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Berkeley Author Offers Portraits of Spanish Civil War Vets By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday April 26, 2005

Though he talks with a distinctive Chicago accent—a family inheritance—Richard Bermack is finally willing to admit the reality. 

“I was born in L.A.,” he says. “Growing up in the ‘50s, I was always being told that everything was perfect. But something underneath it all didn’t feel right, and I wasn’t quite sure of what it was.” 

To disguise his Lala-Land roots, Bermack said he used to tell people only that he was born in 1968, the year he moved to Berkeley. 

The year before, President Lyndon Johnson had made the last public speech of his administration that wasn’t delivered on a military base. The massive anti-war protest outside the Century Plaza Hotel, where Johnson was staying, was finally ended by the batons and tear gas of the Los Angeles Police Department. 

“Police beat the shit out of the kids, and a lot of them were from Beverly Hills,” Bermack recalls. 

The L.A. demonstration proved too much for Johnson, and from then on he spoke only in front of tightly controlled audiences—much like George W. Bush today. 

And then, in April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. fell prey to an assassin’s bullet in Memphis. 

Frustrated with L.A.—“My folks had moved to the San Fernando Valley, which was my version of hell”—Bermack came to Berkeley. “It was just in time for People’s Park,” he recalls, including the events of “Bloody Sunday” on May 15. 

Less than four weeks later, Robert F. Kennedy, the man many in the New Left hoped would succeed Johnson, was gunned down in the kitchen of L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel just moments after declaring victory in the California presidential primary. 

Safely ensconced in Berkeley, Bermack said, “I was enthralled by the sense of community, feeling part of something bigger than myself—especially coming from L.A. where there is no community.” 

Berkeley’s New Left was flourishing, an evolution of the same sense of moral outrage that had fueled the Free Speech Movement and the earlier protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee protests in San Francisco, where Berkeley people had played leading roles. 

“We had a lot of energy and vitality, but not a lot of analysis,” Bermack recalled. “We thought we could reinvent everything without regard to the past. But we couldn’t, and things started falling apart.” 

One project of the New Left was the Radical Elders Oral History Project, which was an effort to preserve the stories of the men and women from an era when the Left was stronger and well organized. 

Bermack started out taking pictures, then realized he was equally capable of conducting the interviews themselves. 

“It was like the New Left learning from the Old Left,” Bermack said. From the inchoate radicalism of the Sixties he found himself turning to the study of Marxism because “it gave me a sense of my roots, my identity,” he said. 

Among those who had the most profound impacts on the young radical’s life were veterans of two epic struggles, the labor movement and the Spanish Civil War—which would point him toward a new direction in his life. 

Bermack’s involvement, first behind the lens and then as an interviewer and writer, provided not only the means to an engaging new livelihood but decades later to his first book, just published by Berkeley’s own Heyday Books. 

The Front Lines of Social Change: Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade portrays in photography and prose the lives of the poorly armed men and women of the Old Left who battled for the Spanish Republic against Francisco Franco’s fascist army during the Spanish Civil War. 

While the labor struggle remains very much alive today, the Spanish Civil War—once an epochal event—has receded from popular memory. Yet the veterans of that forgotten war have played a part in countless struggles since. 

Bermack quickly discovered that the same zeal that had inspired their willingness to die on a foreign battlefield continued to motivate their lives long after Franco’s forces had slaughtered their way to victory. 

Though their numbers are dwindling, they remain active in the fights against the ongoing war in Iraq and for better lives for the poor, for victims of racial prejudice and for a society no longer dominated by a small, wealthy elite. 

Bermack speaks of them with a mixture of awe and affection. 

“Doing the book I realized you can keep your own ideals, though it’s not an easy thing to do at all,” he said. “The point of the book is to show that none of them left the struggle.” 

The Lincoln Brigade began withdrawing from Spain in October 1938, when it had become clear that Franco’s victory was at hand. A month later, Hitler’s war against the Jews took a new, more virulent turn when he unleashed his stormtroopers on Jewish stores and homes on Kristallnacht. 

The following March, Franco’s forces took Madrid, the last remaining Republican stronghold. 

Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was formed after the war, giving its men and women an organizational base as well as a means of staying in touch. 

Because the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was largely the creation of the American Communist Party, the veterans’ organization soon landed on the U.S. Attorney’s list of subversive organization, and FBI agents became frequent visitors at the homes and workplaces of the veterans, sometimes costing them jobs. 

Many veterans dropped out of the party in bitterness after Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev revealed the murderous crimes of Josef Stalin in 1956, “but they remained devoted to the cause of social justice,” Bermack said. 

The veterans also produce their own newsletter, and Bermack was a natural choice to produce it, which gave him an ongoing connection to the organization and the lives of its members. 

Immersion in Marxism and his encounters with labor activists who helped create the golden age of organized labor in the U.S. also led to his ongoing involvement in the labor movement. 

“With a bachelor’s in existential psychology, there wasn’t a lot I could do, so I went out and did projects about work and the labor movement,” Bermack said. “There’s just something about the labor movement, and as long as you’re dealing with the rank and file, it’s tremendous.” 

It was the computer that gave him the final tool he needed. 

“I had a lot of trouble writing because I couldn’t spell,” he said. “Then the computer came along and saved me.” 



By Richard Bermack 

Heyday Books, 145 pages, $19.95›