Letters from the Spanish Civil War: Selected Letters from Memories of a Botwinist
- Written by:
- Efraim Wozak
- Translated by:
- Deborah Green
- Spring 2019
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2019
Efraim Wozak’s book Zikhroynes fun a Botvinist (Memories of a Botwinist) tells the little-known story of the Jews who participated in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). The letters that follow were translated from his book. These four letters were written by Jewish fighters who fought the Fascists in Spain, and then fought the Nazis after the Spanish war was lost. The Germans captured and killed these men, but before they died, each was permitted to write a letter home. Although each one declares his love to his wife or lover and children, they each also reference their allegiance to the anti-Fascist cause. One has to wonder how these letters got past the German censors.
Why did eight thousand Jewish volunteers leave their families, their homes, and their livelihoods to risk their lives for a land that had tortured and expelled their ancestors, had robbed them of all they owned? What exactly were these boys fighting for? Certainly not for money or glory. Not one received more than some food and clothing, if that. They lived and fought in horrid conditions. When they returned home, if they were allowed back into their country, they faced humiliation and discrimination. They were unable to get jobs; they were ostracized for fighting an unfashionable enemy; some were deprived of their civil rights and lost their citizenship; some were considered Communists and criminals. And those were the lucky ones.
Those volunteers who had been deemed stateless found themselves in concentration camps in northern Spain, northern Africa, and southern France; the truly unfortunate were shipped to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex in Germany and Austria. So again, what was the point in fighting the Spanish Fascists? It was to prevent the coming annihilation that they sensed would envelop all of Europe, especially Jews, if the Fascist ambitions were not destroyed.
On April 1, 1939, the Spanish Civil War ended in defeat for the Republicans. Twenty weeks later, on September 1, 1939, World War II began, making all other wars being fought at the time look like mere skirmishes. Many of the Jewish Brigaders escaped from their internment camps to somehow return to their countries of origin. They formed partisan and resistance groups in the cities, ghettos, forests, and camps. They held true to the vows they had taken when they joined the International Brigades—they continued the battle.
Shlomo Gzhivatsch was born in Volamin, near Warsaw, in 1909 to an impoverished family. He began working when still a small child; by age 16 he was a member of the Communist youth association, and by age 22 he was sentenced to a five-year prison term for his political activities. By the time he was released he was a mature, hardened revolutionary, and he immediately renewed his political activities, becoming a professional agitator for the Communists.
Because of political oppression against dissidents he left Poland in 1936 and immigrated to France, where he continued his activities. At the end of 1936 he traveled to Spain and joined the Dombrowski International Brigade, where he fought bravely on different fronts.
After the Civil War ended, Shlomo, along with other volunteer fighters, was interned in a French concentration camp. In 1941 he escaped to Paris, where he joined the French Resistance. He joined the Partisan Division (FTF) and was part of its fighting forces against the German occupiers. He was tireless and was considered one of the bravest partisans in the Resistance. He was captured by the Gestapo in early 1944 and sentenced to death by firing squad. He was permitted to write a final letter prior to his execution.
His last letter reads:
France, February 21, 1944
Today at 3:00 p.m. I will be shot. I will be calm and unemotional as befits a Jewish worker.
I will die but I know you will not forget me. If any of my family survives and if you can, tell them about me.
I will die but you will live. I send you my best. I bid you and all my friends adieu. Courage, courage, and once again, courage!
Better tomorrows will soon be here.
I kiss you one thousand times. I kiss all my friends.
Yuzef Epstein had been a student in Toulouse, France, before he went to fight in Spain. He fought in the Ana Pauker Battalion as an artilleryman and distinguished himself in Spain for his bravery and boldness, attaining the rank of captain. After the Spanish war ended he returned to France and became a legend in the Resistance.
Under the pseudonym of Colonel Gilles he led the FTP-MOI in various French areas. He was also chief of the FTP in Paris and its environs, where he was responsible for organizing the ambush of German military units.
He was captured by the Germans and sentenced to death by firing squad. This was his last letter to his wife before his execution.
Dearest and Beloved Paulette!
I will be shot today at 3:00 p.m., but until I breathe my last, I will remain faithful to my beliefs.
I leave you with our darling boy. I think of you and love you both very much. Please forgive me if I ever caused you pain. You gave me so much joy! I can relive those moments in my mind even now.
I was so lucky to have you and our dear little one!
Be brave, my beloved! Protect our child! Raise him to be an ethical and brave person!
I am thinking of you both in these last moments of my life. I see you waiting for me and holding our treasure in your arms as I get off the train. I hear the little one’s laughter. I see your eyes, full of motherly concern. I hear his little voice: “Daddy! Daddy!”
I hope that you will both be happy and will not forget about Daddy!
I will die bravely. When I stand before the firing squad, I will think of you both, of your happiness, of your future!
Remember me from time to time!
Valor and love, dear Paulette! You must raise our son to become a brave and ethical man. If you lose hope, think of me, of my love for you both. A love so strong that it will never desert you. I will always be with you!
My dearest one! Don’t lose courage. From today forward, from 3:00 p.m., you will be father and mother to our dear little boy. Be brave and please forgive this wrong that I do you.
I hug you and hold you both close!
Long live freedom! Long live France!
Epstein was also able to write to his and Pauline’s son:
My little boy, my son,
When you are grown you will read this letter from your father. I write this letter three hours before being executed by German bullets. I love you so, so much, my little boy. I am leaving you with your devoted mother. Love her. Make her happy. Take my place in her life. Your mother is a good person and I love her dearly. Comfort her, my dear child, help her. You are now her world. Bring her joy, be kind and be brave.
I die courageously, my dear child, for your happiness and for the happiness of all children and all mothers.
Save a small corner of your heart for me. Just a very tiny corner, but only for me. Don’t forget me.
My dear little boy, I see before me your smiling little face, I hear your happy little voice. I see you with all my senses. You are our entire happiness, both mine and your mother’s.
In these last moments I think of you, my dear sweet little boy, and of your dearest mother. Be happy in a better world, a kinder world.
Have courage, my little, dearest Paula.
I hug you both in my arms, I kiss you with all my being, with all my heart.
Your “Papa Kar.” Send my friendship to all our dearest.
Marcel Langer was a Communist from Palestine. He immigrated to France in the 1930s and settled in Toulouse, where he was active in the French Communist party. He was one of the first men to come to Spain, where he fought on various fronts with various units. He was known for his bravery fighting in the artillery unit of the French International Brigade and left Spain with the rank of captain.
Everyone in the Gurs internment camp knew Marcel. He always had a smile and a kind word for everyone.
By the time World War II began Marcel was no longer on the wrong side of the barbed wire. He organized the partisan movement that fought against the German Fascists in the Toulouse area. The Nazis captured him on March 11, 1943. He was sentenced to death and guillotined on July 25, 1943.
Marcel left a wife and child in Spain. This was his farewell letter to them.
By the time that this letter reaches you I shall no longer be among the living. I have been sentenced to death as a political criminal. I can imagine your pain, but with time you will forget me and someone else will take my place in your life.
Looking back, I see there was never enough time for us. Our separations caused us both so much pain. I hope that when you are at the side of another man, life will be kinder. I pray that he will be a good person and kind to my Rosita.
We must face the truth. You are young and pretty. You can and should find a life’s companion. Doing so would be normal and natural. I don’t believe that you would be able to live with only memories of the past nor do I expect that of you. The only thing I ask is that you raise Rosita well. Remember me, that I was good to my family and that I fought for freedom for all people. In the last moments of my life I will be thinking of you both. I die for progress and freedom! I kiss you a thousand times! Both you and Rosita! Your Marcel, who loved you from the very first moment that he saw you. I thank you for the happiness that you brought me.
May you both live in happiness and freedom.
 Francs-tireurs et partisans—Main d’oeuvre immigree (immigrant Communist military Resistance units of the FTP.)
 Gurs was originally built as an internment and prisoner of war camp in 1939 to hold those fleeing Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War.
Original Yiddish published in Efraim Wozak’s Zikhroynes fun a Botvinist (Warsaw: Yidish bukh, 1964)
DEBORAH A. GREEN is a retired attorney and a native Yiddish speaker. She has been translating Yiddish all her life. She is currently working on The Botwin Boys: The First to Fight Fascism, an anthology of translated excerpts from books written in Yiddish by men who volunteered to serve in the International Brigades to fight Fascism.