Blast from the Past: Leo Grachow
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. This week Robert Steck remembers Leo Grachow, the passionate writer and Republican, one of the many American volunteers whose ultimate resting place in Spain remains unknown.
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 8, Number 2, October 1986.]
Leo Grachow was born in Binghampton, New York, in 1914. After the early death of his wife, Leo’s father found himself unable to raise three children and placed them in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum (HOA). Never adopted, Leo lived in foster homes where neither he nor the people who cared for him made an emotional commitment. Leo learned to cope because, among other reasons, he made friends easily, several of whom from HOA were with him in Spain – Joseph Streisand, Sam Waitzman, Archie Kessner, Marvin Stern, Abe Sasson, Nelson Fishman, Robert Pick, Al and Sam Finkel and Marc Rauschwald.
Former HOA companions speak of a developing young man full of creative energy, immersed in a flood of activities, filled with the fire of life. They remember the “talented poet and journalist” who edited The Rising Bell magazine. At De Witt Clinton High School he edited Magpie. He won first prize in the scholastic poetry contest.
Forced to leave City College after one year because of financial difficulties, he enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps but was discharged for leading a campaign against poor and inadequate food. He worked with the Unemployed Council in the Bronx until the WPA was set up. He found a job at $23.86 weekly and joined the WPA Teachers Union Local 453 A. F. L. He lived at the American People’s School “where young workers live and have evening classes and recreation” for $10 including board and room. He also joined the American Youth Congress and was a delegate to Washington urging passage of the American Youth Act.
Leo quickly understood what was involved in Spain and he sailed on the Ile de France February 20, 1937. He was assigned to the newly formed Washington Battalion. A squad comrade, Eddie Lending recalls:
I’ve a sentimental affection for his memory. Gentle, sensitive, dreaming. I’ve a vivid recollection of our first close order drill in Madrigueras. A born little martinet, probably with ROTC experience was screaming imprecations at our less talented paraders. Leo was aghast. “Is that,” he leaned over to me expostulating, “Is that any way to talk to comrades?”
In spite of difficulties, Leo’s reality proved to be that of the better known IB poets and novelists – Ralph Fox, Christopher Cauldwell, Ed Rolfe and Ralph Bates.
From somewhere in Spain came a letter:
This morning we went through intense training after a few days of impatient expectancy for the order to go to the front lines. We had to crawl on our bellies over stones and thorns with no political sympathies. The sweat rolled into our eyes, and made them smart and tear. Our shirts came out and the sand came in. Weak stomachs belched and threatened upheavals. Insects flew into our faces and crawled into our clothes.
Soldiering is the most degrading and humiliating function that humans have been forced into. Humans butcher humans. We know that we are here to halt the human butchers. We who can raise skyscrapers crawl on our bellies like snakes and dig holes to hide in. The amazing thing is that we who hate fascism so much overcome our hatred of this so called “art of war” and we master it in a few months time wholeheartedly.
The question of the fear of death does not enter in particularly. We were always ready to die for our ideals in America or elsewhere before and now. We were speaking of fear this morning and all of us agreed that we feared more to lose the respect of our fellows and of our organizations than we did the hellfire of the fascists. And we understand the nature of the struggle.
This is the stage of the game where we have to prove ourselves, prove that we are really capable of helping the Spanish people defeat fascism and we are grimly determined to carry out that task successfully. We joke and kid each other, pretend to be disgruntled about petty things but our major purpose and function exists for each man, the individual fulfillment of our obligation, honorably and capably, that world democracy and peace are dependent upon.
And of course you have the same obligation at home which you carry out in your own way. Because we are of the same environment and class, we are particularly dependent upon each other in spirit and morale.
The Washingtons went into action at Brunete. An extract of a letter from a soldier at the front:
He (Leo) went out with a company to scout the ground ahead. Then approximately one hundred men, suddenly came upon a body of men about 20 meters away from them. The inexperienced commander next to whom Leo was standing slapped his hands and yelled “Comrades.” A shot rang out, the company hit the dust and retreated. Checking up the commander and Leo were missing. The former has been definitely established as dead. Leo’s body hasn’t been found.
Abe Sasson wrote to the HOA from the front:
Yet I hope he lives. He is truly a great man. In fact I don’t think he should have come here. But in his own words. ‘We are the generation for vengeance. After us there will be no need to die in sacrifice.” He was doomed to die. Leo had to be in the most furious fighting for humanity and progress. Into this flame his great brain and heart forever plunged him; he would burn or put it out. And burn he must for his poetic genius flung him to the forefront.
Just before Christmas 1937, “boyhood companions, their wives and husbands, and friends… a number of alumni and former employees of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum” reunioned in memorium “but several boys are missing… Joseph Streisand…Leo Grachow is imprisoned behind fascist lines.” Earlier in October this group inaugurated a campaign to secure signatures on petitions urging the release of Leo Grachow “… and the resulting response has been overwhelming.” Leo’s brother, Max, addressed the Christmas gathering, “What is more natural than some of us who were reared in poverty, classified as the underprivileged, who enter the world outside the institutions empty handed, with only labor power to offer, should be among those Americans to offer their services, their very love, to a land threatened by oppressors where innumerable children are daily orphaned and wantonly slain?”
Leo, who might have lived to bless the world, was captured and killed.
Came the struggle in Spain
Against Franco the fascist
They fought to be free
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade
Joined them there
And among them some HOA boys
did their share
In this glorious epic of history
(from a poem by Donna B. Lithauer in The Rising Bell)
His sister wrote to President Roosevelt:
Leo did not go to Spain seeking thrills nor for mercenary reasons… believed it was his duty to help defend the freedom and democracy of the Spanish people just as Lafayette and others felt it their duty to help the American people in 1776. The world needs more young men like this.
Geneva Mathiason, Resident director of the American People’s School wrote: “We knew of his deep concern for the Loyalist cause… a young man of high idealism, sincerity, devotion to the cause.”
Julius Meltzer, a student of the same school wrote: “…he has carried forth the true American heritage in an American manner.”