Blast from the Past: A Love Story

February 3, 2015
By and

Jack Liffland

Jacob Liffland, topographer, Lincoln-Washington, April 1938 [1].

Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. We follow up last week’s wonderful article with another by the same author, Leo Rosenberg. Here, Rosenberg sets his hand to describing the passionate yet doomed couple Sally Kahn and Jack Liffland who both ventured to Spain as volunteers. 

Sally and Jack – A Love Story
Leo Rosenberg

[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 12, Number 1, May 1990.]

This won’t take long. It’s about two people I met in Spain more than fifty years ago. I knew this young couple only a short time, but my memory of them, and of their love for each other, remains as fresh in my mind and heart as if I had witnessed them only yesterday.

Let me tell you first about Sally. I met her during one of my hospitalizations. I had the good fortune to land in the ward which she tended. She had left her job in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital to volunteer for service in Spain with the American Hospital Unit. She was petite, dark-haired and attractive. Capable and conscientious, she took excellent care of her patients. She was a dynamo of energy, working hard and fast and pushing herself to the point where every so often she was forced to stop for a minute or two and rest. And when she relaxed and smiled or told us one of her little jokes, we laughed with her and were glad she was there taking care of us. No matter how tired she was, she never lost her warmth and good humor. It was impossible not to like and admire her.

We talked about many things, but what we did not know, because Sally never mentioned it, was that she was married and that her husband was here in Spain, serving like us, in the Brigades. One day a soldier who looked too healthy to be a patient walked into our ward. He looked around the room until his eyes found Sally. His face lit up and he walked over to where she was working, put his arms around her and hugged and kissed her. When he finally released her and she was able to catch her breath and talk, she turned to us and said,

“Boys, meet my husband Jack.”

For me, this was a moment filled with magic, and I was spell-bound. Here, in a hospital ward where every bed was occupied by someone whose loved ones were thousands of miles away, was living proof that the impossible could be made possible. A woman and her husband had overcome any number of obstacles to get here, refusing to permit even war to keep them apart.

They were together, fighting for the same cause, holding each other, expressing their love face to face instead of in a dream or in a letter that had to cross an ocean to reach its destination. I was very happy for them and for the way they showed their pride and affection in each other. They had earned the right to survive this war and live to go home to the States together, and I wanted to believe that they would indeed be lucky enough to have that happen.

Before Jack left, Sally brought him over to my bed and said, “I told Jack that he just had to meet you.” I asked, “Why?” She answered with a laugh, “Because you two are so much alike.” The next time Jack came to visit Sally he made it a point to come over and talk to me. We had no problem communicating with each other… Jack felt like talking, and I was a good listener. He told me that Sally had arrived in Spain first. He was tied up with projects and problems that he could not just abandon. When he was at last able to come he had traveled the same route most of us had used, across the Atlantic, through France, and over the Pyrenees. He had been assigned to Transport, and because of his mobility he was able to see Sally every once in awhile. He tried to time his visits so that they would not interfere with her work. He would appear when she was ending her shift or was already off-duty.

I liked them both. They were a finely matched pair. They were both personable, bright, witty, sensitive and sensible, and their opinions and statements were expressed clearly and logically, and showed understanding, tolerance and honesty. They recognized the difference between right and wrong, but theirs was not a world of extremes. They knew that there were gray areas between the black and white. I was just as open with them as they were with me. I told them my own doubts and reservations and concerns about certain political and military activities, and we discussed them calmly and reasonably. The one thing that we agreed upon without question was that we had come to Spain to do a job, and that we were staying, no matter what, until the job was finished.

As we discovered how many interests we had in common, and how similar were our likes and dislikes, we grew increasingly fond of each other, and were able to get together three more times before I left the hospital.

I saw them again about one month later. I was in Almansa, learning to be an artilleryman, when they interrupted the short leave that they had been given to visit me and, as they said, “spend some time with me.” It was a wonderful surprise. I was thinking, as we were saying good-bye, that they were two of the kindest and nicest people I had ever known.

The next time that I heard from them was in late January of 1938. I was in Teruel as one of eight replacements in a Czech anti-aircraft battery. I still remember how cold it was the day a truck drove up on the ice-covered road behind us and the driver stepped out of the cab and spoke to a soldier who turned and pointed to me. I watched the driver as he walked toward me. I had never seen him before.

“ Hi, “ he said, “Are you Leo Rosenberg?”

“Yes, I am”

“I’ve got something for you. I’ve been carrying it with me for weeks. You have been one tough man to find.”

“Yes, I know, I’ve been moving around a lot lately. What do I call you to thank you?”

“Just call me Jerry.”

He walked away and I looked at the two articles he had given me. One was a brown paper bag and the other was letter. I still have that letter. It is fifty-two years old and it is one of the few things that I took with me when I left Spain. I am going to let you read it, word for word, exactly as it was written, and maybe you’ll understand why I have saved and cherished it all these years.

January 1st

Dear Leo-

Sally and I are here in Albacete. She came in to be with me for a couple of days.

We are both well. But, to tell you the truth, you were on both our minds. So I am sending you a few cigarettes and Sally sends you the figs. I do hope you will enjoy both and am sorry I can’t do more.

I am working here and Sally is at Villanueva de la Jara, and we do manage to see each other at least once a week.Well Leo, old pal, there is not much news, but I wish you all the best for 1938 and after.

I am sending you the package with Jerry and I hope he’s honest and trustworthy enough not to be tempted in taking all the Luckies.

So long, kid. Good luck! And we both hope to see you soon.

Sally and Jack

When I finished reading I looked up and spotted Jerry just as he was climbing back into his truck. I called to him to wait. When I reached him I said:

“Jerry, please do me the favor of thanking Jack for me and tell him how grateful I am to him and Sally for the letter and the package.”

“Sorry, Leo, I can’t do that.”

“Why not? Aren’t you and Jack in the same outfit?”

“Yes, we were. Gosh, how I hate telling you this. I was sort of hoping that you already knew.”

“Knew what?”

“That Jack is missing. He’s been missing almost three weeks. He was bringing a load up to some front-line outfit at night and never got there. It was dark and he must have made a wrong turn into a wrong road and crossed over into Fascist territory. ” Nobody had seen him or the truck, since.

“Oh, my God! Poor Jack! Poor Sally!”

“Yes, Poor Jack! Poor Sally!”

Jerry started the motor, waved to me, and pulled away. He had sensed how I felt, and he had let me know how he felt.

After Teruel we were sent up north to Huesca, close to the French border and within sight of the Pyrenees. Whatever was expected in that area did not materialize and we moved out and went to Belchite. We got there just in time to see our front collapse. This was the beginning of the Big Retreat.

Months passed before I was able to find out something more, and it was not good news. Jack had never returned. Sally, mentally and physically sick and exhausted, had tried to keep working; finding that impossible, she had been forced to go home for rest and treatment.

I was with the last group of English-speaking Internationals to leave Spain. We disembarked in New York City on February 4, 1939, I had been away for almost two years, and it took me another year and more to adjust to civilian life. I spent much of the time trying to find out what had happened to Sally. Nobody seemed to know where she was or how or what she was doing. I had just about given up on the search when I found the one person in the entire city who seemed to know something about her. At least, he was able to give me her address. It was a building on lower Second Avenue, only a few streets from where my wife and I lived. Its former apartments had been converted into cheaply constructed, cheaply furnished single rooms and Sally was one of the tenants.

I had no way of notifying her in advance that I was coming to see her, so I went directly to the room that she occupied and knocked on the door, hoping she was in. She was, and she asked who was there, and I told her. She opened the door, stared at me and her eyes filled with tears. More than a couple of years had passed since we had last seen each other.

She had aged. She was still a young woman, but her face and her hair and her movements were those of a much older person. The ebullience which had been so much a part of her was gone and had been replaced by a sadness and depression that hurt me to witness. We started to talk, slowly and hesitantly at first, but soon the reservoirs of our memories and experiences burst open. Whatever restraints that had kept us from talking openly and honestly were washed away and our words and our tears flowed on and on. I had no idea whether our talk helped Sally, but I know that I said goodbye, after promising to come back soon, with an ache in my heart.

The story of Jack and Sally was not new to my wife. She had expressed her understanding and compassion when I had first told her about them and now, after learning what I had heard and observed during my visit. She said that she would like to meet Sally and see what she could do to help her. I thanked her, but said that perhaps it would be better if I asked Sally whether it would be all right to bring her with me. On my next visit I asked Sally and she agreed, saying that she would be happy to meet my wife.

From the moment they met, Sally and she seemed to take to each other. They had a long and friendly talk and Sally showed no hesitation or reluctance in answering the few questions that she was asked.

I knew that my wife was a kind and generous person, but I still was not prepared for what she said to me as we were walking home. She began by telling me that Sally did not look at all well, that she was sure that she was not eating properly, that she should not be alone, that she should be somewhere else so that she could be taken care of. I replied, “That’s all true, but what can we do about it?” Her answer to me was, “We can take her home with us. We have that extra bedroom where she can stay. She won’t be any problem, and I want to help her get well, if she’ll let me.”

I was deeply moved by her openhanded response. I just wondered how Sally would accept the offer, and whether she would allow herself to be pried out of her seclusion. When I expressed these uncertainties, her response was, “Let me talk to her – woman to woman. We’ll see.”

We dropped in on Sally the very next night. My wife did all the talking. She kept on until Sally ran out of objections. Finally, Sally looked at me as if to ask what I thought. “Sally,” I said, “ she is speaking for both of us.”

Sally became one of the family. She had her own room and the run of the apartment. She and my wife were like two sisters, the healthy one taking care of the ailing one.  Sally began to look better – a little more cheerful, a little less sad.  We were congratulating ourselves for having taken her out of the morbid environment in which she had hidden herself, and for having raised her self-esteem and helped her to regain her health and will to live. But it was all wishful thinking.

We could not believe what we were hearing when she told us that she was leaving. “Why?” we asked. “Have we done something wrong?” “You have done nothing wrong,” she answered. “You have been wonderful to me. I just have to be by myself for a while.”

She could not be dissuaded. We were very afraid of what being alone again would do to her, but we could not hold her against her will.

Actually, she went away to die. This young woman, once so full of life and spirit and love, had started to die back there in Spain when she realized that her husband was gone and would never return. Her love for humanity and her love for Jack were equal factors in her life. She never lost the former, but her loss of Jack and of his love slowly but surely killed her. When they told me that she was dead they said that her overtaxed heart had finally given way, but I knew that as bad as her heart must have been it was not the only cause of her death. She had also borne a heavy burden of pain, of sorrow, of loneliness and despair which had become too much for her exhausted mind and body to carry any further.

I mourned her,  and the thought that death had ended her suffering, had at last given peace and rest, was a scant and unsatisfactory comfort. Sally and Jack were two fine and decent people who had certainly deserved more than life had given them. They had given me their friendship and affection, and I wanted to give them something wonderful in return. I wished them a miracle, the best wish I could have for the, unreal and impossible as it was – the miracle that somewhere after death they would be together again and know the love and happiness that had been denied them for so many years.


[1] The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection; ALBA Photo 11; ALBA Photo number 11-0164. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.


Tags: , , ,

Leave a Comment