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La Despedida: A Lost Memoir of the Spanish Civil War | The Nation

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La Despedida: A Lost Memoir of the Spanish Civil War

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ABRAHAM LINCOLN BRIGADE ARCHIVES, TAMIMENT LIBRARY, NYUJames Neugass in Spain, circa 1938

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Dan Kaufman
Dan Kaufman is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He has written previously about the Spanish Civil...

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The 4,500 images in the recently discovered Mexican Suitcase deepen our understanding of photojournalism as well as the complexities of the Spanish Civil War.

"Who could see you and not remember you?" Federico García Lorca wrote in 1926, describing the brutality of the Guardia Civil, Spain's paramilitary police, toward his beloved Gypsies. Ten years later, at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, that brutality would be visited upon Lorca when fascist soldiers loyal to Gen. Francisco Franco executed the poet and dumped his body in a fosa común, a mass grave, near Granada. For decades, Lorca's insistence on remembrance clashed with Spain's post-Franco pacto del olvido, or pact of forgetting, an agreement between the government and the army that opened the door to democracy in exchange for a sweeping amnesty of the Franco regime. Recently, however, the pact has shown signs of unraveling. In 2007 Spain's Socialist government enacted the Law of Historical Memory, which for the first time officially acknowledges the victims of Franco's dictatorship. The law also allows anyone with evidence of a mass grave to ask the state for help in unearthing and identifying any human remains found in it. Last October, after a decade-long effort by Spanish human rights groups, the crusading judge Baltasar Garzón ordered the exhumation of nineteen Francoist mass graves, including the one believed to hold Lorca's corpse. Yet more than seventy years after Lorca was killed, the resistance to excavating the country's repressed memory remains fierce; a week after Garzón issued his order, Javier Zaragoza, Spain's chief prosecutor, challenged it on the grounds that the judge lacked jurisdiction. Fearful that the country's Supreme Court would agree with Zaragoza, Garzón tactically withdrew his order, referring it instead to Spain's provincial courts in the hope of keeping the investigation alive.

By chance, around the same time last year an unexpected exhumation of literary remains dating to the Spanish Civil War was completed with the publication of War Is Beautiful, a long-lost memoir by James Neugass, a volunteer ambulance driver during the conflict. The book's publication is remarkable for many reasons, not least the survival of the manuscript. In 2000, more than fifty years after Neugass died of a heart attack in a Greenwich Village subway station and nearly as many years after most of his papers were destroyed in a cellar flood, a book dealer discovered a manuscript of Neugass's in a Vermont bookstore that was believed to have come from the collection of Max Eastman, onetime editor of the influential leftist magazine The Masses. It had most likely been sent to Eastman for review, and in the margins someone, perhaps Eastman, wrote, "The title, 'War is Beautiful,' is a Fascist slogan. If this is naïve and misdirected irony it is very dangerous." Five hundred pages long, an incomplete copy of the typewritten manuscript wound its way to Neugass's son Paul, and then to Peter Carroll and Peter Glazer, historians of American involvement in the conflict. The pair edited the original manuscript, now housed in a university library, and shaped it into the book published last year.

Nearly 3,000 Americans volunteered to defend the democratic Spanish Republic from a military revolt led by Franco, who was aided by Hitler and Mussolini. Shortly after the war began, the US government forbade Americans from entering Spain, so most entered the country illegally, usually by crossing the Pyrenees at night or occasionally by stowing away on small ships that embarked from France. The volunteers formed two American battalions and later became known collectively as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. A separate, legal organization for aiding the Republic, called the American Medical Bureau, was founded by a New York surgeon named Edward Barsky. (The bureau owed its legality to a State Department exception for groups providing humanitarian aid.) Barsky established base hospitals in churches and monasteries, and set up a mobile medical unit. At its peak strength, Barsky's staff included more than 100 doctors, nurses and drivers. Neugass, a 32-year-old poet who made his living as a fencing instructor, cook, social worker and janitor, arrived in Spain in November 1937 and was assigned to be Barsky's aide and an ambulance driver.

For Neugass, two facts of the war were inescapable: Hitler and Mussolini were providing overt military support for Franco, and the Non-Intervention Agreement signed by the Western democracies, crucially France and Britain, forbade any involvement in the Spanish Civil War, including the sale of arms to the Republic. Italy and Germany were also signatories to the treaty, but they openly defied it: Italy dispatched more than 75,000 professional soldiers to aid Franco, and Germany mobilized pilots and a fleet of ultramodern bombers. (Responding to Germany and Italy's involvement in the war, the Soviet Union sent military equipment and some 3,000 personnel to aid the Republic.) Neugass's mind drifts to those tactical facts repeatedly, even when his immediate problem is commonplace. "The lack of a tire pump can kill a man as easily as the lack of a helmet. I haven't got one of those either. All of them are up at the lines...or should be," he wrote. "The entire country is organized to strengthen the thin thousand mile dam of dugouts, men and munitions which separate not only the Republic but every democratic nation on earth, from fascism." His metaphor proved prescient; five months after the Republic fell, Hitler invaded Poland.

Neugass's memoir, drawn from a contemporaneous diary, follows the haphazard rhythm of the war, moving jaggedly between boredom, fleeting triumphs and terror. Brief, vivid descriptions of daily life, such as an unpalatable dish of bacalao ("tastes like rawhide soaked in glue then boiled in machine oil"), mingle closely with unsentimental depictions of wounded soldiers. "A sniper got Fred Mowbray of New Orleans in the base of the spine," he writes. "Paralyzed from the waist down, urine accumulating in the kidneys, he begged to be catheterized.... He begged for morphine, which could not be given him. Crying all the more pitifully because he was not delirious, Fred was carried out of the ward and evacuated this morning. I hear that spine cases, sooner or later, all die." Neugass sometimes sounds like a world-weary, Popular Front Raymond Chandler. "The clay complexion of death is international," he writes. "What can you do? Go out and make more dead."

Conversant in Spanish and acquainted with Spain from his travels there before the war, Neugass is periodically able to slip out of his American skin and steal a local perspective of the conflict. During a short respite in Mezquita, a small town near the Aragon front, he is invited to join an impoverished family of twelve for dinner. "I was asked to eat," he writes. "When I looked at the size of the single earthenware jug in the fireplace, I answered that I had already had supper.... The mother lifted the crock from the fireplace and emptied a steaming mass of potatoes." The family insisted that Neugass share their food with them: thirteen people ate off a single plate. When they finished the potatoes, the meal was over.

After dinner, Neugass interviews the father of the family, a landless peasant. Neugass asks the man what political party he belongs to. "Soy revolutionario, como todos," he answers. Pressing the point, Neugass asks again to which party he belongs. "De los matafascistas.... I believe in the fascist-killer party," the man answers. "But which party is that?" Neugass asks. "That is every political party," the man replies. "What is communism?" Neugass asks, switching tactics. The man replies hesitatingly, "I don't know...significa, significa...tractors!... And the other parties also...communism, socialism, anarchism...it all means...machines for the land!"

The desperation of the peasant was typical of many who toiled at the bottom of Spain's semifeudal agricultural system. Much of the Spanish countryside was divided into enormous agricultural estates called latifundios, and the estate owners generally considered their workers to be almost indistinguishable from their other property. Between 1918 and 1921 a series of peasant uprisings erupted in southern Spain. Though the army and the Guardia Civil eventually put down the laborers' revolt, sporadic strikes and reprisals continued throughout agrarian Spain. The landowners, anxious to subjugate the peasantry, enthusiastically supported Franco's military revolt against the Republic, which had been trying, with limited success, to introduce land reform and break up the latifundios. Gen. Emilio Mola, an architect of the rebellion, articulated the fascists' method to regain control over the peasants in a martial law proclamation on the second day of the war: "Re-establishing the principle of authority unavoidably demands that punishments be exemplary both in terms of the severity with which they will be imposed and the speed with which they will be carried out."

Neither the landowners nor the fascist troops needed much encouragement. As the British historian Paul Preston details in a profile of Capt. Gonzalo Aguilera, an estate owner and press officer for Franco, the day before Mola's proclamation Aguilera lined up his workers, randomly selected six and publicly shot them as a warning to the others. (Aguilera's actions are not surprising in light of what he told an AP correspondent about the Spanish masses. "They are slave stock," he said. "They are good for nothing but slaves and only when they are used as slaves are they happy.") Near Córdoba, at the beginning of the war, a landowner shot ten of his workers in retribution for every fighting bull the workers had slaughtered for food during a brief collectivization of his estate. Outside Seville, fascist officers made peasants dig their own graves before shooting them. Just before the peasants were murdered, the officers mocked them. "Didn't you ask for a plot of land?" the officers yelled. "Now you're going to have one, and for ever."

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