camaradas in arms

camaradas in arms


Spain Thanks Those Who Sacrificed To Help The Republic Against Franco

By Brett Allan King

Chicago Tribune January 05, 1997

MADRID — Sixty years after the war, Ruth Davidow is tired of veterans “telling war stories and who they slept with.”

She is incensed when Spanish reporters ask her if she came to their civil war looking for romance.

“When you’re covered in blood and mud, there’s no time for romance,” says the 85-year-old California filmmaker. “We were busy fighting fascism.”

Davidow was one of the 40,000 members of the International Brigades who came between 1936 and 1939 to help defend Spain’s newly elected Second Republic from the insurgent forces of Gen. Francisco Franco. Six decades after serving in the trenches as a nurse, she and 350 of her fellow “Volunteers for Liberty” from across the globe returned to Madrid in November to accept honorary Spanish citizenship — official recognition of their sacrifice.

If anyone came thinking they would find old men dwelling on the past, on a war they lost, they had another think coming. A lot of the brigadistas are women, a lot are still fighting and few are looking for homage.

“The word `homage,’ it makes me ill,” Davidow says. “I didn’t come here to be honored. I came here because I wanted to be in an anti-fascist front. I don’t see it developing so fast.”

In 1936, with the blessing of the landed aristocracy, the church and the fascist Falange Party, Franco left the Canary Islands and joined rebellious troops to launch an invasion from North Africa. The threat to Spain’s newly elected government forged an unlikely alliance of communists, anarchists and center-left liberals of both sexes, who united under the flag of anti-fascism. While Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini actively supported Franco, Western democracies remained neutral.

The attack coincided with the People’s Olympics in Barcelona, an alternative gathering of anti-fascist youth meant to counter the official event in Nazi Germany. Already alarmed by the expansion of European fascism, many of these stayed on to fight alongside the Spanish Resistance, soon to be followed by 40,000 to 60,000 volunteers from 53 countries.

“It was a cold, hard decision, based on a real fear that if I didn’t do it now, I was going to get it later,” Davidow says. “I (originally) felt what’s happening in Germany, what’s happening in Italy had nothing to do with me, it was a European war. And that went on until they attacked Spain. . . . When they got to Spain, I realized, we’re next. So I turned overnight. I was always an anti-fascist and I figured, `This is my fight,’ and there’s no such thing as a piecemeal fight.”

Of the 2,800 American volunteers, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade got most of the attention. Few people mention the Washington Battalion, the John Brown Battery or the hundreds of volunteers who came as medics. These were units ahead of their time. Long before there was a Colin Powell, racially integrated troops and black commanders fought under the Spanish sun. Before “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” open homosexuals fought in their ranks. Well before American publicists invented Rosie the Riveter, women were in the trenches.

“We were all comrades,” remembers George Cullinen, of the Washington Battalion.

With Franco’s 1939 victory and 36-year dictatorship, many war records were destroyed. But estimates of female participation in the mixed Spanish-International Brigades of the People’s Army range from 10 to 25 percent.

“I came to Spain as a nurse, but I wasn’t some Florence Nightingale,” Dutch brigadista Trudi Van Reemst reminds her male comrades. “I will always consider myself a `Volunteer for Liberty.’ That’s why I came to Spain, in the rear guard, to help those of you who were in the trenches.”

Like other women who came to Spain, Vanreemst never stopped fighting. After the fall of the Spanish Republic, she went on with her husband to join the Dutch Resistance. Her time in hiding, in jail and later in a concentration camp left her little time to raise her only son.

For Frida Knight, an English communist and musicologist, Spain was a stop after Russia and before China. When the war broke out, she took an ambulance from London to the southern Spanish city of Murcia. She had planned to return to Madrid last November, but her time ran out. Her friend, historian Angela Jackson, brought part of her ashes in an ornate box bearing the red, yellow and purple colors of the Republican flag.

“Frida always admired the bravery of this people. She never stopped fighting for peace and justice,” says Jackson, holding back the tears. “If she were here, she’d tell the young people to keep fighting for a more just world.”

Women on the battlefield faced more difficulties than the men.

“It was hard, because I’m a woman,” Davidow recalls. “It was very hard, because the Spanish, too, had a very different view of women. And when they complained, they complained about how the soldiers treated the young women. And they were right in a sense . . . but the person who really changed things was Pasionaria”

Dolores Ibarruri, best known as “la Pasionaria,” was a Communist deputy in the Spanish legislature, and her fiery oratory made her the spiritual mother of the defense of democracy.

“Pasionaria is the mother of all warriors,” an anonymous soldier-poet later wrote in the journal Juventud, “and like a mother I love her./ Warriors! Comrades!/ Embrace our mother./ We bid farewell, shouting/ Death to the coward, Fascism!”

“Don’t be the ones to hold back your sons and your husbands,” Ibarruri told Spanish women, “because if you want to protect your life, it is not defended by staying at home, but by fighting. If the enemy were to win, he would be unmerciful with us.”

A year after the fall of the Republic, a Madrid bishop informed the members of the Falange’s Women’s Section that they, like men, would learn the political and spiritual teachings of the Falange and receive physical education. While the men were to undergo paramilitary training, the women were to study “home economics, because the Falange wants not Amazons, but Christian mothers.”

Carmen Busquearroyo remembers well the sensation of going from equality on the battlefield to submission under dictatorship. While the international women served mostly as nurses and drivers, she was one of the many Spanish women who took up arms.

“They took us up to teach us how to shoot,” she recalls, “and you can’t believe the discipline — whether they want to admit it or not. . . . In fact, we went and fought with sticks until we got to the arsenal on the hill and raided it for guns.”

Busquearroyo and Davidow served in the 5th Regiment under Enrique Lister.

“I was in the Listers, which was very different,” Davidow says. “They were a very strong, really they were a communist brigade, the first ones who were formed to save Madrid. And in there was Capt. Lola, a woman. The whole attitude of the men was very different — they would have died for her.”

“You know, Spanish women played a great part during the war, a great role. And go figure — that happens in all wars,” says Fanny Edelman, an Argentine who coordinated the shipment of supplies to the front. “Look at the Second World War. Look at the wars of liberation in Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala; women played a decisive role. In those cases, machismo goes undercover . . . and then it reappears when the war’s over.” She laughs heartily, as other women sing wartime songs, “It’s not that it ends; it’s just suspended. There’s no other choice.”

Inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution and appalled by socio-economic conditions of the Depression era, most of the volunteers were or later became Communist Party members. Their activism in leftist causes after the war was undying and is today limited only by the rate of their 80- or 90-year-old hearts.

When Franco came to power, many went on to fight other causes. Some occupied places of honor in the Eastern bloc. Those in the West adjusted to lives as dissidents. Davidow recalls the 1950s witchhunts of McCarthyism, when the FBI came to her house and critics accused her of receiving “Moscow gold.” Regardless of the magnitude of the struggles they graduated to, all got their training wheels in Spain.

Toward the end of the war and in hopes of defusing the conflict, Spanish President Juan Negrin ordered the dissolution of the International Brigades. In October 1938, they left Barcelona, where Ibarruri bade them a passionate farewell:

“You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and universality of democracy. We shall not forget you. And when the olive tree of peace once again extends its branches, return!”

They came in planes, trains and ships — or by foot over the Pyrenees. They returned by plane — in wheelchairs and running shoes. Some are still communists, others are Clintonites.

Edelman looks on as Jackson spreads Knight’s ashes below Madrid’s Puente de los Franceses bridge. The majority female crowd of 60 or so supporters then sings “La Internacional.”

“Long live the women brigadistas!” cries one Spaniard. “Long live revolutionary women!”

“Viva!” shouts the crowd.

“Long live the liberation of women throughout the world!” another elderly woman chimes in, “. . . and long live women!”


Edelman pulls away to join her camaradas.

“In the end, we’re going to win this battle . . .” she walks away, then turns to add, ” . . . for equality.”

Copyright by Brett Allan King and/or the publication in which story first appeared

Do not reprint without permission

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on whatsapp