“You fought in Spain.” When the underground leader, Victor Lazlo, spoke this immortal line to Rick Blaine in the 1942 film classic Casablanca, he was acknowledging that the cynical nightclub owner played by Humphrey Bogart had already stood up to the Nazis and could be counted on to stand up again. Rick was one of the good guys.
On March 21, we squeezed into in the packed Friday night emergency room of Oakland Kaiser Hospital with Ted Veltfort, another one of the good guys. He had fallen earlier in the day and was having trouble breathing. In panic, his wife Leonore had run up to Shattuck Avenue and flagged down a taxi to take him to the hospital instead of calling 911 for an ambulance. Ironically, Ted had driven an ambulance for the Spanish Republic during the civil war. His father never forgave him for following his political beliefs to Spain in 1937.
After almost two hours, the ER doctor told us that Ted had pneumonia and they were keeping him at least overnight. Before we left, I told the doctor to take special care of him because he was one of the last veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who had fought in Spain before World War II. She looked at me blankly.
“You have to get well for the monument,” I said to Ted before we left. “It’s a week from Sunday.” He nodded.
The battle for the Spanish Republic from 1936 to 1939 is regarded by many historians as the first battle of World War II. Five months after free elections, the fledgling democratic government of Spain was attacked by a clique of army officers who had support of troops from Fascist Italy and airpower from Nazi Germany. When the democracies of Europe and the United States declared a policy of nonintervention, the desperate Spanish government put out a call for international volunteers. Young men and women from all over the world poured into Spain to defend the republic.
Approximately 2,800 of these volunteers came from the United States to form the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, later known as the Lincoln Brigade. They came from all walks of life: seamen, students, dock workers, ranch hands, carpenters, nurses, teachers. They were multi-racial: the Brigade was the first integrated American military unit and the first to have an African-American commander, Oliver Law. They fought major battles with the fascists in the Jarama Valley, at Brunete, Aragon, Teruel, and the Ebro River, often against overwhelming odds and with heavy casualties. Those odds worsened daily as the Nazi air force and fascist artillery pounded the blockaded and beleaguered republic. After three years of bloody battles, the republic was defeated and the international volunteers were withdrawn.
Eight hundred volunteers of the Lincoln Brigade did not return home.
“No man ever entered the earth more honorably than those who died in Spain,” Ernest Hemingway proclaimed, but as the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn noted just as accurately, “There were no rewards in Spain. They were fighting for us all, against the combined forces of European fascism. They deserved our thanks and respect, and they got neither.”
Back home the Lincolns were subjected to years of harassment from their own government. But while they were being blacklisted and hounded out of their jobs during the epoch when Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover were riding roughshod over the Bill of Rights, the veterans stood firm on their political convictions and remained active participants in the struggles for peace and justice—demonstrating that same idealist spirit that drew them to the cause of Spain.
Richard Bermack, the Berkeley photographer and author of The Frontlines of Social Change: Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, noted that while doing the book, “I realized that you can keep your own ideals, though it’s not an easy thing to do at all. The point of the book is to show that none of them left the struggle.”
There were about a hundred veterans left in August 2000 when the late San Francisco supervisor, Sue Bierman, introduced a resolution to the board to honor the Abraham Lincoln Brigade with a monument on the waterfront. The waterfront was chosen because it was the site of the historic 1934 Strike which changed labor relations on the West Coast forever. A number of participants in the strike became volunteers in Spain and returned to the Bay Area not only to work on the docks but also to become actively involved in civil rights and antiwar activities, including shutting down the shipment of goods to apartheid South Africa. The monument resolution passed the Board of Supervisors unanimously.
Eight years later, on Sunday, March 30, 2008, the first American government-sanctioned monument to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was dedicated with much fanfare on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. The monument, designed by Ann Chamberlain and Walter Hood, sits on a grassy area not far from the historic Ferry Building and Harry Bridges Plaza. The dockworkers are gone now, along with the cargo hooks, conveyors, and the low rumble of idling engines of cross-country trucks waiting to be loaded. Stevedores, seamen and strike breakers have been replaced by joggers, bicyclists and tourists.
“Our monument is to remember a group of people who stood up to take a stand,” Peter Carroll, the historian, stated to the hundreds of people who gathered for the event. Carroll is the author of The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War.
Eleven veterans were there for the ceremonies. Among them were Abe Osheroff, whose car was firebombed while he was helping rebuild churches in Mississippi during the Klan’s reign of terror in the 1960s; Dave Smith, who survived the Jarama Valley bloodbath, but lost a piece of his shoulder in a later battle—he could not return to his job as a machinist so he became a high school teacher and union activist; Nate Thornton, an out-of-work carpenter who joined the Brigade with his father, and longtime Berkeley resident Hilda Roberts, a combat nurse who also served in the Pacific during WWII and ultimately—as a silent antiwar witness with Women in Black.
At the dedication, Abe Osheroff said that “the stuff we’re made of never goes away, with or without a monument because the bastards will never cease their evil, and the decent human beings will never stop their struggle.”
Abe died a week later. Ted Veltfort never made it out of the hospital; he died there on April 7; Dave Smith within a few months at a union hospice in Berkeley. Milt Wolff, the last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, died in January. There are only about 24 Lincolns left now, and soon they too will pass into history.
Dolores Ibarruri, the fiery spokesperson of the Republic also know as “La Pasionaria,” spoke these words of farewell as the Lincoln Battalion and the International Brigades left Spain in 1938:
“You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy…We will not forget you; and when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves, entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back!”
Don Santina is a cultural historian who wrote the monument resolution that Sue Bierman introduced to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He lives in Oakland and can be reached at email@example.com.