Sixty portraits from the Spanish Civil War

Mike Phipps reviews Brigadistes: Lives for Liberty, by Jordi Martí-Rueda, published by Pluto        

 “What you will find in this book,” writes Jordi Borràs in the Foreword, “is the noble spirit of those men and women who put their bodies in the path of fascist hatred. Many of those brigadistes came to our homeland with nothing to their names, with no other baggage than the impetus of their ideals, crossing Europe by bicycle or the Atlantic by ship, all uncertain as to whether they would return alive.”

Brigadistes: Lives for Liberty is a book of literary and photographic portraits from the Spanish Civil War. What is striking about this collection is the diversity, in particular, the inclusion of large number s of women and people of colour.

Salaria Kea got her nursing degree at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in 1935. She wanted to travel to Ethiopia to nurse the civilian population that was being shelled by Mussolini’s planes.  But “the New York office of the Red Cross refused her services because the colour of her skin made it impossible for her to serve in the name of the institution—even if it was in Africa.”  Instead she went to nurse in Spain.

Harry Fisher was born in an orphanage for Jewish boys. During the 1930s Depression, “he would wait outside a house where an eviction was going to take place, and as soon as the police left, leaving the family and their furniture in the street, he and a group of friends would break down the door and put all the furniture back so the family could move back in.” He miraculously survived a mortar shower during the Battle of Belchite in Aragon in 1937 and lived long enough to march against the US war on Iraq in 2003.

Annie Murray grew up on a farm in Scotland, in a family of six sisters and two brothers, and studied nursing in Edinburgh. While she was working in the operating rooms at the hospital in Osca, her two brothers were fighting on the front. Her last patients were children who had lost their hands to the booby-trapped bombs that Nationalist planes dropped over Barcelona. She later wrote of “the struggles of the Spanish people and how joyful and generous they were with us. The people’s spirit was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I don’t think I ever will again.”

Pierre Georges, the third of four brothers of a family of union activists, falsified the age on his passport and, in October 1936 showed up in the encampment of the International Brigades, aged 16. He went on be an officer of the La Marseillaise Brigade and, two years later, returned home with scars from lead slugs in his thigh, arm and belly. As ‘Colonel Fabien’ he is honoured in Paris today, with a square and a metro station named after him – not for his activities in the Spanish Civil War, but for his role in fighting the Nazi Occupation of France. He fired the first bullet of the French Resistance, assassinating a German officer.

But most of these brave men and women are not honoured in the country of their birth. Many did not make it back and little is known of them beyond a photograph and some contemporary testimony. Jordi Martí-Rueda has meticulously researched this book and done the movement a huge service by bringing the stories of these individuals to a wider readership.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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