Vignettes of those who went to Spain

Post date: 15/09/2022

Alan Lloyd, IBMT Trustee, reviews ‘Brigadistes: Lives for Liberty’ by Jordi Martí-Rueda (Pluto Press, 2022). This review was originally published in ¡No Pasarán! 2-2022.

This book first appeared two years ago in Catalan and Pluto Press have now published an English version. The author, Jordi Martí-Rueda, is a Catalan historian specialising in the Spanish Civil War and International Brigades. The book is constructed in an unusual, but refreshing, way and is variously described as a ‘sampler of men and women from all over the world’, and a ‘book of literary and photographic portraits.’ Each of the 60 portraits occupies just two pages of the book, with one of those pages containing a beautifully reproduced photograph, usually of the subject. Little space is given over to direct quotes as there are just 24 in the whole book and they are carefully referenced at the end.

Few of the portraits attempt to give a complete biography of the subject. The author generally focuses on one particular episode of their life, and their connection to the war in Spain. This may mean describing the heroic lengths some had to go to simply to get to Spain or their involvement in one particular battle. The style he adopts is that of a novelist who is telling a story based on all the available evidence, allowing the reader to get a sense of the person being written about but without stretching credulity in any way. Judging by the length of his list of sources and bibliography at the end of the book, Martí-Reuda has clearly read widely and been meticulous in his research.

The foreword is written by Jordi Borràs, the eminent Spanish journalist and photojournalist. He grew up in the 1980s near the foot of the Sierra Pandols mountains with his childhood education including learning how to identify the origins of any bullet and which side used it. These early experiences have clearly left their mark as his knowledge and emotional connection to the topic are clear.

He beautifully sums up the effect of Martí-Reuda’s style by writing that ‘the brevity of the stories allows our imaginations to soar. To stop and take a breath between pages as we absorb these incredible stories, trying to rush beyond the limits of what is written to fill in the stories of lives deserving of a novel, of a widescreen movie, with popcorn in hand and eyes wide open with astonishment.’

In his introduction Martí-Reuda speculates about the thoughts that must have conflicted Frank Ryan when he realised his senior officer was ex-Black and Tan George Nathan. Their backgrounds, politics, and very demeanours could not have been more different and he suggests it would have been ‘impossible to find two more antithetical characters’. Yet, whatever went before was forgotten in the trenches when faced with a common enemy, as it was with the many thousands of International Brigaders from all over the world who had come together in Spain with one thought in mind – to defeat fascism.

Of the portraits that follow, over 20 are of women, mainly but not entirely nurses, and the portraits of men include doctors and other non- combatants. Although there are many names and photographs that will be familiar to IBMT members: Nathan, Ryan, Penny Feiwel, Nan Green, Len Crome, Salaria Kea, Charlie Donnelly, and Oliver Law. However, there are a lot more names which will be unfamiliar, especially if, like me, you are confined to books written in English.

Fanny Schooneyt, Dutch volunteer in the Spanish Republican militia, on the Aragón front in August-September 1936.

A good example is that of the very first portrait, titled ‘The Bravest Woman in Barcelona’, which is of Dutchwoman Fanny Schoonheyt. She had escaped what had seemed a humdrum life in Rotterdam and gone to live in Barcelona, only for the coup d’état to break out. Shortly afterwards she left to fight on the Aragón front and was only deprived of her machine gun when wounded. She was lauded by the press who described her as the machine gun queen and the bravest woman in Barcelona. The author manages to squeeze into the single page that she became known to Marina Ginestà, the militiawoman who featured in the amazingly iconic photograph with a rifle on her shoulder pictured on a rooftop in Barcelona.

Typically this is where this story ends, and we are left to wonder what happened next. Did she survive and have a good life, which her bravery and commitment deserved? There is plenty of encouragement to search the bibliography for the source most likely to tell the rest of her story.

There is also a picture and story of the three Nielsen brothers who took weeks to cycle from their home in Copenhagen to Spain in August 1936. They fought with the Thälmann Battalion, and, by some miracle, all three survived and returned home. Sadly, like so many of those fortunate to survive Spain, they were soon caught up in the Second World War, which was ultimately to claim the life of the youngest brother.

Harald, Kai and Aage Nielsen reading the Danish Communist Party newspaper Arbejderblader in Albacete, February 1937.

The story of István Bakallár is a stark contrast. His journey to Spain began on release from a Hungarian prison, under surveillance and without a passport. He escaped Hungary through the forests, was aided by anti-Nazi Austrian farmers and arrested by Mussolini’s fascist police. He forced his release through a hunger strike, managed to get to Switzerland and then to Paris, where the Communist Party enabled his crossing of the Pyrenees into Spain. Here his story ends, at least as far as this book is concerned.

These are just three of the 60 fascinating stories in the book, which is certainly worthy of a place in any of our book collections. It would also make a very good gift to somebody as an introduction to the Spanish Civil War as it provides such a good flavour of all those who fought in Spain.

The final word must go to Jordi Borràs who notes in the foreword: ‘It is no secret that, if we are not capable of understanding our own history, we will be condemned to repeat it. Let us read, then, because there is no greater vaccination against the virus of fascism than the knowledge of a past that should be more present than ever.’

Posted on 15 September 2022.

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