ALBA Bay Area Connection
by Susan Saperstein
In 1936, General Francisco Franco led a military uprising to overthrow the elected government of Spain. In response, the International Brigades – 40,000 volunteers from fifty countries – went to Spain to fight for democracy. The Americans who joined the fight were known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. But Franco had the support of Hitler and Mussolini, and in April of 1939 he gained control of Spain. Five months later the Nazis invaded Poland and World War II began.
As is true for many Americans, my knowledge of the Spanish Civil War was minimal, gained primarily through the work of Ernest Hemingway and other writers of the 1930s – that is until my cousin, Julia Newman, made several trips to the Bay Area to interview people for her docu-mentary, Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War.
Of the 2,700 Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 80 were women, most of whom served as nurses. They routinely worked around the clock during intense periods when wounded were being brought to hospitals close to the battle-fronts. In the film, one nurse recalls a night when the lights over the operating table went out in the middle of a surgery, and the nurses rushed to get flashlights so the doctor could finish removing a patient’s shattered kidney.
Through my cousin Julia, I was introduced to ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, a non-profit group founded to preserve the history of the North Americans in the Spanish Civil War. At a recent ALBA benefit in San Francisco, Peter Carroll, Chair of ALBA's Board of Governors, related another tie-in with San Francisco history: many of the Californians who volunteered had been active in the 1934 San Francisco Dock Strike.
In 1934, San Francisco’s longshoremen walked off the job, joining a coast-wide strike for better hours, higher pay, and protection against cronyism. San Francisco police were called in to maintain order. On Thursday, July 5, 1934 – known as Bloody Thursday – a fight between police and strikers ended in the deaths of three men, with more than a hundred others shot or beaten. One of the workers who played an important role in organizing the West Coast longshoremen during the strike was Archie Brown. In 1938 Brown joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Archie Brown subsequently served in World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After his return from Europe, Brown went back to work as a longshoreman and was elected to the Executive Committee of the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union). He also played a leading role in ending the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Like Archie Brown, other Bay Area volunteers whose lives are recounted in the documentary were active in political causes their entire lives. The film provides glimpses into the lives of these Spanish Civil War veterans. Some of the Californians volunteering included Dr. Leo Eloesser, Evelyn Andell, Alice Elizabeth Wagnon, Esther Silverstein Blanc, and Hilda Bell Roberts.
Dr. Leo Eloesser, a San Francisco surgeon, volunteered for the Spanish Civil War at the age of 56. Born in San Francisco in 1881, he joined the faculty of the Stanford Medical School and was a pioneer in the field of thoracic surgery. Dr. Eloesser, known for his work among the poor and indigent, did relief work in China and Latin America. He became friends with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who painted a portrait of him. When Eloesser went to Spain in the 1930s, he brought from the Bay Area his own medical team, which included Alice Elizabeth Wagnon and Evelyn Andell. Ms. Wagnon is one of the nurses featured in the documentary, which also includes photographs of Ms. Andell.
Another Spanish Civil War participant interviewed in the film is Esther Silverstein Blanc, who moved to San Francisco after high school to become a registered nurse. She took a job at the Marine Hospital in San Francisco (later to become the Public Health Hospital, then Letterman Hospital), where most of her patients were sailors. Esther recalled that by November of 1936, “Spain was all everyone talked about.…the boys politicized me….They were fighting to make things.” She, too, committed herself to the Republican cause in Spain, joining a group called Medical Aid for Spanish Democracy. Esther Silverstein Blanc later served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Nurses Corps during World War II, received a Ph.D. in the history of medicine, and taught at the University of California in San Francisco. She wrote several books, including two children’s books: Berchick and A Union Suit for a Small Chicken.
Hilda Bell was 20 when she went to Spain. “My plans were simple,” she recalls. “Get married, have kids, lead an organized life. Then I realized I was giving it all up, and my life would never be the same.” Hilda Bell Roberts has been active in the civil rights movement. Nearly seventy years after the Spanish Civil War, she marched with demonstrators protesting U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. She has stated, “Going to Spain was the best decision I ever made, next to becoming a nurse.”
The Volunteer, a publication of ALBA. December 2003, March 2004, http://www.alba-valb.org.
Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War is available at http://www.filmakers.com.
Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.
Most of the 80 women in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade served as nurses
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