Faces of ALBA: Chris Brooks, Volunteer Biographer
Chris Brooks is the driving force behind ALBA’s online biographical database of Lincoln Brigade veterans. His countless hours of research and correspondence have produced a comprehensive and accessible collection that has put a story and a face to thousands of veterans.
You have created the online biographical database of Lincoln Brigade veterans (alba-valb.org/volunteers). How did you get interested in researching and cataloging the lives of the Lincoln Brigade volunteers?
I initially engaged with VALB in graduate school when I was looking for a topic for my MA thesis. My interest lies primarily in military history and I found the American volunteers’ service in Spain to be unique. After some background reading, I settled on a study of African- American volunteers. I came across the phone number of the VALB office in my initial research. I cold called Moishe Brier and quickly arranged to travel to New York City to interview some of the veterans. My interviews with Charlie Nusser and Ken Graeber were the first of more than 30 veterans. The VALB office assisted my research by distributing a survey on African-American volunteers that went out to surviving veterans and family members. They also introduced me to veteran Adolph “Buster” Ross.
“My interviews with Charlie Nusser and Ken Graeber were the first of more than 30 veterans.”
Ross had compiled a comprehensive list of American volunteers that was first published as a part of the VALB 50th Anniversary program. He continued to refine the list and I started working with him in the course of my research. We corresponded and I made several trips to Seattle to interview other veterans and work with him in person. Ross proposed that I expand the list into a biographical database and funded a grant through the New York Times to help cover the costs. ALBA administered the grant and published the database with the last of these funds. I have continued to volunteer my time maintaining the database, conducting research, and interacting with other researchers.
How many veterans have you collected information on and how many more veterans’ stories are still left to be told?
Adolph Ross arrived at an estimate of 2,800 American volunteers. There are many more names that have been put forward as volunteers. I have a confirmed list that exceeds 2,600 volunteers at present. I began my confirmation process using Ross’s list and added and removed names when they were supported by other sources. Part of the challenge is determining what constitutes an American volunteer. Veteran Bob Reed in his study of Pacific Northwest volunteers broke his list into three sub-categories. I adopted a similar system. Currently only the Category I volunteers are presented online.
Category I includes those born in the US; those who were residing in the US when they left for Spain; and volunteers who were temporarily living in other countries and left for Spain from a foreign country. There are some odd cases such as Canadians who appear on the American list because they traveled on US passports. These individuals likely considered themselves to be Canadians and appear on the Canadian list.
Category II includes non-native volunteers who lived in the US at some point prior to going to Spain and did not return to the US. This category includes some fascinating characters like Bruno Bonturri, who was born in Italy, emigrated to the US at age 14, returned to Italy six years later, then went back and forth between Italy and the United States before emigrating to Barcelona, Spain in 1934. He was expelled from Spain in 1935 and returned when the civil war broke out. After the war Bonturri attempted to return to the US but was denied reentry.
Category III are veterans who came to the US after Spain. This category includes veterans like English volunteer Bernard Knox, French volunteer George Sossenko, and Cuban volunteer Blas Padrino Calzadilla.
Where do you find the information on the veterans?
The database represents the work of several contributors. I have used primary sources whenever possible. Records from the Subversive Activities Control Board, the Sail List from the VALB office, United States State Department Records, and the ALBA Collection at New York University’s Tamiment Library formed the initial framework of the database. I am currently delving into the International Brigade Archives that are housed in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI). Many files from the collection are online. The accessibility of these records proved invaluable in finding American records filed under other nationalities. Many American volunteers were recent immigrants or first generation Americans. Ancestry.com is also a gold mine of information. Dr. Ray Hoff, son of veteran Harold Hoff, assembled the “Lincoln-Washington Tree” on Ancestry.com. He is linking available documents from the collections available on Ancestry.com to every American volunteer. One of Hoff’s recent finds, in the Seaman’s Certificate of Identity application records, yielded photographs of over 130 American volunteers.
“I am currently delving into the International Brigade Archives that are housed in the Russian State Archive.”
The generous contributions of fellow researchers who gave permission to incorporate their data provide greater depth to the database. Contributions include veterans Carl Geiser and Bob Steck’s POW Historical Commission files; Bob Reed’s Pacific Northwest study; Myron Momryk and Michael Petro’s biographical dictionary and database on Canadian volunteers; Jyrki Juusela’s biographical sketches on Finnish-American volunteers; Len and Nancy Tsou’s biographical sketches on Chinese- and Asian-American volunteers; José Alejandro Ortiz Carrión and Teresita Torres Rivera provided work on Puerto Rican volunteers; John Peter Kraljic’s study of South Slav volunteers; and the late Richard S. Allen’s sketches of American aviators. James Carmody was extraordinarily generous with his time, his patience for my off-the-wall questions, and his vast knowledge of the British volunteers. Victor Berch and Gail Malmgreen, archivists who worked with the ALBA Collection, provided encouragement, guidance and leads to source materials within the ALBA collection. Other researchers, individuals and family members too numerous to mention by name contributed data, research and information. I also draw on a continually growing library on the International Brigades as well as books and my extensive collection of pamphlets and articles.
For the past year I have worked with documents in the RGASPI archive to identify Category I volunteers filed under countries other than the United States. I also recently completed rough drafts of the South American, Caribbean and Mexican biographical databases. I am halfway through the Canadian RGASPI files. My notes on these files will be added to the Canada and the Spanish Civil War’s volunteer database. Once the Canadian work is completed I am committed to working with Dr. Ariel Lambe on an improved Cuban biographical database. Once those tasks are completed I will begin a complete update of the online database of American veterans.
What have been your greatest surprises in your research?
I am constantly amazed when I come across new information confirming an alias used by a volunteer that Adolph Ross had intuitively connected when he initially drew up his list. More often than not, Ross was correct despite the fact that he did not have access to many of the primary sources that are now available.
“I am constantly amazed when I come across new information confirming an alias used by a volunteer that Ross had intuitively connected.”
The biographical database is such an invaluable resource for families of veterans and anyone interested in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I use it in my own class when I teach the Spanish Civil War. Have you heard from others who use the database?
I am delighted to hear that you are finding ways to put the database to use in your classroom. The point of my work is to provide students, researchers and family members with the best information available for each American who volunteered. I do receive queries, mostly from family members who are looking for more information or who want to provide corrections to the record. I welcome feedback and input from all of the family members and do my best to provide a speedy answer.
A Sample from the Database
Elieceer López Fernandez is a volunteer on whom we had no information prior to finding his records in RGASPI. I recently updated his information based on feedback from his daughter. Ray Hoff’s Lincoln-Washington Tree in Ancestry information fleshed out his information. I just posted his entry online. We are hoping to obtain more information from his family and will continue to add to the entry. —Chris Brooks
López Fernandez, Elieceer. (Eliecer; Elicer); b. April 18, 1918, Reina Horna, Spain (NYC), To the US in 1920; Spanish American; Father Vincent López, Mother Josefa Fernandez; Elementary Education; No prior military service; Single; Painter; No party affiliation; Domicile 313 East 95th Street, NYC; Left for Spain May 11, 1938; Arrived in Spain on May 23, 1938; Served with the XV BDE, BDE Transmissiones, Machine gunner; Rank Soldado; Served at the Ebro Offensive Returned to the US on May 29, 1939 aboard the Normandie; WWII US Army, enlisted January 21, 1943, out October 30, 1943; d. July 18, 1990, NYC, buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery and Mausoleum, Newburgh, Orange County, New York, Find-A-Grave# 122495089; Younger brother of Epiphanio López Fernandez; Wife Alice V. Lopez.
Sources: RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 937, ll. 41-46.