60 years after Jews battle fascism – Spanish Civil War vets: Passion still burns

Milt Wolff knew it wouldn't be easy getting his mother's permission to leave home in Brooklyn and fight in the Spanish Civil War.

To ease her worries, the 21-year-old convinced his mom of two things:

One — he would be defending fellow Jews against European fascism, which had found an ally in right-wing Spanish general Francisco Franco.

Two — he wouldn't go into combat.

Wolff's mother might never have known her adventurous son broke his second promise had a Time-Life photographer not snapped his picture at the front lines alongside author and fellow fighter Ernest Hemingway.

As luck would have it, the photo appeared in only one American newspaper, the Jewish Forward. "It completely blew my cover," Wolff says with a hearty laugh. "It was the only paper my mother read."

Now 81 and one of a handful of Spanish Civil War veterans living in the Bay Area, Wolff sees the conflict through the prism of his crackerjack sense of humor.

The El Cerrito resident notes, for example, that his friend Hemingway insisted on being called Hemingstein because "he fancied himself Jewish by disposition."

And, reflecting on his own service, Wolff laments that to his "shame and disgrace," he returned from the war with no injuries to boast.

Still, he is quick to acknowledge the ferocity of the war to which he devoted 18 months starting in 1937. Apart from the two world wars, it was the bloodiest conflict in the first half of this century.

It is now 60 years since he and thousands of other young men and women from Europe and North America left their homes to fight fascism in a foreign land.

Almost 3,000 of those in the International Brigades were Americans; they became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, of which some 900 died in action. Many brigade members were Jewish.

On Feb. 23, the Bay Area post of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade & Associates will celebrate the 60th anniversary of their Spain experience with a program in Oakland. Proceeds will benefit local labor, a fitting cause given the veterans' history.

Most foreigners who fought in the war, after all, were workers and students, among them liberals, socialists and communists, all with a fierce set of ideals.

Wolff was no different.

A fiery political activist who volunteered for the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s, "I was a member of the Young Communist League; it was there that I was recruited" to fight in Spain, he says. "I was a street-corner speaker working in the garment district for a living."

When they saw fascism on the rise in Germany and Italy, and Franco trying to overthrow Spain's democratically elected leftist government, the Lincoln Brigade volunteers knew what they needed to do.

Al Gottlieb of San Mateo was among them.

"When it became evident that this was a fight against potential world war and a fight against Hitler, I decided this is where I had the chance to do something, so I went," he says. "Being Jewish had a lot to do with it. But it was tied into my feelings about fascism in general."

For Gottlieb, now 87, going to Spain meant leaving behind a wife of four years. He missed her, he says, though it helped that "she sent cigarettes and candies and things like that, plus the correspondence."

Gottlieb remembers arriving in France by boat, taking trains through the country dressed as a tourist, then secretly entering Spain by crossing the Pyrennes mountains on foot during the night. It was three months before he could make it to the front, where he was assigned to a machine gun outfit.

He recalls meeting a German Jewish volunteer there who had fled Hitler and come to fight in Spain. "Being Jewish, I was able to talk to him at length in a mixture of half German, half Jewish," he recalls.

Ruth Davidow of San Francisco, who at 24 served as a nurse in the war, has her own recollections of Spain, many of them painful.

"I saw terrible things," she says sadly, "the kinds of things we should never forget — kids of 15 years who were standing at the front being killed. I think most people think wars have romance to them. They don't. They have great horror."

Recently, the 85-year-old Davidow joined other veterans of the International Brigades for an emotional reunion in Spain. Two decades after the death of Franco, the dictator they fought and to whom they lost, the veterans were made honorary Spanish citizens and saluted with flamenco music and Garcia Lorca poetry.

That welcome contrasted dramatically with the one veterans received 60 years ago when they returned to their native lands.

In the United States, many of those veterans suffered political or professional discrimination. They were called Reds and traitors. In the early 1950s, some, including Wolff, were summoned to appear before the infamous hearings led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

"Coming back to the United States was quite bad; the atmosphere was terrible," Gottlieb recalls. "Being a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade, I found myself harassed quite a good deal."

As difficult as that treatment was, it never instilled in Gottlieb a sense of regret for going to Spain.

"You didn't go there to make money," says the retired publisher of law books. "You didn't go there to get medals, to be honored. We went there to fight."

Therefore, on returning, "I pushed [the criticism] aside in order to continue what I believed in, and I tried to do so as much as I could to this very day."

Still as politically passionate as he was in his 20s, Gottlieb recently switched from the Democratic Party to the Green Party. "I hope that something will be done to improve conditions here in the States," he says. "A lot has to be done."

Like Gottlieb, Davidow — who as the daughter of a trade unionist mother walked picket lines as a child — hasn't lost an ounce of her early activist conviction. The sturdy, white-haired veteran's voice peaks in anger when she talks about the embargo of Cuba or anti-immigrant sentiment in California.

"I learned in Spain that you had to be an activist forever," Davidow says. "I can't imagine not a taking a position when I think something is terribly wrong. You hit back. You don't stand there and let it happen."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.