By John J. Dunphy
I recently came into possession of a post card sent in 1938. It was mailed by an American who was in Spain. Irving J. Rifkin, the young man who sent the post card, wasn’t vacationing in that nation, however. He had gone to Spain to fight in its civil war.
Born in Brooklyn on March 4, 1917, Rifkin attended the City College of New York and participated in its ROTC program from 1935 to 1937, according to information contained in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. In his book, Spain In Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt: 2016), Adam Hochschild wrote that the average age of the Americans who went to Spain to fight for the Republic was 29, so Rifkin was considerably younger than his fellow volunteers. He was an unmarried student when he joined the Communist Party in 1935. About 75 percent of the American volunteers were members of the Communist Party or its youth league. Most of these young people had joined the party because they saw communism as the most viable and determined opponent of fascism.
Hochschild stated that 2,800 Americans went to Spain to fight for that nation’s struggling Republican government. Of that number, about 750 were killed. The American volunteers came from 46 states, although one-third lived in the greater New York City area. Sixty volunteers were students, faculty, staff or alumni of the City College of New York. About half of the volunteers were Jewish. Rifkin differed from the standard profile of an American volunteer in that he had ROTC training. He surely thought it would be put to good use in Spain.
Rifkin received passport # 539794 on May 25, 1938, which listed his address as 3916 Laurel Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. He boarded the Queen Mary, which departed on July 6, 1938 and on July 16, 1938 reached Spain. “Rifkin’s family was not aware he was going to Spain,” according to his biographical listing in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. “They learned he was in Spain after receiving a letter dated July 14, 1938.” Rifkin’s last letter to his family was dated August 24, 1938. He served as a soldaro (soldier) in Company C.
The post card from Rifkin that I have in my possession is dated July 18, 1938 and was sent to Martin Loewer, a childhood friend who lived in Brooklyn. Robert Martin Loewer later embarked on a successful career as an actor and screenwriter under the names Robert Lowell and Mark Lowell. The post card was given to me by Jan Lowell, his widow, who also enjoyed a career as an actress and screenwriter. She assured me that her husband treasured this post card and never ceased mourning his friend’s death.
The image on one side of the post card depicts a victory won by the Republic that occurred even before Franco rose to destroy it. The accompanying text, written in four languages, reads:
Sanjurjo, the incarnation of the absolutist spirit of the typical Spanish Army commander, leads in Seville an armed rising against the first Government of the Republic, and flees to Portugal without waiting for the outcome.
José Sanjurjo, a Spanish general with monarchist sympathies, indeed instigated an uprising against the fledgling Spanish Republic on August 10, 1932. His rebellion briefly succeeded in Seville but found few supporters in the rest of Spain. Initially condemned to death, Sanjurjo was exiled to Portugal. He remained disloyal to Spain’s new government, however, and in 1936 threw in with Franco and other army officers when they rose against the Republic. Sanjurjo would never lead an army in the field, or even return to Spain. On July 20, 1936 he died in a plane crash. Spanish Republicans printed these post cards that celebrated a traitor’s failure in an attempt to boost morale.
The handwritten message on the post card reads:
I’m sending this card from Spain, as you may know by this time. The war is just 2 yrs. Old today and the Spanish people, old peasant women, kids all still show magnificent enthusiasm. They can never be beaten.
Rifkin, then in Barcelona, gave Loewer contact information. For some reason, Rifkin noted the time when he wrote his message on the post card: 4am. Perhaps he couldn’t sleep and decided to reach out to his childhood friend. The box on the post card where a stamp should be placed is empty. Jan Lowell told me the post card was probably smuggled out of Spain.
Rifkin’s assertion that the “Spanish people,” by which he meant supporters of the Republic, “can never be beaten” reflected either his optimism or lack of familiarity with the situation. By July 18, 1938, Republican Spain was already in its death throes. Franco’s forces had launched a major offensive on March 9 that broke the Republican line. By mid-April, the Republic had been cut into two parts. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion, which Rifkin would join, had sustained heavy losses. Hochschild noted that the battalion for the first time contained more Spaniards than Americans.
According to the prologue of Spain in Our Hearts, Francisco Franco, who commanded the rebels that Rifkin went to Spain to fight, had announced on April 4, 1938 that any foreign volunteers taken prisoner would be shot. It’s uncertain whether Rifkin was aware of Franco’s declaration.
The Spanish Republic had led a fragile existence since its founding in 1931, when free elections allowed the Spanish people to throw off the shackles of monarchy and military dictatorship. This new republic was bitterly opposed by monarchists, wealthy landowners, the Catholic church and other reactionary elements in Spanish society.
Army officers revolted against the Republican government in 1936. Any officer who hesitated to join the rebellion was summarily executed by the rebels. Most of the navy and air force, however, remained loyal to the Republic. General Francisco Franco eventually emerged as the leader of the rebel forces, who designated themselves as Nacionales. Usually translated as “Nationalists,” Hochschild wrote that Nacionales is better understood as meaning “the only true Spaniards.”
Since supporters of the Republic weren’t regarded as true Spaniards, they could expect no mercy from Franco and his soldiers. Freemasons and union members were killed in areas of Spain conquered by Franco. Teachers were murdered because Republicans strongly supported secular education, which was anathema to the Catholic Church and its supporters. Women were in no way exempt from the Nacionales’ ruthlessness. Twenty pregnant women, who were regarded as Republican sympathizers, were removed from the maternity ward of a Toledo hospital, taken to a local cemetery and shot. A reporter for the New York Herald Tribune witnessed two teenage girls, one of whom was found in possession of a union card, handed over to Franco’s Moorish soldiers for gang rape. When the reporter protested, a Nacionales major assured him that their suffering would be brief. “Oh, they’ll not live more than four hours,” he is quoted as saying in Spain in Our Hearts. Nacionales routinely raped nurses and killed patients when they overran Republican hospitals.
The conservative world press of the 1930s, including that of the United States, sought to smear the Republicans as communists. While communists rallied to the Republican cause, the Spanish government also enjoyed the support of centrists, liberals and socialists. Spanish anarchists, who opposed any government on principle, nonetheless fought the Nacionales. This diverse coalition was often called the Popular Front. Supporters of the Spanish Republic sometimes referred to themselves as Loyalists, since they had maintained their loyalty to the duly-elected government of Spain.
Franco sought and received assistance from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Mussolini dispatched 80,000 troops and deployed the Italian navy to bombard Republican strongholds and sink supply ships. The Condor Legion of Nazi Germany, which was comprised of volunteers from that nation’s army and air force, fought for the Nacionales. German pilots tested terror bombing techniques that the Luftwaffe would later utilize during World War II.
The western democracies publicly proclaimed their neutrality and refused to sell arms to either the Loyalists or Nacionales. The United States, still locked in the Great Depression, had no appetite for involvement in a foreign conflict. In the early days of the civil war, militias had executed approximately 7,000 priests because the Catholic Church was seen as the enemy of the Republic. Outraged by these atrocities and fearful of a communist take-over in Spain, the Vatican joined Germany and Italy in recognizing Franco’s Nacionales as that nation’s true government. The American Catholic hierarchy and press strongly supported the Nacionales and denounced the Republicans for their hostility to Catholicism. Since over 70 percent of American Catholics had voted Democratic in 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt dared not alienate this vital constituency by appearing sympathetic to the Loyalist cause. Congress had passed a Neutrality Act just a year before the civil war broke out that prohibited the export of weapons, ammunition and “implements of war” to belligerent nations. Roosevelt’s hands were effectively tied.
While the United States government made no attempt to aid the Republicans, our nation nonetheless played a critical role in ensuring Franco’s eventual triumph. Texaco sold oil to the Nacionales in blatant violation of the Neutrality Act and, as Hochschild documents, even delivered it free of transportation charges. When Texaco president Torkild Rieber visited Nacionales-occupied Spain during the war as Franco’s guest, he noticed that most of their trucks had been manufactured by Ford. The critical importance played by these American products was underscored in a statement made after the war by the undersecretary of the Spanish foreign ministry. “Without American petroleum and American trucks and American credits,” he told a journalist, “we could never have won the civil war.”
The only nations that militarily supported the embattled Spanish republic were Mexico and the Soviet Union. Mexico supplied the Loyalists with 20,000 rifles as well as ammunition and food. Although the Spanish Air Force had remained loyal to the Republic, it consisted of only a few antiquated bi-planes. The USSR dispatched modern planes that were capable of engaging in dogfights with the German and Italian aircraft.
Volunteers from other nations, such as Irving Rifkin, went to Spain because they saw the civil war as an opportunity to halt the advance of fascism. Almost forty thousand men and women from fifty-two countries volunteered to fight for the Republic, according to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion, often referred to in print as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, was one of four battalions that comprised the XV International Brigade. These foreign volunteers, Hochschild states, were always in the thick of combat and were “killed at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the Republican army.”
Naming the battalion after America’s martyred sixteenth president reflected the Communist Party’s desire to portray itself as thoroughly American. It seemed all the more a appropriate, as Hochschild points out, since Lincoln’s armies had vanquished rebels who rose against our duly-elected national government. The arrival of additional American volunteers spurred the creation of the George Washington Battalion. The men in these units came to be referred to as “Lincolns” and “Washingtons.” Losses incurred in combat led to the units being merged into what was officially designated as the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, although Hochschild stated that almost everyone referred to it as the Lincoln.
Both sides executed prisoners. Hochschild noted that Nacionales officers, who were regarded as “beyond redemption” by the Republicans, were routinely executed. Enlisted men, however, were generally spared the firing squad since they were seen as either forced to fight against their will or deluded by Nacionales propaganda. Franco’s forces, consistently more ruthless than the Republicans, frequently shot captured enlisted men as well as officers. According to Hochschild, 173 of the 287 Americans known to have been taken prisoner were executed.
The fate of Irving Rifkin is recorded in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. “Believed captured and executed on September 7, 1938 in the Sierra Caballs.” A sworn statement provided by Gerald Cook, William G. Wheeler and Herman Klein reads:
We, the undersigned, certify that the men named below were members of the third company of the Lincoln Battalion in Spain and were captured by the Franco forces on the 7th day of September, 1938, on the sector of Corbera. We know these facts to be true as we witnessed the entire affair, having been members of the same unit and barely escaping ourselves after having been completely surrounded. These men are: Irving Rifkin, James Pearce, Jack Arnold, Pat Garafalo, Wilbur Wheeler, Thomas Hardy, Sam Grossner, William Miller, Leonard Holtzclaw.”
Rifkin had been in Spain for just 52 days.
There is no mention of Irving Rifkin in Spain In Our Hearts. This young man, who arrived when the war was already lost, died too soon to play any kind of significant role in the conflict. Yet, the book may well include an account of the incident in which he was killed. His biography in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives states that “members of the third company of the Lincoln Battalion in Spain and were captured by the Franco forces on the 7th day of September, 1938, on the sector of Corbera.” On page 329, Hochschild wrote:
When some 40 members of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, 14 of them American, were taken prisoner in September, Nationalist troops marched them to the rear. When an officer heard men talking English, he stopped the march, separated out the Americans, and ordered them machine-gunned.
One of those machine-gunned men could well have been Irving Rifkin. His body, as well as those of his comrades, would have been buried in an unmarked grave by peasants who were forced at gunpoint by Nacionales to perform this grim task. It is doubtful whether Rifkin’s remains will ever be recovered and identified.
Hochschild noted that Stalin began to lose interest in the Spanish Civil War at this time. The Soviet dictator ordered the withdrawal of most of the Soviet and East European military officers he had lent to the Republicans – and had many of them executed. It was the height of the purges and Stalin’s paranoia was at its peak. Stalin had called back the Soviet ambassador to the Republic a year earlier, had him shot and never bothered to name a replacement. Juan Negrín, prime minister of the Republic, knew that foreign communist parties were no longer actively recruiting volunteers for the International Brigades. With the Republic’s back to the wall, he announced in a speech before the League of Nations that all members of the International Brigades would leave Spain.
Negrín hoped that such a move would persuade the Western democracies to demand that Germany and Italy withdraw their forces from Spain, thereby depriving the Nacionales of their most valuable military asset. While this strategy failed, 500 surviving members of the International Brigades enjoyed the adoration of 300,000 Spaniards as they paraded through Barcelona on October 28, 1938 to depart from Spain. Hochschild wrote that the volunteers “walked nine abreast, sometimes ankle-deep in flowers.” Rifkin had written Loewer about the “magnificent enthusiasm” expressed by the Spanish Republicans. He was killed before he could discover they were capable of expressing magnificent gratitude as well.
Dolores Ibárruri, the fiery Republican communist popularly known as La Pasionaria, praised the volunteers in a speech. “You can go proudly,” she told them. “You are history. You are legend.” Robert Loewer always regretted that Irving Rifkin wasn’t there to hear those words.
Franco’s forces in early 1939 conquered what little territory the Republic still held. Those who couldn’t escape from Spain or successfully conceal their past support for the Republic were imprisoned or simply murdered outright. Franco refrained from entering World War II, which began later that year, either because he wanted too many concessions from Hitler or was uncertain whether the Axis Powers could win the war. He established a ruthless dictatorship that, as George Orwell observed, was more feudal than fascist and ruled Spain until his death in 1975, when he was succeeded by Prince Juan Carlos, the grandson of King Alphonso XIII.
Although Prince Carlos was Franco’s handpicked successor, he astonished the world by repudiating the old dictator's legacy and instituting reforms that allowed democratic elections. Spain became a constitutional monarchy. The Spanish parliament in 1996 voted to grant honorary citizenship to all surviving members of the International Brigades. Hochschild wrote that several hundred elderly men, including 68 Americans, returned to Spain, where they revisited old battlefields and “were showered with flower blossoms by young people a fraction of their age.” Generations separated these Spaniards from the embattled Republicans who had shown such appreciation to the foreign volunteers during their departure in 1938, but the levels of gratitude seem identical. Irving Rifkin would have so enjoyed returning to Spain and receiving such acclaim.
The Spanish Republicans are still vilified to this day by those who idealize Franco’s regime. A 2013 edition of Crisis, a magazine that describes itself as “a voice for the faithful Catholic laity,” ran an article on the Spanish Civil War. Christopher Check, its author, contemptuously dismissed the historical perspective that
an oppressed working class calling themselves republicans rose up against a tyrannical aristocracy allied with the Roman Catholic Church. Their people’s revolution was brutally suppressed by a fascist military dictator named Francisco Franco, who was a puppet of the German Nazi regime. The whole affair was a dress rehearsal for Nazi tyranny. For decades following the war this fascist dictator ruled Spain with an iron hand, invading private lives and suppressing individual liberties.
According to Check, the truth is that Franco and the Nacionales instigated a revolt “to free Spain and the Church from the grip of Marxist tyranny.” Check rejoiced that ”the defenders of tradition, order, and Christianity won the war after which Spain enjoyed decades of prosperity and vitality and a culture in which, as Hugh Thomas (no Catholic propagandist) put it, " 'The Catholic Church permeated every aspect of Spanish … culture.’ “ Irving Rifkin probably would have been amused by Check’s demonization of him and the other defenders of the Spanish Republic. I would also speculate that he would have found such a blatant glorification of Franco and the Nacionales too ridiculous to be offensive. Still, Check’s article demonstrates that the Spanish Civil War is still a polarizing topic for us, even today.
Rifkin wrote to Loewer that the Spanish Republicans “can never be beaten.” He wasn’t merely mistaken. He was outrageously wrong. The Republic was collapsing around him, but Rifkin’s youthful left-wing idealism wouldn’t let him see it. Albert Camus observed that the Spanish Civil War taught us “one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.”
La Pasionaria honored the departing volunteers by saying they had become “history” and “legend.” In a 1939 work titled “On the American Dead in Spain,” Ernest Hemingway honored the Americans such as Irving Rifkin, who never left that nation. “For our dead are a part of the earth of Spain now and the earth of Spain can never die,” he wrote.” Each winter it will seem to die and each spring it will come alive again. Our dead will live with it forever.” Hemingway, who had covered the war as a pro-Republican correspondent, assured readers that “no men ever entered earth more honorably than those who died in Spain.” Somewhere, in an unmarked mass grave, Irving Rifkin rests in honor.
The author wants to express his heartfelt appreciation to Jan Lowell for sending him this historical treasure, which her late husband cheished all his life.