Judith Berlowitz is the author of "Home So Far Away," a novel inspired by an ancestor who served as a battlefield nurse in the Spanish Civil War.
Judith Berlowitz is the author of "Home So Far Away," a novel inspired by an ancestor who served as a battlefield nurse in the Spanish Civil War.

‘Home So Far Away’: Retired Mills College professor Judith Berlowitz’s novel honors battlefield nurse ancestor

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Just before he started World War II, Adolf Hitler took part in a dress rehearsal: the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

That war pitted supporters of Spain’s Republican government against a fascist rebel army led by Francisco Franco, with a little help from his fascist friends in Germany and Italy. Franco won, and for decades ruled Spain with an iron fist.

Legions of foreign volunteers, many of them communist, flocked to Spain to fight in that war. One was a Jewish battlefield nurse named Klara Philipsborn. She fled the rise of Nazism in her native Germany and moved to Spain, only to become embroiled in Spain’s civil war. She apparently served valiantly, but the paper trail on her is thin.

That’s where Judith Berlowitz comes in.

Berlowitz, a distant relative of Klara’s, followed that trail as far as she could. She then honored Klara by writing “Home So Far Away,” a novel based on Klara’s courageous life and undocumented end. “She had to have a voice,” said Berlowitz, who lives in San Francisco.

The novel is written in diary form, starting in 1925, when Klara first visited an uncle living in the Spanish city of Seville, up to 1939, when Franco’s victory was nearly complete. Over the course of the novel, Klara befriends many comrades, serves in cities and towns across Spain, falls in love a couple of times, treats shrapnel wounds, teaches Spanish to foreign volunteers and occasionally finds time to sightsee.

Mostly, the reader senses Klara’s pain over the antisemitism rampant across Europe (including in Spain, where she feels forced to hide her Jewish identity), her dedication to a just cause and her undying faith in a better world to come, even as the world she’s living in crumbles around her.

An adept amateur genealogist, Berlowitz set out to learn as much as she could about Klara, her family and her exploits. She also meticulously researched the war’s progress, day by day, mainly by reading Spanish newspapers of the era. That wasn’t hard for her. Berlowitz, 83, is a retired Mills College Spanish professor.

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She also sought information about Klara from the Spanish Civil War archives housed in Moscow, though she didn’t unearth much.

“I found eight to 10 documents with her name on them,” she says. “I made contact with living family members of hers [and got] conflicting information from them about how she ended up.”

Some said she made it to England. Another said she ended up in South America. Since her cousin Klara’s fate is unknown, Berlowitz decided to make her fictional Klara a heroine to remember: “I chose the diary for that vehicle, so that she could justify or explain herself.”

The novel even includes a scene where Klara has lunch with Albert Einstein. Sounds far-fetched, but such a scenario might have happened. Klara’s sister was close with a colleague of Einstein’s in the late 1920s, and who knows, perhaps Klara bumped into him at some Berlin cafe.

As a Spanish language professor, Berlowitz spent plenty of time in Spain, so her descriptions of Madrid, Seville and Barcelona — right down to street corners — ring true. Her love of language permeates the novel, which includes German, American, Catalonian and French characters. Ladino, another subject dear to the author’s heart, is also spoken. Berlowitz is a scholar of Sephardic balladry, much of it sung in Ladino, the Judeo-Iberian language of the Jews of ancient Spain.

Berlowitz is Ashkenazi on her mother’s side; her father was not Jewish. She was born in Los Angeles and raised in the Antelope Valley outside L.A. As a teen and young woman, she considered a career in music, once attending a classical guitar music camp at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. After discovering the novels of Federico García Lorca, she wanted to read the great Spanish writer in the original. That led to her career as a teacher of Spanish and as a translator. She retired in 2008.

Though they of course never met, Berlowitz shares with Klara her fierce left-of-center politics. She is an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace and Women in Black, two organizations that take highly critical positions against Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

With her novel, Berlowitz found a way to weave together a lost story from her family history, her love of all things Spanish and her fascination with genealogy. As it turns out, there may be a bigger Jewish story there than previously known.

“It was a lot of fun,” she said of researching her novel. “In fact, 12% of Spaniards today have Jewish DNA.”

“Home So Far Away” by Judith Berlowitz (She Writes Press, 248 pages). Available to order from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online retailers.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.