4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

San Diego veterans of the Spanish Civil War

For whom the bell tolled

Sy Klein, Dave Chriss, Harry Holborn,  Ken Shaker, and George Auvan. These graying grandfathers, who now live in the suburbs of San Diego, together experienced the most exciting adventure of their lives.
Sy Klein, Dave Chriss, Harry Holborn, Ken Shaker, and George Auvan. These graying grandfathers, who now live in the suburbs of San Diego, together experienced the most exciting adventure of their lives.

It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. — Albert Camus

For those who went to Spain via the Communist Party, motives were carefully scrutinized to insure that potential recruits were “politically sound.”

Spain, 1932 — Sensitive to his low ratings in informal popularity polls, King Alfonso XIII voluntarily abdicates his throne rather than suffer the indignity of being unloved by his subjects. This single historic act ends Spain’s traditional monarch, and after centuries of domination by the Catholic Church, the country finally emerges from the Dark Ages into a twentieth-century awareness of Western influences. The first popular elections in Spain’s long, repressive history result in the birth of the Spanish Republic. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe, suffering economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression, is speedily moving to the extreme political right.

One of Auvan's memorabilia. Poster translation: "The claw of the Italian invader tries to enslave us."

The infant government is plagued by factionalism — Basque separatists, fiercely geocentric Catalans, anarchists, workers, communists, and several shades of socialists all tug at the republic’s new foundation. By July, 1936, the Catholic Church has formed an unholy alliance with Spanish fascists and monarchists. Together they rise in armed rebellion against the short-lived, legally elected government. Aid quickly arrives from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Fascist funds, troops, and sophisticated German weapons are thrust against the hapless defenders of the republic, who band together to establish the Popular Front, a coalition of diverse groups — anarchists, labor unionists, socialists — whose common goal is to rid Spain of the fascist elements that threaten destruction of their uncertain democracy.

"All the peoples of the world are in the international brigades at the side of Spain."

Autumn, 1936 — The response outside Spain comes swiftly. Despite widespread popular sympathy for the cause of the republic, 27 nations, including the United States, sign a nonintervention treaty and stand aside as the fighting intensifies. Only the Soviet Union heeds Spain’s call for help, but the assistance is erratic. Trainloads of Soviet arms are detained for months at the French border and most munitions never reach their destination.

Georges Auvan: “I live in a mobile-home park near the Mexican border. My neighbors are mostly retired military. I don’t want to alienate them with my past affiliations. My wife and I belong to the South Bay Senior Citizens Club and we don't want to be conspicuous there, either.”

Private citizens representing 53 nations ignore the nonintervention treaty and intercede individually on behalf of the republic. Over two and a half years between 1936 and 1939, almost 40,000 volunteers stream into Spain to join various international brigades. Americans are the last group to join with the 15th International Brigade, which consists of Slavic, French, British, and Canadian battalions, as well as a battalion called the Campesinos, comprising Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and South Americans. Several United States battalions are formed, but due to early heavy losses, they consolidate and become the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the 15th International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army. They come to be known as the legendary Lincoln Brigade.

Ken Shaker, who lives in West Point Loma apartment: "After a bombing raid, when we inspected corpses lying out on the field, I rushed over to one who had a pair of shoes on his body and fortunately for me, they fit.”

San Diego, 1980 — Dave Chriss balances a Scotch and water on the arm of a crushed-velvet chair in his Mira Mesa living room. He awaits the arrival of seven other senior citizens who survived the Spanish Civil War and are about to hold the first official meeting of the country’s newest, smallest chapter of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Though they are only recent acquaintances, they are inextricably bound by their mutual membership in one of the most exclusive fraternities on earth. These graying grandfathers, who now live in the suburbs of San Diego, together experienced the most exciting adventure of their lives when they traveled to a foreign land in order to fight in defense of an ideal.

Ted Prager: “We were all profoundly affected by our experiences in Spain and none of us will ever get over them. The defeat was heartbreaking."

Impatient, Chriss pours another shot of Scotch. His ruddy complexion, thick hands, muscular arms, strong, craggy features, and stocky build suggest Zorba, a quality captured in the portrait of him wearing a Greek sailor’s cap. The painting dominates the living room. As he rubs the dark rings of sleeplessness around his eyes, he remembers how the Great Depression produced the radicalism of the Thirties, and then how the New Deal promised all things to all people. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s buoyant optimism, he recalls, that dispelled the apathy and despair of that time and began to fill him and millions of other Americans with hope. But the hope mingled with social turbulence from the labor movements blossomed. Everyone had a plan for reform, from Father Coughlin of Detroit to Huey Long of Louisiana; from Wobblies to anarchists, communists, socialists, and Farm-Laborites. Yet the dichotomy between the promise and the reality was enormous. The flawed American Dream quickly doubled membership in the American Communist Party.

The conscience of the '30s impelled action, and Americans also joined student groups, labor unions, and Popular Font groups; they attended demonstrations, supported boycotts, and marched on picket lines in a developing spirit of internationalism. High school dropout Dave Chriss, a sometimes grocery clerk in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived with his mother and sister, considered himself a member of the international working class. “I was barely 21 years old, unattached, and idealistic,” says Chriss, “and I didn’t know communism from rheumatism. I was a political innocent. I spent all my time in the neighborhood — in Brighton Beach — mostly in the pool rooms.”

It was in those billiard dens, and in union halls, college campuses, YMCAs, social gatherings in private homes throughout the United States, and at street and park rallies that people kept up with national and international events. Spain was on everyone’s lips. Gallup polls indicated that 76 percent of the American population favored the republic. Time, Newsweek, and other prominent national magazines sympathized along with those prophetic enough to fear the impact of European fascism. Sympathetic groups held fundraisers to by ambulances, medical supplies, and food for Spain’s struggling Loyalists. Letters were written to the Roosevelt administration protesting the selling of munitions to Italy and Germany. According to Robert Rosenstone in his book Crusade of the Left, these same arms quickly made their way into the hands of Franco’s fascists and were used to kill American volunteers who suffered from lack of supplies and training. There were a few, however, who wished to do something more than write letters or drink martinis for democracy; and for those 3500 Americans who chose to confront reality in its most urgent, brutal form, the opportunity to reach the front lines in Spain quickly presented itself.

Chriss remembers the Saturday morning when Joe Cuban showed up in the neighborhood. He had been wounded in Spain and was back in the States for some R&R before returning to the front. Some of the poolroom regulars attended street-corner rallies and meetings at the International Workers Organization Center, where wounded veterans like Joe Cuban spoke glowingly of the purity of the democratic ideal. They said it was better have bombs bursting in Madrid that in Massachusetts and that was why they were there — to prevent fascism from getting a grip on America. The theme was participatory democracy in action and the slogan, “Make Spain the conscience of the world!” was the lure that weaned many young men from their families.

Joe Cuban was older than Chriss’s friends in the neighborhood. In his mid-30s, Cuban became a hero/mentor to those younger idealists who were interested in Spain. As momentum gathered, Chriss became so inspired that he stowed away twice on ocean liners headed for Europe. He never got out of port, though, for in both instances he was discovered and reported to port authorities. After spending a couple of nights in jail, he found another approach; he joined the Young Communist League. With Joe Cuban’s supervision, that group paved the way to Spain.

Besides an extensive word-of-mouth campaign (United States Communist Party chief Earl Browder was quietly sending his brother Bill to recruit New Yorkers), pamphlets were publicly distributed. Blatant recruitment advertisements appeared in The Nation and The New Republic, igniting ideologies among seamen (the largest occupational group to volunteer), students, teachers, longshoremen, miners, steelworkers, doctors, nurses, artist, writers, attorneys, barbers, butchers, musicians, elevator operators, machinists, plumbers — nearly every segment of American life was represented on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War.

For those who went to Spain via the Communist Party, motives were carefully scrutinized to insure that potential recruits were “politically sound.” The Party turned down all Trotskyites, for example, because Trotsky had earned the distinction of being number-one on the Kremlin hit list. But Joe Cuban introduced Chriss and his buddies to a direct route which bypassed the labyrinth of communist bureaucracy and even dispensed with the perfunctory physical exam. Acting as their exclusive contact, Cuban worked cryptically through a mysterious organization. He never mentioned names and referred to “them” only as “they.” Chriss and the others assumed that “they” represented the Communist Party, but they were never certain.

At that moment, Chriss’s European counterparts were being guided to Spain on an underground railway headquartered in Paris, where workers of the world sang the “Internationale” and raised their hands with fists clenched (the greeting later adopted by the Black Panthers originated during the Spanish Civil War as a symbol of the Popular Front’s opposition to the stiff Nazi salute). For Dave Chriss, the kid from Brighton Beach, the clenched fist was a rapid induction into adulthood. It also symbolized an opportunity to release his hostilities against the injustices he had been collecting during his 21 years — against his father who abandoned the family with Chriss was a child, against poverty and the Depression, against fascists who were out to smash the labor movement, and against the ominous Hitler.

The day Chriss got orders from “them” via Joe Cuban to grow a beard and mustache (which he still maintains) and spend several weeks at the beach getting tan in order to emulate the Latino stereotype of the Thirties, he knew he was in. Subsequent orders came to take a train to Philadelphia and report to the Spanish consulate, to pose as a Spanish national named Ricardo Fernando David and request to be reunited with this “family in Spain.” It worked. (The Communist Party, he found out later, had a man working at the Spanish consulate in Philadelphia.) This devious method was necessary because at the time, all United States passports were stamped “NOT VALID FOR SPAIN.”

Chriss returned to Brooklyn, where he was instructed to wait for another call. Several weeks later it came. Sworn to secrecy by the nameless network, Dave Chriss, two buddies, and Joe Cuban disappeared from the neighborhood without a word. His worried Russian-immigrant mother had no idea where he was until she received a postcard from Spain. She responded immediately by joining the local chapter of the Friends of the Lincoln Brigade, whose function it was to write letters to the front to boost morale, write letters to Congress urging an end to nonintervention, raise funds, hold rallies, organize block parties, and send reading material, home-baked cookies, and cigarettes (which hardly ever reached their intended destinations due to a cigarette famine in Spain) to the boys in the brigade. Anyone donating a dollar or more was automatically considered a member of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. (By the time Chriss was repatriated, his once apolitical mother had become a member of the American Communist Party.)

In December of 1937 in New York City, Chriss boarded a ship called the U.S. Manhattan. “There were six of us on aboard that I knew of who were destined for Spain: me, Joe Cuban, two buddies from the neighborhood, and two others I hadn’t met.” he recalls. From the deck he watched the tip of Brooklyn and the sands of Brighton Beach fade away until there was nothing left of the world but sea and sky. Posing as off-season tourists, the volunteers slept in third-class cabins and carried only one suitcase each. “I have no idea who paid for the tickets. I never asked,” says Chriss.

When the ship crossed the Atlantic and docked at Marseilles, Cuban took his young protégés on a train to Paris and showed them the city. “Since it was Joe Cuban’s second time around, he knew his way. we did everything — the sights, the blue movies, and the whorehouses. We stayed at sleazy, third-rate hotels. Transportation, food, and lodging was paid for by ‘them,’ I suppose.”

After three whirling albeit apprehensive days, the euphoria suddenly ended when the boys from Brooklyn were ordered to assemble with 150 volunteers from around the world and were put on trains headed for a small village near the French border. “The village,” says Chriss, “had a fascist mayor and a communist chief of police, or vice verse. I don’t quite remember which way it was. The flower beds and hedges in the center of town reflected its divided politics, though — one side was shaped in s swastika and the other in a hammer and sickle.”

The 150 international volunteers, speaking a melange of languages, were issued instructions to remain inconspicuous. So as not to arouse suspicion, they were told not to wander around town in groups larger than three. Several days later they gathered in a farmhouse and from there were sent in buses to the border, where they were each issued alpargatas, the rope-soled sandals worn by Spanish peasants. It was midnight when Dave Chriss and the others crossed the Pyrenees and went off to war, equipped with little more than their Spanish/English dictionaries and a surplus of idealism. “We left at midnight and walked in single file, silently, without smoking, across the Pyrenees Mountains,” recalls Chriss. “We lost two guys who fell off a steep cliff and disappeared. Then we lost another — shot to death by a French border guard. We had already reached the point of no return so we kept on going and by daybreak, we saw Spain. The long night had been discouraging, but now, with renewed spirit, we kept on hiking and suddenly we were there. Spanish guides met us along the way and led us through small towns to the fortress of Figueras, where we were welcomed in different languages.”

The ringing doorbell interrupts Chriss’s story. Tamara, his second wife of eight years, is a tall, gray-haired woman of sixty-two who tonight wears a sedate navy-blue jumpsuit. She opens the door and greets Georges Auvan, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego chapter of the Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade. The white-haired gentleman insists on using this pseudonym; it is the only one that appeared on his 43-year-old Spanish passport. Auvan covets the past, for at age 72, it seems to hold more validity for him than the future. “I live in a mobile-home park near the Mexican border. My neighbors are mostly retired military and they’re a very conservative lot,” he explains. “I don’t want to alienate them with my past affiliations — or my present. My wife and I belong to the South Bay Senior Citizens Club and we don't want to be conspicuous there, either.” On the huge oak coffee table in the living, room, Auvan places some Spanish Civil War memorabilia from his vast collection — political posters, shrapnel preserved in plastic bags, yellowing handwritten letters of commendation, medals from the Spanish Republican Army, an old army cap, and other political and social relics from the Spain of the late '30s. “Each one of these items has a history,” he says.

Harry Holborn arrives with Auvan. His conservative brown suit and tie and his gentle demeanor suggest a country doctor rather than a temporarily retired TV salesman at Fed Mart. “I’ve been laid up for over a year now due to injuries when I was hit by a car, but I’d like to get back to work at least part-time to save enough money to take an African safari,” he says. “I’ve traveled to 54 countries and now I’m broke.”

Holborn recalls his trip to Spain in 1937. He was the only one of the veterans in this particular chapter who had been married at the time he enlisted. “My wife and I were living in Albuquerque. I sold encyclopedias during the Depression and then I sold men’s wear — anything I could get my hands on. Business was terrible. It was hard to make a living, but when you’re 25 years old, you don't worry. My wife and I were avid readers; we kept abreast of world events and were very much aware of the situation in Spain and how threatening it was to the rest of the world. We attended rallies together and then we went to some socialist meetings in Albuquerque. We talked it over and agreed that I should volunteer to fight the fascists in Spain before they came to the United States. So I kissed her good-bye, collected my art supplies — I had been an art student, too — and under the banner of the Socialist Party, I took a bus to New York City, then got on a ship, and before I knew it, I was sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Paris with three other volunteers. Picasso, who had been living in exile in Paris at the time, came over to use, applauded our efforts to try to save his country’s republic, and ordered several rounds of drinks. By that time I had already had 20 or 30 drinks, so the details are a little fuzzy. Picasso drew individual sketches of each of us and signed them and gave them to us. The following day when my companions were discussing it, I couldn’t find my sketch. I was too drunk to remember where I had put it. I must’ve left it on the table at the cafe. It’s possible that the waiter picked it up. He must be a wealthy man, if he’s still alive.

“Then, when I got to Spain, I became a buck private — and was never demoted,” he grins.

Enter Ken Shaker. Tall, elegant, affable, with classic good looks, he appears much younger than his 64 years. He presently sells life insurance and lives alone in a West Point Loma apartment, but makes occasional Friday-night forays to Mission Valley night spots. “When my younger friends want a grandfatherly type, I tag along,” he laughs. Shaker, whose accomplishments have been mentioned in several of the history books of the Spanish Civil War, is eager to describe in great detail his life experience. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, he considered himself an adventurer when, at sixteen, he first stowed away on a ship. At 21 he joined the Lincoln Brigade via the Communist Party in New York City. “First I tried enlisting with the Socialists,” he says, “but they were too picky. I told them I had National Guard experience, which wasn’t true. They caught the lie and threw me out, so I went to the communists and they didn’t care. But I was never a communist sympathizer.”

By this time Sy Klein has arrived. He was chosen post commander of the San Diego chapter of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade at the May 3 preliminary organizational meeting. Klein, who will soon be 65 years old and is retired from the U.S. Navy, lives in Clairemont with his wife, Hazel. Presently, he is consumed with running rather than with revolution (he jogs a seven-and-a-half-minute mile and ran in the July Fourth half-marathon in Coronado). “There was no question about volunteering for Spain. I was in the merchant marines and fighting in Spain was the only action in town. And at that time, town was all over the world,” he says. His route was similar to that of Chiss — New York to Philadelphia. Jose Simon Perez was his January, 1938 passport pseudonym.

Klein succinctly explains the purpose of the San Diego organization: “We’re not a beer drinking group. We’re established to further the fight against fascism.” For the most part, though, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is more of a social and historical society than a political pressure group. Along with other posts scattered throughout the United States, the San Diegans are vaguely linked together by a twelve-page publication called The Volunteer, which originated on the Spanish front in 1937 and is now mailed to the various posts from an apartment in Torrance, California. Almost half The Volunteer is taken up with obituaries (about 400 volunteers are still alive), while the rest deals with annual reunions, group pilgrimages to Spain, and legislation affecting the veterans.

Some of the members of the new chapter don’t show up. Mark Rauschwald, for instance, had been busy painting in his Spanish Village studio, readying for an art exhibition, and said he “just wasn’t up to it.” But those who are present collectively remember conditions that greeted their arrivals in Spain. The uniforms of the volunteers rarely matched; they were all shades of gray, green, olive drab, and khaki. Some men were issued long pants, others breeches, some short jackets, others long overcoats, some had caps, others berets, others none at all. Even extensive swapping didn’t make the recruits look much like real soldiers.

Supplies were depleted to the point where no underwear, socks, coats, or shoes were issued (the men usually went off to the trenches wearing the alpargatas in which they had hiked the Pyrenees, or the shoes they had carried with them from New York). “When the alpargatas wore out, we were barefoot at the front,” Dave Chriss recalls.

“We were never barefoot,” insists Klein. “We always had alpargatas.”

“Well, I was barefoot,” says Shaker, “and it was damn cold! After a bombing raid, when we inspected corpses lying out on the field, I rushed over to one who had a pair of shoes on his body and fortunately for me, they fit.”

“The food, when there was some, wasn’t bad,” says Chriss. “We feasted on donkey stew and mule meat.”

“There were always garbanzo beans and lentils,” Klein reminds him.

“I ate better on the front lines in Spain than in World War II. In France and Italy, all we ever had at the front were cold C-rations,” adds Shaker.

“And cognac,” recalls Auvan. “Even on the front in Spain we always had a daily ration of cognac.”

“Yes, the Spanish government had a high degree of civility,” says Klein.

“The cognac was the only thing that kept us warm. We had no blankets or bedrolls. We slept on the cold ground. Liquor was all we had to keep from freezing,” Holborn says. “Sometimes we were so close to the enemy trenches that at night I could hear the Moors singing in Arabic. They wore white robes even in the trenches.”

One of the characteristics of the Lincoln Brigade was informality. Offices ate with the men and were addressed by first names. No one was required to salute. Another phenomenon was the train-as-you-go program. The urgency of the situation in Spain, coupled with a lack of modern weapons and supplies, meant training was usually haphazard. “We had some old Russian guns left over from the First World War and we had some Czech Mausers.” Klein remembers. “It was a motley collection.”

After firing only one or two shots, the old rifles often jammed, and under a heavy barrage of enemy fire, the men quickly scrambled into the foxholes that they had dug with their helmets or with their bare hands (there were no shovels available). Losses were heavy; eighty percent of the men were severely wounded.

At the old fortress of Figueras, Chriss had originally been assigned to the machine-gunners’ unit. “We trained for a couple of weeks. Then we were sent in small army trucks to meet the rest of the 15th Brigade, who had been getting ready for the Ebro offensive, which was to be the last major battle of the war. We kept pretending that were being attacked, and then one day we were!” The units were scattered. Chriss lost contact with the machine gunners when he tried to save one of his neighborhood buddies. “One minute we were joking about some girls in the old neighborhood and the next minute a shot was fired and he was slumped over dead.” Stunned, Chriss remained with his friend for a long time, pondering his death, then pondering death itself. And then he wandered around dodging bullets in a half-dazed condition. “I had lost complete contact with my group and I was all alone out there. Bullets were flying when I ran into a kid for Brooklyn whom I hadn’t seen since I was about fourteen. What a strange reunion it was. He was in a transmission unit attached to Brigade headquarters. I was lost and had nowhere else to go, so I went back with him to his unit.”

Some of Chriss’s experiences at Brigade headquarters smack of M*A*S*H. “Whenever communications broke down, they sent me out with a reel of wire on my back to find the broken line.s When I’d find one, I’d splice it back together and then I’d listen. If the voices I heard were German, I knew I’d spliced the wrong wire.”

When Chriss was put on guard duty ,the workings of a rifle were explained. He was then asked, “Ya got it now?” and he replies, “Yeah, I got it.” Then he sat on a stump (rather than move around as he had been instructed) with the rifle resting across his legs and he began to review the procedure to try to understand how his weapon worked, since he had never used one before. he thought he had put the safety one, and to test it he pulled the trigger. It fired and hit water tower, barely missing a group of men getting water. “So I wound up in the brig for seven days,” he says sheepishly.

On his second day at the Ebro River, he was sent out to repair some lines. He was strafed by enemy aircraft. “I jumped into a barranco, a ditch, when stray bullet hits me in the arm. When the bombing stopped, I sought refuge in a nearby cave, where I stayed for three or four days. It was dark and eerie and it stank and there was no food — just me and a lot of dead bodies and the sickeningly sweet smell that never left. On the fourth day, fascist patrols came and searched the cave. I played dead. They poked a few of the bodies with their bayonets just to make sure no one was still alive. They discussed throwing in a grenade just to make sure everyone was absolutely dead, but then decided not to waste the ammunition. Luckily for me, they left, but I knew it was no longer safe in that cave — they could come back again. So I waited until dark and managed to get out of there. Somehow, I reached the river and I swam across. My unit had been retreating due to heavy enemy fire. I had the feeling I’d never see them again, but eventually I did. They got me to a hospital where I spent four and half months recuperating from the bullet wound. Of the four of us who went to Spain from Brighton Beach. I was the only one still alive. Joe Cuban and the others are buried in the olive groves.”

Holborn had been hospitalized, too — once for double pneumonia and on another occasion for frostbite. While bedridden, he had been visited by author Langston Hughes and by singer Paul Robeson, who made an encouraging speech to the wounded volunteers. “he gave concert right there in the hospital. Shortly afterward, the hospital was bombed and an entire wall in my room was blown out.”

Auvan had a degree in engineering from Princeton and was a member of the Federal of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians. When the union suggested that some of their member volunteer, Auvan left his job as surveyor for the government and went to Spain where he became a first lieutenant. After having sustained arm and shoulder wounds, he was on leave in Madrid (which was still in Loyalist control) when he stopped for some wine one morning at El Chicote, a bar frequented by foreign correspondents. “A large man walked in and shouted, ‘Whiskey y quinia!’ Since Spaniards don’t drink whiskey and the voice sounded American, I asked him who he was. He came over to the other end of the bar where I was standing and introduced himself as Ernest Hemingway, and then he commiserated with me about my arm being in a sling,” Auvan remembers.

“Hemingway was a nice guy,” Klein says. “Every time he came to visit the front, he brought plenty of cigarettes with him and he handed them out to everyone. Everyone liked Hemingway.”

“Hemingway was full of crap!” Chriss snaps. “He preened around like a Hollywood celebrity. I saw him every day for months at Brigade headquarters. His descriptions weren’t authentic. He romanticized everything and it wasn’t romantic. We had lice and we had dysentery. It never left; we had it for the duration. We ran through muddy trenches with our pants down around our ankles. Nothing romantic about that.”

“I spent an afternoon with Hemingway and I don’t remember a damn thing,” says Holborn. “I was too drunk!”

“I missed meeting Hemingway by five minutes,” recalls. Shaker. “We were on leave in Madrid and had heard that his hotel suite at the Florida Hotel was a haven for thirsty International Brigaders, so we decided to pay him a visit. One of his friends welcomed us and invited us to help ourselves — whiskey unlimited. Hemingway had stepped out for a few minutes but had been expected momentarily. We poured ourselves a drink and then left — we were all 21 and we hungered for sex more than we did to meet Hemingway.”

Klein remembers the camaraderie. They would join together and sing “Hang the Bastard Franco to the Apple Tree” And he remembers Jim Lardner, author Ring Lardner’s son, who had become Klein’s squad leader. “He left his job as a correspondent for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune because he wanted to make history, he said, rather than write it. He did. He got hit at the very end of the fighting — it might have been the last day. They found a press card on his corpse.”

The International Brigades had been fighting in Spain for 21 months when, in the autumn of 1938, the Spanish Republic appealed to the League of Nations to have all foreign troops removed. They knew that their cause was doomed and in some inexplicable way, they felt their pride would be restored if the war became a matter of Spaniards fighting Spaniards in the end. According to Auvan, the Lincoln Brigaders were given a beautiful send off by the citizens of Barcelona and by the government of Spain. “We marched through the streets and people wept openly and blew kisses as we passed by. Spanish government officials handed out medals to the volunteers, but medals were considered bourgeois by the International Brigades. So when we were being repatriated, the 15th Brigade gave each of us something they considered more practical — fountain pens.”

Holborn spent some of his time in Spain sketching the Spanish countryside and the Spanish faces of war. But when he left Spain in the fall of 1983, his art supplies and sketches had disappeared. “I had plenty of money, though, I was a good card player and I always won at poker, so when we were sent home, my pockets were bulging. We were shipped to a small town near the French border and then those of us who could walk, walked, since train space was scarce and was used only for the wounded. There we were, our heads shaved (we were systematically deloused every month), wearing beards and ponchos, and handing out money, sometimes as much as a thousand peseta notes at a clip to those we met along the way who looked the poorest. All Spain was starving. All we were allowed to take out of Spain was 400 pesetas, so I had to get rid of the money before we crossed into France.”

“When I left Spain,” says Shaker, “I was given a thank you, an overcoat, a suit of clothes, and 400 pesetas.”

“I got nothing, “ says Chriss. “Are you sure we were in the same war?”

“The Spanish Civil War was a misnomer,” argues Auvan. “It wasn’t a civil war until the fascists started winning victories and we went to stop them. It was a war to rescue the republic. Soon the republic will be restored. ¡Viva la republica!” he shouts, waving his arms.

“Auvan was the one who got us together to form a post,” says Ted Prager, who has been a San Diego resident for 21 years. Prager had been living in Connecticut, where he worked as a printer at the New Haven Register and was a member of the Typographical Union. In 1937 he was 25 years old, single, and without parents. His brothers, sisters, and friends were all sympathetic to the cause of the Spanish Republic, so he enlisted through the Committee for Democratic Spain and was repatriated later with a delayed shell-shock reaction.

The adjustment to life at home was a complicated affair for most of the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade. On their arrival in New York City, many of the volunteers were interrogated intensely before they were permitted to step ashore, despite the fact that the mood of the country had become increasingly antifascist. The F.B.I. “interviewed” Dave Chriss at Ellis Island. He was subsequently stripped of his United States citizenship for one year. “They couldn’t deport me because I was born in Brooklyn,” he remembers angrily, “so they denied me the privilege of voting and all other citizen’s rights. The charge was being a ‘mercenary’ in the army of a foreign government.”

“Don’t use that word! We weren’t mercenaries,” Klein interjects. “We were men of principle!”

“Yeah,” says Chriss. “Some mercenaries! The 400 pesetas they paid me bought two one-pound chocolate bars when we got to France — and that was it! There was no sugar in Spain, so as soon as I got out I blew a month’s pay on chocolate, gobbled it all up, and within hours I had a horrendous toothache. I requested to see a dentist but that was impossible since we were being held by the French in an immigration camp until the general strike in France was over. The French government knew that during the strike the presence of the International Brigaders would be an inspiration to the strikers, so even before the strike ended they got rid of us. Our group was put on a French merchant marine ship with an unseasoned crew; I think it was their maiden voyage. We took the northern route via Newfoundland during the dead of winter, but we made it.”

“Who paid your passage home?” asks Klein.

“Damned if I know! Who paid yours?” replies Chriss.

“Who knows?”

“Who cares? We got home, didn’t we?”

As these veterans all speak at once, arguing with memory, it becomes apparent their impressions of the war and their own experiences have been altered by forty-three years. Since their memories are too frail a thread on which to hang history, it is impossible to expect from them a definitive tale of how it really was in Spain. What is certain, however, is that despite the terrible tragedy and its terrible toll in lives, for these men, in retrospect, the war was the high point of their lives.

Holborn says he had no homecoming difficulties, nor was his return publicized in Albuquerque as it had been for all veterans debarking in New York City. As a loner, his commitment to Spain has been the only collective action of his life. He returned to his wife, played cards and backgammon, taught bridge, continued his art studies, sold appliances, remained a registered Democrat, and moved to San Diego 28 years ago, where he assimilated easily into the mainstream. He didn’t make contact with the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade until several months ago. “I was cleaning out my attic and came across an old footlocker that was full of Spanish Civil War mementos. I donated them to National Brigade headquarters in New York City for their archives. They sent a thank you note and put me in touch with the other veterans who were living in San Diego.”

The transition to civilian life was not so simple for some of the others. By the time he had returned from Spain, the streetwise Dave Chriss had mastered a dozen trades; and soon he married. His wife was expecting their first child when the United States officially entered World War II. Chriss was one of 300 men in the country who were granted a presidential draft deferment due to their importance to national defense. “Since the United States was relatively new in the submarine field, we only had thirty-three submarines in the fleet. There were three periscopes for every submarine. Two men in the entire country knew how to repair those periscopes. One worked the day shift, and I was on nights. When the government needed me, I had top-security clearance. In fact, I received two Navy awards for excellence for inventing a machine-shop tool that saved the government $50,000 a month. A dinner was held in my honor and I got a 25-dollar war bond.

“But when the war was over and the Cold War began, the F.B.I. hounded me,” Chriss continues. “They never left me alone. No matter where I worked, they were there. They not only cost me jobs, but anyone who vaguely associated with me, even the apoliticals, the neighbors, were harassed. ‘How do you feel about a commie living next door?’ they asked the neighbors. The F.B.I. made sure that not only was I fired — ‘How do you feel about having a commie working for you?’ they asked my employers — but my friends and acquaintances lost their jobs, too. It was guilt by association. There was no way I could hold a job while they were on my trail constantly, so I finally got into my own plumbing contracting business. I had a family to support. I had no choice.”

The late Forties and early Fifties heralded a virulent period of anti-Soviet sentiment and anti-communist hysteria. The Iron Curtain ushered in an era of “red” paranoia, communist witch hunts, loyalty oaths, and the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade were dubbed “premature antifascists,” were listed by the Committee as a communist front organization, and were among the first Cold War casualties. The Committee became so obsessed with ferreting out communist sympathizers from American life that actor Humphrey Bogart remarked at the time, “They’ll nail anyone who ever scratched his ass during the national anthem.”

When Ted Prager returned to the print shop at the New Haven Register, he, too, received periodic visits from the F.B.I. On the day following one such call, Prager was politely told that a relative of the boss immediately needed his job. Because this scenario was repeated numerous times, he was forced out of the printing business altogether. “I never realized here was so much nepotism among printers,” he says wryly. But the F.B.I. continued their periodic visits and prevented him from keeping jobs in the defense industry, too. “They’d show up unexpectedly with photographs and ask me to make identifications of the men I fought with in Spain. They were sooooo friendly, the bastards,” he says.

“our interrogators never traveled alone. There were always two or three of them waiting outside in a beat-up old Chevy,” adds Klein. “They were polite, the bastards, but they didn’t leave us alone.”

Since it was impossible for Prager to hold a job for any length of time, and since by then he had two sons to support, he went into his own business manufacturing bleach water and selling from door to door; eventually he became a floor-covering contractor.

Decades of insidious government harassment caused many of the veterans to develop a protective sort of paranoia, and as a result they refused to discuss the Spanish Civil War with anyone. In 1978, however, on the occasion of the veterans’ forty-first national reunion, Democratic Congressman Ronald Dellums, of the Eighth Congressional District of California, introduced a bill known as H.R. 12684. It was reintroduced in 1979 (H.R. 259) and now awaits a hearing before the Veteran’s Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives. The bill is based on the widely held opinion of most prominent American historians and serious students of the Spanish Civil War that the first shots of the Second World War were actually fired in Spain, and that the volunteers from the International Brigades had the foresight to be first in the lines. If passed, H.R. 259 would acknowledge that the volunteers who served in the fight against fascism in Spain in 1936-1939 deserve the rights and benefits now accorded to veterans of the U.S. armed forces who served in World War II. Members of the San Diego chapter, although hopeful, express doubts that the bill will pass. Chriss says it would only be a token, since most of the veterans are now dead — nearly 2000 lost in Spain and another 600 died in World War II. Ted Prager insists that the symbolic exoneration is important and that the veterans should fight for its passage. “It would be a measure of atonement, and although the benefits wouldn’t be retroactive over the past forty-three years, it would help concretely now. Some of the veterans are in dire straits,” he says. “Some are just living on a meager amount of Social Security. At least they’d eat better.”

Since the Cold War days, Dave Chriss has moved to California, watched his kids grow up, has divorced, remarried, become a grandfather, had an operation that incapacitated him for a while, retired, traveled throughout Europe in a motor home, and subsequently had lost touch with the veterans until last February. In a roundabout way, his children from his former wife sent Chriss a copy of the irregularly published newsletter The Volunteer. That particular issue mentioned the forthcoming 43rd annual reunion dinner to be held in Oakland on February 3, 1980. Chriss and his wife left immediately for Oakland and it was at that dinner that his own link with history took shape. He felt a renewed surge of solidarity with the wrinkled faces he hadn’t seen since he was in the trenches near the Ebro River forty-two years ago. The sense of fraternity that had inspired Orwell, Hemingway, Lorca, W.H. Auden, Malraux, and many others had not diminished. “Veterans came with their families — three generations, some of them. They gave me the names of some of the veterans living in San Diego and when I returned, I got in touch with them right away.” he says.

Then in April, Chriss, Klein, and Auvan attended the UCSD screening of the French documentary made in 1964 called To Die in Madrid, which told about the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Afterward Auvan addressed the audience of political science students (the film was sponsored by the Committee for World Democracy) and reinforced the Brigaders’ impact on history. chriss then volunteered some remarks about why they all went to Spain. “We can’t let the world forget,” he says now. “These students should know about the war and why it happened — so it won’t happen again.”

Of those men who fought in Spain, some have made their peace with society and have meshed their political and social beliefs with mainstream American politics. Others, Prager and Auvan, for instance, have remained philosophical radicals who insist on left-wing solutions to the world’s problems. This gathering in Mira Mesa perhaps reflects in microcosm the diversity of the 400 veterans in posts throughout the country. Klein is meditative. “It does no good to harbor old hatreds,” he says. Holborn, who is addicted to world travel and has recently been to the U.S.S.R. and the Middle East, has never again set foot in Spain. At 70, he lives an apolitical life. After his wife’s death, he made a list of everything he’d always wanted to do — to go up in a hot-air balloon, in a glider, make a parachute jump, visit the Galapagos Islands — and he has systematically done them. “Maybe a thousand years from now people will be responsible for their own lives and won’t be dominated by any particular form of government,” he muses.

Auvan, the eternal activist, recently spoke out against draft registration to an audience of students at San Diego City College, explaining how the war he volunteered for forty-three years ago was morally right, but a war for oil would be morally wrong. “I’ll stand up and explain to anyone, or I’ll carry on a correspondence with anyone, about Spain’s truths,” he says as he packs up the memorabilia he treasures. “Franco introduced a dictatorship and left a kingdom as his legacy. The Spanish people have carried on a constant struggle and the republic will shortly be re-established. ¡Viva la republica!”

Shaker prophesies a slow process of world domination by the U.S.S.R. He sees a dangerous parallel between the foreign policy of the Carter administration and the appeasement doctrine of Neville Chamberlain, Great Britain’s prime minister from 1937 to 1940. “Neither man could make a tough decision. Now, no one has the guts to stop the encroachment of Soviet power as it moves across the Middle East or even when it used Cubans to move into Angola. sure, there was initial outrage, and then, eventually, acceptance. That’s precisely what happened when Hitler moved into the Rhineland. Although his aggressive nature was recognized, politicians and statesmen were afraid to make tough decisions — just as they’re afraid today. Of course, the spirit of the times was different the, but there’s a danger of history repeating.”

Prager, who has visited Spain several times since his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, is disturbed by the ubiquitous fascist graffiti in that country. he says the elements of fascism are cropping up everywhere in the world and warns that we should be aware of them. “There are so many signs that the United States is moving quickly to the right.

“We were all profoundly affected by our experiences in Spain and none of us will ever get over them. The defeat was heartbreaking. I haven’t mellowed a bit. As a matter of fact,” continues Prager, who is presently a member of the Friends of the Soviet Union Cultural Society, “my sensibilities have sharpened. I’m against a war for oil. The greatest danger I see is the billions being spent today for armaments. What we need is bilateral disarmament instead of a draft If we prepare for war, that’s what we’ll have — war!”

A visit to the hallway bathroom reveals the Chriss’s affinity for American oak. Everything, including the vanity top and magazine rack (containing issues of Trailer Life and Camping World), has been built by Chriss himself, of oak. He is not an apologist for materialism — not for the Mercedes Benz in the garage, the Jeep in the driveway, the well-equipped motor home in the back yard, the bar which contains a huge assortment of the finest liquors, or for the nervous French poodle that scampers across the manicured lawn. The way he sees it, these symbols of prosperity are not in contradiction with his past (and brief) affiliation with the Young Communist League. “According to communist doctrine, nothing is too good for the worker. Maybe Mira Mesa is what Marx meant by a worker’s paradise,” Chriss winks as he lights a Pall Mall. “Now that I’m through fighting the fascists and the F.B.I., I’m waging my own personal war against the I.R.S. So far I’m winning. Wanna hear about it?” He grins and pours another scotch.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Betty Broderick's version of killing her husband

The ideal marriage, the stellar law career, the trial, jail life
Next Article

It’s Time to Get Buggy

Lobster Season Opener Saturday
Sy Klein, Dave Chriss, Harry Holborn,  Ken Shaker, and George Auvan. These graying grandfathers, who now live in the suburbs of San Diego, together experienced the most exciting adventure of their lives.
Sy Klein, Dave Chriss, Harry Holborn, Ken Shaker, and George Auvan. These graying grandfathers, who now live in the suburbs of San Diego, together experienced the most exciting adventure of their lives.

It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. — Albert Camus

For those who went to Spain via the Communist Party, motives were carefully scrutinized to insure that potential recruits were “politically sound.”

Spain, 1932 — Sensitive to his low ratings in informal popularity polls, King Alfonso XIII voluntarily abdicates his throne rather than suffer the indignity of being unloved by his subjects. This single historic act ends Spain’s traditional monarch, and after centuries of domination by the Catholic Church, the country finally emerges from the Dark Ages into a twentieth-century awareness of Western influences. The first popular elections in Spain’s long, repressive history result in the birth of the Spanish Republic. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe, suffering economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression, is speedily moving to the extreme political right.

One of Auvan's memorabilia. Poster translation: "The claw of the Italian invader tries to enslave us."

The infant government is plagued by factionalism — Basque separatists, fiercely geocentric Catalans, anarchists, workers, communists, and several shades of socialists all tug at the republic’s new foundation. By July, 1936, the Catholic Church has formed an unholy alliance with Spanish fascists and monarchists. Together they rise in armed rebellion against the short-lived, legally elected government. Aid quickly arrives from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Fascist funds, troops, and sophisticated German weapons are thrust against the hapless defenders of the republic, who band together to establish the Popular Front, a coalition of diverse groups — anarchists, labor unionists, socialists — whose common goal is to rid Spain of the fascist elements that threaten destruction of their uncertain democracy.

"All the peoples of the world are in the international brigades at the side of Spain."

Autumn, 1936 — The response outside Spain comes swiftly. Despite widespread popular sympathy for the cause of the republic, 27 nations, including the United States, sign a nonintervention treaty and stand aside as the fighting intensifies. Only the Soviet Union heeds Spain’s call for help, but the assistance is erratic. Trainloads of Soviet arms are detained for months at the French border and most munitions never reach their destination.

Georges Auvan: “I live in a mobile-home park near the Mexican border. My neighbors are mostly retired military. I don’t want to alienate them with my past affiliations. My wife and I belong to the South Bay Senior Citizens Club and we don't want to be conspicuous there, either.”

Private citizens representing 53 nations ignore the nonintervention treaty and intercede individually on behalf of the republic. Over two and a half years between 1936 and 1939, almost 40,000 volunteers stream into Spain to join various international brigades. Americans are the last group to join with the 15th International Brigade, which consists of Slavic, French, British, and Canadian battalions, as well as a battalion called the Campesinos, comprising Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and South Americans. Several United States battalions are formed, but due to early heavy losses, they consolidate and become the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the 15th International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army. They come to be known as the legendary Lincoln Brigade.

Ken Shaker, who lives in West Point Loma apartment: "After a bombing raid, when we inspected corpses lying out on the field, I rushed over to one who had a pair of shoes on his body and fortunately for me, they fit.”

San Diego, 1980 — Dave Chriss balances a Scotch and water on the arm of a crushed-velvet chair in his Mira Mesa living room. He awaits the arrival of seven other senior citizens who survived the Spanish Civil War and are about to hold the first official meeting of the country’s newest, smallest chapter of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Though they are only recent acquaintances, they are inextricably bound by their mutual membership in one of the most exclusive fraternities on earth. These graying grandfathers, who now live in the suburbs of San Diego, together experienced the most exciting adventure of their lives when they traveled to a foreign land in order to fight in defense of an ideal.

Ted Prager: “We were all profoundly affected by our experiences in Spain and none of us will ever get over them. The defeat was heartbreaking."

Impatient, Chriss pours another shot of Scotch. His ruddy complexion, thick hands, muscular arms, strong, craggy features, and stocky build suggest Zorba, a quality captured in the portrait of him wearing a Greek sailor’s cap. The painting dominates the living room. As he rubs the dark rings of sleeplessness around his eyes, he remembers how the Great Depression produced the radicalism of the Thirties, and then how the New Deal promised all things to all people. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s buoyant optimism, he recalls, that dispelled the apathy and despair of that time and began to fill him and millions of other Americans with hope. But the hope mingled with social turbulence from the labor movements blossomed. Everyone had a plan for reform, from Father Coughlin of Detroit to Huey Long of Louisiana; from Wobblies to anarchists, communists, socialists, and Farm-Laborites. Yet the dichotomy between the promise and the reality was enormous. The flawed American Dream quickly doubled membership in the American Communist Party.

The conscience of the '30s impelled action, and Americans also joined student groups, labor unions, and Popular Font groups; they attended demonstrations, supported boycotts, and marched on picket lines in a developing spirit of internationalism. High school dropout Dave Chriss, a sometimes grocery clerk in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived with his mother and sister, considered himself a member of the international working class. “I was barely 21 years old, unattached, and idealistic,” says Chriss, “and I didn’t know communism from rheumatism. I was a political innocent. I spent all my time in the neighborhood — in Brighton Beach — mostly in the pool rooms.”

It was in those billiard dens, and in union halls, college campuses, YMCAs, social gatherings in private homes throughout the United States, and at street and park rallies that people kept up with national and international events. Spain was on everyone’s lips. Gallup polls indicated that 76 percent of the American population favored the republic. Time, Newsweek, and other prominent national magazines sympathized along with those prophetic enough to fear the impact of European fascism. Sympathetic groups held fundraisers to by ambulances, medical supplies, and food for Spain’s struggling Loyalists. Letters were written to the Roosevelt administration protesting the selling of munitions to Italy and Germany. According to Robert Rosenstone in his book Crusade of the Left, these same arms quickly made their way into the hands of Franco’s fascists and were used to kill American volunteers who suffered from lack of supplies and training. There were a few, however, who wished to do something more than write letters or drink martinis for democracy; and for those 3500 Americans who chose to confront reality in its most urgent, brutal form, the opportunity to reach the front lines in Spain quickly presented itself.

Chriss remembers the Saturday morning when Joe Cuban showed up in the neighborhood. He had been wounded in Spain and was back in the States for some R&R before returning to the front. Some of the poolroom regulars attended street-corner rallies and meetings at the International Workers Organization Center, where wounded veterans like Joe Cuban spoke glowingly of the purity of the democratic ideal. They said it was better have bombs bursting in Madrid that in Massachusetts and that was why they were there — to prevent fascism from getting a grip on America. The theme was participatory democracy in action and the slogan, “Make Spain the conscience of the world!” was the lure that weaned many young men from their families.

Joe Cuban was older than Chriss’s friends in the neighborhood. In his mid-30s, Cuban became a hero/mentor to those younger idealists who were interested in Spain. As momentum gathered, Chriss became so inspired that he stowed away twice on ocean liners headed for Europe. He never got out of port, though, for in both instances he was discovered and reported to port authorities. After spending a couple of nights in jail, he found another approach; he joined the Young Communist League. With Joe Cuban’s supervision, that group paved the way to Spain.

Besides an extensive word-of-mouth campaign (United States Communist Party chief Earl Browder was quietly sending his brother Bill to recruit New Yorkers), pamphlets were publicly distributed. Blatant recruitment advertisements appeared in The Nation and The New Republic, igniting ideologies among seamen (the largest occupational group to volunteer), students, teachers, longshoremen, miners, steelworkers, doctors, nurses, artist, writers, attorneys, barbers, butchers, musicians, elevator operators, machinists, plumbers — nearly every segment of American life was represented on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War.

For those who went to Spain via the Communist Party, motives were carefully scrutinized to insure that potential recruits were “politically sound.” The Party turned down all Trotskyites, for example, because Trotsky had earned the distinction of being number-one on the Kremlin hit list. But Joe Cuban introduced Chriss and his buddies to a direct route which bypassed the labyrinth of communist bureaucracy and even dispensed with the perfunctory physical exam. Acting as their exclusive contact, Cuban worked cryptically through a mysterious organization. He never mentioned names and referred to “them” only as “they.” Chriss and the others assumed that “they” represented the Communist Party, but they were never certain.

At that moment, Chriss’s European counterparts were being guided to Spain on an underground railway headquartered in Paris, where workers of the world sang the “Internationale” and raised their hands with fists clenched (the greeting later adopted by the Black Panthers originated during the Spanish Civil War as a symbol of the Popular Front’s opposition to the stiff Nazi salute). For Dave Chriss, the kid from Brighton Beach, the clenched fist was a rapid induction into adulthood. It also symbolized an opportunity to release his hostilities against the injustices he had been collecting during his 21 years — against his father who abandoned the family with Chriss was a child, against poverty and the Depression, against fascists who were out to smash the labor movement, and against the ominous Hitler.

The day Chriss got orders from “them” via Joe Cuban to grow a beard and mustache (which he still maintains) and spend several weeks at the beach getting tan in order to emulate the Latino stereotype of the Thirties, he knew he was in. Subsequent orders came to take a train to Philadelphia and report to the Spanish consulate, to pose as a Spanish national named Ricardo Fernando David and request to be reunited with this “family in Spain.” It worked. (The Communist Party, he found out later, had a man working at the Spanish consulate in Philadelphia.) This devious method was necessary because at the time, all United States passports were stamped “NOT VALID FOR SPAIN.”

Chriss returned to Brooklyn, where he was instructed to wait for another call. Several weeks later it came. Sworn to secrecy by the nameless network, Dave Chriss, two buddies, and Joe Cuban disappeared from the neighborhood without a word. His worried Russian-immigrant mother had no idea where he was until she received a postcard from Spain. She responded immediately by joining the local chapter of the Friends of the Lincoln Brigade, whose function it was to write letters to the front to boost morale, write letters to Congress urging an end to nonintervention, raise funds, hold rallies, organize block parties, and send reading material, home-baked cookies, and cigarettes (which hardly ever reached their intended destinations due to a cigarette famine in Spain) to the boys in the brigade. Anyone donating a dollar or more was automatically considered a member of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. (By the time Chriss was repatriated, his once apolitical mother had become a member of the American Communist Party.)

In December of 1937 in New York City, Chriss boarded a ship called the U.S. Manhattan. “There were six of us on aboard that I knew of who were destined for Spain: me, Joe Cuban, two buddies from the neighborhood, and two others I hadn’t met.” he recalls. From the deck he watched the tip of Brooklyn and the sands of Brighton Beach fade away until there was nothing left of the world but sea and sky. Posing as off-season tourists, the volunteers slept in third-class cabins and carried only one suitcase each. “I have no idea who paid for the tickets. I never asked,” says Chriss.

When the ship crossed the Atlantic and docked at Marseilles, Cuban took his young protégés on a train to Paris and showed them the city. “Since it was Joe Cuban’s second time around, he knew his way. we did everything — the sights, the blue movies, and the whorehouses. We stayed at sleazy, third-rate hotels. Transportation, food, and lodging was paid for by ‘them,’ I suppose.”

After three whirling albeit apprehensive days, the euphoria suddenly ended when the boys from Brooklyn were ordered to assemble with 150 volunteers from around the world and were put on trains headed for a small village near the French border. “The village,” says Chriss, “had a fascist mayor and a communist chief of police, or vice verse. I don’t quite remember which way it was. The flower beds and hedges in the center of town reflected its divided politics, though — one side was shaped in s swastika and the other in a hammer and sickle.”

The 150 international volunteers, speaking a melange of languages, were issued instructions to remain inconspicuous. So as not to arouse suspicion, they were told not to wander around town in groups larger than three. Several days later they gathered in a farmhouse and from there were sent in buses to the border, where they were each issued alpargatas, the rope-soled sandals worn by Spanish peasants. It was midnight when Dave Chriss and the others crossed the Pyrenees and went off to war, equipped with little more than their Spanish/English dictionaries and a surplus of idealism. “We left at midnight and walked in single file, silently, without smoking, across the Pyrenees Mountains,” recalls Chriss. “We lost two guys who fell off a steep cliff and disappeared. Then we lost another — shot to death by a French border guard. We had already reached the point of no return so we kept on going and by daybreak, we saw Spain. The long night had been discouraging, but now, with renewed spirit, we kept on hiking and suddenly we were there. Spanish guides met us along the way and led us through small towns to the fortress of Figueras, where we were welcomed in different languages.”

The ringing doorbell interrupts Chriss’s story. Tamara, his second wife of eight years, is a tall, gray-haired woman of sixty-two who tonight wears a sedate navy-blue jumpsuit. She opens the door and greets Georges Auvan, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego chapter of the Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade. The white-haired gentleman insists on using this pseudonym; it is the only one that appeared on his 43-year-old Spanish passport. Auvan covets the past, for at age 72, it seems to hold more validity for him than the future. “I live in a mobile-home park near the Mexican border. My neighbors are mostly retired military and they’re a very conservative lot,” he explains. “I don’t want to alienate them with my past affiliations — or my present. My wife and I belong to the South Bay Senior Citizens Club and we don't want to be conspicuous there, either.” On the huge oak coffee table in the living, room, Auvan places some Spanish Civil War memorabilia from his vast collection — political posters, shrapnel preserved in plastic bags, yellowing handwritten letters of commendation, medals from the Spanish Republican Army, an old army cap, and other political and social relics from the Spain of the late '30s. “Each one of these items has a history,” he says.

Harry Holborn arrives with Auvan. His conservative brown suit and tie and his gentle demeanor suggest a country doctor rather than a temporarily retired TV salesman at Fed Mart. “I’ve been laid up for over a year now due to injuries when I was hit by a car, but I’d like to get back to work at least part-time to save enough money to take an African safari,” he says. “I’ve traveled to 54 countries and now I’m broke.”

Holborn recalls his trip to Spain in 1937. He was the only one of the veterans in this particular chapter who had been married at the time he enlisted. “My wife and I were living in Albuquerque. I sold encyclopedias during the Depression and then I sold men’s wear — anything I could get my hands on. Business was terrible. It was hard to make a living, but when you’re 25 years old, you don't worry. My wife and I were avid readers; we kept abreast of world events and were very much aware of the situation in Spain and how threatening it was to the rest of the world. We attended rallies together and then we went to some socialist meetings in Albuquerque. We talked it over and agreed that I should volunteer to fight the fascists in Spain before they came to the United States. So I kissed her good-bye, collected my art supplies — I had been an art student, too — and under the banner of the Socialist Party, I took a bus to New York City, then got on a ship, and before I knew it, I was sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Paris with three other volunteers. Picasso, who had been living in exile in Paris at the time, came over to use, applauded our efforts to try to save his country’s republic, and ordered several rounds of drinks. By that time I had already had 20 or 30 drinks, so the details are a little fuzzy. Picasso drew individual sketches of each of us and signed them and gave them to us. The following day when my companions were discussing it, I couldn’t find my sketch. I was too drunk to remember where I had put it. I must’ve left it on the table at the cafe. It’s possible that the waiter picked it up. He must be a wealthy man, if he’s still alive.

“Then, when I got to Spain, I became a buck private — and was never demoted,” he grins.

Enter Ken Shaker. Tall, elegant, affable, with classic good looks, he appears much younger than his 64 years. He presently sells life insurance and lives alone in a West Point Loma apartment, but makes occasional Friday-night forays to Mission Valley night spots. “When my younger friends want a grandfatherly type, I tag along,” he laughs. Shaker, whose accomplishments have been mentioned in several of the history books of the Spanish Civil War, is eager to describe in great detail his life experience. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, he considered himself an adventurer when, at sixteen, he first stowed away on a ship. At 21 he joined the Lincoln Brigade via the Communist Party in New York City. “First I tried enlisting with the Socialists,” he says, “but they were too picky. I told them I had National Guard experience, which wasn’t true. They caught the lie and threw me out, so I went to the communists and they didn’t care. But I was never a communist sympathizer.”

By this time Sy Klein has arrived. He was chosen post commander of the San Diego chapter of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade at the May 3 preliminary organizational meeting. Klein, who will soon be 65 years old and is retired from the U.S. Navy, lives in Clairemont with his wife, Hazel. Presently, he is consumed with running rather than with revolution (he jogs a seven-and-a-half-minute mile and ran in the July Fourth half-marathon in Coronado). “There was no question about volunteering for Spain. I was in the merchant marines and fighting in Spain was the only action in town. And at that time, town was all over the world,” he says. His route was similar to that of Chiss — New York to Philadelphia. Jose Simon Perez was his January, 1938 passport pseudonym.

Klein succinctly explains the purpose of the San Diego organization: “We’re not a beer drinking group. We’re established to further the fight against fascism.” For the most part, though, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is more of a social and historical society than a political pressure group. Along with other posts scattered throughout the United States, the San Diegans are vaguely linked together by a twelve-page publication called The Volunteer, which originated on the Spanish front in 1937 and is now mailed to the various posts from an apartment in Torrance, California. Almost half The Volunteer is taken up with obituaries (about 400 volunteers are still alive), while the rest deals with annual reunions, group pilgrimages to Spain, and legislation affecting the veterans.

Some of the members of the new chapter don’t show up. Mark Rauschwald, for instance, had been busy painting in his Spanish Village studio, readying for an art exhibition, and said he “just wasn’t up to it.” But those who are present collectively remember conditions that greeted their arrivals in Spain. The uniforms of the volunteers rarely matched; they were all shades of gray, green, olive drab, and khaki. Some men were issued long pants, others breeches, some short jackets, others long overcoats, some had caps, others berets, others none at all. Even extensive swapping didn’t make the recruits look much like real soldiers.

Supplies were depleted to the point where no underwear, socks, coats, or shoes were issued (the men usually went off to the trenches wearing the alpargatas in which they had hiked the Pyrenees, or the shoes they had carried with them from New York). “When the alpargatas wore out, we were barefoot at the front,” Dave Chriss recalls.

“We were never barefoot,” insists Klein. “We always had alpargatas.”

“Well, I was barefoot,” says Shaker, “and it was damn cold! After a bombing raid, when we inspected corpses lying out on the field, I rushed over to one who had a pair of shoes on his body and fortunately for me, they fit.”

“The food, when there was some, wasn’t bad,” says Chriss. “We feasted on donkey stew and mule meat.”

“There were always garbanzo beans and lentils,” Klein reminds him.

“I ate better on the front lines in Spain than in World War II. In France and Italy, all we ever had at the front were cold C-rations,” adds Shaker.

“And cognac,” recalls Auvan. “Even on the front in Spain we always had a daily ration of cognac.”

“Yes, the Spanish government had a high degree of civility,” says Klein.

“The cognac was the only thing that kept us warm. We had no blankets or bedrolls. We slept on the cold ground. Liquor was all we had to keep from freezing,” Holborn says. “Sometimes we were so close to the enemy trenches that at night I could hear the Moors singing in Arabic. They wore white robes even in the trenches.”

One of the characteristics of the Lincoln Brigade was informality. Offices ate with the men and were addressed by first names. No one was required to salute. Another phenomenon was the train-as-you-go program. The urgency of the situation in Spain, coupled with a lack of modern weapons and supplies, meant training was usually haphazard. “We had some old Russian guns left over from the First World War and we had some Czech Mausers.” Klein remembers. “It was a motley collection.”

After firing only one or two shots, the old rifles often jammed, and under a heavy barrage of enemy fire, the men quickly scrambled into the foxholes that they had dug with their helmets or with their bare hands (there were no shovels available). Losses were heavy; eighty percent of the men were severely wounded.

At the old fortress of Figueras, Chriss had originally been assigned to the machine-gunners’ unit. “We trained for a couple of weeks. Then we were sent in small army trucks to meet the rest of the 15th Brigade, who had been getting ready for the Ebro offensive, which was to be the last major battle of the war. We kept pretending that were being attacked, and then one day we were!” The units were scattered. Chriss lost contact with the machine gunners when he tried to save one of his neighborhood buddies. “One minute we were joking about some girls in the old neighborhood and the next minute a shot was fired and he was slumped over dead.” Stunned, Chriss remained with his friend for a long time, pondering his death, then pondering death itself. And then he wandered around dodging bullets in a half-dazed condition. “I had lost complete contact with my group and I was all alone out there. Bullets were flying when I ran into a kid for Brooklyn whom I hadn’t seen since I was about fourteen. What a strange reunion it was. He was in a transmission unit attached to Brigade headquarters. I was lost and had nowhere else to go, so I went back with him to his unit.”

Some of Chriss’s experiences at Brigade headquarters smack of M*A*S*H. “Whenever communications broke down, they sent me out with a reel of wire on my back to find the broken line.s When I’d find one, I’d splice it back together and then I’d listen. If the voices I heard were German, I knew I’d spliced the wrong wire.”

When Chriss was put on guard duty ,the workings of a rifle were explained. He was then asked, “Ya got it now?” and he replies, “Yeah, I got it.” Then he sat on a stump (rather than move around as he had been instructed) with the rifle resting across his legs and he began to review the procedure to try to understand how his weapon worked, since he had never used one before. he thought he had put the safety one, and to test it he pulled the trigger. It fired and hit water tower, barely missing a group of men getting water. “So I wound up in the brig for seven days,” he says sheepishly.

On his second day at the Ebro River, he was sent out to repair some lines. He was strafed by enemy aircraft. “I jumped into a barranco, a ditch, when stray bullet hits me in the arm. When the bombing stopped, I sought refuge in a nearby cave, where I stayed for three or four days. It was dark and eerie and it stank and there was no food — just me and a lot of dead bodies and the sickeningly sweet smell that never left. On the fourth day, fascist patrols came and searched the cave. I played dead. They poked a few of the bodies with their bayonets just to make sure no one was still alive. They discussed throwing in a grenade just to make sure everyone was absolutely dead, but then decided not to waste the ammunition. Luckily for me, they left, but I knew it was no longer safe in that cave — they could come back again. So I waited until dark and managed to get out of there. Somehow, I reached the river and I swam across. My unit had been retreating due to heavy enemy fire. I had the feeling I’d never see them again, but eventually I did. They got me to a hospital where I spent four and half months recuperating from the bullet wound. Of the four of us who went to Spain from Brighton Beach. I was the only one still alive. Joe Cuban and the others are buried in the olive groves.”

Holborn had been hospitalized, too — once for double pneumonia and on another occasion for frostbite. While bedridden, he had been visited by author Langston Hughes and by singer Paul Robeson, who made an encouraging speech to the wounded volunteers. “he gave concert right there in the hospital. Shortly afterward, the hospital was bombed and an entire wall in my room was blown out.”

Auvan had a degree in engineering from Princeton and was a member of the Federal of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians. When the union suggested that some of their member volunteer, Auvan left his job as surveyor for the government and went to Spain where he became a first lieutenant. After having sustained arm and shoulder wounds, he was on leave in Madrid (which was still in Loyalist control) when he stopped for some wine one morning at El Chicote, a bar frequented by foreign correspondents. “A large man walked in and shouted, ‘Whiskey y quinia!’ Since Spaniards don’t drink whiskey and the voice sounded American, I asked him who he was. He came over to the other end of the bar where I was standing and introduced himself as Ernest Hemingway, and then he commiserated with me about my arm being in a sling,” Auvan remembers.

“Hemingway was a nice guy,” Klein says. “Every time he came to visit the front, he brought plenty of cigarettes with him and he handed them out to everyone. Everyone liked Hemingway.”

“Hemingway was full of crap!” Chriss snaps. “He preened around like a Hollywood celebrity. I saw him every day for months at Brigade headquarters. His descriptions weren’t authentic. He romanticized everything and it wasn’t romantic. We had lice and we had dysentery. It never left; we had it for the duration. We ran through muddy trenches with our pants down around our ankles. Nothing romantic about that.”

“I spent an afternoon with Hemingway and I don’t remember a damn thing,” says Holborn. “I was too drunk!”

“I missed meeting Hemingway by five minutes,” recalls. Shaker. “We were on leave in Madrid and had heard that his hotel suite at the Florida Hotel was a haven for thirsty International Brigaders, so we decided to pay him a visit. One of his friends welcomed us and invited us to help ourselves — whiskey unlimited. Hemingway had stepped out for a few minutes but had been expected momentarily. We poured ourselves a drink and then left — we were all 21 and we hungered for sex more than we did to meet Hemingway.”

Klein remembers the camaraderie. They would join together and sing “Hang the Bastard Franco to the Apple Tree” And he remembers Jim Lardner, author Ring Lardner’s son, who had become Klein’s squad leader. “He left his job as a correspondent for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune because he wanted to make history, he said, rather than write it. He did. He got hit at the very end of the fighting — it might have been the last day. They found a press card on his corpse.”

The International Brigades had been fighting in Spain for 21 months when, in the autumn of 1938, the Spanish Republic appealed to the League of Nations to have all foreign troops removed. They knew that their cause was doomed and in some inexplicable way, they felt their pride would be restored if the war became a matter of Spaniards fighting Spaniards in the end. According to Auvan, the Lincoln Brigaders were given a beautiful send off by the citizens of Barcelona and by the government of Spain. “We marched through the streets and people wept openly and blew kisses as we passed by. Spanish government officials handed out medals to the volunteers, but medals were considered bourgeois by the International Brigades. So when we were being repatriated, the 15th Brigade gave each of us something they considered more practical — fountain pens.”

Holborn spent some of his time in Spain sketching the Spanish countryside and the Spanish faces of war. But when he left Spain in the fall of 1983, his art supplies and sketches had disappeared. “I had plenty of money, though, I was a good card player and I always won at poker, so when we were sent home, my pockets were bulging. We were shipped to a small town near the French border and then those of us who could walk, walked, since train space was scarce and was used only for the wounded. There we were, our heads shaved (we were systematically deloused every month), wearing beards and ponchos, and handing out money, sometimes as much as a thousand peseta notes at a clip to those we met along the way who looked the poorest. All Spain was starving. All we were allowed to take out of Spain was 400 pesetas, so I had to get rid of the money before we crossed into France.”

“When I left Spain,” says Shaker, “I was given a thank you, an overcoat, a suit of clothes, and 400 pesetas.”

“I got nothing, “ says Chriss. “Are you sure we were in the same war?”

“The Spanish Civil War was a misnomer,” argues Auvan. “It wasn’t a civil war until the fascists started winning victories and we went to stop them. It was a war to rescue the republic. Soon the republic will be restored. ¡Viva la republica!” he shouts, waving his arms.

“Auvan was the one who got us together to form a post,” says Ted Prager, who has been a San Diego resident for 21 years. Prager had been living in Connecticut, where he worked as a printer at the New Haven Register and was a member of the Typographical Union. In 1937 he was 25 years old, single, and without parents. His brothers, sisters, and friends were all sympathetic to the cause of the Spanish Republic, so he enlisted through the Committee for Democratic Spain and was repatriated later with a delayed shell-shock reaction.

The adjustment to life at home was a complicated affair for most of the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade. On their arrival in New York City, many of the volunteers were interrogated intensely before they were permitted to step ashore, despite the fact that the mood of the country had become increasingly antifascist. The F.B.I. “interviewed” Dave Chriss at Ellis Island. He was subsequently stripped of his United States citizenship for one year. “They couldn’t deport me because I was born in Brooklyn,” he remembers angrily, “so they denied me the privilege of voting and all other citizen’s rights. The charge was being a ‘mercenary’ in the army of a foreign government.”

“Don’t use that word! We weren’t mercenaries,” Klein interjects. “We were men of principle!”

“Yeah,” says Chriss. “Some mercenaries! The 400 pesetas they paid me bought two one-pound chocolate bars when we got to France — and that was it! There was no sugar in Spain, so as soon as I got out I blew a month’s pay on chocolate, gobbled it all up, and within hours I had a horrendous toothache. I requested to see a dentist but that was impossible since we were being held by the French in an immigration camp until the general strike in France was over. The French government knew that during the strike the presence of the International Brigaders would be an inspiration to the strikers, so even before the strike ended they got rid of us. Our group was put on a French merchant marine ship with an unseasoned crew; I think it was their maiden voyage. We took the northern route via Newfoundland during the dead of winter, but we made it.”

“Who paid your passage home?” asks Klein.

“Damned if I know! Who paid yours?” replies Chriss.

“Who knows?”

“Who cares? We got home, didn’t we?”

As these veterans all speak at once, arguing with memory, it becomes apparent their impressions of the war and their own experiences have been altered by forty-three years. Since their memories are too frail a thread on which to hang history, it is impossible to expect from them a definitive tale of how it really was in Spain. What is certain, however, is that despite the terrible tragedy and its terrible toll in lives, for these men, in retrospect, the war was the high point of their lives.

Holborn says he had no homecoming difficulties, nor was his return publicized in Albuquerque as it had been for all veterans debarking in New York City. As a loner, his commitment to Spain has been the only collective action of his life. He returned to his wife, played cards and backgammon, taught bridge, continued his art studies, sold appliances, remained a registered Democrat, and moved to San Diego 28 years ago, where he assimilated easily into the mainstream. He didn’t make contact with the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade until several months ago. “I was cleaning out my attic and came across an old footlocker that was full of Spanish Civil War mementos. I donated them to National Brigade headquarters in New York City for their archives. They sent a thank you note and put me in touch with the other veterans who were living in San Diego.”

The transition to civilian life was not so simple for some of the others. By the time he had returned from Spain, the streetwise Dave Chriss had mastered a dozen trades; and soon he married. His wife was expecting their first child when the United States officially entered World War II. Chriss was one of 300 men in the country who were granted a presidential draft deferment due to their importance to national defense. “Since the United States was relatively new in the submarine field, we only had thirty-three submarines in the fleet. There were three periscopes for every submarine. Two men in the entire country knew how to repair those periscopes. One worked the day shift, and I was on nights. When the government needed me, I had top-security clearance. In fact, I received two Navy awards for excellence for inventing a machine-shop tool that saved the government $50,000 a month. A dinner was held in my honor and I got a 25-dollar war bond.

“But when the war was over and the Cold War began, the F.B.I. hounded me,” Chriss continues. “They never left me alone. No matter where I worked, they were there. They not only cost me jobs, but anyone who vaguely associated with me, even the apoliticals, the neighbors, were harassed. ‘How do you feel about a commie living next door?’ they asked the neighbors. The F.B.I. made sure that not only was I fired — ‘How do you feel about having a commie working for you?’ they asked my employers — but my friends and acquaintances lost their jobs, too. It was guilt by association. There was no way I could hold a job while they were on my trail constantly, so I finally got into my own plumbing contracting business. I had a family to support. I had no choice.”

The late Forties and early Fifties heralded a virulent period of anti-Soviet sentiment and anti-communist hysteria. The Iron Curtain ushered in an era of “red” paranoia, communist witch hunts, loyalty oaths, and the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade were dubbed “premature antifascists,” were listed by the Committee as a communist front organization, and were among the first Cold War casualties. The Committee became so obsessed with ferreting out communist sympathizers from American life that actor Humphrey Bogart remarked at the time, “They’ll nail anyone who ever scratched his ass during the national anthem.”

When Ted Prager returned to the print shop at the New Haven Register, he, too, received periodic visits from the F.B.I. On the day following one such call, Prager was politely told that a relative of the boss immediately needed his job. Because this scenario was repeated numerous times, he was forced out of the printing business altogether. “I never realized here was so much nepotism among printers,” he says wryly. But the F.B.I. continued their periodic visits and prevented him from keeping jobs in the defense industry, too. “They’d show up unexpectedly with photographs and ask me to make identifications of the men I fought with in Spain. They were sooooo friendly, the bastards,” he says.

“our interrogators never traveled alone. There were always two or three of them waiting outside in a beat-up old Chevy,” adds Klein. “They were polite, the bastards, but they didn’t leave us alone.”

Since it was impossible for Prager to hold a job for any length of time, and since by then he had two sons to support, he went into his own business manufacturing bleach water and selling from door to door; eventually he became a floor-covering contractor.

Decades of insidious government harassment caused many of the veterans to develop a protective sort of paranoia, and as a result they refused to discuss the Spanish Civil War with anyone. In 1978, however, on the occasion of the veterans’ forty-first national reunion, Democratic Congressman Ronald Dellums, of the Eighth Congressional District of California, introduced a bill known as H.R. 12684. It was reintroduced in 1979 (H.R. 259) and now awaits a hearing before the Veteran’s Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives. The bill is based on the widely held opinion of most prominent American historians and serious students of the Spanish Civil War that the first shots of the Second World War were actually fired in Spain, and that the volunteers from the International Brigades had the foresight to be first in the lines. If passed, H.R. 259 would acknowledge that the volunteers who served in the fight against fascism in Spain in 1936-1939 deserve the rights and benefits now accorded to veterans of the U.S. armed forces who served in World War II. Members of the San Diego chapter, although hopeful, express doubts that the bill will pass. Chriss says it would only be a token, since most of the veterans are now dead — nearly 2000 lost in Spain and another 600 died in World War II. Ted Prager insists that the symbolic exoneration is important and that the veterans should fight for its passage. “It would be a measure of atonement, and although the benefits wouldn’t be retroactive over the past forty-three years, it would help concretely now. Some of the veterans are in dire straits,” he says. “Some are just living on a meager amount of Social Security. At least they’d eat better.”

Since the Cold War days, Dave Chriss has moved to California, watched his kids grow up, has divorced, remarried, become a grandfather, had an operation that incapacitated him for a while, retired, traveled throughout Europe in a motor home, and subsequently had lost touch with the veterans until last February. In a roundabout way, his children from his former wife sent Chriss a copy of the irregularly published newsletter The Volunteer. That particular issue mentioned the forthcoming 43rd annual reunion dinner to be held in Oakland on February 3, 1980. Chriss and his wife left immediately for Oakland and it was at that dinner that his own link with history took shape. He felt a renewed surge of solidarity with the wrinkled faces he hadn’t seen since he was in the trenches near the Ebro River forty-two years ago. The sense of fraternity that had inspired Orwell, Hemingway, Lorca, W.H. Auden, Malraux, and many others had not diminished. “Veterans came with their families — three generations, some of them. They gave me the names of some of the veterans living in San Diego and when I returned, I got in touch with them right away.” he says.

Then in April, Chriss, Klein, and Auvan attended the UCSD screening of the French documentary made in 1964 called To Die in Madrid, which told about the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Afterward Auvan addressed the audience of political science students (the film was sponsored by the Committee for World Democracy) and reinforced the Brigaders’ impact on history. chriss then volunteered some remarks about why they all went to Spain. “We can’t let the world forget,” he says now. “These students should know about the war and why it happened — so it won’t happen again.”

Of those men who fought in Spain, some have made their peace with society and have meshed their political and social beliefs with mainstream American politics. Others, Prager and Auvan, for instance, have remained philosophical radicals who insist on left-wing solutions to the world’s problems. This gathering in Mira Mesa perhaps reflects in microcosm the diversity of the 400 veterans in posts throughout the country. Klein is meditative. “It does no good to harbor old hatreds,” he says. Holborn, who is addicted to world travel and has recently been to the U.S.S.R. and the Middle East, has never again set foot in Spain. At 70, he lives an apolitical life. After his wife’s death, he made a list of everything he’d always wanted to do — to go up in a hot-air balloon, in a glider, make a parachute jump, visit the Galapagos Islands — and he has systematically done them. “Maybe a thousand years from now people will be responsible for their own lives and won’t be dominated by any particular form of government,” he muses.

Auvan, the eternal activist, recently spoke out against draft registration to an audience of students at San Diego City College, explaining how the war he volunteered for forty-three years ago was morally right, but a war for oil would be morally wrong. “I’ll stand up and explain to anyone, or I’ll carry on a correspondence with anyone, about Spain’s truths,” he says as he packs up the memorabilia he treasures. “Franco introduced a dictatorship and left a kingdom as his legacy. The Spanish people have carried on a constant struggle and the republic will shortly be re-established. ¡Viva la republica!”

Shaker prophesies a slow process of world domination by the U.S.S.R. He sees a dangerous parallel between the foreign policy of the Carter administration and the appeasement doctrine of Neville Chamberlain, Great Britain’s prime minister from 1937 to 1940. “Neither man could make a tough decision. Now, no one has the guts to stop the encroachment of Soviet power as it moves across the Middle East or even when it used Cubans to move into Angola. sure, there was initial outrage, and then, eventually, acceptance. That’s precisely what happened when Hitler moved into the Rhineland. Although his aggressive nature was recognized, politicians and statesmen were afraid to make tough decisions — just as they’re afraid today. Of course, the spirit of the times was different the, but there’s a danger of history repeating.”

Prager, who has visited Spain several times since his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, is disturbed by the ubiquitous fascist graffiti in that country. he says the elements of fascism are cropping up everywhere in the world and warns that we should be aware of them. “There are so many signs that the United States is moving quickly to the right.

“We were all profoundly affected by our experiences in Spain and none of us will ever get over them. The defeat was heartbreaking. I haven’t mellowed a bit. As a matter of fact,” continues Prager, who is presently a member of the Friends of the Soviet Union Cultural Society, “my sensibilities have sharpened. I’m against a war for oil. The greatest danger I see is the billions being spent today for armaments. What we need is bilateral disarmament instead of a draft If we prepare for war, that’s what we’ll have — war!”

A visit to the hallway bathroom reveals the Chriss’s affinity for American oak. Everything, including the vanity top and magazine rack (containing issues of Trailer Life and Camping World), has been built by Chriss himself, of oak. He is not an apologist for materialism — not for the Mercedes Benz in the garage, the Jeep in the driveway, the well-equipped motor home in the back yard, the bar which contains a huge assortment of the finest liquors, or for the nervous French poodle that scampers across the manicured lawn. The way he sees it, these symbols of prosperity are not in contradiction with his past (and brief) affiliation with the Young Communist League. “According to communist doctrine, nothing is too good for the worker. Maybe Mira Mesa is what Marx meant by a worker’s paradise,” Chriss winks as he lights a Pall Mall. “Now that I’m through fighting the fascists and the F.B.I., I’m waging my own personal war against the I.R.S. So far I’m winning. Wanna hear about it?” He grins and pours another scotch.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

In effort to reach out to vaccine hesitant, County introduces mobile health drones

The Empire Likes Vaxx
Next Article

See's chocolates vs. Whitman's, how they make round M&Ms

East Coast vs. West Coast butter, why Rice Krispies makes its sound, jalapeno peppers' heat, the truth of Heinz's 57 varieties
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close