All copyright rests with the author. Quotes can be made from this document for
study and academic purposes, as long as proper credit is given to the author.
The publishers of this site wish to thank Manus O'Riordan for his permission to carry this document which will be of interest to anyone looking at Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, or the broader Labour movement in Ireland, in particular the history of the Jewish working class in Ireland.
Manus O’Riordan is the Research Officer of the Irish Transport
and General Workers’ Union. The lecture was initially presented at the IRISH
JEWISH MUSEUM, Walworth Road (off Victoria Street), South Circular Road,
Portobello, Dublin 8, on Sunday, November 15th 1987
[This edition has been slightly edited to remove the notes
about when various songs were played at this recital. I hope these minor changes have not affected the meaning of the original document. To give readers an idea of the music played, I have attached the full list of songs at the end of the document. CC, 14th April 2000.]
"50 years ago history’s warning trumpets were heard in
Spain ... But there were people who realised just what a fascist victory in
Spain would mean. Courageous men from many nations volunteered to help the
Republicans - the men of the International Brigades ... We are paying them a
debt of esteem and honour. But first and foremost we owe them a debt for what
they taught us."
Such was the tribute paid by the Irish-born President of
Israel, Chaim Herzog, who had opened the Irish Jewish Museum in 1985.
This lecture highlighted the roles of both Irish and Jewish
volunteers in the International Brigades in Spain. In particular it told the
story of an Irish born Jewish volunteer, Maurice Levitas (who is now a teacher
in the East German city of Potsdam), recalling his childhood memories of life on
Dublin’s South. Circular Road, as well as his adult memories of combat and
imprisonment in Spain. The lecture was illustrated by Irish, Jewish and Spanish
songs recorded by Paul Robeson and a New York Jewish volunteer, Max Parker, with
whom Maurice Levitas shared a year in a fascist prison camp.
The lecturer, Manus O’Riordan, hails from Victoria Street,
South Circular Road. and is the son of the International Brigade veteran,
Introduction By Labour History Workshop
On the night of Sunday, November 15, 1987, as many as 150
people crowded into the restored synagogue of the Irish Jewish Museum to hear
Manus O’Riordan, Research Officer of the Irish Transport and General Workers’
Union, give a 50th anniversary lecture and record recital on Irish and Jewish
Volunteers in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War. The lecturer spoke from the
former synagogue’s pulpit as the fifty-year-old Memorial Banner of the
Fifteenth International Brigade’s Connolly Column hung from a place of honour
beside the Ark. Held under the auspices of the Irish Jewish Museum’s Cultural
Committee, this public lecture had attracted an audience that was particularly
diverse in its composition. Among those present in their personal capacities
were the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, the General Secretary of the Irish Congress of
Trade Unions, the Chairman of the Irish Labour Party and the President of the
Democratic Socialist Party (both of whom are T.D.s - Members of the Irish
parliament), the First Secretary of the USSR Embassy and a representative of the
Israeli Embassy. Both Jewish and non-Jewish relatives of International
Brigadiers were also present, including the brothers of two volunteers killed in
Spain, while in the front row of the restored synagogue sat two surviving
International Brigadiers, Peter O’Connor and the speaker’s father, Michael O’Riordan.
Between recordings played and the lecture itself the event
ran for over two hours. The following is a transcript of the lecture, retaining
some sections of the prepared text, which due to time constraints had to be
shortened on the occasion itself.
Visit the page on M Levitas
Irish and Jewish Volunteers
in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War
A 50th Anniversary Lecture And Record Recital
The Chairperson, Marilyn Taylor, introduced the lecturer,
Manus O’Riordan, who is Research Officer of the Irish Transport and General
Workers’ Union She pointed out that he was known not only for his work as a
labour historian - having published material on Irish socialist pioneers such as
James Connolly, Jim Larkin and Frederick Ryan - but also for his keen interest
in Jewish history. In fact an article by him on the history of anti-Semitism in
Irish politics had been published in the ‘Irish Jewish Yearbook’ 1984-85.
Following this introduction, Manus O’Riordan read the
following paper:- I should like to express my appreciation to the Irish Jewish
Museum’s Cultural Committee for the opportunity to give this commemorative
lecture and record recital. They are, of course, no more responsible for its
content than you the audience. I am well aware that this public event has
attracted an audience of considerable diversity, and that not only are there
Irish citizens present who hold a wide range of political and religious views,
but also visitors from such countries as the U.S.A. (Professor Hal Abramson of
the University of Connecticut), the Soviet Union (Vladimir Minderov, First
secretary of the USSR Embassy in Dublin) and Israel (Dr Moshe Azencot of Hebrew
University, Jerusalem, deputising for Bruce Kashdan, Counsellor for Irish
affairs of the Israeli Embassy). Some of the audience might like my dots, and
others might prefer my commas, but nobody else could be expected to endorse all
my dots and commas. And yet, despite all our diversity, there is, I believe,
something very precious which unites us all tonight over and above our common
humanity - a desire to remember and pay homage to all those from many diverse
origins themselves who fell in that first confrontation with the evils of
fascism fifty years ago.
Before proceeding further I should, however, acknowledge some
of the distinguished members of this audience. I should like to welcome the
Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Very Reverend Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. (Also present were
two Catholic priests who have shown themselves to be in the tradition of Father
Michael O’Flanagan by taking a progressive stand on a number of controversial
social issues - the Dominican theologian Father Austin Flannery, a good and
valued friend of the O’Riordan family for many years, and Father Paul Taylor,
a curate from the local Catholic parish of St Kevin’s.)
I am most heartened that the General Secretary of the Irish
Congress of Trade Unions, Donal Nevin, is able to be with us tonight. (The
General Secretary Designate of the ICTU, Peter Cassells, was also present.) I
also welcome the following public representatives:- Mervyn Taylor T.D. (Member
of the Irish Parliament and Chairman of the Irish Labour Party, who is also Vice
Chairman of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland), Jim Kemmy T.D.
(Member of the Irish Parliament and President of the Democratic Socialist
Party), Senator David Norris (Trinity College Dublin Joycean scholar),
Councillor Michael O’Halloran (Labour Party and a former Lord Mayor of Dublin)
and Councillor Eric Byrne (Workers’ Party).
I am honoured that so many International Brigades veterans of
Spain who cannot be present tonight have nonetheless sent me warm messages of
good luck, including Eoghan Duinnin, author of ‘La Nina Bonita agus an Roisin
Dubh’, the first book on the Spanish War to be published in the Irish
From Britain come greetings from Irish veterans Bob Doyle and
Joe Monks, Jewish veterans Dave Goodman and Maurice Levine - and other veterans
including the former General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’
Union, Jack Jones, and the Secretary of the International Brigade Association,
From the U.S.A. come best wishes from the editor of The
Volunteer, Ben Iceland, from the author of Prisoners of the Good Fight,
Carl Geiser, from Irish-American vet Paul Burns and from Jewish-American vet Al
Prago, author of Jews in the International Brigades. From the Israeli
city of Tel Aviv come greetings from Zalman Salzman, Secretary of the Israeli
Association of International Brigadiers, and last but most certainly not least,
from the G.D.R. city of Potsdam comes the warmest of messages from the Irish
Jewish veteran Maurice Levitas.
I am, of course, especially pleased that present in this
audience tonight are two International Brigade survivors - my father Michael O’Riordan
(present National Chairman and former General Secretary of the Communist Party
of Ireland) who is a veteran of the Battle of the Ebro and author of The
Connolly Column - The Story of the Irishmen who Fought for the Spanish Republic,
and Peter O’Connor (a former Labour Party member of Waterford City Council)
who is a veteran of the Battle of Jarama.
Solidarity on the home front was also of critical importance.
Yet there was only one Irish trade union leader at the time prepared to openly
support the Spanish Republic - John Swift (who would be President of the Irish
Trade Union Congress in 1946-47). Now 91 years of age, John Swift was a resident
of the nearby Clanbrassil Street area from 1912 to 1936, where he formed many
close bonds with Dublin’s Jewish community. I am delighted to welcome John
here tonight together with his good friend Professor Jacob Weingreen (Trinity
College Dublin’s internationally renowned Hebrew scholar).
It is indeed a great honour for me to speak here tonight at
the Irish Jewish Museum - a project which has certainly brought together a
wealth of history and tradition. And it has done so most appropriately in a
building so full of history in its own right, not only as the location of a
synagogue established in 1917, but prior to that, at the turn of this century,
as the early childhood home of that pioneering historian of the Jewish Community
in Ireland, Bernard Shillman. Since this Museum was formally opened
in 1985 by a "neighbour’s child" - the Irish - born
President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, I have been a frequent visitor. But I am no
stranger to this area. For I too am a "neighbour’s child". I was
born in 1949 in a nursing home located just down the street at 102 South
Circular Road, Portobello, (now renumbered as no. 18), which house had been the
home of the President’s father, the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Isaac
Herzog, throughout the 1920s. (He later moved the short distance to 33,
Bloomfield Avenue for the remaining years of his ministry here before becoming
Chief Rabbi of Eretz Israel.) I was accordingly born in the same house where
Chaim Herzog spent most of his Dublin childhood and where his gifted brother,
the late Ya’acov Herzog, had been born in 1921. Moreover, my childhood of the
1950's and 1960s was spent just around the corner from this Museum in the family
home at 37 Victoria Street where my parents still live. In the early years of my
childhood 13 out of the 48 homes on our street were Jewish. Indeed, playing on
these streets as my Jewish neighbours returned home from this Walworth Road
synagogue as well as from the neighbouring Lennox Street synagogue, I would
sometimes be requested to perform the ‘shabbos goy’ service of flicking a
light switch or striking a match. My father had occasion to do a similar favour
for the Rabbi who lived across from us on Victoria Street. Times change and now
there is only one Jewish resident remaining in Victoria Street, Mrs Jean
Bernstein, whom I am happy to see among us this evening.
So much for childhood memories. What we are here to
commemorate tonight is the 50th anniversary of the war that raged from 1936 to
1939 between the forces of international fascism and those who rallied to defend
the democratic rights of the Spanish people as expressed through their Republic.
What ensured that a Spanish Civil War resulted in the triumph of a dictatorship
over the majority of Spanish people was the international character of that War.
When Franco commenced his fascist revolt against the democratically elected
Government of Spain in July 1936 it was with an army of 75,000 Moroccan troops
(which was airlifted by the German Luftwaffe). To his aid came the Italian
fascist dictator Mussolini with 100,000 troops and the Nazi German leader Adolf
Hitler with 50,000 men. The Portuguese fascist dictator Salazar also supplied
several thousand troops. In short, during the course of that war the Spanish
Republic was subjected to a fascist invasion of a quarter of a million troops.
Only two states, the Soviet Union and Mexico, provided any material assistance
to counter this assault. The West not alone did not help the Spanish Republic,
it actually impeded its struggle for survival by its so-called ‘Non-Interventionist’
In spite of the failure of such Governments to confront the
march of fascism through Spain, there were 45,000 volunteers from all over the
world prepared to fight for the Republic. The fiftieth anniversary of their
heroic stand has been commemorated in ceremonies in many countries, and not
least in Spain itself. Here in Ireland a particularly moving commemoration took
place in September of last year at the monument on Achill Island to the first
Irishman to die in defence of Madrid, Tommy Patton, who hailed from the island
village of Dooega. And in commemorations in two particular states with quite
different political and social systems the President of each was to the fore.
Neither President had himself been an International
Brigadier. But although they represent very different political perspectives,
what both Presidents share in common is a record of relentless struggle against
Hitlerism. Indeed, the President of the German Democratic Republic, Erich
Honecker, was to spend a decade of his life incarcerated by the Nazis. At a
commemorative ceremony in Berlin in September of last year he paid tribute to
all International Brigadiers, not least to the 5,000 of his fellow German
anti-Nazis who - having escaped their native land - went on to confront Hitler’s
war machine on the battlefields of Spain, where 3,000 of them were to perish.
The President of Israel also fully understood the significance of the stand
taken by the International Brigades, especially by the 7,000 Jewish
anti-fascists who filled their ranks. President Herzog has informed me that
while a student in London University in 1937 he was involved in a demonstration
of solidarity with the Spanish Republic. He himself went on to have a
distinguished war record in the struggle to defeat Hitlerism. In fact Chaim
Herzog was among the first Allied troops to cross the Rhine, was wounded at
Bremen and was among the captors of Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS. In
September of last year an international gathering of anti-fascists also met in
Jerusalem for a series of commemoratorative ceremonies to honour the
International Brigades. On September 29 the assembled gathering of Communists,
Socialist Zionists and other anti-fascists was addressed by the President of
Israel with the following words:-
Fifty years ago history’s warning trumpets were heard
in Spain. The bloody civil war was only an introductory forerunner for the
most terrible years in the history of mankind. That was a challenging
chapter when the forces of darkness and fascism came up against all the
ideas of freedom, democracy, and social advancement. The tragedy was that
Hitler and Mussolini understood very well the significance of this test of
strength at, a time when the democracies, immersed in internal problems and
disputes, did not grasp it. They preferred to pay lip service, or just
remain faint-hearted. At the time of the Spanish Civil War there were 55
million people alive who would soon die during the Second World War. There
were also six million of our brethren still alive in Europe who did not yet
realise that a sword was poised over their necks.
But there were people who realised just what a fascist
victory in Spain would mean. Courageous men from many nations volunteered to
help the Republicans; Among them were Democrats, Socialists, Communists.
They united in a common front and fought against the perdition and holocaust
that was threatening the world. Among the International Brigade volunteers
were all kinds of men: writers, poets, artists, who would contribute to the
new age. Typically there was a relatively high number of Jews among the
volunteers - the highest proportion of any other group. There were even a
few hundred from the tiny fledgling community in Eretz Israel.
Today we know very well that the Second World War could
not have been prevented. We know that the fascist victory in Spain paved the
way for the tragic attempt of Hitler and Mussolini to control the world and
to trample democracy, culture, and the honourable spirit of man. The fascist
victory and the apathetic stand of the democracies convinced the Nazis and
Fascists that they would be able to win in war; and that was precisely what
made them embark on it.
In coming here today after fifty years to exalt the
miracle of the heroes and the sacrifices of the volunteers, the men of the
International Brigades In the Spanish Civil War, we are paying them a debt
of esteem and honour. But first and foremost we owe them a debt for what
they taught us.
In the name of the people of Israel, the principal
victims of the Nazis and Fascists, I hereby pay homage to the honour and
glory of all those volunteer fighters who used their bodies as a dam against
a wave of evil -- to all those who gave their lives in this cause, and to
those who continued the fight from that day - to those survivors, may they
enjoy a good and long life. Here I salute them as comrades in arms in the
war against the Nazis; they are the bearers of the vision of the spirit of
mankind, the guardian of the image of humanity; and the defenders of human
Such was the tribute paid by Chaim Herzog.
A year after the end of the Spanish War that song was
recorded by the American folk singer Pete Seeger, with a background chorus of
American survivors from the Brigade’s Abraham Lincoln Battalion. More than
forty years were to elapse before a song doing justice to the memory of the
Irish volunteers would be composed and recorded by Christy Moore for his 1984
album "Ride On", a song which he said was inspired by reading my
father’s book The Connolly Column. But a good song will travel fast and
far. It was to appear unexpectedly in April of last year at a 50th anniversary
commemorative gathering in New York of Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion
in Spain. Pete Seeger was once again singing the anti-fascist songs he had sung
50 years ago. And then he stepped forward to announce that Christy Moore’s
song would now be sung by the nephew of a Canadian veteran, Len Wallace.
In no country outside the fascist world did the supporters of
the Spanish Republic face greater problems than in Ireland. It is a sad fact
that it was left to the Republican Congress and the small Communist Party of
Ireland to be the only political forces in this State alive to the danger; posed
by the Fascist assault on Spain. While the leader of the Northern Ireland Labour
Party, Harry Midgley, was to play a particularly courageous role in campaigning
for anti-fascist solidarity in the North, the position South of the Border was
far different. At the 1938 Conference of the Irish Labour Party a solitary
delegate, Conor Cruise O’Brien, had attempted to raise the issue by arguing:-
"... This revolt against a democratically elected Government was supported
by international Fascism with Nazis and Italian troops... The Fascist Generals,
having failed to achieve their objectives by ballots turned to bullets. Every
country which valued its freedom had a duty to hold out against the forces of
Fascism in all their forms, even in Spain".
Not so, cried delegates as several of them rose to their feet
in consternation. Gerard McGowan T.D. charged that Cruise O’Brien had made
statements "of the kind that had brought the Labour Party into contempt
throughout the whole of Ireland" and had spoken "in a manner that was
calculated to harm the Party more than anything else, and he felt that he would
be lacking in his duty as a citizen and as a Catholic if he did not enter a
protest". That, unfortunately, was the Voice of Irish Labour on the fascist
assault on Spain.
This incident is but one indication of the atmosphere that
resulted in Ireland being the only non-Fascist Country to send volunteers to
help the Fascists in Spain. 700 were recruited for this purpose by Ireland’s
Blueshirt leader, General Eoin O’Duffy. Their behaviour was not particularly
heroic. They took part in only one action - a clash with Canary Island troops
belonging to their own Fascist side in which two of their number were killed.
When four others died during a brief period in the trenches they returned to
Ireland after only six months. Now it is only fair to say that the majority of
them were not Fascists by conviction but rather had a misguided religious
fervour cunningly exploited by the real Fascists of whom O’Duffy was the key
figure. One should not gloss over such facts no matter how unpalatable. For
example, in his recently republished book, "The Blueshirts", Senator
Maurice Manning claims that "There is no evidence that the Blueshirts were
anti-Semitic". But there is General Eoin O’Duffy, the Irish Free State’s
first Commissioner of the Gardai Siochana from 1922 to 1933, Chief Marshall of
the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, Blueshirt leader and first President of the
Fine Gael Party in 1933-34, was not in the least bit reticent in publicly
proclaiming his anti-Semitic prejudices. They remained an essential ingredient
of his Fascist philosophy. As he put it in April 1938, he took full
responsibility for "the organisation of the Irish Brigade against
Communism, Jewry and Freemasonry, for bringing that Brigade to Spain, and for
bringing it home when it had fulfilled its obligations to the full". The
fact that anti-Semitism was an essential feature of pro-Franco propaganda from
the very outset is highlighted by an American Jewish veteran of the
International Brigade, Albert Prago, author of a particularly important pamphlet
entitled Jews in the International Brigades in Spain. Prago quotes Franco’s
chief adjutant, General Queipo de Llano, as declaring in an October 1936 radio
broadcast that "Our war is not a Spanish Civil War, it is a war of western
civilisation against the Jews of the entire world. The Jews want to destroy the
Christians". Moreover, the Catholic Primate of Spain, Cardinal Goma,
proclaimed that Franco’s mission was against "the Jews and Masons who
had poisoned the people with Tartar and Mongol ideas and who were erecting a
system manipulated by the Semitic International".
The forces that challenged O’Duffy’s mission to Spain
were the same forces that had challenged him in Ireland. Peadar O’Donnell,
George Gilmore and Frank Ryan had established the Republican Congress in
opposition to this Fascist menace. The leader of the Republican Congress in
Waterford was a young teacher by the name of Frank Edwards. He was made pay for
his "sins" by the Bishop of Waterford, Dr Kinnane, who had him
dismissed in January 1935 from his post at Mount Sion Christian Brothers School.
This was indicative of the atmosphere at home, which would confront that brave
group of Irishmen who volunteered to fight against Fascism in Spain. The extent
of their bravery is underscored by the extent of their casualties. Of the 145
who fought 61 would never return home alive.
Among those who did survive was Frank Edwards. (He died in
1983.) Many members of Dublin’s Jewish community will remember him as either
their own teacher or their children’s teacher. Frank had in fact been one of
the first of the Irish to volunteer to fight fascism in Spain. His group went
into action on Christmas Day, 1936. Their first taste of the horrors of war was
recalled shortly afterwards by a volunteer from the North Circular Road area of
Dublin, Donie O’Reilly. He was the son of J K O’Reilly, composer of
the well-known War of Independence song "Wrap the Green Flag Round Me
Boys". On Easter Monday, 1916, Donie, then aged 13, had found himself to be
in an empty home. His father and three elder brothers were in the General Post
Office participating in the Rising being led by Patrick Pearse of the Irish
Volunteers and James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army. Donie nevertheless made
his own way there, only to be sent home by a horrified Rebellion leader Tom
Clarke for being far too young. But two decades later he went on to experience
battle in Spain. Needless to say there was no Christmas dinner in 1936. In fact
no food supplies were arriving at all even though the front was deceptively
quiet following a brief swoop by fascist planes. O’Reilly’s account
The war seems far away and we move from group to group. I
notice a London Jew with a tin of bullybeef and move towards him, but Frank
Edwards runs me close. The beef is shared as only a Jewish comrade would
share. We relax and eat ... I rejoin my group. Again the drone of planes
over our heads and sweeping back spraying us with machine-guns ... Away the
planes go and then silence. I move back to Frank. I notice the Jewish
comrade in a funny position. ... Suddenly the Jewish comrade is shook and
lifted back - dead! On examination we discovered four bullet wounds across
his back ...
Frank Edwards and Donie O’Reilly’s first experience of
death in Spain had been that of a Jewish comrade with whom a close bond had
immediately been established but who had been wiped out before they had even
grasped his name. A Manchester Jewish volunteer, Maurice Levine, who was also in
that contingent, has however identified him as Nathan Segal:-
General Queipo de Llano, known as the Radio General
because of his nightly broadcasts and his Moorish troops were striking
through Guadalquivir valley to eastern Spain. Suddenly out of that cloudless
blue sky a plane was diving down, spitting bullets. Nat Segal, a
London East Ender was killed instantly.
Another Dublin volunteer, Joe Monks, hailing from the far end
of the South Circular Road in Inchicore, also recalls:
A group of Dubliners that had got friendly with the
Londoner Segal were beside him, beneath the same tree at the same time. He
was killed outright. It shocked them that death had come to him instantly
and that without a murmur he was gone from them. They lifted his body onto a
blanket and rested his head upon a satchel.
Shortly afterwards, both Monks and O’Reilly were themselves
wounded. Frank Edwards has described as follows how he himself was almost
mortally wounded on January 10, 1937:
We were lying in position on a ridge. Dinny Coady lay
near me with another Irishman between us. A shell landed between Coady and
Murphy. I immediately felt a sharp pain in my side. ... I got up and walked
down to a ravine where our company headquarters section was posted, and told
them to send up a stretcher at once ... Then I got a Red Cross man to rip my
clothes off. 1 had a very deep wound under my left armpit... While I was
being dressed the stretcher-bearers came back with a body. Somebody rolled
back the blanket, and I saw his face. It was Dinny Coady. I got a hell of a
shock - perhaps because I had known him longer than any of the other lads.
I was carried on a stretcher across four miles of open
country under shellfire. Every jolt of the stretcher was hell... The
hospital was crowded. Everybody bustling about and talking different
languages. ... I lay there for some time; I was getting weaker. The blood
was pouring out my side. At last a doctor came. He spoke English ... I was
very glad. He realised I was an urgent case and I was taken into the
operating room at once. The fixed dressing had come off and the shrapnel had
burst an artery. The doctor soon removed the shrapnel and stitched me up.
Frank had been deeply affected by the death of Dinny Coady.
Back in Dublin a close friend of Coady’s, Tom O’Brien, was moved to write
the following poem:
Dinny Coady -
One whom I knew
We who live to remember -
We who have to die eventually,
in deaths like this,
It is not simple;
it is something that was sunk deep,
torturously down the centuries -
this emotion we feel
at the death of men we knew
Killed in such action.
Emotion heavy with centuries of suffering
and struggle and sacrifice
of oppressed peoples everywhere
We know that he must have died,
We know that he should not have died,
These comforts the mangled mind of man,
the simple mind of man,
Knowing what is good and noble,
faced with a thing called Fascism -
killing men who would have lived
ordinary happy lives;
men like Dinny Coady.
The following year, Tom O’Brien himself was fighting to
defend the Spanish Republic on the Ebro front. He died in 1974, but his widow
Anne is with us here tonight. And I welcome her for a double reason. For she
also is a "neighbour’s child’, hailing from nearby Martin Street, whose
late father, Abraham Sevitt, was among those Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia
who led the International Tailors and Pressers’ Union here in Dublin.
As for Frank Edwards, you couldn’t keep a good man down. He
was back in action as soon as doctors would allow it and his expertise and
bravery have been vividly recalled by both Joe Monks and Maury Colow. Al Prago’s
pamphlet on Jews in the International Brigades introduces Colow as follows:
Some (volunteers) were exceedingly young. When Eslanda
Robeson accompanying her husband Paul on a visit to the American volunteers
in Spain, was struck by the extreme youthful appearance of a few of the
soldiers, she approached one (Maury Colow) and thrusting a finger at him
exclaimed:- ‘How old are you?’, Colow, then 18, was one of several young
Jews coming out of slump areas of Brooklyn, the lower East Side (of New
York) and other pockets of working class constituents and poverty.
Maury Colow has recalled the following encounter on the
In the early dawn of April 18th (1937) our lines were
swept by an intense barrage of artillery, tank and antitank fire, plus
trench mortars along our entire company front. At the time I was occupying a
deep trench on our left flank. The barrage grew heavier and the cries for
first aid and screams gave evidence that we were taking casualties. For me
the barrage was like the end of the world, deafening, horrible and endless.
It kept up for what proved to be a number of hours. Around noon there was
dead silence. I turned to Monks and Edwards to tell them how glad I was that
it was over. Both of them were old IRA men and they weren’t fooled one
bit. ‘Prepare for attack!’ Edwards said ‘Prepare for attack!’ And
before he had finished the sentence hand- grenades were going off all around
Monks jumped out of the trench first, then me, then
Edwards. All hell was breaking loose and the enemy was all around us. They
were Moors and they were dressed in white wrap-around togas with a
hand-grenade sling strung across their chests. As I jumped out Edwards, who
was behind me, fired immediately at three Moors no more than twenty feet on
our left. Without aiming I pointed my gun at the centre Moor who was pulling
at a grenade. He fell like a sack of flour.
In that encounter Monks got separated from Edwards and had
presumed him dead. He recalls the good news to the contrary:
Safe and sound was Frank Edwards, and he was delighted to
find that I too was a survivor. He told me of his adventures after he had
run off the crooked hill into the valley. Maury Colow from New York and an
Argentinean named Jean were his companions. Jean was crippled by a bullet in
the leg, and Frank carried him shoulder high. But Jean sustained a second
wound and Frank, aided by Maury Colow, then had to drag the wounded man
along the ground because he refused to be an elevated target for a second
time. They evaded the Moroccans advancing up the road, and got to the north
side of the ridge.
When Frank Edwards returned from Spain, Bishop Kinnane was
more determined than ever to keep Frank blacklisted from any teaching position
in Waterford. The Bishop had made amply clear how he viewed the Spanish
conflict. In May 1937 he had welcomed the visit to Waterford of a Franco
propagandist by the name of Father Gabana who declared in that city that
"Spanish newspapers were in the hands of Jews and were all against
Spain". Moreover, in November 1939 the Bishop of Waterford was to sponsor
yet another anti-Semitic tract from the infamous leader of Maria Duce, Father
Denis Fahey, which contained the following excerpt from General Franco's victory
speech in Madrid in May 1939:- "Let us be under no illusion. The Jewish
spirit, which was ... the driving force behind so many anti-Spanish
revolutionary agreements, will not. be got rid of in a day".
But the blacklisting of Frank Edwards applied to all Catholic
schools throughout Ireland, and this ban was confirmed in writing by Archbishop
McQuaid of Dublin. It seemed that Frank would never again be allowed teach. He
My task was now to get a job, any sort of job. It was not
going to be easy .. I got a job with Pye Radio but got thrown out when I
tried to start the union in It. Then ... I got a job as a labourer, digging
and laying pipes. I was about six months at that when I got the opportunity
to get back into teaching. It was in the Jewish national school in the South
Circular Road. It was July 1939, and the war clouds were enveloping Europe.
I got one week’s work there, before the holidays in July, earning ten
pounds. On the strength of that, and the promise of more, I got married in
Frank Edwards was to be employed by Zion Schools of
Bloomfield Avenue -which is situated only two streets to the West from here -
for the remainder of his teaching life until his retirement thirty years later.
Dublin’s Jewish National School is, of course, now located
in the Stratford College complex in Zion Road. Following Frank’s death in 1983
it was as Chairman of the Board of Management of Stratford National School that
the then Chief Rabbi of Ireland, David Rosen, wrote to the Irish National
Teachers’ Organisation to add his voice to the "just and fitting tribute
to the late Frank Edwards" but to highlight as well the necessity of
distinguishing between those National Schools out of which he was forced, and
the one which took him in eagerly and in which he remained most happily until
his retirement". Touché David!
Returning to the story of the Connolly Column in Spain, some
sections of the Irish Unit fought alongside the 15th International Brigade’s
British Battalion, while others fought with the Americans of the Abraham Lincoln
At the battle of Jarama in February 1937 the British and
American Battalions alone lost over 250 men between them. Among the dead of that
one-month were 20 members of the Connolly Column, accounting for a third of the
Irish dead in the whole of the Spanish War. In that battle fell the Reverend
Robert Hilliard, a Church of Ireland (Protestant Episcopalian) clergyman from
Killarney. Beside him fell a former Christian Brother, Eamonn McGrotty from
Derry. Maurice Quinlan of Waterford was also killed at Jarama and his brother
Terry Quinlan, former General Secretary of the Post Office Workers’ Union, is
here this evening.
A Canadian volunteer has described as follows another death
on February 27:
We run for cover. Charlie Donnelly, commander of the
Irish Company, Is crouched behind an olive tree. He has picked up a bunch of
olives from the ground and is squeezing them. I hear him say quietly between
a lull of machine-gun fire, ‘Even the olives are bleeding’! A bullet got
him square in the temple a few minutes later. He is buried there now beneath
He was 22 years of age. His body was recovered for burial
nine days after his death by a group of Waterford Volunteers, including Peter O’Connor,
who is with us here tonight.
Charlie Donnelly hailed from Co Tyrone. (His brother, Joseph
Donnelly, was present in the audience.) A talented poet he had been active in
the Republican Congress in Dublin and was both a close personal friend and a
close political and literary associate of fellow poet Leslie Daiken, a member of
the Yodaiken family, which has long been prominent in Jewish community life in
Dublin. (His brother, Aubrey Yodaiken, was present in the audience.) In 1936
Leslie Daiken included Donnelly’s poetry in a book entitled Good-bye
Twilight - Songs of the Struggle in Ireland with revolutionary woodcuts by
the Dublin Jewish artist Harry Kernoff who lived only a few streets from this
Museum in Stamer Street. By 1935 Daiken had already emigrated to London where he
began editing The Irish Front, the voice of the Republican Congress among
the Irish Diaspora in Britain. Donnelly joined him shortly afterwards as
co-editor and they shared lodgings together.
In October 1936 Donnelly and Daiken wrote an Irish Front
editorial entitled "They Did Not Pass" in which they enjoined Irish
workers in London to oppose the anti-Semitism of Mosley’s Blackshirts. They
rejoiced in the following victory at Cable Street:
On Sunday, October 4th, the London working class dealt a
blow to the aspirations of Fascism. Thousands of Jewish, Irish and English
workers in the East End of London came together and by their united efforts
prevented Sir Oswald Mosley and his Fascist army from staging a provocative
march through the Jewish quarters.
(Indeed, in his autobiography, Our Flag Stays Red,
Phil Piratin - who would be Communist MP for Stepney (Mile End) from 1945 to
1950 - has described a scene where bearded Orthodox Jews linked arms with Irish
Catholic dockers in order to prevent Fascism’s march through the East End).
Donnelly had also warned against similar fascist phenomena at
home and in September 1935 had written:
The germs of Fascism are present in Ireland;
organisations, institutions and sentiments which could be welded into a
fascist movement ... (for example) Anti-Semitism ... General O’Duffy may
seem a joke at present. The joke is merely that he is without a paymaster...
If the General can create a movement worth taking over, his unemployment may
be only temporary.
Donnelly had hit the nail on the head, for that was precisely
O’Duffy’s objective in going to Spain. In 1974 O’Duffy’s former
Blueshirt colleague Ernest Blythe, who had broken with him in late 1934, offered
the following belated insight: "O’Duffy wanted to bring thousands of men
to Spain to get military training, do a little fighting, then come back, put him
in power here."
In a January 1937 editorial entitled "Long Live the
Spanish Republic!" Donnelly had accordingly declared:
Since last we wrote Owen O’Duffy ... and his Irish
Fascist Brigade have joined the insurgent forces ... But if Franco receives
support from O’Duffy and his gang, so on the other hand the Spanish people
are receiving the support of world anti-fascists ... in an International
Brigade There are men from Italy, Germany and Austria, countries already
under Fascism, who have somehow contrived to escape from the concentration
camps and prisons making their way to Spain ... to prevent a repetition of
the horrors caused by Fascism in their own countries. ... Under the command
of Frank Ryan, a leader of the Irish Republican Congress ... the Connolly
Battalion has been formed and is playing a leading part in the fighting The
disgrace, the stain upon Ireland caused by O’Duffy must be wiped out.
It was indeed wiped out. By the time of publication Donnelly
was already in Spain, only to meet his death a month later. My father, Michael O’Riordan,
has written as follows of another volunteer to be killed alongside Donnelly:-
The Irish ... attracted to their ranks many English
speaking volunteers who could, by no stretch of the imagination, claim any
relationship with Ireland. Among such was Samuel Lee, a young Jewish
volunteer from London later to die with many of his Irish comrades in the
battle of Jarama, February 1937.
The following year a Memorial Banner to the dead of the
Connolly Column was unveiled by Father Michael O’Flanagan, the one and only
Irish Catholic priest to support the anti-fascist struggle to defend the Spanish
Republic. That Banner is now in the custody of my father, who has kindly lent it
for this occasion. As you can see, a special place of honour at the top of that
banner was set aside for that young Jewish volunteer Samuel Lee, alongside the
Reverend Robert Hilliard.
(There is an intriguing possibility that although Samuel Lee
came from London’s Jewish community, either he himself or his family may have
had some previous, if passing, connection with Dublin’s Jewish Community. Sean
Cronin, in his biography of Frank Ryan, has written that among the Irish who
died fighting with the Lincoln Battalion at Jarama was "Davy Levy of
Dublin". This is not a name that appears on any list of casualties but then
Cronin goes on to quote the Irish-American veteran Paul Burns as saying of the
same David Levy:- A big fellow, quite young, we knew him as Lee".) Jarama
had indeed been an inferno.
Music played a most inspiring role in the anti-fascist
struggle in Spain. Morale was greatly boosted by visits to the front by Paul
Robeson who was to bring back from Madrid the following song of defiance against
the four insurgent Fascist generals encircling that capital, Franco, Varela,
Mola and the rabid anti-Semite, Queipo de Llano.
What was it that had brought Robeson to Spain? What was it
that inspired his solidarity with suffering humanity of all lands? It was the
memory of what his own American Negro people had suffered and were still
suffering under segregation. As Paul Robeson expressed it himself in 1938: ‘My
father was a slave; he escaped at the age of 15 years ... Hell, can I forget
that! My own father! A slave!"
The depth of feeling derived from that indignation combined
with a unique voice to give us unparalleled recordings of such great Negro
Spirituals as "Go Down Moses" and ‘Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho’.
But the added inspiration he gave to the many nationalities in the International
Brigades in Spain was the fact that he could give equally powerful performances
of songs from each of their own national traditions - whether these be Irish or
Welsh, Jewish or Russian, German or Czech. Irish songs he was renowned for
included Kevin Barry" and the song written by our national poet Thomas
This song reminds us of the many talented poets that fell in
battle in Spain, such as the English volunteers John Cornford and Christopher
Caudwell. But it particularly reminds us of Charlie Donnelly. In February 1937, Ireland
Today, published the following prophetic poem by Donnelly, the very month he
would meet his death:
The Tolerance of Crows
Death comes in quantity from solved
Problems on maps, well-ordered dispositions,
Angles of elevation and direction;
Comes innocent from tools children might
Love, retaining under pillows,
Innocently impales on any flesh.
And with flesh falls apart the mind
That trails thought from the mind that cuts
Thought clearly for a waiting purpose.
Progress of poison in the nerves and
Discipline’s collapse is halted.
the tolerance of crows.
Donnelly would himself be remembered in verse, as in Donagh
Mac Donagh’s poem ‘He is Dead and Gone, Lady’. His close Jewish friend
from Dublin, Leslie Daiken, would also write:
My voice a reedy note in Arcady,
I too have heard companion voices die -
O Splendid fledglings they, in fiery fettle,
Caudwell and Cornford and Cathal Donnelly
Stormcocks atune with Lorca, shot down in battle!
Young Charlie, our blackbird-sgul, no Lycid lies.
His cenotaph - Jarama’s olive trees."
The above verses come from a poem which Daiken dedicated to
his mentor Seamas O’Sullivan, husband of the Dublin Jewish artist Estelle
Solomon's, some of whose work can be seen in this Museum.
A fellow-poet from Dublin, Ewart Milne, had served as an
ambulance driver for the Spanish Republic and in the following verses he linked
the death of Donnelly to that of another close friend and fellow-ambulance
driver killed in Spain - a German Jewish refugee by the name of Isaac Kupchik:
…Sirs and Senoras let me end my story -
I show you earth, earth formally,
And Two on guard with the junipers.
Two, Gael and Jew side by side in a trench
Gripping antique guns to flick at the grasshoppers
That zoomed overhead and the moon was rocking.
Two who came from prisonment, Gael because of Tone,
Jew because of human love, the same for Jew as German -
Frail fragments both, clipped off and forgotten readily.
I set them together, Izzy Kupchik and Donnelly;
And of that date with death among the junipers
I say only, they kept it; and record the exploded
Spread-eagled mass when the moon was later
Watching the wine that baked earth was drinking.
The friendship with Kupchik was not the only one between
Irish volunteers and German Jewish refugees in Spain. Eoghan O Duinnin recalls
that when he was wounded on the Ebro front in July 1938: [translated from
Gaelic] "I was cared for by a German doctor. He was a Jewish refugee from
his own country."
Many bonds transcending all national barriers were formed in
the struggle to defend the Spanish Republic. I have mentioned some particular
bonds formed between Irish and Jewish volunteers. Was there any other quality
that drew them together over and above their shared anti-fascist commitment?
Personally I think that a shared sense of humour was also a contributory factor.
The resilience of both Irish and Jewish people in the most adverse of
circumstances is helped by a sharp-witted ability to find a humorous angle to so
many personal misfortunes.
For example, describing how eventually the doctors had to
amputate his wounded foot, Eoghan O Duinnin comments: [translated] ‘I can
truthfully say that I have one foot in the grave.’
But even the black humour shared by Irish and Jews alike
could not penetrate some tragedies. When the war was almost lost the Spanish
Republican Government announced in September 1938 that it would evacuate all
International Brigadiers. On hearing this news Eoghan’s German-Jewish doctor
sadly asked:- ‘You have place to go, yes? You are lucky.’
Paul Robeson had a rich repertoire of Jewish songs, such as
the Yiddish lullaby ‘Shlof Mein Kind". But he brought a particularly
powerful quality to the late eighteenth century Kaddish or prayer composed by
that wonderful tribune of Israel, the Hasidic tzaddik, Rabbi Levi Isaac of
Berdichev. So outstanding is that particular recording that it was chosen by
Israeli television to illustrate the historical series ‘Pillar of Fire’.
This powerful Black American singer always had a special
place in the hearts of Jewish audiences throughout the world but with none more
so than the Jewish volunteers before whom he performed in Spain did.
As I have already mentioned Jewish anti-fascists were
proportionately to the forefront in service to the International Brigades. One
such volunteer was Maurice Levine who has described as follows how he joined the
British Battalion in November 1937:
I was asked by the Communist Party in Manchester if I
still wanted to go to Spain and I said ‘Yes ... I didn’t tell my parents
I was going ... I had arranged with a girl I was friendly with, whom I
eventually married, to get in touch with my family and tell them. So I was
already on my way to Spain when they heard about it. They never remonstrated
with me and I firmly believe that my father was quite proud that his son had
gone to fight; the ‘received wisdom’ that the Jews were not a fighting
people was proved wrong.
Maurice Levine fortunately survived, though many of his
comrades did not. In the April 1986 issue of the New York progressive magazine Jewish
Currents Aaron Katz paid tribute to the memory of "my brother Hyman
Katz, an anti-fascist rabbi and Zionist who lost his life in that preliminary
skirmish against Hitlerism".
My mother ... a religious Zionist, arrived in New York
from Poland at the age of 12. She helped organise the Mizrachi Women’s
Organisation, and upon her retirement moved to Jerusalem to spend her
remaining years. In New York, she gave her two sons the customary orthodox
Jewish education at great personal sacrifice.
The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, and a year later my
mother received the shock of her life. Her son Hymie, and two of her
brothers whom she had helped raise and educate, Joseph and Michael, had
independently arrived and re-united in hospitals in Spain. ... They had left
from cities thousands of miles apart ... without discussing with family
members and not knowing the others’ plans.
Rabbi Hymie Katz had come from New York; his ‘kid’ uncle
Yussie Feller -who was in fact a year younger than he - from San Francisco; and
‘kid’ uncle Michael - younger still by three years - from Jerusalem. Both
Vussie and Hymie were killed in Spain; Michael Feller returned safely only to be
killed in Europe during World War II.
Aaron Katz continues:- ‘It was only after my mother had
inadvertently learned that Hymie was in Spain and had been wounded, that he
wrote to assure her and to ‘justify’ his efforts in Spain".
In November 1937 Rabbi Katz wrote to his mother as follows:
Dear Ma, It’s quite difficult for me to write this
letter, but it must be done I came to Spain because I felt I had to ... Don’t
you realise that we Jews will be the first to suffer if fascism comes? ...
If we sit by and let them grow stronger by taking Spain, they will move on
to France and will not stop there; and it won’t be long before they get to
America. ... If I permitted such a time to come - and as a Jew and a
progressive, I would be among the first to fall under the axe of the
fascists - all I could do then would be to curse myself and say, ‘Why didn’t
I wake up when the alarm-clock rang?
Yes, Ma, this is a case where sons must go against their
mothers’ wishes for the sake of their mothers themselves. So, I took up
arms against the persecutors of my people - the Jews - and my class - the
Oppressed. I am fighting against those who establish an inquisition like
that of their ideological ancestors several centuries ago, in Spain. Are
these traits which you admire so much in a Prophet Jeremiah or a Judas
Maccabbeus, bad when your son exhibits them? Of course, I am not a Jeremiah
or a Judah; but I’m trying with my own meagre capabilities, to do what
they did with their great capabilities, in the struggle for Liberty,
Well-being and Peace.
Aaron Katz says of his mother following the death of her
His letter helped change her feelings of helplessness and
anguish to feelings of pride and understanding. She never stopped grieving
but she did become reconciled: (She would say ‘What else could a good
Jewish youth do, educated in the honourable and inspiring traditions of his
The anti-fascist war also established a link with Spain’s
own illustrious rabbinical traditions. In the May 1987 issue of The Volunteer,
organ of the Abraham Lincoln Veterans, Manny Harriman recalls:
In May 1938 ... I was climbing like a goat up the
Pyrenees Mountains, the only entrance to Spain, sweating, wheezing,
stumbling, a city boy supposedly in good shape…But nothing could take away
from the elation, the pure joy of Espana. Especially for me, a Sephardic
Jew, the first member of my family to return to Spain after the Catholic
Inquisition expelled all Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492. What a symbolic
event, for me 446 years had passed. A Spaniard coming home to fight for a
country that expelled his forefathers. My family spoke an antique Spanish
(Ladino) of the 13th century. From the time of exile, we continued to speak
Spanish. My mother cooked Spanish meals, and everything was cooked in oil.
In our Synagogues, we read the prayers with Hebrew characters and it became
Spanish in its phonetics’ and it’s speech. Our music, humour, and poetry
were of Spanish origin, flavour, and style, so much were we keeping the
Spanish heritage and culture alive. Even until the present time, we have
kept our Spanish heritage although we have been living outside of Spain for
over 400 years. I was amazed that I felt at home, no stranger in a strange
land. The Spanish people looked like my mother and father. Their accent and
phonetics was in the same manner that my parents spoke to me. The Spaniards
understood me even though I spoke an ancient Spanish...
I came from an illustrious Spanish Jewish family, which
included one of Spain’s great philosophers, the distinguished Chief Rabbi
Rabino Moshe Ben Nahman (known as ‘Nahmanides" or Ramban) ... who was
a distinguished chief Rabbi of northern Spain, physician to the King of
Catalonia and Aragon, and founder of the first Cabalist University in Spain.
He was born in the year 1194 in Gerona and died in 1270 in exile in Israel.
My father told me many stories about him. The most noted was that he was
forced into a debate with a Christian priest in the year 1263. The debate’s
subject was Did Jesus fulfil the Biblical prophecy of the Messiah concept?’
(That there would come a Messiah to liberate the Jews in the world).
In 1982, I went to Spain as part of the Vets ‘Battlefield
Trip’ ... After the Vets left, I went to the City of Gerona, forty miles
north of Barcelona, where my forefather was born and now called his Palace.
Both the Palace, and the Jewish Centre next door were rebuilt by a cultural
and artistic group of Spaniards and Catalans who were interested in Jewish
history. While excavating the Jewish Centre, they found two floors below
street level, in which a synagogue, ritual slaughter place, hospital,
community rooms, and cooking ovens were unearthed. Two floors are yet to be
excavated. Among other discoveries they expect to find the site of the first
Cabalist University in Spain...
It was a fabulous trip and an eerie one as I trod on the
same steps and streets that my forefather Nahmanides walked. I could feel I
I was greeted royally, both by the Spanish TV, who
interviewed me, and the full inside pages of the Gerona paper. The paper
carried the story that for the first time the direct descendant of Bondstru
de Porta, Nahuanides’ Catalan name, had visited the city where he was
born... I was taken to see the Socialist Mayor. He greeted me and when he
heard I had fought in the Spanish Civil War against the Fascists, especially
in Catalonia, they made a further to do about me.
I left Spain with such good feelings about my Spanish
heritage. I was also heritage-wise considered a Catalan who fought in 1938,
to preserve the Spanish Republic and Catalan Independence.
I have spoken of Irish volunteers and I have spoken of Jewish
volunteers. Now it is time to speak of one who was both, another ‘neighbour’s
child’ by the name of Maurice Levitas. It is barely thirteen months since I
commenced a lengthy correspondence with Maurice, having obtained his address in
the GDR city of Potsdam, where he has been teaching English for the past few
years, from his very close comrade-in-arms in Spain, fellow-Dubliner Bob Doyle.
Maurice Levitas’s opening words to me were:- ‘Yes, I do hail from the South
Circular Road neighbourhood ... (and) your researches into the Jewish input into
trade unions in Ireland reminds me of my father’s part in what he called the
Tailors’ and Pressers’ Union.’
Those very words alone highlight a not very widely known
fact, the existence of a small Jewish labour movement in Dublin in the early
decades of this century. Indeed, when James Connolly was a Socialist candidate
for the Wood Quay ward in the 1902 local elections, he issued a Yiddish-language
appeal to the Jewish workers of Dublin. Jewish Cabinet-makers Unions were formed
and reformed on several occasions in Dublin, one of whose participants was the
late Philip Baigel who died earlier this year in Manchester. But the most
sustained effort of such labour organisation occurred in November 1908 when
Russian Jewish clothing workers who had settled in this South Circular Road area
of Dublin established the International Tailors, Machinists and Pressers Trade
Union. It was into such a Jewish working class environment that Maurice Levitas’
parents each arrived from different parts of Tsarist Russia’s Baltic provinces
around the year 1912.
Maurice tells me: - "About my parents, Dad left Kovno,
Lithuania, Mum left Riga, Latvia ... As far as I know there is no relative left
there. Some relatives contrived to reach Palestine but according to my brother
and sister who went to Israel for a visit, there are no survivors of either one
family or the other."
Those family members who had already emigrated westwards by
the early part of this century, therefore, were probably the only ones to
survive the Holocaust.
Levitas family history
I have subsequently received a letter from
Maurice’s sister, Mrs. Toby Middleburgh, which gives the following details of
family members who had emigrated in time and those who had not and who were
accordingly massacred by the Nazis:-
My father’s two brothers who went to America were
Daniel and Theodore (Tevyc). They left their small village, or ‘shtetl’
in Lithuania to avoid going into the Tsarist army. (As did my mother’s
brothers from Riga. Although the Jews were barred from most things, they
were not barred from the army!) They changed their name to Lund in the
States. My father’s father died an extremely young man in a cholera
epidemic when Dad was about three years old. But there were numerous
brothers (my father’s uncles) who retained the name Levitas. My mother’s
parents died before the War. In fact her mother died before mine left Riga.
Numerous members of both my parents’ families died in
the War. My mother’s sister, her husband and sons were killed with the
exception of a son who survived as he was in the Red Army. He died a few
years ago in the U.S.A., but his wife and children had also perished in the
war. My Cousin Frieda had emigrated to Palestine in 1935 and I am in
contact with her in Israel.
Dad lost his sister Sara and all her family. Apparently,
the Jewish population of the shtetl, or most of them, were pushed into the
synagogue and they were all burned to death. After the War we tried to trace
the families, to no avail. We were told that no one had survived. Dad also
lost his oldest brother who lived in Paris. He was shot outside his home.
When my brother Sol was in Paris after liberation he went to visit our aunt
and cousin and they showed him the bullet marks.
Maurice has the following additional remarks to make on his
One has to remember that when my father came to Ireland,
Jews from Eastern Europe were seeking to escape from violent anti-Semitism
in the Tsarist Empire. The other motivation for this movement was one of
attraction - the promise of freedom and possibilities of prosperity in the
U.S.A. But the route to the U.S.A. could be torturous. Hence, although one
of my uncles on my father’s side, and another on my mother’s side did
actually get to the United States, others did not. Another uncle stayed in
Paris and other relatives stayed in London. Not unnaturally, Ireland seemed
nearer to America than England, so it is understandable that a small
community made their home in Dublin.
Maurice Levine of Manchester has also described the
background to these Jewish mass migrations:
The shtetls (or small villages) consisted of collections
of rude wooden huts with earth floors; there was no proper sewerage and the
people were without such luxuries as beds - they slept on benches near the
stove In the late 1880’s, following the death of Tsar Alexander I, there
were severe pogroms against the Jews and in the 1890s the great exodus of
Jews from Poland and Lithuania began. Thousands upon thousands emigrated to
America and a lesser number to England. My father told me of attacks on Jews
in his shtetl, which was in the province of Kovno (now Kaunas), and I
remember washing his back when I was a child and seeing a mark in his skull
where he had been hit after a gang of youths had set upon him.
When Maurice Levitas’s father Harry left Kovno for Dublin,
he was to lodge with Rachel Jackson, an aunt of his who had already settled in
Dublin, at 33 Martin Street, which is only two streets from this Museum. When
Maurice’s mother, Leah Rick, left Riga she had been preceded to Dublin by two
of her brothers. The 1901 Census shows Harry Rick, a tailor by trade, to be
lodging at 24 Martin Street. He later moved across to 13 Martin Street from
where he married in 1309. The 1911 Census shows that he had by then moved across
to the other side of the South Circular Road and was living in 11 Oakfield Place
where he had been joined by a younger brother Jacob Rick, also a tailor.
Following Jacob Rick’s own marriage in 1911 he was to move to the nearby
address of 18 Arbutus Place. It would be here that his newly arrived younger
sister Leah Rick would also live until her marriage.
Life in Dublin
It was in this immigrant Jewish working class environment of
Dublin’s South Circular Road that the tailor’s presser from Kovno, Harry
Levitas, met Leah Rick from Riga. They fell in love and on August 16, 1914 the
Reverend Bernard Jaffe married them in the synagogue then located at 52 Lower
Camden Street. Also located in that building at that very same time was the
headquarters of what was generally referred to in Dublin as "the Jewish
union", the International Tailors, Machinists and Pressers Trade Union. A
case of Jerusalem on one floor and the New Jerusalem on the other’
During the first year of their marriage Leah and Harry
Levitas lodged three streets to the West of this Museum, in 13 Longwood Avenue,
where their eldest child Max was born. (In adult life Max Levitas would be one
of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s most electorally successful public
representatives. He served as a Councillor for the Borough of Stepney in the
East End of London between 1945 and 1970.) Shortly afterwards they moved three
streets to the East of this Museum and it was there at 8 Warren Street that
Maurice Levitas was born on February 1, 1917.
The blocks of artisan dwellings set on the parallel streets
of Warren Street and Martin Street were at that time centres of Jewish immigrant
life. The 1911 census shows that of the Z60 residents of Warren Street 103 were
Jewish while of the 301 residents of Martin Street as many as 195 were Jewish.
Maurice Levitas recalls:- My father and mother were sub-tennants of an old man who had the tenancy of No. 8 Warren Street, a street
as I remember, leading up to the Canal. The tenant, Mr. Mirrelson, was a kind of
grandfather towards myself and older and younger brothers, Max and Sol".
With regard to the synagogue we related to, this I believe
was Lennox Street - if that is the street which runs roughly at right-angles to
Warren Street and Martin Street.
It may be of interest to you to know that the beadle (shamas)
of the synagogue I went to was named Levitas and came from the same district
in Lithuania as my father (i.e. Kovno), but was not related. Since I was
about 10 when we left Dublin you will realise that my bar mitzvah had had to
be arranged when my family lived in Glasgow.
As for childhood playmates, Maurice recalls; -
"There were two cousins who were twins, Eric and Harry Rick. Their
father, my mother’s brother Jack, died young. Other relations were the
Dankers and the Woolf sons.
(Harry Rick now lives in Israel, but his twin brother Eric
was present at the lecture, together with their sisters Mrs. Sylvia Woolf son,
Mrs. Ettie Steinberg and Mrs. Eileen Cole. Also present was Sam Danker whose
mother was a first cousin of Maurice Levitas’s mother.)
In March 1923, a terrible tragedy was to strike the Levitas
family when Maurice's twelve month-old baby brother Isaac died following an
accident at home. Almost two years later in January 1925 the tenant of 8 Warren
5treet, Abraham Mirrelson, died at the age of 95 with drastic consequences for
the Levitas family. Maurice recalls:-
He died when I was about eight years of age and we had to
leave the house. I shall never forget coming home from school and finding no
one at home - a door that stayed shut. Not far from there in Martin Street,
there was an aunt of my father’s, Rachel Jackson, and her two daughters,
Sarah and Molly. We were taken in for a night or two and then went to live
in one room in the house of a widow, Mrs. Lewis, at No. 13 St Kevin’s
Situated at the other side of the South Circular Road, St
Kevin’s Parade runs in a curve from Lombard Street West to Lower Clanbrassil
Street. The 1911 Census shows that of the 148 inhabitants of St Kevin’s Parade
as many as 110 were Jewish, including the Jewish Cabinetmakers’ Trade Union
activist, Philip Baigel at No. 20. It was a street whose Jewish inhabitants
featured quite prominently in James Joyce’s novel "Ulysses". In fact
the research which the late Louis Hyman undertook for his history The Jews of
Ireland shows that in 1904 No. 13 St Kevin’s Parade had been the home of
Moses Herzog, the one-eyed Jewish peddler of Joyce’s novel. It was from this
character that the Nobel prize winner Saul Bellow in turn named the hero of his
1964 novel Herzog. Hyman writes of the original character (who was not
related to President Herzog!): - "The story is told of Moses Herzog that
when a matchmaker tried to marry him off to an unattractive lady he is alleged
to have replied: - ‘Even one eye wants to see something decent’."
Hyman adds:- "Herzog, popularly known in Yiddish, or
judiech, Joyce’s way of writing it, as ‘Moshe with the left eye’, was a
compulsive drinker and was notorious for slipping out of the St Kevin's Parade
synagogue for a drink during the protracted services of the High
When Maurice Levitas came to live in Moses Herzog’s former
home two decades after ‘Bloomsday’, there were still ‘characters’ to be
encountered in St Kevin’s Parade. One such was a tailor by the name of Citron.
Maurice recalls a certain proselytising flamboyance that must have caused some
disquiet among his neighbours:
Mr Citron was, I believe, a convert from Judaism to
Christianity and I remember his habit of singing Christian hymns while he
worked. Incidentally, he made my first bespoke suit (and my brother’s)
around 1926. There had been a fire at some warehouse and my father got a
couple of singed suit lengths very cheap. So, we two, my brother Max and I,
were measured by Citron and had suits made to measure
Maurice also relates:
The first time I heard the word ‘communist’ was in
that tailor’s workshop at the corner of St Kevin’s Parade. (I must have
been about ten years old.) My father had been visiting him and had been
arguing politics with him. But when my father left, I remained and heard
Citron explain to another visitor that whereas he was a socialist, Levitas
was a communist. He then went on to explain the difference.
What of schooling? Maurice writes:
I cannot now remember the name of the schools I went to.
I recall only a very junior school at first and then at eight a school
across the road where the Headmaster, named Sleet, seemed to me to be a
rather fierce individual who ‘taught’ us music - en masse - in a manner
that I should now characterise as ‘enthusiastic’. I recall, too,
attempts to teach us the Gaelic and algebra.
This identifies the school as St Peter’s Church of Ireland
Boys’ National School, which was located in New Bride Street beside the Meath
Hospital. And there are photographs on display in this Museum of that same
headmaster Joe Sleete with a number of classes of Jewish pupils. In his last
book Out Goes She - Dublin Street Rhymes with a Commentary (1963),
another Jewish past pupil, Leslie Daiken, commemorated Joe Sleete with a
reproduction of the following piece of childhood doggerel:
Auld Joe he is a bo
He goes to Church each Sunday
He prays to God to give him strength
To bash the kids on Monday.
But all was very far from fun in those days. As Maurice
Levitas puts it:- "When I think about Dublin and my childhood there I am
reminded of great poverty and unhappiness on the personal side".
Recalling the growing family’s single room accommodation in
St Kevin’s Parade he writes:
Those were grim days - especially for my mother who used
the kitchen by permission of the landlady. We were there for over two years
during which time it proved impossible for my parents to find better
accommodation. My father tried a number of ploys when we lived in Dublin in
order to gain a living. Like some other Jews in Dublin he tried ‘travelling’
around the countryside, collecting rags and metal etc, for sale to dealers
in these salvage commodities. But he was not successful at this. In the main
he worked for a wage as a presser in the tailoring trade and since he was
left wing in his politics, he played a part in his trade union. Indeed, the
main impression we all have of my father is his strong trade union
principles. The origin of all this was his association in Lithuania, as a
very young man, with the Peale Zion (or worker Zionists) -a kind of Jewish
The solution to our housing problem was my father’s
departure for Glasgow where he found work and a home for us. Our ‘home’
was not really satisfactory, but better than we had in Dublin. And not long
after we had something better. From the point of view of politics, however,
what it meant was that the proletarian status of my father was firmly fixed.
After reading Louis Hyman’s chapter on the Jewish
characters from St Kevin’s Parade who figure in James Joyce’s Ulysses,
Maurice has commented: -"Fascinating! So many memories are awakened by it.
Some of them nothing to do with experiences in Dublin".
Hyman had drawn attention to how revolutionary a concept in
Irish literature had been the character of Leopold Bloom himself when he
observed: "The mere concept of the Irish Jew raised a laugh in the Ireland
of Joyce’s day".
This has prompted Maurice to write: "I recall an
incident in school in Glasgow when one teacher remarked to the class on the
improbability of such a phenomenon. He even went so far as to invite any Irish
Jew in the class to stand up and make himself known. I stood up. What happened
or what he said I cannot now remember. And I have no inkling at all as to what
his motivations were". We can only guess.
This autobiographical correspondence continues:
Unemployment in the North in 1930 drove my father south
to London where we all subsequently arrived in 1931. By this time I was
fourteen years of age. My older brother went to work in a tailoring
workshop. I began a sojourn from an upholstery workshop to others and
finally to building sites as a plumber’s labourer.
But where we lived in the East End of London there was a
strong socialist tradition among Jews - both in trade union terms and
politically. The leftist orientation was strengthened in 1933 when Hitler
came to power, when Mosley’s Blackshirts began their anti-Semitic attacks
in Bethnal Green, Mile End and other parts of London. So it was not long
before I had to make decisions. I joined the Young Communist League in 1933
and later the same year the Communist Party accepted me as a dual member of
the YCL and CP.
Bill ‘Jock’ Stuart was a very close friend of mine.
He went to Spain whence he sent letters and cards to me and to my branch of
the YCL in Bethnal Green, of which I was secretary. Bethnal Green was a
borough of London where the Blackshirts were especially strong during the
‘thirties. So we were all especially motivated in the struggle against
fascism, Jack Sylvester was another Bethnal Green YCL member who
In December 1937, when Maurice Levitas himself set out for
Spain, neither the prospect of meeting death nor his family’s considerations
of this danger were academic concerns. For Jack Sylvester had already been
killed at Jarama the previous February. Maurice relates:
With regard to my family’s attitude towards my
volunteering for Spain, my mother was especially tearful and would have
tried to prevent it, my father accepted my decision. The people I went out
with went from London but they were not all Londoners. One man who went out
with me was Jewish - a man from Middlesborough - Dave Goodman.
For the purpose of this lecture Dave Goodman has in fact very
kindly written for me the following account of how Maurice Levitas and himself
crossed into Spain in January 1938:
Fifty or sixty of us set off to cross into Spain from the
foothills of the Pyrenees. We had to avoid French frontier guards and their
dogs, whose barking we heard, and our guide led us, I believe,
over smugglers’ tracks. It was both strenuous and hazardous and we climbed
all night until dawn broke next morning. It was quite unforgettable to look
down at the blue Mediterranean in front and the snow-capped mountains
behind. I was no mountain climber and our journey was made in the dark (me
wearing a Burton overcoat). The fort at Figueras was our first stop - and
there we were bombed, our first taste of war. We then entrained for Albacete
the International Brigade base (where I swopped my overcoat for a military
coat with an International Brigadier returning home). At that time the
British training base was the nearby village of Tarragona de la Mancha, and
my company was commanded by an Irishman, Paddy O’Sullivan. We didn’t
even have rifles to train with and we weren’t there long anyway. Teruel
had been re-taken by the fascists and we were needed at the front to try and
stop the rot. Before leaving we had a concert with Paul Robeson.
Although many details of my experiences in Spain have
faded from my memory, the fact that my memory of Paul Robeson singing to us
on the eve of our departure for the front is ever green, is a measure of the
impact of his singing.. The effect was electric and inspirational.
It was in this training camp that Maurice Levitas first met
fellow Dubliner Bob Doyle who had come out to Spain a few months previously. The
first time they went to the front was at Belchite. Bob Doyle has described how
they were forced to retreat and were shelled and strafed by Stuka dive -bombers.
He adds:- "They were operated by Germans of the Condor Legion which
consisted of 8,000 personnel - mainly pilots and artillery men".
Dave Goodman further relates:
In fact following the recapture of Teruel the Fascists
had the initiative so our experiences were of falling back and seeking - but
not finding - a position we could hold. After a number of actions, retreats
and forced marches, came the Calaceite ambush which resulted in the capture
of a large number of International Brigadiers - including Marry Levitas and
myself (and Frank Ryan).
As Bob Doyle has also described it:
We were captured in an ambush by Italian troops of a
mechanised division of the Black Arrows on the 31st March 1938 heading
towards the River Ebro. Franco had launched the final offensive (towards the
Mediterranean) with added military strength from Hitler and Mussolini.
Calaceite was located on the Aragon front near Gandesa. In
1981 Maurice Levitas described his capture there in an interview with an
American volunteer who had been imprisoned with him, Carl Geiser. I am extremely
grateful to Carl for providing me with the transcript of that interview. Maurice
We were walking up to an established front line to
relieve somebody else, when down the centre of this road came
these Italian whippet tanks in great number. My little group had a machine
gun, and we had small arms, and we moved over into the field. [However,
capture was to prove unavoidable.] We were surrounded by Italian fascists
... We had already been set upon to dig what we had taken to be our grave,
and we had already been subjected to some questioning ... We certainly
expected to die there..."
And not without reason. Between March 10 and April 14, for
example, as many as 140 American volunteers were murdered after being captured.
(I have no figures for other nationalities.) Bob Doyle had an additional reason
to fear for Maurice Levitas’s safety in particular. He tells me that at one
stage the Fascists lined up the prisoners and shouted: "Communists,
Socialists, Jews and machine-gunners !un pie adelante! (one step
forward!)". Needless to say, no one budged. But Bob describes Maurice as
being full-bearded at the time and looking as he put it, "just like
somebody straight out of the Bible". So when they were taken away for the
night Bob slipped Maurice his razor and advised him to shave.
What then saved their lives? Very simple. At that stage in
the war Mussolini became concerned at the large numbers of his own Fascist
troops that had been captured by the Republicans. So he sent new orders to the
front to hold Internationals (though not Spaniards) as hostages for the purpose
of later bartering for prisoner exchanges. Also captured on the Gandesa front
that same night and imprisoned with Frank Ryan, Maurice Levitas, Bob Doyle, and
Dave Goodman was the New York Jewish volunteer whom we have already met on
record, Max Parker.
Bob Doyle describes San Pedro de Cardena as follows:-
"We had no cells in the prison but an area for 700 International prisoners
and another for 2,000 Asturians and Basques".
The Basque prisoners included nuns in the infirmary who
despite pressure from both Church and military captors refused to agree to the
lie that it had been the Republicans themselves who had bombed and destroyed
Guernica, rather than Hitler’s Condor Legion which in fact had perpetrated
that war crime.
An American prisoner, Carl Geiser, in one of the most
powerful prison books I have ever read - Prisoners of the Good Fight -
has described how all prisoners in San Pedro were questioned by German Gestapo
Finally we were taken to a field and ordered to strip ...
Behind a table sat a Gestapo agent with a ledger. As each prisoner was
identified, an assistant using the callipers called out the length, breadth
and depth of his skull, the distance between his eyes, the length of his
nose, and described the skin colour, body type, wound scars and any
disability. Next each prisoner was instructed to stand in front of a camera
for a front and side view and close-up of the face. We were now ‘scientifically’
Later, Nazi German sociologists came to the prison armed
with, a two hundred item questionnaire which the International Brigadiers were
compelled to complete. Bob Doyle recalls:
The Nazi sociologists made every effort to prove to the
German people that we were sub-normal, depraved, etc. This was supported by
the Bishop of Burgos who addressed us prisoners as such. We had a written
question test first followed by measurements of the body and then
Maurice Levitas adds: - "I suppose that since we were
stripped for these measurements my Jewishness was at least ‘suspected’. And
that must have been the case for several of my comrades". It was certainly
the case with Dave Goodman. He tells me: - On the question of the Fascist
attitude to Jews I can only refer to a story in a Franco paper we were given in
San Pedro ... In fact I managed to bring the cutting out of the camp with
Dave has sent me a photocopy of the cutting that partly reads
in our war ... Judaism, organised and ambitious, is in
the forefront of these international interests, its contingents’
participation, egotistical and cold-blooded, succeeds only in throwing all
flesh on to the fires. Some unlucky ones, whom we show here wearing
spectacles, [obviously, rabid anti- Semites find bespectacled Jews
particularly menacing! - MO’R] were entrusted by their race brother’s to
play their part in this effort to the limits of death. And here in Spain ...
they are paying for their sins under the justice of the rifles.
Accompanying this newspaper item were four bespectacled
photographs with the caption: - "More Jews of the Reds’ International
Brigades". Dave Goodman comments: - "I was surprised to find that two
of the four photos are of me!" There were, however, periods of respite in
that prison camp of San Pedro.
During his youth, Max himself, together with two brothers,
had been much sought after as singers in the synagogues of New York’s Lower
East Side, during the Jewish High Holy Days. But other songs had to come to
terms with the harsh reality of life in the prison camp itself. One painfully
beautiful love song composed by a Spanish prisoner in San Pedro translates as
follows: Va No Me Vengas:
Don’t come to me with tear-filled eyes anymore. I spend
each night dreaming of you. Asleep and awake, I adore you. I look for you,
but I cannot find you. And I burst into tears. But how long, my darling, how
long? But how long will your green eyes be filled with tears? I am the man
who suffers from not seeing you.
But dear God in heaven, have pity on me.
(Which was sung if the guard came within earshot).
I am in jail; I wonder when I will leave this place. (Which
was sung when the guard was not present.) Another song, more defiant in mood,
translates as follows: Al Tocar Diana
At daybreak, everyone is ordered to form a line and go
out to the patio, and then to salute the flag. Garlic soup is our first
meal. At noon they usually call us. Very reluctantly, I am a prisoner who
must endure this. Today they gave us two pieces of bread, which is something
that never changes. This is how they poison us. The prison food is lentils
and beans every day, with so many beatings that you cannot eat. Every
afternoon we hear a sermon. "Dear brothers", they address us,
those men whose military garb is visible under their priestly garments. If
you have lice, don’t worry, they will find you anywhere. Be patient, dear
comrade. I am a prisoner who must endure this.
Beatings were quite arbitrary. In Prisoners of the Good
Fight, Carl Geiser writes:
Severe beatings were administered in a cellar room known
as la Sala de Tortura ... One day, early in July (1938), Bob Doyle from
Dublin, Jack Flior (a Latvian Jewish volunteer) from South Africa, and Bob
Steck (from the U.S.) sat down to eat their lunch. Steck recalls:- Tanky
(the Spanish fascist sergeant) pointed to Jack ... to me and to Bob. We were
marched into the Monastery, down to the cellar ... Tanky returned with five
soldiers, some of who carried tree limbs... Tanky struck Jack with his club
made from a bull’s penis..’ he was ordered into La Sala de Tortura’.
There is no need for me to read further from Steck’s
description of how the sickeningly horrendous and systematic beatings of each of
them proceeded in turn. A few days later the Camp was visited by a pro-Franco
correspondent of the New York Times named William Carney. Geiser relates;
When he seemed sceptical about our being beaten, the
others turned Bob Steck and Bob Doyle around and pulled up their shirts
revealing long red welts across their backs. Carney was visibly taken
aback... Carney did reveal later in an article that Bob Steck had shown him
‘several red welts on his bare back’ but said he had received them for
‘not giving the Fascist salute to their flag and always refusing to kneel
Aside from the inhumanity of Carney’s expectation that a
Jewish anti-fascist like Bob Steck might reasonably be expected to voluntarily
behave like that, his account is in fact quite false. The beatings had been
totally arbitrary. Carl Geiser also records another incident: "Maurice
Levitas, a bit slow to respond to an order, was given a bit of a bashing’ by
Tanky and thrown into the calabozo (another punishment cell below ground)."
The War Continues
Meanwhile, outside the prison gates the final battles of the
War were being fought out, with new volunteers willingly joining the
International Brigade but being denied the necessary weaponry by the so-called
Non-Intervention blockade. The resulting sacrifices were therefore higher than
ever. My father headed for Spain with three Scots and one Londoner. Only two out
of that quintet would survive the Spanish War. For a moment there would be a
brief respite before going into battle. Both Michael O’Riordan in English and
Eoghan O Duinnin in Irish have provided very colourful accounts of a Wolfe Tone
commemoration with an international flavour which they helped organise in a
Spanish valley at the end of June 1938. Among the highlights were the Gaelic
songs sung by Michael Lehane from Kilgarvan, County Kerry and the Russian dances
performed by the London Jewish volunteer Max Nash. Lehane would finally fall
victim to Hitler in 1942 when the Norwegian ship on which he served came under
German attack. My father remembers him as follows:
Mick Lehane had a distinguished record in Spain, being
wounded several times, the last occasion being at the battle of the Ebro,
when his close companion, Max Nash was killed.
Two days after that Spanish commemoration of the father of
Irish Republicanism, my father and others were sent for a brief period to a
Corporals’ Training School. He recalls:- There, many were to meet, for the
first time, a Soviet volunteer. He was Emil Steinberg, the instructor who
lectured on many aspects of warfare’.
Finally on July 24th came the announcement that the
Republicans would take back the other side of the river Ebro. They did, but it
was their last great offensive before eventual defeat. Their lack of artillery
rendered it impossible to take Hill 481. The casualties proved too horrific,
particularly on August Monday. Among the dead was Lieutenant Paddy O’Sullivan
of Dublin, already mentioned in Dave Goodman’s letter to me and further
mentioned as follows in a letter from Maurice Levine:
I found the Irish among the very best. Bill Davis (of
Dublin) was killed right next to me outside the village of Villanueva de la
Canada. He was a great guy. I remember, while on the Jarama, asking Paddy O’Sullivan
to volunteer for another front, Pozoblanco. He did without hesitation. There
were other Irishmen I was friendly with. Maybe we had something in common.
My father was among those wounded on Hill 481. Illustrating
the atmosphere back home in Ireland, he has written:
My parents were sincere unpretentious Catholics and I was
conscious that they would face all the pro-Franca hysterical propaganda ...
My mother, I know, spent a small fortune in getting Masses said for me. I
never could get to know whether they were for my safe survival or for my ‘conversion'
I suspect that it was sort of an each-way bet.
After my father was wounded he sent a telegram to my
grandmother in Cork in order to reassure her. The family home had what was -
under the circumstances - the rather unhelpfully named address of Pope’s Quay.
The post office deliveryman shoved the telegram at my grandmother and snarled
piously:- "The news should be that he’s dead because he’s fighting
against Christ. Well as you can all see, he’s not dead yet’.
Now that the anti-fascist War was almost lost the San Pedro
prisoners were subjected to ever-continuing indignities, including being forced
to sing France’s Fascist anthem "Cara al Sal" or "Face to the
Sun". [CC I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT IS BEING SAID HERE, OR WHAT THE
ALTERNATIVE SONG WAS.]
You have just heard a British volunteer Jimmy Jump describe
how he learned this song, It's A Long Way to Tipperary, on the battlefront
while, prior to that, Dubliner Bob Doyle has explained how he learned it from a
fellow-prisoner in San Pedro. It is perhaps the most evocative song to emerge
from the Spanish war and can express many different musical moods. The verses
you have just heard were recorded by Pete Seeger in 1940 and emphasise the
plaintive quality of the melody. But at the New York re-union in April of last
year, Pete Seeger provided the background accompaniment as Ronnie Gilbert gave
vocal expression to a quite different emotion in the subsequent verse which
evokes the Republican confrontation with Franco’s Mohammedan Moors.
While Ronnie Gilbert sang this song in the manner of a fiery
flamenco artiste, Max Parker chose to slow down the pace and draw out the
obviously Jewish parallels with its Andalusian melody. It is a song, which was
particularly dear to him since it refers to the Gandesa front and evokes the
night he was captured there. Unfortunately Max Parker died a couple of years ago
but through this recording made at 70 years of age the powerful voice of this
Cantor of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade will live on. (He himself translates the
lyrics before the song’s final verse.)
(Both Max Parker’s record and Sean Cronin’s biography of
Ryan bring back many memories to Maurice Levitas. Of the Frank Ryan biography he
I found it fascinating. So far as my sojourn in San Pedro
was concerned and even before that, at Calaceite, many memories were
renewed. It was a great privilege to have known him. I think that we all
knew we were in association with someone special at the time.
Well Manus, I started writing this letter at midnight ...
and in the writing of it memories crowd in upon me ... playing chess with
Frank Ryan in San Pedro .. his great leadership and example to us all ...
Jock Stuart kicking me on a Spanish hillside (I had stretched for a sleep)
by way of a welcome to the Brigade on active service ...
San Pedro would be a place for the formation of other
Irish-Jewish friendships, for example between John O’Beirne, a veteran of the
Irish War of Independence, and Leo Berman who would later participate in Israel’s
War of Independence by smuggling arms to the Irgun. Carl Geiser relates:
[In August 1938 U.S.A] Ambassador Bowers had arranged the
exchange of fourteen American prisoners for fourteen Italian (fascist)
soldiers, and gave their names. One, John Berkley, was a fiction, the
creation of an intended act of kindness. Leo Berman was on the list of
fourteen to leave. Well recovered from his (own) leg wounds, he thought it
was wrong that he should leave when his close friend, John O’Beirne (in
his forties and suffering badly from arthritis), had to stay in San Pedro.
John’s slow movements had earned him many a blow from the (fascist)
sergeants. Leo proposed that John assume the name John Berkley and take his
place on the list. He hoped that once John crossed the border into France,
he would be able to return to Ireland. (But) the ruse was discovered.
These was one official breach of the ban on singing by the
prisoners. The camp authorities agreed to a Christmas concert, which they
themselves could attend for their own entertainment. The concert programme was
arranged by the Jewish-American prisoner Bob Steck and its musical director was
the German prisoner Rudy Karnpf, a graduate of the Heidelberg Conservatory of
Music. Carl Geiser has written a most moving account of that concert. An
abridged version is spoken here by Mary Parker on her husband’s 1982 record.
At this stage I should say that Max Parker’s love of the Irish went beyond
Spain. In 1942 he was to marry Mary Agnes Molloy from Oughterard, Co Galway.
There is a further Irish connection here. Ireland’s
nineteenth century national poet Thomas Moore had included this Russian song in
his collection of international melodies, for which he wrote the English lyrics Those
Evening Bells. In this version in the original Russian, as Max Parker takes
off on a cantorial cadenza he forgets the original lyrics but, not the least bit
thrown off his stride, he substitutes a curse on the Portuguese fascists who had
Dubliner Bob Doyle was a member of that Christmas Eve
International Choir, as was Maurice Levitas. Thanks to Carl Geiser most
generously sending me the tape of his 1981 interview with Maurice, we are able
to eavesdrop on these two former camp inmates recalling that occasion and some
of its participants. Indeed Maurice was inspired to sing a few bars in between
Maurice Levitas and Jack Flier were able to tell the Soviet
Embassy about Russian prisoners because Jack could communicate with them. (Being
a native of Riga he could, like Maurice’s mother Leah Rick, speak Russian as
well as Yiddish and Latvian.)
The San Pedro prisoners who were most at risk from the
fascists were the Soviets and the Germans. Hence, where possible, the Soviet
prisoners pretended to be Polish citizens while some German prisoners pretended
to be Dutch, Swedish or Polish. While beatings of other prisoners were
arbitrarily administered by the Spanish fascists themselves, Bob Doyle recalls
that the brutal beatings of German anti-Nazi prisoners were organised by the
Gestapo officers who visited the camp. Bob writes of some of his German fellow-
Some tried to escape1 knowing their inevitable
fate. They were interrogated at pistol point and forced to sign ‘requests’
saying they wished to return to the Fatherland and they were sent for
torture. Similarly with the Czechs who came from Sudetenland who discovered
they were now German.
In March 1938 a remarkable act of anti-fascist defiance took
place in a cellar in Barcelona during a fascist air raid which killed two
thousand civilians and injured a further four thousand. In the midst of all this
hell a group of German anti-Nazi fighters - who had so far survived the Spanish
conflict where most of their colleagues had already given their lives - were to
record a very special song in that cellar. It has been called the only beautiful
song to come out of Nazi Germany precisely because it was such a powerful
indictment of Nazism, a song written as early as 1933 by an un-named prisoner in
a Nazi concentration camp. So moved was Paul Robeson by this Barcelona recording
that he also recorded that song of defiance of Hitler’s concentration camps.
[The song mentioned here is Die Moorsoldaten]
The dire predicament of German anti-Nazis imprisoned in San
Pedro was in a strange way to result in Maurice Levitas re-asserting his Dublin
origins. On January 6, 1939 the British and some other international prisoners,
including the Irish, were removed to San Sebastian prison. Bob Doyle recalls it
as the place where Basque prisoners, including priests, were being
systematically executed by France. Eventually on February 6 there was an
exchange of 67 International Brigadier prisoners for 70 Italian fascists.
Maurice Levitas tells me:
The circumstances of my return to Britain were special in
regard to Irish nationality, you see when the British (and Irish) prisoners
left San Pedro de Cardena I had a special mission to carry out concerning
one German prisoner who was a Young Communist. My job was to contact his
brother in Paris and to give him news and information concerning his health
and welfare. However, although I had identified myself as British when I
went to Spain and in the concentration camp, the exigencies of the situation
when crossing the International Bridge at Irun meant that I had to identify
myself as Irish. This was because the British were to be repatriated via
Boulogne-Dover whilst the Irish had to go to the Irish legation in Paris.
Tragically, Maurice’s mission of mercy is not a story with
a happy ending. In May 1941 the German anti-Nazi prisoners at San Pedro were
transferred to a concentration camp at Palencia. A typhus epidemic broke out in
July and of the twenty prisoners who contracted it nineteen died. A German
prisoner in the camp who was lucky to avoid the epidemic and also lucky enough
to get away with the pretence that he was Polish was Karl Kormes. He eventually
succeeded in escaping to Gibraltar in 1943 and continued the fight against
Hitlerism first as a member of the USA's Office of Strategic Services and
finally fighting with the Red Army on the Eastern Front that destroyed the Nazi
Army in 1945.
[Addressing the convention of the Israeli Communist Party on
December 4, 1985 the President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, declared: The heroic
struggle of the Russian people and the decisive role of the Red Army in
defeating and destroying Nazi Germany 40 years ago is inscribed in letters of
gold in the history of humanity and of our people.]
In later years Karl Kormes entered the diplomatic service of
the German Democratic Republic and served as its ambassador to Yugoslavia and
Ecuador. He is now retired and living in Berlin.
Maurice’s letter to me continues:
About Leo Koster - yes we were close friends. When I came
to the GDR (to work as an English teacher in 1985) I had resolved to try to
find out whether he managed to survive. Eventually I went to the home of
Karl Kormes who had responsibility as a prisoner in San Pedro for the German
prisoners. When I asked him about what happened he informed me that Leo died
of typhus in a camp to which the Germans had been moved from San Pedro. Karl
tells me that he met Leo’s family (some of them) after the War and that is
what he had to tell them.
Returning to Maurice’s own story, after he had met Leo
Koster’s brother in Paris in February 1939, he teamed up with Bob Doyle and
Johnny Lemon to see the Irish Consul. Bob recalls:
The legation in Paris was very hostile, the official
demanding we sign a document to pay our fares from Spain to Dublin which we
refused stating that we were prepared to be sent back to the Republican
But they later embarked for London. Maurice has described to
me what it must have been like for his parents, Harry and Leah Levitas, while
awaiting his return:
Some time after my capture they received a letter from
the (International Brigade) office in London informing them that I was ‘missing
believed dead’. It is not strange that after receiving it, my father
sought information from anyone who came back from Spain. Someone actually
told him that he had witnessed my last breath. But when the Daily Worker
printed the list of names of prisoners returning to Victoria Station they
knew that I still lived. Of course they came with so many others to meet the
returning prisoners, but that evening I was still in Paris. Only next
morning, clad in a suit provided by the Co-operative Warehouse, (after first
meeting Dave Goodman who waited for me in the courtyard of the flats
complex), did I return to the flat in No. 78 Brady Street Mansions, walk
through an open door, find my mother with her back turned to me and
preparing a mid-day meal for the family. My embrace, I could see as she
turned, was a happy surprise for her - but no shock:- I was expected but not
so soon that day.
Maurice’s voice drops at the end of that recording as he
recalls the emotion of coming home and so you might not have been able to make
out the last few sentences where he says: "Then I saw my mother in the
kitchen - nobody else in the house - only my mother in the kitchen - and the
tears of welcome I’ll never forget. That was the homecoming, the way
But for many there would be no homecoming. Recalling Leslie
Daiken’s lines on Charlie Donnelly, Maurice writes:
... ‘His cenotaph, Jarama’s olive trees’. Ah,
how many have mingled their dust with that earth! My own dear comrade, Jack
Sylvester from Bethnal Green is there - and Harry Gross from Mile End (who
had led the YCL band in the East End confrontation with Mosley's
Good luck in your lecture. While you’re about it you
might like to make reference to the fact that the first two Britishers to
commit themselves to personal physical support to Republican Spain were two
Jewish men (Communists) from Stepney in the East End of London:- Nat Cohen
and Sam Masters (with the latter being killed at Brunette). There were
others, of course, from the East End.
Years later - in the 1960s - I was speaking for the CP at
an open-air meeting in Bethnal Green. Among the crowd I saw Jack Sylvester’s
father. When I got down I went to talk with him. By this time all that
happened to the Jews in Central Europe justified every sacrifice that had
been made in the struggle against fascism. So he saw things differently from
the time of Jack’s death. But he did not have a picture of Jack in Spain.
Mine was a special one, an enlargement. So I sent it to him.
International Brigade veterans were also to be in the
forefront of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. Al Prago writes:
Joseph Farber was in the underground assigned to a
perilous task in the Nazi death camp at Birkenau. David Smulevich served in
the underground at Auschwitz, where he took photographs of the crematoria in
action! The negatives were smuggled out of the camp and their publication
established as definite proof what had been described as mere propaganda.
Bernard Volkas was another. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, he was
18 when he went to Palestine in 1934. When the war in Spain began Volkas fought
in the International Brigades from 1936 to 1939. Later joining the Red Army, he
was parachuted into Byelorussia to organise the partisans. Captured by the Nazis
after two years, he was deported to Auschwitz where he became part of the
In April of last year, in the New York Yiddish newspaper Morning
Freiheint, Bernard Volkas, who now lives in California, paid the following
tribute to his comrades (which was subsequently translated for the September
1986 issue of Jewish Currents):
On the battlefields of Spain they understood the danger
to the Jewish people. There wasn’t one battle in that long struggle
against Franca and Hitler in which Jews did not participate and pay with
their blood. Nor was it accidental that the first armed groups of Jews in
the Warsaw Ghetto were organised on the initiative of the Jewish veteran of
Spain, Andzei Schmidt (born in Warsaw). ... In August 1941 he was one
of a group that was parachuted into Warsaw by Soviet planes. After six
months of underground work in the Warsaw Ghetto he was betrayed by an
informer. He did not break under Gestapo torture and finally they shot him.
The heroic beginning that he and the Communist Joseph Lewartowski made was
carried forward by Mordecai Anielewicz, the Socialist-Zionist, and others
Bernard Volkas concluded:- "Future historians will have to acknowledge
that the Jewish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War were predecessors of the
fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto. They all defended the honour of the Jewish
people and that is how history will remember them.
The Warsaw Ghetto rose in rebellion on April 19, 1943 but the
Central Command Post led by Anielewicz did not fall to the Nazis until May 8.
News of the uprising spread rapidly to resistance movements in other ghettos
particularly in the Lithuanian capital of Vilna (now named Vilnius). At a secret
meeting in the Vilna ghetto on May Day the Yiddish poet Hirsh Glick announced he
had composed a new song. This tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Partisans became in
turn the fighting anthem of the Vilna Ghetto Partisans themselves. At Warsaw
Ghetto commemorations after the War, Paul Robeson sang it in English and Yiddish
The Yiddish words "Mir zeinen do!" mean "We
survive!". And it was as a further expression of hope for a better world
that in his final track the New York Jewish veteran of Spain, Max Parker,
recalled the Yiddish of his own childhood. It is with this Jewish lullaby,
"Rozhinkes mit Mandlen" [Raisons and Almonds] that I also conclude. It
is prefaced as follows by his County Galway wife, Mary
VOTE OF THANKS
On behalf of the Cultural committee a vote of thanks was
proposed by the Irish Jewish Museum’s Archivist, Asher Benson. Manus O’Riordan’s
lecture had not only evoked the Spanish Civil War as well as Dublin Jewish life
in the early decades of this century, it had also recalled for him his own youth
in the East End of London and the fight against the anti-Semitic marches of
Mosley’s Blackshirts. He would also like to take the opportunity to welcome
"our neighbour", Manus’s father Michael O’Riordan, on his first
visit to the Museum. He was, of course, aware that his father had received many
honours during the week.
Note:- On the occasion of his 70th birthday on ‘November 12
- while in Moscow attending the Russian Revolution’s own 70th anniversary
celebrations - Michael O’Riordan had been awarded the Soviet Order of
Friendship of Peoples. Back home in Dublin for a Communist Party of Ireland
dinner in his honour on November 14, the G.D.R. ambassador had also awarded
Michael O’Riordan the Order of Marx and Engels of the German Democratic
Republic.) Asher Benson continued: "But tonight (November 15) I would like
to pay him a Yiddish honour - Biz 120! May he live to be 120! I will not
repeat the birthday wish paid to her husband by the old Jewish woman who said -
biz 119! When her husband asked why she had not said - biz 120! she replied:-
‘Can’t I have just one year of peace?’".
Finally, Asher Benson once again thanked Manus O’Riordan
not only as a lecturer but also as a friend.
In the course of the lecture, Manus O'Riordan played several
recordings, both songs and interviews of some participants in the Spanish Civil
War. In order to give at least some indication of the proceedings, here is a
list of the recordings.
This list gives the
songs and other recordings that were played at the memorial lecture/record
Pete Seeger and chorus
Viva la Quince Brigada
Viva la Quince Brigada
He recounted some personal
and then sang Jarama. This came from an LP titled, Al Tocar Diana/ At
break of Dawn - Songs from a Franco Prison
On the Republican Anthem.
Los Cuatro Generales
The Minstrel Boy
The Kaddish of Rabbi Levi-Isaac
An account of capture
A Russian song
On the parallels between flamenco and synagogue
Ya No Me Vengas
Al Tocar Diana
On Tipperary v Fascist anthem
Bob Doyle and Jimmy
Si Me Quieres Escribir
Si Me Quieres Escribir
Si Me Quieres Escribir
Tribute to Frank Ryan
and Song of the Connolly Column
On Christmas Eve, 1938.
Those Evening Bells
Carl Geiser and Maurice
On Those Evening Bells and the Russian
Ernst Busch and
The Peat-bog Soldiers
Carl Geiser Interviewing M
Re: Leo Koster
Carl Geiser Interviewing M
On his return home
Paul Robeson Song of the Ghetto
Raisins and Almonds
Return to Contents Page
This page originally carried additional material on Maurice Levitas. This
was moved, March 2001, to a separate page for Maurice following his death. Visit
that page now to read the obituary articles, etc.
Machinists and Pressers’ Trade Union
(The following account is based on an article by Manus O’Riordan
in the July 1987 issue of Dublin Jewish News as well as on his further
The International Tailors, Machinists and Pressers’ Trade
Union was founded in November 1908 (and registered in April 1909) by Jewish
clothing workers hailing from the South Circular Road area of Dublin. Its first
secretary was Harry Miller of 11 Oakfield Place. Harris Cohen of St Michael’s
Terrace was its first Chairman, John Stein of St Alban’s Road was
vice-chairman, Aaron Klein of 14 Warren Street was treasurer, and its first
trustees were Israel Stein of St Alban’s Road, Jacob Taylor of 5 Martin Street
and Louis Epstein of 17 Oakfield Place. Other trustees over the next three years
include Nathan Levin, Jack Tauber and Isaac Baker.
Harry Miller retired in 1913 and was replaced by a non-Jewish
secretary Walter Carpenter, who led the union during its most significant period
until his own retirement through terminal illness in 1925. The 1915 Rule Book
indicates that at that stage it was still a predominantly Jewish union, with the
Union’s executive comprising Walter Carpenter, Patrick Doyle, Barnet Sigman,
Edward Baker, Harris Guttenberg, Barnet Glass and Morris Goldstein.
Among other office-holders in the Union at various stages
during the Carpenter years were Abraham Stein of St Alban’s Road as treasurer,
Morris Taylor of Rosedale Terrace (later moving to Brainborough) and Max Glass
of Ovoca Road as trustees, and Abraham Sevitt of 17 Martin Street, Isaac Stein
of Washington Street, Max Fletcher of Commons Street, North Wall and Samuel
Fletcher of Capel Street as auditors.
The Union’s membership was at a peak of 600 (both Jewish
and Gentile) in 1923 when for the first and only time it was represented at the
Annual Conference of the Irish Trade Union Congress by two delegates - Union
secretary Walter Carpenter and Isaac Baker whose address at that time was 6
Emorville Avenue, South Circular Road, Dublin.
Walter Carpenter had been a founder member of the Socialist
Party of Ireland in 1909 and became secretary of its Dublin Branch in 1911.
Having represented the S.P.I. at a solidarity meeting for Jewish tailors on
strike during 1909 in the Dublin firms of Karmel and Lloyd and Lloyd, he was a
natural choice to succeed Henry Miller as secretary of their union in 1913.
In September 1921 Walter Carpenter became Secretary of the
Socialist Party of Ireland and the following month continued on as the first
Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland which succeeded it. While he was to
preside over the first Congress of the Communist Party of Ireland in January
1923, he had already resigned as its Secretary in February 1922, stating that
"the C.P. is my first love, but my union claims all my time and I cannot,
under present circumstances, neglect my union".
His fellow-delegate Isaac Baker had made a speech at the
Irish TUC Annual Conference in 1923 in which he argued strongly against
"any discrimination between Jew and Gentile, so long as either does his
work right". Isaac Baker was an immigrant Jewish-tailoring worker who had
fled Tsarist Russia to settle in Dublin at the turn of the century. He was to
have a close association with both sides of Maurice Levitas’s family. When the
latter’s maternal Uncle Harry Rick (a tailor) was married in May 1909, Isaac
Baker was his witness. The April 1911 Census shows that the married couple had
moved by then to 11 Oakfield Place - the former home of the Tailors’ and
Pressers’ Union’s first Secretary Henry Miller - where they had been joined
by Harry’s younger brother (also a tailor) Jack Rick. The same census shows
that boarding with the family of Isaac Baker in his home at 11 Martin Street was
an aunt of Harry Levitas, namely, Rachel Jackson, a widowed tailoress with two
Rachel Jackson subsequently moved to 33 Martin Street at
which address lived her nephew Harry on his arrival from Kovno. Jack Rick
subsequently moved to 18 Arbutus Place at which address lived his younger sister
Leah on her arrival from Riga. In August 1914 Harry Levitas (a tailor’s
presser) and Leah Rick were married in the synagogue at 52 Lower Camden Street,
Dublin. Also located at 52 Lower Camden Street between April 1912 and February
1915 was the Head Office of Dublin’s "Jewish Union" — the
International Tailors’, Machinists’ and Pressers’ Trade Union.
Visit the page on M Levitas
® Copyright Manus O’Riordan November 1987.
Acknowledgements of written sources: -
||The Connolly Column, 1979.
||Prisoners of the Good Fight, 1986.
||Jews in the International Brigades (‘Jewish
Currents’ reprint), 1979.
||Notes for Songs of the Spanish Civil War (Folkways
||Al Tocar Diana- Songs from a Franco Prison
(Folkways Records), 1982.
||Cheetham to Cordova, 1984.
||With the Reds in Andalusia, 1985
|Eoghan O Duinnin
||La Nina Bonita agus an Roisin Dubh, 1986.
||The Jews of Ireland, 1972.
|Pat Feeley and Manus O’Riordan
||The Rise and Fall of Irish Anti-Semitism, 1984.
|Leslie Daiken (ed)
||Goodbye Twilight - Songs of Struggle in Ireland,
||Signature of All Things, 1945.
|Leslie Daiken (ed)
||Out Goes She - Dublin Street Rhymes, 1963.
||Letter from Ireland, 1940
|Frank Ryan (ed)
||The Book of the Fifteenth International Brigade,
||Frank Ryan, 1980
||The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1967.
Alvah Bessie and Albert Prago (eds.)
|Our Fight - Writings by Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln
||British Volunteers for Liberty, 1982
|International Brigade Memorial Archive Catalogue,
The Irish Front (1930s)
The Irish Democrat (1930.)
The Volunteer (1980s)
Jewish Currents (1980s).
Above all, correspondence with
Maurice Levitas, Bob Doyle, Dave Goodman, Carl Geiser and Maurice Levine.
Other correspondence with Paul Burns, Joe Monks, Al Prago,
Ben Iceland, Bill Alexander, Toby Middleburgh and the President of Israel, Chaim Herzog.
It would be of great interest to us and the author if any
reader would send comments on this article. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
In addition to this work, Manus O'Riordan has written carried out other research on aspects of Ireland and the Spanish Civil War. His latest research is on Michael Lehane, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who went on to serve and die with the Norweigian Merchant Marine during World War 2. Hopefully we will be able to carry the Lehane piece in the future.
Other Documents now available:
Nov. 18th 2001. The Lehane pamphlet is now available on line.
A pamphlet by Manus O'Riordan on Frank Edwards, an Irish International Brigadier. READ IT NOW
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