Our history – an occasional series

From the first Yiddish newspaper Frayhayts Kemfer

Jews in the fight against Franco

David Rosenberg, 27 December 2017

On this day, 27 December, in 1978, democracy was formally re-established in Spain, just over three years after the death of General Franco, who governed Spain under a fascist dictatorship from the end of the 1930s. So what has this got to do with JVL? 

On the JVL statement of principles it says: “We take inspiration from the long history of Jewish involvement in the socialist and trade union movements and in anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles…”, so here is a little slice of history. Be inspired. 

A disproportionate number of Jews took part in the fight against Franco during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, when some 35,000 people from 53 countries went to Spain to fight alongside the Republicans. It is estimated that around 15-20% of those fighters for liberty were Jews even though Jews made up 1% or less of the entire population of most of the countries they went there from. They went as socialists, communists, internationalists, though they had an additional reason too. One of Franco’s generals, General Quiepo di Llano, made a radio broadcast on 10th October 1936 in which he said “Our war is not a Spanish civil War, it is a war of western civilisation against the Jews of the entire world.” 

Two of the largest contingents from Britain came from the East End of London and Glasgow. Both contingents included many Jews. One of the East End Jewish veterans I knew (Charlie Goodman) gave me a list of 36 East Enders who died in Spain. Half of them had recognisably Jewish names. We can surmise that around half of the contingent from East London were Jews. Many were from the Communist Party. Some like Charlie, had been active in the Labour League of Youth. (Charlie later joined the Communist Party). 

The Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) – a friendly society formed in the East End by Yiddish-speaking Bundists, anarchists and communists sent material support to the Botwin Company of the Dombrowski Brigade, which was made up of mainly Yiddish-speaking Polish Jews. 

The Botwin company published the first Yiddish front-line newspaper published in Spain during the civil war which was called Frayhayts Kemfer (Freedom Fighter) and later Botwin (see pictures) . At least one Botwin survivor, Pinkus Kartin also took part of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. 

One less-known contingent of almost entirely Jewish fighters for Liberty in Spain came from Palestine – around 300 of them. They were mainly Jewish communists who had settled there in the 1920s, under the British Mandate, seeking to build a secure home there for Jews, but one based on full equality with Palestinians. The contingent from Palestine also included seven Armenians, four Muslims and one Christian.

The story of this contingent was told in a brilliant film called Madrid Before Hanita. It was made a few years ago by a left-wing Israeli film-maker Eran Torbiner, who was also exploring the politics of their decision to abandon their new home, and return to Europe to fight on the diaspora frontline.

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