Jan Kurzke’s fragmented stories of Spain

Post date: 17/06/2021

Tony Fox reviews ‘The Good Comrade: Memoirs of an International Brigader’ by Jan Kurzke, with an introduction by Richard Baxell and an afterword by Charlotte Kurzke (The Clapton Press, 2021), available here. An IBMT member and teacher, Tony Fox lives in North-East England and originally published this review on his blog here.

‘The Good Comrade’ consists of the published memoirs of artist, political refugee and International Brigader Jan Kurzke. Born in Hamburg in 1905, Kurzke fled the Nazi regime in 1933 and eventually found refuge in Spain where he ‘toured the country’. He then went on to England where he met Kate Mangan, a married artist, actress and journalist. 

Mangan would acquire a divorce in 1934 and would leave for Spain in 1936 in search of Kurzke, who had enlisted in the newly formed International Brigades. Jan sustained a wound in the course of the defence of Madrid, and when Kate arrived she found and nursed him back to health, and then arranged for his evacuation from Spain. On their return to England they married.

What is really odd is that none of this wonderful love story is mentioned by Jan in his memoirs. As Richard Baxell explains in his detailed introduction, this was half of a wider memoir written with Kate Mangan, and her part of this dual memoir is published separately, also by The Clapton Press, with the title ‘Never More Alive’.

A challenge to this publication is that Kurzke’s memoirs are fragmentary; his description of his Spanish tour is left incomplete in 1934, just as he embarks on a new adventure, it begins again with him reentering Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic in 1936 and again ends as he crosses the border once again, this time as a wounded soldier.

The reason for the discontinuous nature of the memoir is made clear both by Baxell’s introduction and in the two appendices: put simply this is all that remains. Nevertheless, I think it is a brave decision to publish what appears to be an incomplete account.

In my opinion this decision is fully justified and is one we should be thankful for, as we have this fantastic account to relish. The prose is beautiful and the narrative compelling, it is a joy to read; in fact a number of times I stopped following the narrative to go back and reread a passage simply to enjoy the phrasing of the prose; and one must remember this is written in his second language.

Richard Baxell provides a detailed introduction, describing what Jan does and sees, explaining what happens prior to and after his first visit to Spain and gives us the point in which the narrative cuts off. Richard talks about Kate Mangan and her search for Jan, and how she finds him in a hospital awaiting the amputation of his leg, how she manages to avert the procedure and eventually takes him to safety.

Jan gives us a glorious account of life tramping around southern Spain, he is witness to the debilitating feudalistic poverty of the rural population, his first-hand accounts of his encounters with fellow tramps and the Spanish peasantry are horrifically empathetic; the descriptions of the absolute deprivation need no accompanying elaboration.

The opening scenes as Jan prepares to traverse Spain are deeply reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘Road to Wigan Pier’, but this account swiftly surpasses Orwell’s detached and observational account, for Jan is not merely playing a role for a few short months and then returning to his comfortable life, gathering anecdotes and inspiration. We feel Jan Kurzke living the life of a tramp, we take the journey with him; he is literally penniless, he is barely surviving, barely keeping himself alive. This makes his accounts of the living conditions of the Spaniards he encounters so overwhelming, it is shocking to read his sympathy for the families he meets, as he realises that they are in a worse situation than him, at least he can escape the situation he finds himself in by moving on, or ceasing the struggle to  stay alive.

One really warms to Jan, his natural charm is manifest in the way he describes the people he meets and the relationships he develops. One of the most significant is with a fellow German man named Hermann:

‘I struck the main road from whence I could see the town. A man was sitting in a ditch not far off and I knew he was a German from the map he was studying. A Spanish tramp does not mind where he goes or what the distance is between one place and another, but Germans are more methodical. They always plan, or make one; they like to have an objective, they like to know the country they are tramping through. I found it helped me a lot, especially when resting, and I studied the names of places and mountains, towns and villages, and I would pencil off roads already covered and measure the distance to the next town.’

Implicit in the account of his time with Hermann is how he mentored Jan, shared his experience, guided him, collaborated and trained him. It was a real wrench when the two went their separate ways. I feel that this partnership guides us through pre-war Spain, illuminating the conditions in Spain which demanded reform, but Jan does not preach, he does not analyse, he simply reports on what he has witnessed, and his description of the impoverishment of the Spanish populace is more the powerful for his lack of judgement.

It is striking that despite the horrific hardship he witnesses, and to some extent experiences, he is not morose or depressing, his prose is uplifting as well as enlightening, which makes the situations he describes even more enraging.

Jan departs from Herman to join a trio of entertainers, led by the German-born photographer Walter Reuter, the others were Walter’s wife and the beautiful young blonde Margarethe Zembal, who Jan refers to as ‘Putz’ and who Jan clearly fell in love with, despite promising Walter he wouldn’t.

It is just as he begins his adventures with these three colourful characters that the memoirs come to an abrupt and admittedly jarring end.

The opening scene in this second section has Jan travelling into Spain, it feels much like an entirely  separate narrative, which indeed it is because two years have passed, and Jan is a different man; older, wiser, with more responsibilities. However the prior section means that we are familiar with this character, we have an insight into his thoughts and feelings, we know him. The wonderful prose is still there but this time it is not so light, it is much more descriptive, reflecting the subject matter, although Jan has lost none of his warmth and humanity.

I found the  second section rewarding for different reasons to the first section; I am much more familiar with the context of the narrative, for this is the period which covers the events to which I have already studied whilst researching David Marshall and reading another Clapton Press publication, ‘Boadilla’ by Esmond Romilly.

Jan Kurzke’s account complements these other accounts; he not only looks at some similar events from a different perspective, but the fact that Jan is not English means that he has different priorities, and dare I say it, different standards to the other two. It is notable that Jan had some experience in firearms before Spain, and is therefore slightly more confident than the Englishmen when in the heat of battle. Jan also had an advantage over most of his fellow British volunteers as he was multilingual.

One similarity which seems to reflect the other two accounts is Jan’s easy familiarity with significant individuals: he was friends with the poet John Cornford, a legendary figure in the International Brigades. so too was Jock; who Jan says had a permanent look of puzzlement on his face. I’ll never look at a picture of Jock Cummingham, who led the British Battalion after Jarama, in the same way again, but of course Jan is writing about them before they gained recognition and notoriety. It would be Cornford who would drag the wounded Jan to safety.

However it’s not the proximity to the great and the good, nor the association with the great events which makes this book so fantastic, but the simplicity. Simon from Clapton Press is presenting a splintered narrative, but this is what makes it so special for it has not been sanitised or developed by a historian, it has not been added to in order to clarify, we are left largely with most of what Jan Kurzke intended to leave us, and it is wonderful.

The account of his time in hospital feels so authentic, with tiny changes in routine taking on monstrous dramatic significance simply because time is dragging for Jan, monotony prevails. Once again, just as the reader feels comfortable with the flow of the narrative, it ends abruptly.

It is at this abrupt end that Simon plays his trump card, appendix one contains the correspondence between Charlotte Kurzke; the daughter of Jan and Kate Mangan, and Bernard Knox, the academic who had fought in the International Brigades alongside Cornford and Kurzke.

The exchange itself is fascinating as it highlights the difficulties and choices we face when using testimony; an account constructed after the events. We also see their frustration with Jan’s odd choices and omissions. It is shocking to find that Jan Kurzke does not mention Charlotte’s mother in his account; one disquieting omission comes when lovers Jan and Kate are reunited in Barcelona, Jan replaces this event in his memoir with a description of him bedding a girl he met in a bar. Neither Charlotte nor Bernard can explain this void in the narrative, the reader too can speculate but there seems to be no satisfactory explanation.

The second appendix comes from Simon Deefholts, the head of Clapton Press, in which he adds context and attempts to explain the end of the story, where Jan abandons Kate and Charlotte to begin a new life. As with the first appendix, this is not done to explain the situation, but to present information, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Simon is treating us like adults, who can weigh up the evidence, speculate and develop hypotheses of our own.

Put simply Simon has presented a number of parts, which don’t quite fit neatly together and certainly don’t make up a complete whole. However, he has brought to our notice a fantastic account of Spain prior to the outbreak of war and its initial stages. He has also shown us what a fine writer Jan Kurzke was and the work his daughter has put in to bring it to the notice of the public. I believe this is an exceptional work of historical importance.

You should read this book if you seek fine prose, an interesting narrative, an impression of Spain before the outbreak of the civil war, an insight into why it broke out, and an interest in the first few months of the war. There are multiple reasons for getting hold of this publication, but primarily the major reason is that it is outstandingly good.


Posted on 17 June 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