Spanish Civil War Letters From American Volunteers

Essay, Research Paper from CANUTE FRANKSON Albacete, Spain July 6, 1937 My Dear Friend: I’m sure that by this time you are still waiting for a detailed explanation of what has this international struggle to do with my being here. Since this

Essay, Research Paper


Albacete, Spain

July 6, 1937

My Dear Friend:

I’m sure that by this time you are still waiting for a detailed

explanation of what has this international struggle to do with my being here. Since this

is a war between whites who for centuries have held us in slavery, and have heaped every

kind of insult and abuse upon us, segregated and jim-crowed us; why I, a Negro who have

fought through these years for the rights of my people, am here in Spain today?

Because we are no longer an isolated minority group fighting hopelessly

against an immense giant. Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part

of, a great progressive force, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human

civilization from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in

their lust for power. Because if we crush Fascism here we’ll save our people in America,

and in other parts of the world from the vicious persecution, wholesale imprisonment, and

slaughter which the Jewish people suffered and are suffering under Hitler’s Fascist heels.

All we have to do is to think of the lynching of our people. We can but

look back at the pages of American history stained with the blood of Negroes; stink with

the burning bodies of our people hanging from trees; bitter with the groans of our

tortured loved ones from whose living bodies ears, fingers, toes have been cut for

souvenirs—living bodies into which red-hot pokers have been thrust. All because of a

hate created in the minds of men and women by their masters who keep us all under their

heels while they suck our blood, while they live in their bed of ease by exploiting us.

But these people who howl like hungry wolves for our blood, must we

hate them? Must we keep the flame which these masters kindled constantly fed? Are these

men and women responsible for the programs of their masters, and the conditions which

force them to such degraded depths? I think not. They are tools in the hands of

unscrupulous masters. These same people are as hungry as we are. They live in dives and

wear rags the same as we do. They, too, are robbed by the masters, and their faces kept

down in the filth of a decayed system. They are our fellowmen. Soon, and very soon, they

and we will understand. Soon, many Angelo Herndons will rise from among them, and from

among us, and will lead us both against those who live by the stench of our burnt flesh.

We will crush them. We will build us a new society–a society of peace and plenty. There

will be no color line, no jim-crow trains, no lynching. That is why, my dear, I’m here in



October 22, 1937

Dear Mom, Pop, and Herbie,

Six months after leaving home and almost five months after arriving in

Spain, I’ve finally gotten to see some actual warfare. This morning marks my tenth day in

the front line trenches and, altho this front is technically speaking pretty quiet at

present, still we’ve managed to squeeze in quite a lot since we came up.

We moved into the trenches one morning before light and, as soon as

dawn came, the crap began to fly. Then started my education. Some of the old-timers

explained the various sounds to me. At first anytime anything whizzed, whistled, or

buzzed, I would duck. Then I found out that any bullet which passes anywhere near you will

whistle. Ricochets, that is, bullets which have already hit the ground or a rock or

something and bounce off in a different direction, buzz when they go by. When bullets come

very close they sound more like a whine than a whistle.

But the most important thing of all about these bullet sounds is never

to worry about any bullet you hear. Bullets travel much faster than sound, strange as that

may seem, and the bullet is way past you by the time you hear it. As it’s put out here,

"You’ll never hear the slug that gets you."

Of course, it’s pretty hard to control your instinctive tendency to

duck when you hear a loud noise, but the only time it really pays to duck is when you hear

a burst of machine gun fire and hear them come over you. You can’t, of course, duck the

first few if they’re coming at you, but you can get out of the way of the rest of the


The same thing goes for artillery too, except for trench mortars and

very heavy stuff.

A trench mortar gun looks like a fat can between two wheels. The barrel

points almost straight up and the shells go all the way up into the air and then almost

drop. You can judge after a while if they’re going to your right or left, but if they’re

coming in your general direction there’s nothing to do but hope. Heavy artillery goes very

slow and you can hear them coming, but they usually head for the rear lines anyway.

Well, the first morning I’m keeping low in the trench and not too much

interested in the intricacies of military education, when these trench mortars start

coming over. They whistle for a long time before they hit and that just increases the

agony, waiting for them to land. When these things start coming the battle commander

shouts "Everybody down in the trench." So I stick my nose six inches below the

level of my heels and then the commander finishes his sentence, "That doesn’t go for

the observational staff. Locate that gun."

So I found out what observing under fire meant. Poor me has got to

spend my time sticking my nose thru peep holes when it’s much more comfortable two feet

below, and my head and shoulders over the parapet half the night, and when the big

bastards come over instead of dropping we’ve got to watch. It was pretty tough the first

morning but I soon got used to it.

You see, after a while you get the feeling that what’s going to happen

to you, if anything, will happen pretty much in spite of anything you do. That doesn’t

mean we become dauntless heroes and walk out of our way to take risks because we like to

watch the patterns the bullets kick up in the dust, but it does mean that we don’t become

nervous wrecks bobbing up and down every time a mosquito buzzes around your left ear. It’s

the only kind of defense mechanism you can adopt.

Shortly after noon that first day we went over the top. For about three

quarters of an hour after the beginning of the attack I didn’t think I’d get a chance to

climb over that hump. I was stationed next to the commander in a pretty exposed

observation post keeping wise to how our boys were going, so that the attack could be

properly directed. The commander, you understand, does not move up until the troops have

taken up a position, even a temporary one, in advance of the original lines. But if you

think that’s safe, you’re cock-eyed. He’s got to keep calm and see everything that’s going

on when every instinct is pulling him down to a covered position.

Communication with the men out front is maintained by runners. Pretty

soon we ran out of runners, so I got my chance. But the company I had been sent out to

contact had had some tough going and was pretty well scattered and difficult to find. I

went out, couldn’t find the company commander nor anyone else who knew where he was. So I

was in a fix. I didn’t want to return until I had contacted them and I couldn’t find them.

I roamed around that god-damned no-man’s land, sometimes running, sometimes crawling,

sometimes snake-bellying, and holy cow, was that a time. I didn’t of course know where in

hell my men were and one time I crawled up to within fifty meters of the fascist lines

before a sniper reminded me where I was.

The hardest thing out there is not keeping going once you’re on the

move, but starting once you’ve stopped. When you get down in between two furrows in a

plowed field or behind a little ledge where you know you’re about as safe as you will be,

it sure is tough to get up and start going thru the air again, especially since you know

there’s plenty more stuff in that air besides you.

Another thing. This time they used trench-mortars against the attacking

men. The thing to do when you hear them whistling at you is to drop so that you’ll be out

of the way of any shrapnel or flying bits of shell. Most of the time I could hear them

whistling at me and then the sound would reach a high point, and from then on it was

whistling away from me. That scares you, but once the whistle is behind you you know

you’re safe a little longer.

But of the six hours I spent out in between those lines the worst

moments were three times when the whistle of the mortars approached, came overhead, and

then, instead of receding, kept coming louder. There’s very little time involved, but you

think fast out there. Here’s that damned shell falling at you, no place to move to,

nothing to do. In that brief instant you get a horrible feeling–not of excitement or

fear, but just resignation. You are a dead man aware of the fact–a body which is lifeless

except that its mind knows it is lifeless. I don’t know if you get that. And then, three

separate times, those damn shells land within ten feet of me, and were duds! This isn’t

literary exaggeration, I’m not writing a phony adventure story. I could see where

the shells hit and dropped dirt over me and failed to explode.

Get my point. We are in danger continually and it is not pleasant. But

there is a gamble, a risk, a probability. However when there is no probability,

when it’s a certainty–it’s coming at you and you know it–then you’ve got something. Try

thinking what you’d think about if you had two seconds to think it in.

Well, I couldn’t find the company and it was starting to get dark, so I

decided to go back. But I found that wasn’t so simple either. Dusk is always a dangerous

time, so everybody is especially watchful. This day there had been an attack, so the

fascists were especially jittery and there was a hell of a lot of fire. I waited for it to

quiet and started back. This time I attracted fire from both sides because neither side

knew what I was. It’s a funny feeling to be fired on by your own men. I had a couple of

more scary moments, but I finally got in.

In one or two days we’ll be relieved and I’ll write some more. I am

still bodily and mentally unhurt.


October 22, 1937

Well hello everybody—

We’ve been here at the front for almost five weeks. It’s not so healthy

here. Too much "lead-poisoning" going on to be exactly comfortable.

Since I last wrote I’ve been advanced again. Now I am Chief of Brigade

Scouts. That in itself is making life less sure. So far I’ve been beyond the Fascist lines

twice and up to them six times. All at night of course. In fact we do most all of our work

at night. We have to move very slowly to avoid being seen. Three times now I have been

seen & shot at.

The first time I was about twenty meters from their line. They opened

up on me with a machine gun & six or eight rifles. Believe me, I hugged the ground.

They hit the heel of my left shoe at the seam several times and actually blew my shoe

apart there. Five of the "slugs" passed thru the seat of my pants, one just

burning my "fanny," but none closer. However my "fanny" is a little

sore still to sit on. Needless to say, I was plenty scared.

The second time they caught two of us, myself and one of my sergeants,

about 50 meters from one of their out-posts. It was pretty gruesome, as we hid behind two

dead comrades who had gotten "it" in the attack a couple of days before. We lay

there for three hours. Every time we moved, this damn sniper would put a shot along side

of us. Finally, after the moon went down we got back. I had 3 holes in my coat to show for

that patrol.


Jan. 29, 1938

Dear Jeff,

I was strafed one morning, when I was returning to the brigade, in a

truck. There was the driver, three comrades against the cab, and myself against the back

of the truck. The driver evidentially saw them first and started to stop, turning off his

motor and heading toward the bank. This was the first I noticed, then came the staccato

crack of heavy machine gun and there was the 1st plane, not over 40 feet above us. It

killed the driver instantly, taking off most of his face. The truck was then stopped

against a high bank to the right of the road. I shouted something to the other three and

jumped out. The only place I could see that offered any cover was between the motor and

the bank. The planes were not coming head on, but from the side of the truck away from the

bank. They dove three times one after the other, all seven of them, and finally went away.

I was never so terrified in my life. You see, there was time between each plane’s dive, to

think, and the continual tightening up and letting down was horrible. It’s not a very

heroic nor pretty picture, but it’s true. The fact is, I haven’t yet gotten back on my

feet–mentally–yet. It was the first time I had time to be afraid. The other times I was

doing something and moving, but that helpless feeling of no place to go and just

waiting–waiting, really got me.

Incidentally they also dropped hand bombs, but they all hit on the far

side of the truck. If one had landed any place on my side I’d be so full of lead they

wouldn’t have to dig me a grave, I’d just naturally sink into the ground.

Cecfrom TOBY JENSKY (American nurse)

June 21, 1937

My Dears—

To-nite we had our first dance. We invited the boys of the Lincoln

Battalion and a good time was had by all. I’m still on night duty, but I was relieved for

a few hours so I did my bit of dancing. The dance was also successful in keeping the

patients awake and now at 3 A.M. they’re just about popping off. But what the hell. Among

the boys were a few I knew from the Village, so we talked & talked about New York and

I really feel much better now. During the full moon, you can sit outside and read it’s so

light. The only trouble is that it’s also light for the fascist planes.

A little girl was brought in here yesterday—all shot full of

holes—both her eyes blown out. It seems that she and a few others found a hand

grenade and decided to play with it. Her brother died soon after he was brought in. 3

other kids were slightly hurt and she if she makes it will be blind and all scarred. It’s

a pretty horrible thing—she’s got plenty of guts and certainly can take it—you

never hear a whimper out of her. She’s about 10 years old. It’s the same sort of thing you

see in places that have been bombed, only more of it. It’s a stinking business. We still

get very little news of what’s doing. I still don’t read Spanish, so there you are. I can

speak a few more words. I wish I could make myself sit down for an hour a day and study,

but there’s always something more pleasant to do. Maybe some day soon—

I haven’t written home for a while, so will you give them my love?

Here’s hoping we beat the hell out of the fascists soon, so I can get


Keep on writing—

Saluda Comarado (the one & only salutation around here).


June 29, 1938

Hi Herb,

Last winter we had the coldest winter in about twenty years and now it

seems, we’re headed for the hottest summer in a long time. From eleven in the morning to 3

or 4 in the afternoon it is simply physically impossible to do anything. The slightest

motion brings oceans of thick, stinking sweat rolling down your body. The civilians sleep

their famous siesta, but for us, living in trenches or in open fields, even this is almost

impossible. For along with the hot weather came the flies. Not flies like the delicate,

frightened creatures we have in the states. Oh, no. Big, heavy, tough, persistent things

that you can’t shoo away. They swarm in thick clouds over every square inch of your body

that’s exposed, buzzing ferociously, creeping across your skin so heavily you can feel

each individual footstep, biting so that you almost forget the lice. And when you swing at

them, they don’t scatter like properly civilized American flies. They merely fly off two

or three inches and are back on you before your hand is at rest. If you lie uncovered they

torment you to distraction and if you put even the most sheer piece of material over you,

you drown in your own sweat. And the lice, thriving on the rich sweat, grow fat &

bloated like well-fed pigs and dig fortifications in your skin.


The Front

October 23, ‘37

Dear Shirley,

Another of your frequent and most welcome letters arrived today and

this afternoon I find the time to answer it.

Heard Langston Hughes last night; he spoke at one of our nearby

units–the Autoparque, which means the place where our Brigade trucks and cars are kept

and repaired. It was a most astonishing meeting; he read a number of his poems; explained

what he had in mind when he wrote each particular poem and asked for criticism. I thought

to myself before the thing started "Good God how will anything like poetry go off

with these hard-boiled chauffeurs and mechanics, and what sort of criticism can they

offer?" Well it astonished me as I said. The most remarkable speeches on the subject

of poetry were made by the comrades. And some said that they had never liked poetry before

and had scorned the people who read it and wrote it but they had ben moved by Hughes’s

reading. There was talk of "Love" and "Hate" and "Tears";

everyone was deeply affected and seemed to bare his heart at the meeting, and the most

reticent (not including me) spoke of their innermost feelings. I suppose it was because

the life of a soldier in wartime is so unnatural and emotionally starved that they were

moved the way they were.


Friday, November 25, 1938

Dearest Leo [Hurwitz] and Janey [Dudley]:

The enclosed note was written after the first two bombings on

Wednesday—and I thought when I started that I could overcome the reaction of the

morning, but I had to stop. Now, though still a little limp and sickish, I can write of

the last two days with more or less ease.

The first raid, at about 10:30 A.M., came while two American soldados

and I were in a shop buying cigarette holders. The boys had come to Barcelona to buy some

trinkets for their girls and I went along with them to help them choose. The shop we were

in is some three or four blocks from the hotel and some six or seven blocks from where the

first bombs fell. The siren sounded just as we were paying our bill. We saw the people

hurrying along the Paseo de Gracia (our street) into sheltering doorways, or hugging the

walls. We stepped into a doorway, going out to look up when the anti-aircraft started and

I spotted three planes—enemy planes flying high, they looked minute. The guns were

hot on their trail and the boys pulled me back into the doorway because very often the

shrapnel casings of the aircraft shells fall and get you. As we got back to the doorway we

heard the bombs falling—and the boys made me crouch down, close to them with my head

buried in my arms. The sound of those bombs, and they sounded close (as we found later

they were) is hard to describe—crashing through the air as if to break the very air

itself, screeching and whining and then the contact as they hit their target—as if a

thousand wrecking crews were tearing down buildings at the same time. I wasn’t frightened

then, my mind was blank—I was concerned only with crouching down in the doorway. We

got up then and started walking to the hotel, the people in the streets came to life,

continuing to walk to wherever they had been going when the alarm sounded; we reached the

next corner to see a crowd of people pointing up at the sky and then a shout arose, and

cheering as our guns got one plane—it came down hurtling through the air head over

heels. We were excited, forgetting completely the bombs falling a minute before and we

hurried to the hotel to find Ed. We found him there, worried but relieved to see us.

Everyone talked about the downed plane—but soon life went on as usual. Soon we heard

the siren blow three times, meaning all’s well, the raid is over, and we went out

again—Ed, the two boys, Capa and I. We went to the Rambla—a long street in old

Barcelona (Barcelona was once a small village—the Rambla was its main street with

narrow, winding streets stretching on either side of it—and although the Rambla is

one thoroughfare it has various names—like Rambla de Flores, because of the numerous

flower vendors, etc.). We stepped in a shop where Ed and Capa bought some shirts, leaving

them there while one of the boys and I went on. We walked leisurely, looking in the

windows of the numerous shops in the twisting streets, stopping to buy some decorative

combs and finally going to a little antique shop stuck away in one of the little streets

where I had bought a locket some weeks ago. We found a necklace for his girl and again,

just as we were paying the bill, the siren started. This time we knew we were in danger

because this quarter had been often hit, the last time only a week and a half ago. We left

the shop, the boy with me starting to run, and so I ran too. But as I ran I could feel the

panic growing in me and I stopped him—"let’s follow the people here—they

know where the refugios are—we mustn’t run" I said. Meanwhile thoughts

raced furiously through my mind—"I mustn’t get panicky, I mustn’t be frightened.

I’ve got to be calm—if we reach the refugio in time, good—if we don’t there’s

nothing we can do about it—but we must not run—Ed will be worried about

me—I wish I could somehow let him know that we’ll be all right." We followed the

others coming out on the Rambla de Flores where we found two Metro stations (these, of

course, are used as refugios—although Barcelona is full of newly built,

completely safe refugios). We followed the others down to the subway—and I was

struck by the order and lack of hysteria. No one pushed or shoved—everyone was quiet,

composed—we all helped to get the kids down first—and soon we ourselves went

inside, going deep into the station and standing close to the wall. The people talked

together, played with some dogs who had come down with us, the children romped—these

people will never be crushed. Mussolini and Hitler, however much they bomb, will never

break the morale of these wonderful, courageous people. We heard the guns, the sound

reverberating in the tunnel, and again bombs falling. My friend and I talked in low

tones—about anything—I can’t remember now—we held each other’s hand and we

both tried hard not to tremble. Soon the lights were on—we could go out. As we came

up the stairs of the Metro we saw the puffs of smoke from the guns directly above us and

we knew the bombs had fallen close to us. (Three blocks from where we were—we found

out later). We walked home, both of us talking fast, but we walked slowly.

We found Ed and the other soldado looking for us frantically and

we all embraced in the street—it was like a reunion. "Sure, I feel

fine—don’t worry—I’ll be all right." We went in to lunch—and I got

through it somehow. It was when I went upstairs that the reaction began—that’s when I

had to stop the letter I began to you. I got a terrific stomachache—it doubled me up

for ten minutes, and when it was over I was exhausted and shaking as if I had just dug a

well or pounded rock. I was alone—Ed was writing his story at the Ministry. I tried

to read—but the letters danced before my eyes and so I put my book aside and just sat

in the chair—thinking—this is what the barbarians have been doing to the Spanish

people for two years; I had witnessed the ruthless murder of an innocent people because

fascism’s voracious appetite must be satisfied—I saw what I had been reading

about—the systematic terrorization of a people, by which the fascists hope to bring

them to their knees—and I saw the people reiterate the words of Pasionaria—which

by now have become part of their lives—"Better to die on one’s feet than to live

on one’s knees." Think what these murderous raids have done to the lives of these

people—to their nervous mechanisms—to their sanity. And what a heritage for the

kids! Here was I, coming from comparative freedom, well-fed, my nerves shattered by my

experience—and then think of the Spanish people who have lived through this horror

for two years.

But the bastards weren’t through with us. At seven o’clock they came

again—this time I watched from our window—saw the powerful lights cutting the

sky trying to locate the planes, saw the puffs of smoke from the guns and the flares going

up—and the welcome sound of our planes—our little chasers going after them.

Nothing excites the people as much as to see or hear our planes—they go wild with

excitement—shouting themselves hoarse—every single time they come. I was alone

when the siren sounded at 11:00. I watched only a little while this time—I threw

myself on the bed, too tired to undress, and just lay there, anger mounting—"the

bastards—the bastards," saying it over and over again until I could think no

longer. Ed came in a little after midnight, bringing the news that the Bank of Spain had

been hit in the first bombing, with an incomplete count of 40 dead, 124 wounded, mostly

women. We went to sleep finally—and then began the night—six times they came

over—the sirens shrieking each time—the guns furiously shooting—six raids

in the night—six times to create terror. [Herb] Matthews [New York Times

correspondent] came in to see us in the morning, telling us how each time he had awakened,

jotted down the time, and then tried to go to sleep again. There was no panic in the

hotel—but there was anger and hatred for the fascists. And then at 9:30 they came

again—to be driven off quickly.

When the siren sounded again—this time meaning release—we

went out, Matthews, [Robert] Capa [the photographer], Ed and I, to see the damage. We

found one building which had been hit in the second bombing—twisted and

mutilated—piles of broken glass and debris in front of it–a huge crater in front of

the doorway where the bomb had fallen—a water main cracked. Everywhere around the

building—all the houses had piles of glass and debris being swept out of

them—the concussion often creates terrific damage—in all the little streets off

that main street on which the building was had the little piles of broken glass and debris

lining them—the gutters were covered with brick and mortar. We drove on past the Bank

of Spain—the bomb had fallen right clean through it—we went down to the port

where huge craters showed where bombs had fallen, breaking water pipes; crews were

feverishly at work repairing the damage—there was no sign of panic or terror

anywhere—people went about their daily tasks, walked in the very spots where bombs

had fallen—sat in the cafes along the waterfront—sat on the benches along the

streets. We talked to one man (Ed wrote about him in his dispatch)—he told us most of

the people had spent the night in the refugios—thereby lessening the toll of

lives. He was calm when he told us about his demolished house—a smile on his face

when he told us he had been able to save his family and then the full proof of what these

people are made of when he said to us in farewell "I would invite you to my

house—but you see, it isn’t there anymore."

When I first walked into the streets of Barcelona I was amazed at what

I saw. When we read about Spain in the newspapers, articles, and books, we read of the

front, of cities bombed, and I came expecting to find a war-like—or what I thought

was war-like—atmosphere over everything and everybody. Here in Barcelona, the city

goes on living its life—shops do business, people work and sit in the cafes. When you

are in the city for a while you begin to see the effects of war. You see that there aren’t

many young men in the streets—and if there are they are in uniform, home on leave or

recovering from wounds. You see the wrecked buildings where bombs have fallen—and you

see the women and the kids, tattered, ragged, and hungry. But you see too that everywhere

are a people who are fighting for their lives, their country—the raised

fist which greets you in Salud is not just a gesture—it means life and liberty being

fought for and a greeting of solidarity with the democratic peoples of the world.

Barcelona is a beautiful city—surrounded by hills and mountains—an ever blue

sky—palm trees lining the broad avenues—a city which in peacetime must have been

a joy to live in. And the people—how can I tell you how wonderful they are—how

truly a beautiful people the Spanish are. They are an intelligent people and an

understanding people, and even now, in midst of their war, the education of its people

goes on—schools for kids, girls from the Basque country and Andalucia who three

months ago couldn’t read, now holding down leading and important jobs in Government


Hemingway was here for a few days—but once you meet him you’re not

likely to forget him. The day he came I had been slightly sickish, but Ed came up and got

me up out of bed to meet him. When I came into the room where he was he was seated at a

table and I wasn’t prepared for the towering giant he is. I almost got on my toes to reach

his outstretched hand—I didn’t need to, but that was my first reaction. He’s

terrific—not only tall but big—in head, body, hands. "Hello", he

said—looked at me and then at Ed and said "You’re sure you two aren’t brother

and sister?" which meant—"what a pair of light-haired, pale, skinny

kids!" He told us another time when we were driving back to the hotel from somewhere

of his correspondence with Freddy Keller—how he told Freddy he’s got good stuff, but

he must study—must educate himself and above all study Marx. That was what he had

done all winter in Key West, he told us—otherwise, he said, you’re a sucker—you

don’t know a thing until you study Marx. All of this said in short jerky

sentences—with no attempt at punctuation. Before he left he gave us the remainder of

his provisions—not in a gesture, just gave them to us because he knew we needed them

and because he wanted to give them to us. I’m still a little awed by the size of

him—he’s really an awfully big guy!

And now—I’ll say goodbye—I promise not to let so long a time

go by the next time I write.


June 21, 1938

Dear Ernest [Hemingway]:

I wish we had had a few days in Paris together. Marty [Hourihan] was

still there when I got in. You know they sent him out across the mountain. I don’t know

how he ever managed it with that leg.

The damn fools sent me across the mountain too. They knew I had been

expelled from France but they told me it was perfectly safe. I no sooner left the Carabineros

at the top than the Guarde Mobile spotted me—It was a bright night and they

fired a couple of shots over my head. I lay low for an hour and then began again, changing

my line to come out at another place on the road. Then when I got to the road I was so

damned jollied up and excited that I made a mistake and started right back into Spain

again. I got almost to the French Customs before I was able to get my bearings. The Carabineros

had told me about a staircase going down the mountain to Cerbere from the road. I couldn’t

find it for the life of me, and I kept going back and forth and back and forth around

those turns in the moonlight. If the Guarde Mobile were looking they must have

thought the whole 43rd Division was on its way over. And they did think something like

that, too, because finally I gave up looking for that staircase and followed the road

right in and then I found the staircase—the bottom of it where it meets the road

again—six Guarde Mobile were there. I couldn’t dodge them. They wouldn’t

believe that I was the only man coming down the mountain. "Why we saw at least a

dozen" they said. And two of them took me to the station and the rest went up the

mountain to hunt. They hunted all night.

You know Port Bou—the way the whole town seems to be in the bottom

of a cave. Well the Fascists bombed us twice the day I was there. There are good refuges

but even then it’s not a nice place to be bombed. When I got over and the Guarde Mobile

had me I said, anyway, that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about anymore. There’s a

good big mountain between me and those planes. Can you believe it? I was not in that jail

one hour—had no sooner gotten to sleep and I was tired—before there was the God

damndest crash of bombs just up the street—not a hundred yards away from the jail. I

was all alone and locked in of course and everybody was running up the street and women

screaming. First I felt haunted as if they were following me, and then I felt glad that

the French were getting a chance to run screaming through the streets for a change. I even

thought they might let me go the next morning as a mark of solidarity or something.

The next morning they took me to Perpignan on the train. Everybody was

talking about it in the train. The Pyranees Oriantele was getting really bellicose. They

were all scared and mad. The Guarde Mobile were extra sympathetic to me—bought

me cognac and tobacco out of their own money and forgot about handcuffs—But that was

as far as the solidarity went.

At Perpignan I found out that I was up against six months. No

alternative, no way out, except pull. I was scared. It was a nice jail and all that but

the prospect of six months made me feel very bad. I wrote at once to Desnos to get in

touch with Martha, who I remembered had some pull with the Radical Socialists at one time,

and also Senator Hollis from N.H. who used to be a friend of my father’s and who practices

now in Paris. They all got started right away and Charley Sweeney, too, went to bat for

me. But here was the funny thing. And if you think a minute—you will see the queer,

uncomfortable position I was in. Father used to have a friend in Paris—a very rich

man named James Johnson who helped father a lot—and I never could abide him. So

Desnos, on Senator Hollis’s advice goes to Johnson. And the first thing I know—the

first thought of Johnson that I have in two years I guess—there he is down at

Perpignan—come all the way down from Paris to help me out of jail.


Madrid, December 17, 1937


"The moon is very big tonight"–this sentence has been on my

mind for days. It is a beautiful sentence, I can’t stop rolling it off my lips. I came

across it in a letter among my documents while searching for material for the book I am

now working on.

A girl in New York started her letter off to her boyfriend in Spain

with that–on the very night her boyfriend was killed. He died very bravely under that

very big moon and that very big moon lit up the whole landscape, throwing a ghostlike

silvery flame on No Man’s Land, silhouetting the rescuing parties against the sky, and the

fascists opened fire, wounding many of the brave volunteers who were risking their lives

trying to bring in the body of that boy who was lying dead out in the field under the very

big moon his girl was writing about in New York. She was very lonesome for him and so she

was looking at the moon in New York and the moon was very big; it reached all the way to

Spain. He never received the letter. I was the one who received it and I read it ten

months later, a few days after I finished my chapter, on the night of the very big moon,

and I never heard till then about the girl. But ever since I read that letter my heart

went out to that girl. I keep on wondering whether she still notices the moon and hope she

is proud of the boy who died a death worthy of his principles and his class. I want to

raise a monument for that boy and girl under that very big moon, a monument of love and

class struggle and of heroism and self-negation and sacrifice that shall be at the same

time a monument of the struggle against fascism in Spain.

The moon has been very big a number of times and I hope the time will

be soon here when it will shine on a free Spain and we, two, will walk arm in arm under

that very big moon, thinking about that other boy and girl….Sanyi

REPRINTED from Cary Nelson and Jefferson Hendricks, eds. Madrid

1937: Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War, copyright

1996 by Routledge.