm. of 129 Brig throughout war. Was Zionist Hashomer Hatzair in Israel before Spain – later in Polish Army till 1968!
His record in Spain was expunged in subsequent Stalinist histories. He was a long-term Communist and career soldier from the 1920s to 1960s. He was demoted in the antisemitic agitations of 1951, a supporter of Gomulka, he led the Domborwski Brigades in defending Gomulka from the Soviet tanks but was jailed in the antisemitic agitation of 1956 after the Stalinists took over. I can find no other source mentioning his time in Palestine or Hashomer Hatzair. [source, source]
Samuel Harry Abramson/Abrams/Abrahamson – a Zionist activist, went to Spain in June 1937 as an ambulance driver and corresponded with Hananiah Caiserman of the CJC about life in the IB in Spain (CJC archives ZB S.H.). He reported John McGrandle for anti-Semitism and the man was forced to apologise. Abramson served in US Army in North Africa in WW2.
Joined Communist Party in Spain, but was designated for special surveillance by its officers for not toeing the line sufficiently. [source]
Maurice Constant aka Cohen/Constance – born 1.7.1914 into a middle class family in Toronto, one of five children. Studied at Jarvis Collegiate and University of Toronto (Science 1935) and Canadian OTC, was an athlete and member of the Left – Wing Zionist group Hashomer Hatzair. Got to Spain via Halifax (NS), Liverpool, Le Havre, Paris, Toulouse, Perpignon, Figueras, Barcelona. Was an Infantry Officer with the IB , adjutant with Intelligence Section, and CO of Reconnaisance platoon of the 15th IB. Fought at Brunette, Aragon front, Fuentes de Ebro, and wia at Caspe – eventually evacuated to Canada (interviewed 13.8.1996) after being rescued by the Royal Navy in Feb. 1939. From Waterloo, Ontario.
Constant was a student at the University of Toronto, aged about 18, when he went to hear André Malraux speak about the Republican cause at Hart House in 1936. He was so moved that he asked Malraux what he could do to help. And Malraux said: “Go to Spain.” So he did. He was extremely young, but was one of the few Canadians to serve on the Brigade staff, becoming adjutant of the intelligence section at a very early age. Like the other Mac-Paps, he fought in the battles of The Retreats, Teruel and The Ebro. [source]
Related reading from The New Centrist: ¿Viva la Insurgencía?: The Spanish Civil War and the Legacy of the Totalitarian International Brigades. For more on resistance fighters and militias, browse my Partisans category. For more on the Spanish Civil War, browse my Spanish Civil War category.