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Espada on American Volunteers in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War

Thousands of volunteers from North and South America were among those who volunteered to help defend the democratically elected Spanish government from a revolt of fascist army officers supplied by Hitler and Mussolini. Some of these volunteers died when the ship they were traveling on--the City of Barcelona--was torpedoed off the Spanish coast. We present here a dossier that runs from the wartime accounts by Jack Freeman and Edwin Rolfe to a 1998 poem by Martěn Espada.

A 1937 Letter from an American Volunteer during the Spanish Civil War


Sept. 25, 1937

Dear Herb [Freeman],

I received a letter from Pop several days ago in which he mentions that you have sent me a personal letter. As yet I have not received it altho I have been waiting for a letter from you for a long time. I suppose you've been expecting one from me for just as long, but it is hard out here to concentrate your mind for long enough to get off a decent letter.

By the time you get this letter it will be more than five months since I left home and more than four that I've been in Spain. I guess it's pretty safe now to describe my arrival here. You know, of course, from hints in my past letters and from stories floating around back there, that I was on the "City of Barcelona," the ship that was torpedoed by an Italian submarine. You've probably read the main details in an issue of the Sunday Worker (Aug 1, I think).

Every once in a while it strikes me that my being alive at all at present is just a pretty damn lucky accident. My cabin on the boat was in the rear part, just aft of the engine room. Our usual orders were to stay below deck all the time, either in our cabins or in the passageways. But this Sunday afternoon shortly after dinner I had begged and gotten permission to go to the middle section of the boat where most of my American friends were quartered, to attend a meeting of the English-speaking comrades. After the meeting I stayed to schmooze around with a few of the guys. We were leaning over the railing, three of us, looking at the shore, not more than a mile away, and the water of the Mediterranean. which is every bit as blue as it's cracked up to be. This was well within Spanish waters, not more than 60 kilometers from Barcelona as a matter of fact. Every once in a while we would pass a fishing village with the boats drawn up on the beach. From a distance the boats looked like fish lying out in the sun. Some of the hills came rolling right down to the water. Everything looked bright and completely peaceful. We were feeling quite happy at finally being practically in Spain after so much delay in New York and in France.

Suddenly we heard a dull thud--not a bang, not sharp at all, like a heavy push. The boat shook and threw me from the railing against the cabin wall. The people started running from the back of the boat towards me. I don't know what I thought had happened--hit a rock probably--but I certainly wasn't thinking of a torpedo, because even then I wasn't thinking war. Anyway I started yelling, "Don't get excited. Don't get panicky." I had yelled this 3 or 4 times when I saw dense brown smoke all around the deck toward the back end of the boat. Then I figured the trouble for sure & somehow I got into a lifeboat which was about 10 ft away. I've never been able to recall whether I jumped, hopped, crawled, or climbed into that life-boat, but I got in. Somewhere around this time I bruised my leg, how I don't know. This was the only casualty I suffered, and I didn't discover the scab until several hours later. I was one of the first in the boat but it filled up very rapidly, since it was right amidships & most easily reached. The damned ropes were tied with wires but there were two American sailors (not crew members) in it and they freed us with hatchets. As we were sliding down to the water one of these sailors remarked "We must have hit a mine." We shoved off a little way from the big boat, but most of the people in the boat, French & Spanish, were too excited at first to do any organized rowing, so we went very slowly and I had a chance to see what was happening in the water around us and on the big boat.

The torpedo--we now knew it was a torpedo because some of the guys in the boat had actually seen it coming in the water--had apparently hit just aft of the engine room, in other words, had gone directly through my cabin. Those of the comrades who had been sleeping or resting below decks, two in my cabin, had had no chance at all. The back quarter of the ship had jumped up when the torpedo hit and then sunk almost immediately. Two lifeboats which were hung here went down with this section before they could be untied. Most of the fellows either jumped or were thrown into the water. The life-belts were below deck in the cabin and there was no chance to go down & get them except for a few in the forward part of the ship.

The rest of the ship from the engine room forward also sunk very quickly. In less than seven minutes (that is, later we estimated the time at about this) there was nothing above the water besides the point of the prow and one poor guy who couldn't swim standing right on the point, and then that went down too.

It was a pretty dirty business. Some fellows were killed while they were asleep, some were trapped below decks (we could bear them singing the "Internationale"), some were hit by pieces of wood or iron and a few were drowned, altho most of those who got into the water had plenty of drift to hold onto until they were picked up. But considering the speed with which the ship went down we got off surprisingly well with a much smaller ratio of losses than, for instance, most torpedoed boats in the World War. As a matter of fact, the Daily Worker in this case exaggerated the wrong way and gave a higher figure of losses than there actually were.

Before we got to land we had one more scare. Just before the big boat went completely down, we suddenly heard a motor and looking up saw a plane coming head on toward us. Now when a plane ffies directly at you you can't see any of its insignia; and for all we knew, perhaps we had been bombed & maybe the plane was now coming to strafe us--you know, spray us with its machine guns. The guys in the water started yelling at each other to duck and one fellow in our boat dived out. I just bent down to the bottom of the boat (I don't know how I thought that would protect me), but I never felt so damned scared in all my life. Here was this big thing heading right for the part in my hair and I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do about.  I guess I was even too scared to crap in my pants.

But much to our relief the plane suddenly turned just about 100 yards ahead of us and dropped a bomb over the spot where it thought it had seen the sub. It must have rnissed though, for we saw no oil or wreckage aside from our own ship's.

Fishing vessels from a nearby town reached us after a while and picked up the fellows in the water. We got our rowing organized and reached the beach without any more trouble. The people of the town just flooded us with clothes and blankets and gallons and gallons of cognac. The barracks in town were converted into a hospital and general headquarters for the rescued. I've never seen such goings on as when friends met each other in that barracks. Even I jumped onto at least three guys whom I never expected to see again. But the fellow with whom I had travelled across from New York and thru our long stay in France didn't come thru.

Except for the foolishness in yelling at people not to get excited and the scared feeling when the plane headed at us I kept my head pretty well.  I hope I bear up as well later on. But then I did have all the luckiest breaks and I didn't have to go thru all the tough spots that some of the others did. The torpedo went thru my cabin but luckily I wasn't in it; there were only two lifeboats which got off safely and luckily I was in one; a plane headed at us but luckily it was a Loyalist plane. In other words, luckily.

I started this letter yesterday, but since then I have gotten Pop's letter of August 5 with yours in it. It took that letter seven & a half weeks to reach me.

As you know from my other letters, I've been here for a hell of a long time but haven't done much yet. I was put into a battalion which the government decided to give extra special training so we stayed in camp almost four months. For a while I was a group leader, which is a sergeant, but my rank was never confirmed because I left before the battalion moved up to the line. Then I went to the base of the IB where I worked in four languages, Spanish, French, German, and a little English. I finally got myself transferred back to a fighting unit and I am now in the Lincoln Battalion working as observer and mapper on the battalion staff. My job is to discover as much information as possible about the enemy and draw maps of their positions and main weapons. It is very interesting work but pretty risky. I have no rank for the very good reason that so far I've done nothing to deserve a rank. We'll see later.

Meanwhile, I came up to the Battalion just in time to meet them coming back from action in the Aragon offensive. Now we are in reserve positions, which just means camping out in an olive grove so far from the front lines that only at night can we sometimes hear artillery fire. To make it even worse for me, altho it is better for the rest of the brigade, we are just as likely to go into a rest position as we are to go up to the lines.  In any case, I'll let you know soon.

I've tried to make up for not writing until now by writing a long letter, so now I want you to write a lot. My address Papa knows. The number is now 17.1. If we ever get to another big town, I'll try to send you a Spanish Pioneer pin.

Love to Mama. Tell Pop I'll write soon to him.

Your brother, 'the big stiff'

PS. Get down on your knees to Jack Schwartz for me and give him my apologies for not answering his letters. Tell him "Never give up hope." Put cigarettes in the envelope when you write.

[Note: Freeman grew up in New York. He died in Spain. Herb is his younger brother.]

From Madrid 1937: Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War. Copyright © 1996 by Routledge.

"Death by Water"
A Poem by Edwin Rolfe

On May 30 1937 the small Spanish coastal steamship Ciudad de Barcelona was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Malgrat by a submarine which the Non-Intervention Committee preffered to designate as "of unknown nationality." More than a hundred volunteers, twelve of them Americ ans, perished.

Nearing land, we heard the cry of gulls and
saw their shadows in sunlight on the topmost deck,
or coasting unconcerned on each wavecrest, they rested
after their scavenging, scudding the ship's length.

And we thought of the albatross--an old man going crazy,
his world an immenseness of water, none of it to drink;
and the vultures descending on an Ethiopian plain:
all of us were the living corpse, powerless, bleeding.

And suddenly the shock. We felt the boat shiver.
I turned to Oliver, saw his eyes widen,
stare past the high rails, waiting, waiting . . .
Others stumbled past us. And suddenly the explosion.

Men in twenty languages cried out to comrades
as the blast tore the ship, and the water, like lava,
plunged through the hull, crushing metal and flesh before it,
splintering cabins, the sleepers caught unconscious.

Belted, we searched for companions but lost them
in turmoil of faces; swept toward the lifeboats
and saw it was useless. Too many were crowding them.
Oliver dived. I followed him, praying.

In the water the sea-swell hid for a moment
Oliver swimming, strongly, away from me.
Then his voice, calmly: "Here, keep his head above."
We helped save a drowning man, kept him afloat until

dories approached. Looking backward, we saw
the prow high in air, and Carlos, unconcerned,
throwing fresh belts to the tiring swimmers.
Steam, flame crept toward him, but he remained absorbed . .


On shore, later, a hundred of us gone,
we are too weak to weep for them, to listen to
consoling words. We are too tired
to return the grave smiles of the rescuing people.
Too drained. Sorrow can never be the word.

But beyond the numbness the vivid faces
of comrades burn in our brains: their songs
in quiet French villages, their American laughter
tug at responding muscles in our lips,
shout against ears that have heard their voices living.

Fingers, convulsive, form fists. Teeth
grate now, audibly. We stifle curses,
thought but unuttered. While many grieve,
their hands reach outward, fingers extended--
the image automatic--ready for rifles

until night brings us sleep, and dreams
of violent death by drowning, dreams
of journey, slow advances through vineyards,
seeking cover in wheatfields, finding always
the fascist face behind the olive tree.

August 1937

from Edwin Rolfe: Collected Poems. Copyright © 1993 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Abe Osheroff
The City of Barcelona

Osheroff was born in Brooklyn in 1915. He was a neighborhood activist at sixteen, a student activist at City College, and then did some organizing for the CIO. He went to Spain in 1937. On his return he was a union organizer, headed the Communist Party's Jewish Commission, and worked in the South. He is a carpenter by trade and has helped build housing in Nicaragua. He has also made a documentary film on the Spanish Civil War entitled Dreams and Nightmares.  

We had been waiting in Marseilles for a week. By that time everybody in town knew who we were and where we were going. All sorts of people approached us and wished us well.

The border had been sealed tight, so we were to go by sea. On the eve of May 29,1937, we received our marching orders. While Italian seamen from an adjacent freighter stared in disbelief  some 250 "passengers" carrying cheap paper suitcases, and many wearing berets, filed on board the Spanish freighter Ciudad de Barcelona. It would have been high comedy if not for--

Under "cover" of darkness, we set sail for Barcelona. There were some 250 men aboard, from all over Europe and some from 50 from the United States. Among the Americans were Bill Cantor, Solly Davis, Murray Nemeroff, and mysell (I later learnedof Carl Cannon and Bob Reed.) There was also Bob Schultz, captain of the Brooklyn College swimming team. Another man, named John Kozar, had been a seaman and a miner in Pennsylvania.

We sailed at midnight, and at crack of dawn it was clear that we were hugging the coast for safety. Somewhere around midday a lone Republican seaplane flew alongside. The pilot was gesticulating wildly and pointing to something in the water nearby. The warning was not fully understood or acted upon. Many of the men were below-decks ...

I remember a loud, dull thud, and the whole ship sort of shuddered. In a matter of minutes, it tilted sharply and began to go down by the stern. Pandemonium followed as men raced to the very few lifeboats. I remember a loaded lifeboat overturning and crashing down on its occupants. I remember the screaming faces of men trapped at the portholes. And above all I remember some seamen tearing loose anything that could float and tossing it into the sea.

I dived into the water and began to swim away, to avoid being pulled down by the suction. Almost immediately, I felt guilt and swam back to help with the rescue of non-swimming comrades. Fishing boats were already on their way from the nearby town of Malgrát and the seaplane was floating nearby, nearly capsized by the numerous men clinging to its pontoons.

As we came ashore, we found hundreds of villagers waiting with towels, blankets, and even some liquor. That evening there was a meeting in the Casa del Pueblo. Luís Companys came up from Barcelona and gave a welcoming speech. There were lots of other speeches, too. We were told that we could change our minds and go back home if we so desired. Only one man took advantage of that offer.

The next morning we boarded a train, amid fond farewells from the local inhabitants, and soon after we were in the railroad station in Barcelona. A brief stay in the Karl Marx Barracks and we were off for Albacete, and thence to the training town of Tarazona de la Mancha.

Note: Schultz drowned, trapped beneath the deck. John Kozar was said to have swum ashore with a pound of coffee in a paper bag in his teeth. In World War II he shipped out on the Murmansk run, was torpedoed again, and froze to death in a lifeboat. (A.0.) 

from Our Fight: Writings by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Spain 1936-1939. Copyright © 1987 by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Martín Espada
"The Carpenter Swam to Spain"

For Abe Osheroff
and the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

 The ship hushed the waves to sleep at midnight:
Ciudad de Barcelona, Ciudad de Barceloniz.

In the name of the aristocrat strolling through his garden
Franco's tanks crawled like a plague of smoldering beetles;
in the name of the bishop and his cathedrals
the firing squads sang a stuttering mass with smoke in their throats;
in the name of the exiled king and blueshirts on the march
bombers with swastika fins sowed an inferno
in village market places and the ribs of the dead.
At Guernica an ancient woman in black stumbled
across a corpse and clawed her hair;
at Víznar, where the spring bubbles, a poet in white shoes
coughed the bullets' blood onto his white shirt,
gypsy sobbing in the cave of his mouth.

Ciudad de Barcelona: The ship plowed the ocean,
and the ocean was a wheatfield of bread.
And the faces at the portholes thinking: Spain.

In Espańa, the carpenters and miners kneeled with rifles
behind a barricade of killed horses,
the peasant boys cradled grenades like pomegranates
to fling against the plague of tanks, the hive of helmets.
Elsewhere across the earth, thousands more laid hammers
in toolboxes, holstered drills, promised letters home,
and crowded onto ships for Spain:
volunteers for the Republic, congregation of berets,
fedoras and fist-salutes for the camera, cigarettes and union songs.
The handle of the hammer became the stock of the rifle.

The ship called Ciudad de Barcelona steamed
across the thumping tide, hull bearded with foam,
the body of Spain slumbering on the horizon.

Another carpenter read the newspapers
by the tunnel-light of the subway in Brooklyn.
Abe Osheroff sailed for Spain. Because Franco's mustache
was stiff as a paintbrush with his cousins' blood:
because Hitler's iron maw would be a bulldozer,
heaving a downpour of cadavers into common graves.

The ship of volunteers was Ciudad de Barcelona,
Abe the carpenter among them, and for them
the word Barcelona tingled like the aftertaste of a kiss.
Two miles from shore, they saw the prop plane hover
as if a spectre from the last war,
the pilot's hand jab untranslated warning.
Then the thud, a heart kicking in spasm,
the breastbone of the ship punctured
by a torpedo from Mussolini's submarine.
In seven minutes, the ship called Ciudad de Barcelona
tilted and slid into the gushing sea, at every porthole a face trapped,
mouth round and silent like the porthole.

Eighty mouths round in the high note of silence.
Schultz, captain of the Brooklyn College swim team,
pinned below deck and drowned, his champion's breaststroke flailing.
Other hands that could swim burst through the wave-walls
and reached for the hands that could not. The boats
of a fishing village crystallized from the foam,
a fleet of saints with salt glistening in their beards,
blankets and rum on the shore.

Abe swam two miles to Spain,
made trowels of his hands
to cleave the thickening water.
His fingers learned the rifle's trigger
as they knew the hammer's claw.
At Fuentes de Ebro, armageddon
babbled and wailed above the trenches;
when he bled there, an ocean of shipwreck
surged through his body. Today, his white beard
is a garland of clouds and sea-foam,
and he remembers Schultz, the swimmer.

Now, for Abe, I tap these words
like a telegraph operator with news of survivors:
Ciudad de Barcelona, Ciudad de Barcelona.

Reprinted from The Volunteer for Liberty (1998)

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