A fan, a photo and the International Brigades

Post date: 24/11/2021

Emily Moore and Elizabeth Washburn, who are part of a student research team at the Martin-Springer Institute of Northern Arizona University, explain what two historical objects can tell us about the International Brigades. This piece was originally published in ¡No Pasaran! 3-2021.

If you have information that might be useful to this research, please contact the Martin-Springer Institute. The project website and a contact form can be found here. All photos used below are courtesy of the Martin-Springer Institute.

A traditional Spanish hand fan, an abanico, which was signed by International Brigaders in the 129th Brigade’s anti-tank battery around September 1938.

If pictures speak louder than words, how much can an object tell? For Bernd Häber, a German-born Arizonan, the discovery of a Spanish fan and a photograph from his great-uncle, Johann (Hans) Maslowski, led to an inquiry into the value of both objects and pictures as storytellers.

These artifacts are keepsakes of Hans’s service in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the International Brigades. While the photo pictures Hans alongside fellow men, the back of the fan records the signatures of 31 brigadistas hailing from the UK, the US and Canada. As revealed by the writing on the closed edge of the fan, these men all served together from May to September 1938 in the Levante region of eastern Spain in the anti-tank battery of the 129th Brigade.

Recognising the expressive potential of these artifacts, Häber mentioned them to his acquaintance Bjorn Krondorfer, director of the Martin-Springer Institute at Northern Arizona University, which is dedicated to the study of past conflicts, like the Holocaust, to gain insight into issues of violence and friction today. Seizing upon these historical treasures as the basis for a research project, Dr Krondorfer and Spanish historian Dr Ana Varela-Lago now head a team of seven student researchers piecing together the puzzle pieces of the fan and photo to complete the picture of Hans Maslowski’s Spanish Civil War remembrances.

Tracing the signatures on the fan, the team has employed the resources of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive (ALBA), IBMT and the Canada and the Spanish Civil War databases to link 30 of the names to brief entries of biographical information. For some, the information is scanty beyond birth date and place; in some cases, even this rudimentary information is not certain. For others, however, the team has found news articles, FBI files, correspondence, oral histories, ship manifests, official documents, and occasional references in the memoirs of other Brigaders.

Photograph postcard featuring members of the 129th Brigade’s anti-tank battery, including Hans Maslowski (top left), believed to be the group who signed the fan.

The second artifact is a photo postcard, likely taken by a Kodak camera, stamped with ‘Luis García Fotografía - Villena’. This studio may have been located in Villena, Spain. Photo postcards such as this one were popular souvenirs at this time. It is possible that there were multiples of the same image postcard, one for each member in the group.

One remaining key question is whether the people in the photograph correspond with the names on the fan. Stories have begun coalescing around the most highly documented names. Harry Blackley, from Greenock, Scotland, was a Daily Worker writer. He completed a questionnaire for the Partido Comunista de España, which records data such as when he arrived, his military involvement, education level, and his membership and activity within the communist party. Michael Feller, a Jewish blue-collar worker from Brooklyn, New York, wrote to his family back home about Spain, the Brigades, the Jewish battalion, and his cause - as well as news of his nephew and brother on the front, and in appreciation of the cigarettes he received from home. Another man, Michael Sidorovich, was implicated in the famous Rosenberg trial in the 1950s, with FBI files indicating that he took confidential photos for Rosenberg’s intelligence network.

Hans Maslowski’s involvement during the war is recorded by his International Brigades military card, which Häber was able to find through a relative. This card records Hans’s service at the Levante front under Nathan Budish, the commanding officer of the anti-tank battery.

For many men, however, such a precise record of service in Spain remains to be found, in either archives or attics. In the case of Clarence Wildsmith, a young man from Barnsley, who was a member of the National Unemployed Workers’ Union, the written record we have found so far is limited to before his time in Spain. For others, such as Michael Sidorovich, information abounds in the time after. Celebrity shrouds one last name in mystery: ‘George Dimitroff’ from ‘London’. The Dimitrov Battalion, named after George Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist leader, was a battalion composed of Balkan volunteers that eventually merged with the 129th International Brigade. As of yet there is no documentation to verify that the famous communist leader actually signed the fan.

Whether this man was physically there, or someone signed his name as an internal joke, all of these names listed on the fan embody individual experiences which may dispel the dimness shrouding the history of the Spanish Civil War, so often overshadowed by the Second World War. Next time you rummage through lofts and basements, remember that objects such as these bring stories from the past to life. They are key to unearthing rich histories unknown and forgotten.

Even as we reveal parts of these men’s stories, old questions linger and new ones emerge. What motivated these men to sign this fan? Did Hans buy it as a souvenir and then ask his comrades to inscribe their names? Could Hans have been a commanding officer for these men? Did they buy it and sign it for him as an act of appreciation? When was the photograph taken? Are any of the men in the photo signatories on the fan? If not, who are they? 


Posted on 24 November 2021.

IBMT logo

Support our work

You can support the IBMT by joining us or affiliating your union branch – see details and membership forms here:
menuchevron-up linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram