Following in my father’s footsteps: A journey into the Spanish Civil War
In the summer of 2012 I set out on the trip of my lifetime: To discover the father I never knew. I simply felt I had to go to Spain to see many of the places and events he described in the journal he wrote as an ambulance driver in Spanish Civil War from 1937 until 1938.
Joining me on the trip was an eclectic mix of people with an interest in the Spanish Civil War: an expatriate British historian; a high school Spanish teacher from North Carolina; and a American graduate student living in England. Together we traveled over a thousand miles in 10 days, traversing cities, villages and former battlefields of the Spanish Civil War. During our trip we met with historians and survivors of the war. As we collected their stories, and created our own, we recorded the experience to turn it into a documentary film. (To learn about our crowd-funding campaign and see a trailer of the film, click here.)
My father, James Isadore Neugass, was a ghost to me for most of my life. He died in 1949 of a heart attack in Greenwich Village when he was only forty-four. I was eighteen months old and my brother Paul was seven. A year later, my mother Myra relocated our family from New York City to Los Angeles to start over again. As the years passed, my mother’s memories of her husband faded but she always said that he was a good father and loved us very much. She said he had been born into a wealthy Jewish family in New Orleans but left at a young age to become a writer in New York City. He loved to write poetry.
As a teenager, I remember looking in two old cardboard boxes of family pictures. One stood out from the others: an old black and white picture with six uniformed men and two nurses. It looked like they were going to war in a far-off place. My mother said that the tallest man second from the right with the mustache was my father and that he going to Spain to drive an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War. I had no idea what the war had been about or why he went there. In another box I found an old red patch that he probably wore on his uniform and an old, cracked and weathered notebook. Its yellowed paper was covered in handwriting, but it was hard to read and I never asked my mother about it.
I gained a clearer understanding of my father’s life of on a visit to my Aunt Bessie in New Orleans when I was in my forties. I had had little contact with her growing up but I wanted to ask questions about my father. In a frank way, she said that he was an embarrassment to the family because he was a member of the American Communist Party and a union organizer who had gone off to the Civil War is Spain in 1937. I realized this must have been why the family had shunned my mother and brother, and me throughout our lives. My father had been the black sheep.
Then a series of events occurred that would change my life forever. I would discover who my father was, why he went to Spain, and what he experienced there. I also discovered what he was made of.
In 2000, a professor of Spanish language and literature from the University of Illinois contacted my mother requesting permission to use some of our father’s poetry in a book he was writing. In a conversation with my brother Paul, he asked if we knew about my father’s unpublished manuscript “War is Beautiful: Journal of an American Ambulance Driver in Spain,” which had been found in a rare bookstore in Vermont having spent more than 60 years in an old attic. It was the first we heard of it.
Reading the manuscript, I realized a door into the past had opened. At last, I had the chance to know my father. Providence had smiled on me, and I smiled back. There have been many times I have looked up towards the sky wishing my father could see how proud I was of him and the contribution he made in Spain. War is Beautiful: An American Ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War was published by the New Press in 2008.
After a few weeks of meetings over email and Skype, the eclectic group behind the documentary met in Barcelona and began our journey in July of 2012.
The crew and the journey
Joining me on my trip were Alan Warren, Aelwen Wetherby, and Dorothy Eubanks:
After a long flight from Charlotte NC, I arrived in the Barcelona airport to be greeted with hugs by my two smiling American comrades. We set out on a hot journey by subway to Alan’s flat where, after a meal of mushroom soup, we crashed for the night. By noon the next day Alan arrived with a small hatchback car in which we loaded all of our baggage. It wasn’t exactly spacious, but it would carry us over 1,000 miles of Spanish highways and back roads.
Our first stop was Madrid, where we saw the film The Mexican Suitcase, ate tapas and drank red wine. Next we went on a commemorative walk along with two hundred participants through the former battlefield of Brunete and visited a war museum with historic guns, shells, grenades, bullets, gas masks, rifles, and old newspapers showing Hitler and Mussolini standing together with Franco. Then we set out over the rough but beautiful Spanish countryside to visit the places my father mentioned in his book. It is impossible to cover them all, so I will share a few of my most memorable places with you.
It has taken me a number of months to realize the power of my voyage in Spain. I feel proud of my father’s legacy and the wonderful opportunity to know him.
Jim Neugass lives in Asheville, North Carolina and has worked as Registered Nurse in Hospice and as a Manufacturers Representative marketing medical devices to Hospitals. He is currently semi-retired as a Licensed Massage Therapist. Jim can be contacted by emailing him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.