Jewish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

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Jewish Spanish Civil War Veterans during World War II

In October 1938, the Spanish government ordered the withdrawal of the International Brigades, hoping that the gesture would press Germany and Italy to remove their troops from Spain. But the Fascist countries ignored the withdrawal. By March 1939, Franco captured Madrid and proclaimed the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Surviving volunteers in the International Brigades crossed the border into France. Heroes in Spain, the moment they entered France, they typically became unwanted guests of the French government. For most of them, the war against Fascism was not over. While volunteers from France, Great Britain, and the United States and other countries could return to their homes, their own governments often stigmatized them for participating in the International Brigades. Worse, volunteers whose countries were under Fascist or Nazi control could not return home at all. Among them were large groups of Jewish volunteers from Poland, Germany, Rumania, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Most were interned in detention camps in southwest France set up by French authorities expressly for thousands of Spanish republican soldiers and the surviving members of the International Brigades who could not return to their countries of origin. In these closely watched camps guarded by French colonial troops and surrounded by barbed wire, the cold, the lack of food and drinkable water and the want of elementary hygienic conditions, caused epidemics. The death rate among Spanish refugees reached 500 a week.

Wartime experience weighed heavily on the subsequent activities of all volunteers. For many Jewish volunteers the end of the Spanish Civil War meant a resumption of the antifascist struggle on different battlefields. With the onset of World War II in September 1939, some former Jewish brigadiers in the camps, together with other foreign born Jews living in France, joined the French army. The fate of most prisoners was sealed following the fall of France to Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940. The French collaborationist Vichy government transferred the remaining inmates in camps under their control to the Nazis who then deported them (together with the Spanish Republicans captured while serving in the French army) to death camps in Germany, Austria and Poland. Few of them survived.

Many Jews who eluded capture and imprisonment joined the Resistance against the Nazi occupiers and their puppets throughout many countries Europe. In France, where most European Jewish brigadiers settled, former "Botwins" Abraham Lissner and Leon Pakin joined Sevek Kirschenbaum to form the Jewish "Second Unit" which achieved considerable fame for its bold actions against Nazi occupiers. Others were Marcel Langer, founder and commander of the 35th Brigade of the Resistance, Josef Hauptmann, member of the Resistance's staff in South France, and Joseph Epstein, chief of the Resistance in the Paris region. Several Jewish women had either gone to Spain or been active in support of the Republic also participated in the resistance, among them were Palestinian-born Simone Bronstein, Olga Bancic from Rumania, Sarah Kowalski and Sarah Vronsky-Rozenblum from Poland, and Connecticut-born nurse Irene Goldin who after the fall of Spain had remained in France. Of the previous group only Abraham Lissner, Joseph Hauptmann, and Irene Goldin survived the war.

Former Jewish brigadiers were prominent leaders of the Resistance movement throughout Europe as well as in the "Red Orchestra," the most important Allied military intelligence operation of World War II.

Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, many Jewish brigadiers who lived in Soviet territory joined the Red Army or the Soviet-backed Polish army. Capitalizing on their contacts in occupied territories some, after being trained by fellow Jewish Spanish veteran Henryk Torunczyk parachuted behind enemy lines. Among them were Pinkus Kartin and Bernard Volkas who, together with veteran Abe Osheroff and Jack Freeman, were survivors of the sinking of the ship Ciudad de Barcelona in Spain.

Pinkus Kartin was dropped in Poland where, together with another veteran from Spain Abram Fiszelson and two others, he headed the operative military section of the "Antifascist block" in the Warsaw ghetto. Arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, Kartin committed suicide in prison in June 1942. Volkas was sent behind Nazi lines in the autumn of 1941 to organize partisan groups. Arrested and deported to Auschwitz, Volkas helped two other Jewish inmates escape carrying with them photographs taken by David Szmulewski, yet another veteran of the International Brigade and one of the leaders of Birkenau's underground. These photographs documented the atrocities committed in the Nazi camps. Volkas later resided in the United States.

Following U.S. entry into the war, over 400 Lincoln brigade veterans enlisted in the armed services while many others served in the merchant marine. Many earned battlefield commendations and medals for heroism in action. Twenty Lincoln veterans were killed during World War II, including Herman Bottcher, himself a refugee from Germany. As members of the U.S. Army, Jewish Lincoln veterans fought around the world. Several participated in action inside Germany. Some including vets Al Tanz, Lou Gordon, Morris Cohen, and Jack Lucid helped to liberate Nazi concentration camps in 1945.