A prologue to WWII

Jewish participation in the Spanish Civil War constitutes a fascinating chapter of Jewish resistance.

guernica 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
guernica 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Numerous historians consider the Spanish Civil War that broke out in July 1936 a prelude to World War II. Spain, with a population of 28 million, became a bloody battleground of conflicting forces, testing their arsenals in preparation for the battle of the giants that was to emerge shortly. Jews did not sit on the sidelines in this crucial contest. Jewish participation, as a matter of fact, was stunningly extensive. In 1987, at a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Spanish Civil War, Chaim Herzog, then president of Israel, stated: "There were people who realized just what a fascist victory in Spain would mean. Courageous men from many nations volunteered to help the Republicans. Among them were democrats, socialists, communists... Typically there was a relatively high number of Jews among the volunteers - the highest proportion of any other group... I salute them as comrades in arms in the war against the Nazis." Jewish participation in the Spanish Civil War offers a fascinating, relatively unknown, chapter of Jewish resistance to Nazi and fascist tyranny. Up to 25 percent of the fighters in the International Brigades were Jewish, whereas the total global Jewish population at the time did not exceed 4%. It is ironic that Jews even formed their own Jewish Brigade in Spain, which fought heroically in crucial battles 70 years ago for the freedom of the Spanish people that had expelled them from its midst. The Spanish Civil War attracted volunteers from about 55 countries who knew the dangers they were facing in that bloody conflict. Nevertheless, they came in substantial numbers to join the ranks of the Popular Front. Figures of participants differ. Ernest Hemingway claimed that "over 40,000 volunteers from 52 countries flocked to Spain between 1936 and 1939 to take part in the historic struggle between democracy and fascism known as the Spanish Civil War." The lowest estimate speaks of about 32,000, but one estimate is as high as 59,380. The largest contingents came from France (7,000), Poland (5,000), the US (3,000), Britain (between 2,000 and 4,000) and Russia (in the thousands). DESPITE THE conspicuous presence of Jews in International Brigades, Jewish participation in the fighting has generally not been acknowledged. There could be various reasons for that. Firstly, Jews were usually registered under the name of the country they came from. Secondly, in some cases the Jews used aliases, concerned that their being Jewish might expose them to greater than usual dangers in a war against fascist elements. Lastly, Jewish community organizations that would eagerly underwrite research on Jews fighting against fascists and Nazis were hesitant to do so in the instance of the Spanish Civil War, since those joining would be counted as communists and fellow travelers. While it is true that two-thirds of the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade were communists, many Jews were not. One volunteer wrote: "I am as good an anti-fascist as any communist. I have reason to be. I am a Jew and that is the reason I came to Spain. I know what it means to my people if Fascism should win." Hyman Katz from New York did not tell his mother that he was determined to leave for Spain. When wounded, he decided to explain why he enlisted against her wishes. He wrote: "Don't you realize that we Jews will be the first to suffer if fascism comes?" Samuel Levinger from Columbus, Ohio, son of Rabbi Lee J. Levinger, was killed in battle at Brunette. Throughout the war, the father remained a loyal friend of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In-depth research, especially in the last 10 years, has proven that the extent of Jewish presence in that crucial war was truly impressive. Though Jews were only 10% of the Polish population, 45% of the Polish volunteers - 2,250 out of 5,000 - were Jewish. Jews, 4% of the US population, formed 38% of its volunteers. In France, 0.5% of the population and 15% of the volunteers were Jews. Britain, with a Jewish population of 0.5%, had 11% to 22% Jewish volunteers. Palestine had a Jewish contingent of 500, 498 Jews and two Arabs. For some reason, Jews from Palestine were distributed among diverse national units. There were Palestinian Jews in the Hungarian "Rakosi" Battalion, in the French "Six Fevrier" Battalion and others. THE MOST conspicuous Jewish presence in the Spanish Civil War emerged from a group called the "Naftali Botwin Company." Naftali Botwin, a 24-year-old Jewish radical, was executed in Poland in 1925 for assassinating a Polish Secret Service agent. The special Jewish company was formed in the Palafox Battalion of the Polish Dombrowsky Brigade in December 1937. The company issued a Yiddish newspaper. The orders were written in Yiddish. It had a distinct Jewish banner, and the last stanza of the company's hymn proudly proclaimed "...how Jewish Botwin soldiers drove out the fascist plague!" The Botwin group was the only one in which Jews fought as a distinct group. Hence it became the major symbol of Jewish presence in Spain. In general, the International Brigades were utilized by the Popular Front as shock troops in the most dangerous places that drew the heaviest casualties. The Botwin Company was no exception - 120 of its men were thrown into an assault at the battle of Estramadura, in the defense of Madrid; only 18 survived. The company's courage earned it the "Medalla de Valor" from the Spanish government. Whatever motives brought volunteers of the International Brigades to Spain, with the Jews the ideological motive was dominant. Many of them may have been socialists or communists, but they clearly perceived that simultaneously they were fighting a sworn enemy of the Jewish people. The Jewish-Zionist angle was no less significant than the socialist-communist. It is no coincidence that the first casualty of the International Brigades was Leon Baum from Paris, and the last casualty was Haskel Honigstern, who was given a state funeral in Barcelona on October 6, 1938. The Spanish poet Jose Herrera wrote of him: "Haskel Honigstern, Polish worker of the Jewish race, son of an obscure land, killed in the light of my homeland." It is also no coincidence that when Juan Negrin, head of the Republican government, announced in September 1938 the unilateral withdrawal of the International Brigades from Spain for diplomatic reasons, the Botwin Company formed the rear guard of the troops as they withdraw across the border into France. Jewish participation in the Spanish Civil War put to a lie the assertion that Jews are by nature "timid and non-combative... that Jews did not resist the Nazi murderers because... submission is in their national character." When the first shots of World War II were fired, in the prologue of that ghastly war, Jews were not only present in overwhelming numbers, but they incontrovertibly proved their heroism.