The Lincolns as internationalists: A battalion of immigrant activists

March 15, 2013
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John Perrone, Veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and retired machinist, died in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 9, 1998. Although he recently had moved to Massachusetts, John had resided in Cranford, New Jersey since 1955. Born in 1911 as the oldest child of ten, John worked at many odd jobs including 15 months in the WPA and was elected to the Unemployed Councils. Motivated by his strong desire to fight fascism, John arrived in Spain in January of 1937, crossing the Pyrenees on the last bus allowed across by the authorities. He was sent to the front lines in February and fought on the Jarama front. Wounded in April, 1937, he recuperated on the front lines, and was appointed liaison officer from the Battalion to the Brigade. John left Spain in September, 1937 and returned on the Normandy. He continued his support for the International Brigades by speaking at fundraising activities. Later, he was active in the furrier's union and worked four summers at Camp Unity. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving as a telegraph operator in the intelligence section; he landed in Sicily as a member of the 7th army. After W.W.II, he worked as a machinist until his retirement in 1976. Throughout his life, John remained committed to social, labor, and peace activism.

Editors’ note: In granting the 2013 ALBA-Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism to the young activists of United We Dream, we recognize a direct connection between the young women and men who volunteered to serve in Spain in defense of the elected Spanish government and to protect the rights of individuals threatened by anti-democratic forces. A random survey of Lincoln veterans made in the 1980s noted that fully 80 percent of the surviving volunteers were immigrants or children of immigrants to the United States. Many had participated in the mass migrations before World War I but as Fraser Ottanelli shows in the following article, written specifically for The Volunteer, many were relative newcomers who could be classified as “internationalists” rather than nationals.

The volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, taken collectively, constituted a disparate combination of old stock Americans, first and second generation immigrants and African Americans whose primary familial, political, and even “legal” connection (as citizens or permanent residents) was with the United States. While in Spain, the members of this group were open about their decision to join the antifascist struggle and described their experiences in letters to friends and relatives back home. Many who returned from Spain continued to document their life stories for decades after the war. This wealth of information is available to researchers at the Tamiment Library or in other repositories around the country. Unfortunately these documents tell only one part of a complicated experience.

A survey conducted during the Spanish Civil War of international volunteers who had traveled from the United States showed that they descended from over 70 different ethnic and national groups. Clearly then, in addition to antifascists reared in the United States, this contingent was also composed of hundreds who had migrated before World War I as well as many who entered the United States during the 1930s. A majority of Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Yugoslav, Latinos, Chinese and even the sole Japanese volunteer who traveled from the United States to Spain were recent immigrants who left their countries of birth for economic reasons and to flee the political repression that followed the defeat of revolutionary experiments and the rise of right wing and Fascist governments around the world. In most cases they were marginally incorporated into multi-ethnic and multi-racial “American” radical organizations or unions. Their cultural and political world continued to be shaped primarily by experiences and events that had taken place before emigration. To paraphrase the words of a prominent Italian-American anarchist leader, they were individuals whose “body” was in the United States but whose “heart” remained in their country of origin.

Many of them had no family in the United States, a country which, in many cases, they had entered illegally during the 1920s and early 1930s. To circumvent discriminatory U.S. immigration restrictions it was not unusual for immigrants to enlist on merchant vessels in foreign ports, often with the help of sympathetic seamen, and then to jump ship once they reached the United States. However, having fled repression in their country of origin, they did not find reprieve on the American side of the Atlantic. Pervasive anti-immigrant, nativist and anti-radical sentiment from local, state, and federal authorities meant that immigrants were forced to lead a semi-clandestine existence. They tried not to call attention to their presence in the United States by using pseudonyms and by blending into a familiar and supportive ethnic community.

Not surprisingly many recent immigrants, who had experienced Fascism in their countries of origin, once offered the opportunity to fight it arms in hand, were among the first to travel to Spain. However, their status as illegal immigrants created additional challenges to make the trip across the Atlantic. Several retraced their steps back by again enlisting on merchant vessels and jumping ship in European ports. Others used forged papers to obtain a U.S. travel documents. Most, however, were issued Spanish passports by the Republican consulate in New York.

In Spain, while some found their place within the Abraham Lincoln battalion as part of a multiethnic and interracial “American” unit, many others who had maintained strong cultural, linguistic, and political connections with their countries of origin preferred to join the congenial and familiar surroundings of the Garibaldi, the Dombrowski, or one of the French battalions. Meanwhile, Spanish speakers, both members of Spain’s immigrant communities and various Latin Americans, joined regular units of the Spanish Republican army.

After the end of the war, the stories of surviving international volunteers from the United States are hard to follow. Heroes in Spain, once they crossed back over the Pyrenees they confronted, together with other members of the International Brigades, the harsh reality of the western democracies’ policy of appeasement. Volunteers who could demonstrate that they were citizens or legal residents of the United States were allowed to travel back across the Atlantic. In contrast, those who could not prove legal status were denied re-entry in the United States. Some eluded French police and (yet again) stowed away on U.S. bound ships. Others were allowed to make the return voyage but, upon their arrival were held at Ellis Island and then deported to Chile, Cuba, Mexico or Venezuela. The rest were left stranded in Europe where they faced innumerable challenges and dangers. Most were interned in French detention camps. Their fate was sealed following the fall of France to Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940. Many, along with thousands of Spanish Republicans, were handed over to the Nazis and deported to Nazi concentration camps.

This group of volunteers who combined internationalist ideology with international lives, and who because of their legal status before going to Spain concealed their identities and in most cases did not return to the United States. Accordingly, they did not produce the kind of records that would make their way to the Tamiment archives. Yet they are as much part of the history of U.S. involvement in the Spanish Civil War as those who were legally and personally rooted in this country and, therefore, whose records are preserved in this country. It is important that the life stories of migrant internationalists—whose experiences tested the “national” categories that have traditionally been used to describe international solidarity with Loyalist Spain–not be lost and allow us to reconstruct their experiences and honor their memories.

Fraser Ottanelli, ALBA Vice Chair, specializes in immigration history at the University of South Florida. He is co-editor of Italian Workers of the World: Labor Migration and the Formation of Multi-Ethnic States as well as the forthcoming Letters from the Spanish Civil War: A U.S. Volunteer Writes Home (Kent State University Press).

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One Response to “ The Lincolns as internationalists: A battalion of immigrant activists ”

  1. CONSTELLATIONALIST | Foreign fighters syndrome on August 15, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    […] Nationalist forces. Close to 3000 American volunteers also fought in that war. According to The Volunteer, a survey conducted during the Spanish Civil War of international volunteers who had traveled from […]

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