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Standing Up Early to Fascism

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Archive of memoirs from the international effort against Franco arrives at NYU

James Neugass, who died of a heart attack in the Christopher Street subway station in the West Village in 1949, was born in New Orleans in 1905. If he’d made it into his 100th year in his hometown, he would undoubtedly within recent days have been killed by heat and thirst and starvation and drowning in some hospital bed in that city.

As it is, Neugass may have cheated death more than once in his span as college student—Yale, Michigan, Harvard, Oxford—shoe salesman, social worker, fencing coach, housing inspector, janitor, toy designer, sailor, chef, book reviewer, poet – and, most especially, as ambulance driver with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers on the anti-Fascist side of the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and ‘39.

Here is a fragment of a fragment he contributed to “Salud! Poems, Stories, and Sketches of Spain by American Writers” (1938):

Four dead cavalrymen fully dressed and unspotted by blood lay on stretchers in the hospital courtyard. Saxton, blond tall young English surgeon, knelt beside one of them. He had rolled a sleeve past the elbow of a gray arm.

“What do you think you’re doing, Doc?” I asked…

The single vampire tooth of a big glass syringe was slowly drawing the blood out of a vein on the inside of the dead cavalryman’s forearm. The vessel filled and Saxton stood.

“New Soviet technique,” he said, holding the syringe between his squinting eye and the late winter sun…

“Seldom get the chance… These four… were in one of the dugouts in the wall of the main street. No timbers in the roof. Direct hit. Asphyxiated, all of them… Their bad luck… our good luck. We are running short on donors, and the transfusion truck has been too busy …”

Now I understood why we must win. Men die but the blood fights on in other veins and their purpose fills other hearts.

Neugass was one of 3,000 mostly (but not all) quite young Americans who went to fight against Franco—and Hitler and Mussolini—in the war that was a prelude to the bigger war that might never have taken place if the democracies had summoned some backbone and the showdown in Spain had gone the other way.

Around half of those 3,000 Americans never came home. A considerable number of the 3,000, including many of the fallen, were artists, playwrights, novelists, poets, journalists, musicians, dancers, people of the theater, and it is this “Cultural Legacy of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” that is being heralded—better yet, reawakened—in an exhibit that runs as deep as Madrid’s Ebro River.

Some 60 or 70 percent of the fascinating material—drawings, photographs, letters, poems, plays, short stories, memoirs, radio and film scripts, documents, and images of all kinds—has been borrowed from the Archives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that are housed in NYU’s Tamiment Library.

“That archive is one of NYU’s greatest resources,” said Brooklyn-born Professor James D. Fernandez, 44, chairman of the university’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, founding director of the King Juan Carlos I Center, co-curator of this exhibit with one of his recent students, 23-year-old NYU graduate Elizabeth Compa.

“I kind of guided her. She knows more than I do,” Fernandez explained.

A member of the International Brigades—and possibly the Lincoln Brigade—during the Spanish Civil War sitting under a sign that in its English translation says: “Without culture or discipline there is no strong army.”

“Here’s one of the treasures,” said Compa in front of a case containing the only known surviving copy—“So fragile, so incredible!”—of The Jaily News, a single-sheet satirical newspaper produced by New Yorker (of course!) Bob Steck, one of hundreds of International Brigades prisoners in the Fascist concentration camp at San Pedro de Cardena, near Burgos.

One target of the barbs in The Jaily News was New York Times foreign correspondent William Carney, the Times’ pro-Franco counterbalance to pro-Loyalist Herbert L. Matthews. Carney’s dispatches made the San Pedro camp sound like a spa, with nurses pushing the prisoners around in wheelchairs—sort of a precursor to Theresienstadt, the Nazi “showcase” concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Even more incredible than The Jaily News was a 1938 Christmas Eve entertainment put on by Steck, a member of the Workers’ Lab Theater back home, and a considerable number of other San Pedro prisoners for the benefit of the entire stronghold, guards as well as inmates, with permission of the commanding major so long as no “revolution­ary” songs were to be sung.

The major may not have known just how revolutionary were “Joe Hill” and “Casey Jones,” two classics of the American labor movement that warmed things up deep into the program, but by then the captives and their keepers were alike in tears at renderings of “Stille Nacht” and “Tannenbaum” by a chorus of anti-Nazi German prisoners—the most brutally mistreated of any in that camp—followed by many another magical moment from the throats of British, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Polish, Slavic, Ukrainian, and Cuban POWs.

“The Fascist jailers,” said the black-bearded Fernandez, whose father’s parents came here from Asturia, a Spanish province of miners and revolutionaries, “were blown away by the fact that these ‘animals’ could be so sensitive and so talented.”

Two days later the major asked them to repeat the program for invited officers from Burgos on New Year’s Eve. “We gladly complied,” Carl Geiser writes in “Prisoners of the Good Fight” (Lawrence Hill books, 1985).

If the ranks of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade contained an unusually high percentage of then fairly well-known or soon to be well-known writers, artists, composers, filmmakers—James Lardner, Joseph Vogel, Ralph Fasanella, Conlon Nancarrow, Edwin Rolfe, Alvah Bessie, Phil Bard, William Lindsay Gresham, and scores of others—there were also some complete unknowns whose surprising talents, or evidence of same, have somehow survived to this day and to this exhibit on Washington Square.

One such was Meredith Sydnor Graham, a young black American commercial artist who arrived in Spain as a volunteer in March 1937, when he would have been around 25 years old, and was killed in action on the Brunete front in July 1937, leaving behind three sketchbooks of the Spanish landscape, his fellow soldiers, and a civilian citizenry at war.

At one point or another over the years, all this “cultural legacy” of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, saved up by the veterans themselves, resided here or there in somebody’s attic or basement or garage. Some 25 years ago, in the interest of safekeeping, it was all gathered together and placed in the hands of Brandeis University, from where it more recently moved to NYU.

It was as a student at the NYU mini-campus in Madrid in the spring of 2003 that then 21-year-old Elizabeth Compa first saw “The Good Fight,” an excellent documentary about the Spanish Civil War. It inspired her to go to e-mail to hunt up a course taught by James Fernandez at NYU back here in New York.

“I said to myself I have to get into this class whatever I do,” said Compa, daughter of a labor lawyer, who intends to go to law school herself. But first she and Fernandez will be lending a hand to the big upcoming Museum of the City of New York exhibition of “New York and the Spanish Civil War” slated for Spring 2007.

Washington Square is the warm-up.

On Friday, October 7, at 6 p.m., Mike Wallace will speak at the Center on “Gotham and the Spanish Civil War.” On Friday, October 28, at 2 and 4 p.m., there will be screenings of “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943) and “Blockade” (1938), two Hollywood films about that war.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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