The letters of Paul Wendorf

Post date: 14/09/2023

The letters home of American International Brigader Paul Wendorf* have just been published in Spain, writes NANCY PHILLIPS. Wendorf was her mother’s first cousin and her father’s best friend. His photo stood on the bookcase in her home for the first 10 years of her life. She has thought about him, on and off, all of her life. 

Paul wrote about 80 letters to his wife Leona during the 19 months he was in Spain as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. They have been part of the ALBA Collection at New York’s Tamiment Library for many years. In recent years, and because there was no one left who had known Paul, I turned to these letters because I wanted to know who he was, to understand how this son of Jewish immigrants, graduate of Columbia University, loving husband and son, intellectual communist, found himself operating a machine gun in Spain. 

While the letters often reflected mundane concerns about cigarettes, lost letters, lost packages, the whereabouts of friends, they were more. They were historic documents, a soldier’s account of his life as a volunteer in Spain during the period of the Jarama, Brunete and Ebro battles. To tell this story, I’ve quoted from the letters and from Paul’s writings in 'The Book of the XVth Brigade'. I’ve quoted extensively from the last letter, August 8th, 1938, in which Paul recounts in some detail the historic crossing of the Ebro river and the early days of the offensive. It is full of energy, full of terror, full of hope against hope that the Spanish Republic will prevail. 

Paul is born on 11 November 1911 in New York City. His parents are Russian Jewish immigrants. The family prospers and Paul attends Columbia University. He studies History and Economics and graduates with honours in Economics in 1932. He joins the Communist Party in 1933. 

Over the next years, he works as an organiser for a white-collar municipal workers' union and subsequently as a coordinator of welfare and relief for the unemployed. He marries Leona Grossman in February 1937. He enlists in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that month and arrives in Spain on 14 February 14, 1937. 

Paul is issued a rifle in Morata and undergoes military training that consists of being taken behind the first line, shown where you stick the bullets into the gun, shown the trigger, shown the sights, allowed to fire five shots to see what it felt like, and we were ready for action. He arrives at the Jarama Battlefield on 27 February in time for an attack that results in a terrible number of battalion casualties. He carries food and ammunition and works as a stretcher carrier. He later writes: It rained heavily on the afternoon of the 27th… Out under the rain in no-man’s land lay the wounded. The mile of steep-winding path between the trenches and the ambulance became almost impassable… and the icy wind from the Guadarramas froze us in the trenches on the heights above the Tajuna valley. He spends the next months in the water-logged trenches at the Jarama front.

Paul transfers to a machine-gun company as a private in May. In July, the XVth Brigade is in almost continuous action in the Battle of Brunete. He writes brief letters over the three weeks of the battle. Afterwards, in August, he writes: Because I want to tell you a truth—the war will not be over very soon. The fascist counter-offensive has been stopped, and we will still hold most of our gains. But the fascists are struggling like raging beasts, and although defeat is now clearly seen for them, they have the technical means of prolonging the defeat. He explains to a comrade that he only wants to serve as a rank-and-filer, that is, as a private.

In September, Paul is appointed to the Historical Commission as assistant to Sandor Voros. He works on the production of the 'The Book of the XVth Brigade', contributing stories based on his experiences in Spain. He organises radio broadcasts from Madrid and contributes articles to The Volunteer for Liberty. In December he writes: There is no celebrating of Christmas here—no lights in the streets or in the windows. Everyone knows what still lies ahead—bitter struggle and shortage of everything. 'Peace on Earth'—the only peace comes through winning this war.

In March 1938, all the boys in the rest home (where he is being treated fora 'bit of rheumatism') who were in good health voluntarily cut short their leaves to return to service. I came too (I know you would want me to, Muggie) and I expect to go to the artillery base shortly… There is a tremendous mobilisation going on to stop the fascist advance. It is now much like the first days of the war must have been like, the time Ralph Bates calls the 'Romantic Period' when everyone was flushed with the first wave[?] of passion against the traitors.

In July, Paul learns that his widowed mother has found out that he’s in Spain, and she is under a doctor’s care. To Leona he writes: In the letter I wrote [Mother] I said that I had come to Spain because, if I had not, I would have had no peace of my own, in my own mind; that I had to be true to the things I believed in, the things which have made my life worthwhile. Leona, you must explain to her that life could be worth living to me only if I came to Spain—to stay behind would have been to deny myself the life I wanted. You must tell her these things, dearest, and much more; you must tell her why you let me go, all the things that make me precious to you.

On 8 August, having crossed the Ebro into fascist territory, Paul writes: The peasants come out, carrying jugs of wine and water, glad to see us, glad to know that all the people in Barcelona haven't been killed, as the fascists had told them.

The second day we march into a town the fascists had evacuated the night before. The people welcome us as friends, as their own. Lots of canned food and tobacco is found in the fascist store-house---the tobacco famine is broken, we eat canned sardines, canned beef and tomato stew, canned mussels, cake, chocolate of a Zaragossa factory. The next day we captured the 300 prisoners I wrote about in the previous letter. From the next day on, we met the fascists in combat, fighting for positions, getting bombed and shelled. Our artillery finally came over and did some shelling of its own, although the fascist aviation still dominated the sky. We ate canned food, had diarrhea, the smell of the dead everywhere; no sleep for a week; my hands blistered and raw from picking through solid rock to dig machine gun pits; pants ripped to shreds by crawling around in the brush; (a Spanish comrade from another Brigade saw me walking along with my trousers flapping about my bare legs like skirts, and miraculously pulled out of his pack one of the 3 or 4 pairs of pants in Spain long enough to fit me---a beautiful pair of corduroy and gave them to me, which gave the sores on my knees a chance to heal. Some day, some Ouija Board will tell how that 5 foot six Spaniard came to have in that pack that pair of pants for my six feet, just when I needed them.) Strange how men's personalities changed under the stress of this life-on-the verge-of-death. Do you know what happened to mine? Ha! Ha! I become extremely talkative!…

And our army on the Valencia front has taken the offensive just as we have started to consolidate our gains here and have retaken several towns in the last few days. The initiative of the war has passed into the hands of the Republican army, the fascists don't know where we are going to strike next. The world is still gloomy but there is a little light.

Paul is killed on 18 August in the Sierra Pandols. A 24 August article from the Daily Worker includes Paul’s name among those who received awards for good work in the last action.

* ‘Paul Wendorf: Vida y lucha de otro norteamericano en las trincheras españolas. Cartas de Paul Wendorf desde España’ (edited by Carlos Píriz, translated by Irene Rodríguez Arcos, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2023).

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