Jews In The Spanish Civil War

By Martin Sugarman, BA (Hons.), Cert. Ed. (Assistant Archivist AJEX Jewish Military Museum)

For reasons best known to themselves, most adherents of the Left - both old and new - and even the Jewish Community itself - have been, till recently, loathe to acknowledge and recall the dominant Jewish role in the International Brigade's struggle against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Stereotyped as timid and submissive, thousands of Jews from 53 countries in reality went to fight and die fighting Franco, firing the first shots against Fascism. Some went openly as Jews, others took aliases; some fought in the battalions of their country of birth, others with other national groups; some went via other nations, others came directly to Spain; some were refugees from anti-Semitism or political oppression already, others came freely from the democracies. In addition thousands more Jews worldwide were active in solidarity campaigns, fund raising and refugee rescue, on behalf of the Republican Democrats. Most non-Jewish students of the conflict, however, have no problem emphasising the major part played by Jews in the IB, and the Black actor Paul Robeson even sang and recorded Yiddish songs for the Jewish soldiers in Spain (see reference to O'Riordan, below)


I would like to especially thank Joe Garber, Sol Frankel, Lou Kenton, Simon Hirshman and Major Len Crome, MC (Jewish veterans of the Spanish Civil War) and Bill Alexander (Former Commissar of the Atlee Bat.) for their help and encouragement in compiling this list. Dr Saul Issroff of the Jewish Genealogical Society of the UK was also very helpful. Fred Dellheim - a former Jewish Kindertransportee and WW2 D-Day veteran, and current secretary of the German anti-Fascist Association and Veterans of Anti-Fascism - presented to the author a list of hundreds of German veterans of the Spanish Civil War at a meeting with the author in London in June 1999. A huge number were Jews and this list exists separately at present in the AJEX Archives.

I was able to add considerable detail and names by consulting many files in the International Brigade (IB) archive at the Marx Memorial Library (ML) in Clerkenwell, and thank the librarian there (Tish Newland) for her assistance One particular list in these files was compiled by either Peter Kerrigan or Ted Edwards, the Atlee Battalion secretary, during or soon after the war and contained many British Jewish names not found elsewhere. Special thanks also goes to James Carmody who supplied me so generously with extra material from his own researches on the IB over many years at both the PRO and with correspondents abroad, including many names from David Diamint's (DD) rare book (see below) which I also consulted at the British Library. James also pointed me to a book by Marcel Acier, "From Spanish Trenches" written in 1937 (Modern Age, NY) at the ML, containing many personal memoirs of Jewish Brigaders.


It is estimated that up to 25% of all the (IB) Fighters were Jewish (Alberto Fernandez, "Judios en la Guerra de Espana" , Tiempo de Historia, Madrid, Sept., 1975, "Los Judios Luchadores de la Libertad" by Gina Medem, Madrid, 1937 and Josef Toch "Juden im Spanischen Krieg 1936-39", Zeitgeschichte, Vienna, April 1973) - up to 10,000 men and women. Whilst 20th century history documents well the mass murder of Jews, Jewish resistance by comparison is feebly recorded. This included in Spain the following approximate numbers of Jewish fighters and participants in the IB - Poland - 2250 (of 5,000 Poles - 45% - Jews only 10% of Polish population)

USA - 1250 (38% of total USA Volunteers - Jews only 4% of US population)

France - 1043 (15% - Jews only 0.5% of population)

Britain - between 200 and 400 (11 - 22% - Jews 0.5% of population - DD)

Palestine - 500

Hungarian, Austrian (120-150 volunteers based on research by Hans Landauer and others in The Leo Baeck Year Book 1995, footnote page 17) , Czech, Yugoslav (34), Bulgarian (17), Canadian (71 Jews from Canada - in The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion) , Italian, Scandinavian, German - all totalling 1095 (work by Arno Lustiger in "German and Austrian Jews in the International Brigade" published in Frankfurt 1989 - and also "Schalom Libertad - Juden in Spanischau Burgerkrieg", also published in French - and the Leo Baeck Year Book No. 35 1990, shows at least 4-500 German Jews fought in Spain), Belgian ( a study by Rudi van Doorslaer "Belgian Jews in the International Brigade" is mentioned in the IB archives at the ML box D4, dated 17.7.86 and is in the AJEX archives, describes 200 Belgian Jews in Spain (30 of them women) , 31 of whom were kia and a further 20 more kia in the Belgian Resistance in WW2). Most of the European volunteers went on to fight in the Resistance groups in WW2, many of them being captured and murdered by the Nazis.

Soviet Union - 53 (a vast underestimate - new research in the archives in Russia will reveal a huge number of Jewish participants)

Virtually all the Romanians (see the article by Lending in the Jewish Workers Circle (JWC) journal, "Horizons" - see below)

40 other countries - 1602.

59 of the 124 American medical team were Jews (48%) - Prago, see below - and virtually all of the 40 Polish doctors. Of the estimated 66 American Jews from Brownsville in Brooklyn, who went to Spain, only 25 returned (Prago).

In fact the Polish Dombrowski Brigade (part of the 13th IB) formed a Jewish Company from the 2nd Palafox Bat. (named after a Spanish patriot from the Napoleonic invasion), called The Botwin Coy., on Dec 12th 1937 at Tardadientes, and named after Naftali Botwin (a famous Polish Jewish radical, executed in 1924 for assassinating a Polish Secret police agent). Their orders and banner was written in Yiddish, Polish and Spanish and they issued a Yiddish written newspaper ("Botwin"), first published on Dec 30th 1937. In fact the first edition of a Yiddish newspaper called "Der Freihaits Kempfer" or "Fighters for Liberty", appeared at the Front on Aug 7 1937. Jews also spoke Hebrew and Ladino as a lingua franca among themselves within the different national groups and the Republic also allowed radio broadcasts in Yiddish too. The Botwins included the only two Arabs in the IB, one of whom was from Jerusalem and spoke Yiddish! The last stanza of the company hymn was " …how Jewish Botwin soldiers drove out the fascist plague! No Passaran! " (see "The Jewish Naftali Botwin Company", J Rothenberg, Jewish Frontiers Journal, USA, date unknown, at IB archive, ML;it includes references to several books written in Poland by Botwin and Dombrowski Jewish veterans). Trained at Albacete, the Botwins went into action on Feb 12th 1938 in the Sierra Quemeda near Belal Alcazar, then fought at Belchite March 12-16th 1938. They were virtually wiped out at the battles of the Ebro/Estramadura at Hill 281(18 out of 120 survived !) and received the "Medalla de Valor" from the government (see Hirschmann below). All four successive commanders were killed in action - first Carol Gutman on Feb 13th and then Moise Micha Sapir on April 2nd at Lerida. Hirschmann also provided extracts from the books, "Poles in the Spanish Civil War", Ministry of Defence, Poland, and "International Solidarity with the Spanish Republic", Progress Publishers, Moscow 1975, containing numerous references to the Botwins. The newly reinforced Botwins later formed the rearguard for the IB as they withdrew into France as the fighting ended and it is ironic that the first IB casualty was Jewish (Leon Baum, from Paris) and the last (Haskel Honigstern; 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". He was given a state funeral in Barcelona on Oct 6th 1938). Later, most Botwins joined the Maquis and other Partisan groups in WW2, many dying in fighting the Nazis. In Poland, however, after the 6 Day war in 1967 and the anti-Jewish purges, all the memorials to the Botwin men that had been erected, were wiped out.

As Simon Hirshmann said, Jewish youth of this period - especially in eastern Europe - were living under anti-Semitic regimes and chose to fight back by joining either Zionism or Communism; many chose the latter and Spain gave them a chance to take up arms in the cause of working people and democracy, and with much herosim and self-sacrifice. They are a group much to be admired. But Zionists were equally anti-Fascist and many of the Jewish volunteers from Europe and of course Palestine were Zionist Socialists.

Joe Garber testifies to the fact that there were hundreds of Jews in the German and Austrian Thaelmann battalion and hundreds with the French. He and Sol Frankel also are quite clear that George Orwell was an MI6 agent informing on British Volunteers whom he visited in hospital when wounded, and that the author Laurie Lee vastly exaggerated his part in the conflict.

There are several important published works on this subject (see below) supporting these facts of the immense Jewish contribution. Listed below in the first section are some of the known British Jews who went to Spain together with those of many other nationalities. THE FIGURES ARE FAR FROM COMPLETE as many world-wide did not identify as Jews and used aliases, and most witnesses have died before being able to testify. On this issue Joe Garber was an inestimable source of information and I thank him enormously.

Reference to MSCW is to the book "Memorials of the Spanish Civil War" by Williams, Alexander and Gorman, Alan Sutton, UK, 1996. BVFL is "British Volunteers for Liberty" by Bill Alexander, Lawrence and Wishart, 1982. CTC is "Cheetham to Cordova" by Maurice Levine and Neil Richardson, Manchester Jewish Museum, 1984. PI is Personal Interview held whilst at the 62nd Anniversary of the start of the War reunion at Jubilee Gardens, London on 18.7.98, carried out by Martin Sugarman with Jewish veterans, or whose names were given at the reunion, to him by other veterans. Lou Kenton also sent names from the roll in Bill Rust's book "Britons in Spain". LBYB is the Leo Baeck Year Book which has contained articles about Jews who fought in Spain and is published by the Leo Baeck Institute in London.

Other important works on this subject include "Combattants Juifs dans l'Armee Republicaine Espagnole" by David Diamint, Editions Renouveau, Paris 1979, in French - describing the massive contribution of Jews in the IB and containing names lists, numerous first hand accounts by Jewish fighters and a section on women fighters; Alfred Prago's "Jews in the International Brigades in Spain", Jewish Currents, New York, Feb and March 1979. Also G E Sichon, "Les Volontaires Juifs dans la Guerre Civile en Espagne", Les Temps Modernes, October 1988 and A S Rockman, "Jewish Participation in the IB's in The Spanish Civil War", MA thesis California State University, Fullerton. Much information and several photos were also found in "The Book of the 15th Brigade" pub. by The Commissariat, Madrid 1938 and republished by F Graham, Newcastle, 1975 - abbreviated as "B15B" below. Also more details came from "The Shattered Dream" by Alek Szurek, Columbia University Press 1989, abbreviated as TSD and "Apprentices of Freedom" by J Cook, Quartet 1979 - especially on George Nathan and Maurice Levene. Mentioned also in the latter book is the brief description of discrimination made against Jewish POW's; Bob Doyle (page 119) noted that after his capture (with Maurice Levitas, Dave Goodman and others) at Calaceite near Gandesa on March 31st 1938 Italian and Gestapo guards "ordered all Communists and Jews to step forward"; this is described in more detail in a long article "Irish and Jewish Volunteers in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War - 50th Anniversary lecture" pp. 25-28 by M. O'Riordan of the Irish TGWU at the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin, Nov 1987, found in the ML Archive. Gary McCarthy (Cook, p.123) noted that "at San Sebastian prison in 1938, Spanish and German guards took photos of those lads who were obviously Jewish, and of Negroes too and when Jimmy Goldstein/Goldsmith was singled out I stepped forward too!" In fact Jews were constantly slandered in Spanish fascist radio broadcasts and newspapers - even though virtually no Jews lived in Spain! - and their large presence in the IB was often a target for fascist newspapers all over Europe.

The list of KNOWN British KIA is in the appendix of MSCW (with a Star of David against those known to be Jewish in the author's copy only) - there are 43 of them and another 7 probables. Many others had non-Jewish aliases (as Joe Garber and others have told me) and we may never know their religious affiliation or origin. Some American, Polish and other names are found in the first section immediately below, but the bulk are in a separate list further on. Spellings, especially of Polish names, may have lost accuracy in the transliteration. Finally, some further details have come from an LSE PhD, by Richard Baxell (Bax), on the British Volunteers, which he kindly sent me. It includes some of the actual ID numbers issued to the men and women ho went to Spain.

The British Atlee Battalion - this consisted originally of 600 men formed in Jan. 1937 at Madrigueras as part of the 15th IB; before that the British were No 1 Company of the Marseillaise Brigade. Of the approx. 2,000 volunteers as many as 2-400 were Jewish (11-22% - DD)