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light. The only trouble is that it’s also light for the fascist planes.

A little girl was brought in here yesterday—all shot full of

holes—both her eyes blown out. It seems that she and a few others found a hand

grenade and decided to play with it. Her brother died soon after he was brought in. 3

other kids were slightly hurt and she if she makes it will be blind and all scarred. It’s

a pretty horrible thing—she’s got plenty of guts and certainly can take it—you

never hear a whimper out of her. She’s about 10 years old. It’s the same sort of thing you

see in places that have been bombed, only more of it. It’s a stinking business. We still

get very little news of what’s doing. I still don’t read Spanish, so there you are. I can

speak a few more words. I wish I could make myself sit down for an hour a day and study,

but there’s always something more pleasant to do. Maybe some day soon—

I haven’t written home for a while, so will you give them my love?

Here’s hoping we beat the hell out of the fascists soon, so I can get


Keep on writing—

Saluda Comarado (the one & only salutation around here).


June 29, 1938

Hi Herb,

Last winter we had the coldest winter in about twenty years and now it

seems, we’re headed for the hottest summer in a long time. From eleven in the morning to 3

or 4 in the afternoon it is simply physically impossible to do anything. The slightest

motion brings oceans of thick, stinking sweat rolling down your body. The civilians sleep

their famous siesta, but for us, living in trenches or in open fields, even this is almost

impossible. For along with the hot weather came the flies. Not flies like the delicate,

frightened creatures we have in the states. Oh, no. Big, heavy, tough, persistent things

that you can’t shoo away. They swarm in thick clouds over every square inch of your body

that’s exposed, buzzing ferociously, creeping across your skin so heavily you can feel

each individual footstep, biting so that you almost forget the lice. And when you swing at

them, they don’t scatter like properly civilized American flies. They merely fly off two

or three inches and are back on you before your hand is at rest. If you lie uncovered they

torment you to distraction and if you put even the most sheer piece of material over you,

you drown in your own sweat. And the lice, thriving on the rich sweat, grow fat &

bloated like well-fed pigs and dig fortifications in your skin.


The Front

October 23, ‘37

Dear Shirley,

Another of your frequent and most welcome letters arrived today and

this afternoon I find the time to answer it.

Heard Langston Hughes last night; he spoke at one of our nearby

units–the Autoparque, which means the place where our Brigade trucks and cars are kept

and repaired. It was a most astonishing meeting; he read a number of his poems; explained

what he had in mind when he wrote each particular poem and asked for criticism. I thought

to myself before the thing started "Good God how will anything like poetry go off

with these hard-boiled chauffeurs and mechanics, and what sort of criticism can they

offer?" Well it astonished me as I said. The most remarkable speeches on the subject

of poetry were made by the comrades. And some said that they had never liked poetry before

and had scorned the people who read it and wrote it but they had ben moved by Hughes’s

reading. There was talk of "Love" and "Hate" and "Tears";

everyone was deeply affected and seemed to bare his heart at the meeting, and the most

reticent (not including me) spoke of their innermost feelings. I suppose it was because

the life of a soldier in wartime is so unnatural and emotionally starved that they were

moved the way they were.


Friday, November 25, 1938

Dearest Leo [Hurwitz] and Janey [Dudley]:

The enclosed note was written after the first two bombings on

Wednesday—and I thought when I started that I could overcome the reaction of the

morning, but I had to stop. Now, though still a little limp and sickish, I can write of

the last two days with more or less ease.

The first raid, at about 10:30 A.M., came while two American soldados

and I were in a shop buying cigarette holders. The boys had come to Barcelona to buy some

trinkets for their girls and I went along with them to help them choose. The shop we were

in is some three or four blocks from the hotel and some six or seven blocks from where the

first bombs fell. The siren sounded just as we were paying our bill. We saw the people

hurrying along the Paseo de Gracia (our street) into sheltering doorways, or hugging the

walls. We stepped into a doorway, going out to look up when the anti-aircraft started and

I spotted three planes—enemy planes flying high, they looked minute. The guns were

hot on their trail and the boys pulled me back into the doorway because very often the

shrapnel casings of the aircraft shells fall and get you. As we got back to the doorway we

heard the bombs falling—and the boys made me crouch down, close to them with my head

buried in my arms. The sound of those bombs, and they sounded close (as we found later

they were) is hard to describe—crashing through the air as if to break the very air

itself, screeching and whining and then the contact as they hit their target—as if a

thousand wrecking crews were tearing down buildings at the same time. I wasn’t frightened

then, my mind was blank—I was concerned only with crouching down in the doorway. We

got up then and started walking to the hotel, the people in the streets came to life,

continuing to walk to wherever they had been going when the alarm sounded; we reached the

next corner to see a crowd of people pointing up at the sky and then a shout arose, and

cheering as our guns got one plane—it came down hurtling through the air head over

heels. We were excited, forgetting completely the bombs falling a minute before and we

hurried to the hotel to find Ed. We found him there, worried but relieved to see us.

Everyone talked about the downed plane—but soon life went on as usual. Soon we heard

the siren blow three times, meaning all’s well, the raid is over, and we went out

again—Ed, the two boys, Capa and I. We went to the Rambla—a long street in old

Barcelona (Barcelona was once a small village—the Rambla was its main street with

narrow, winding streets stretching on either side of it—and although the Rambla is

one thoroughfare it has various names—like Rambla de Flores, because of the numerous

flower vendors, etc.). We stepped in a shop where Ed and Capa bought some shirts, leaving

them there while one of the boys and I went on. We walked leisurely, looking in the

windows of the numerous shops in the twisting streets, stopping to buy some decorative

combs and finally going to a little antique shop stuck away in one of the little streets

where I had bought a locket some weeks ago. We found a necklace for his girl and again,

just as we were paying the bill, the siren started. This time we knew we were in danger

because this quarter had been often hit, the last time only a week and a half ago. We left

the shop, the boy with me starting to run, and so I ran too. But as I ran I could feel the

panic growing in me and I stopped him—"let’s follow the people here—they

know where the refugios are—we mustn’t run" I said. Meanwhile thoughts

raced furiously through my mind—"I mustn’t get panicky, I mustn’t be frightened.

I’ve got to be calm—if we reach the refugio in time, good—if we don’t there’s

nothing we can do about it—but we must not run—Ed will be worried about

me—I wish I could somehow let him know that we’ll be all right." We followed the

others coming out on the Rambla de Flores where we found two Metro stations (these, of

course, are used as refugios—although Barcelona is full of newly built,

completely safe refugios). We followed the others down to the subway—and I was

struck by the order and lack of hysteria. No one pushed or shoved—everyone was quiet,

composed—we all helped to get the kids down first—and soon we ourselves went

inside, going deep into the station and standing close to the wall. The people talked

together, played with some dogs who had come down with us, the children romped—these

people will never be crushed. Mussolini and Hitler, however much they bomb, will never

break the morale of these wonderful, courageous people. We heard the guns, the sound

reverberating in the tunnel, and again bombs falling. My friend and I talked in low

tones—about anything—I can’t remember now—we held each other’s hand and we

both tried hard not to tremble. Soon the lights were on—we could go out. As we came

up the stairs of the Metro we saw the puffs of smoke from the guns directly above us and

we knew the bombs had fallen close to us. (Three blocks from where we were—we found

out later). We walked home, both of us talking fast, but we walked slowly.

We found Ed and the other soldado looking for us frantically and

we all embraced in the street—it was like a reunion. "Sure, I feel

fine—don’t worry—I’ll be all right." We went in to lunch—and I got

through it somehow. It was when I went upstairs that the reaction began—that’s when I

had to stop the letter I began to you. I got a terrific stomachache—it doubled me up

for ten minutes, and when it was over I was exhausted and shaking as if I had just dug a

well or pounded rock. I was alone—Ed was writing his story at the Ministry. I tried

to read—but the letters danced before my eyes and so I put my book aside and just sat

in the chair—thinking—this is what the barbarians have been doing to the Spanish

people for two years; I had witnessed the ruthless murder of an innocent people because

fascism’s voracious appetite must be satisfied—I saw what I had been reading

about—the systematic terrorization of a people, by which the fascists hope to bring

them to their knees—and I saw the people reiterate the words of Pasionaria—which

by now have become part of their lives—"Better to die on one’s feet than to live

on one’s knees." Think what these murderous raids have done to the lives of these

people—to their nervous mechanisms—to their sanity. And what a heritage for the

kids! Here was I, coming from comparative freedom, well-fed, my nerves shattered by my

experience—and then think of the Spanish people who have lived through this horror

for two years.

But the bastards weren’t through with us. At seven o’clock they came

again—this time I watched from our window—saw the powerful lights cutting the

sky trying to locate the planes, saw the puffs of smoke from the guns and the flares going

up—and the welcome sound of our planes—our little chasers going after them.

Nothing excites the people as much as to see or hear our planes—they go wild with

excitement—shouting themselves hoarse—every single time they come. I was alone

when the siren sounded at 11:00. I watched only a little while this time—I threw

myself on the bed, too tired to undress, and just lay there, anger mounting—"the

bastards—the bastards," saying it over and over again until I could think no

longer. Ed came in a little after midnight, bringing the news that the Bank of Spain had

been hit in the first bombing, with an incomplete count of 40 dead, 124 wounded, mostly

women. We went to sleep finally—and then began the night—six times they came

over—the sirens shrieking each time—the guns furiously shooting—six raids

in the night—six times to create terror. [Herb] Matthews [New York Times

correspondent] came in to see us in the morning, telling us how each time he had awakened,

jotted down the time, and then tried to go to sleep again. There was no panic in the

hotel—but there was anger and hatred for the fascists. And then at 9:30 they came

again—to be driven off quickly.

When the siren sounded again—this time meaning release—we

went out, Matthews, [Robert] Capa [the photographer], Ed and I, to see the damage. We

found one building which had been hit in the second bombing—twisted and

mutilated—piles of broken glass and debris in front of it–a huge crater in front of

the doorway where the bomb had fallen—a water main cracked. Everywhere around the

building—all the houses had piles of glass and debris being swept out of

them—the concussion often creates terrific damage—in all the little streets off

that main street on which the building was had the little piles of broken glass and debris

lining them—the gutters were covered with brick and mortar. We drove on past the Bank

of Spain—the bomb had fallen right clean through it—we went down to the port

where huge craters showed where bombs had fallen, breaking water pipes; crews were

feverishly at work repairing the damage—there was no sign of panic or terror

anywhere—people went about their daily tasks, walked in the very spots where bombs

had fallen—sat in the cafes along the waterfront—sat on the benches along the

streets. We talked to one man (Ed wrote about him in his dispatch)—he told us most of

the people had spent the night in the refugios—thereby lessening the toll of

lives. He was calm when he told us about his demolished house—a smile on his face

when he told us he had been able to save his family and then the full proof of what these

people are made of when he said to us in farewell "I would invite you to my

house—but you see, it isn’t there anymore."

When I first walked into the streets of Barcelona I was amazed at what

I saw. When we read about Spain in the newspapers, articles, and books, we read of the

front, of cities bombed, and I came expecting to find a war-like—or what I thought

was war-like—atmosphere over everything and everybody. Here in Barcelona, the city

goes on living its life—shops do business, people work and sit in the cafes. When you

are in the city for a while you begin to see the effects of war. You see that there aren’t

many young men in the streets—and if there are they are in uniform, home on leave or

recovering from wounds. You see the wrecked buildings where bombs have fallen—and you

see the women and the kids, tattered, ragged, and hungry. But you see too that everywhere

are a people who are fighting for their lives, their country—the raised

fist which greets you in Salud is not just a gesture—it means life and liberty being

fought for and a greeting of solidarity with the democratic peoples of the world.

Barcelona is a beautiful city—surrounded by hills and mountains—an ever blue

sky—palm trees lining the broad avenues—a city which in peacetime must have been

a joy to live in. And the people—how can I tell you how wonderful they are—how

truly a beautiful people the Spanish are. They are an intelligent people and an

understanding people, and even now, in midst of their war, the education of its people

goes on—schools for kids, girls from the Basque country and Andalucia who three

months ago couldn’t read, now holding down leading and important jobs in Government


Hemingway was here for a few days—but once you meet him you’re not

likely to forget him. The day he came I had been slightly sickish, but Ed came up and got

me up out of bed to meet him. When I came into the room where he was he was seated at a

table and I wasn’t prepared for the towering giant he is. I almost got on my toes to reach

his outstretched hand—I didn’t need to, but that was my first reaction. He’s

terrific—not only tall but big—in head, body, hands. "Hello", he

said—looked at me and then at Ed and said "You’re sure you two aren’t brother

and sister?" which meant—"what a pair of light-haired, pale, skinny

kids!" He told us another time when we were driving back to the hotel from somewhere

of his correspondence with Freddy Keller—how he told Freddy he’s got good stuff, but

he must study—must educate himself and above all study Marx. That was what he had

done all winter in Key West, he told us—otherwise, he said, you’re a sucker—you

don’t know a thing until you study Marx. All of this said in short jerky

sentences—with no attempt at punctuation. Before he left he gave us the remainder of

his provisions—not in a gesture, just gave them to us because he knew we needed them

and because he wanted to give them to us. I’m still a little awed by the size of

him—he’s really an awfully big guy!

And now—I’ll say goodbye—I promise not to let so long a time

go by the next time I write.


June 21, 1938

Dear Ernest [Hemingway]:

I wish we had had a few days in Paris together. Marty [Hourihan] was

still there when I got in. You know they sent him out across the mountain. I don’t know

how he ever managed it with that leg.

The damn fools sent me across the mountain too. They knew I had been

expelled from France but they told me it was perfectly safe. I no sooner left the Carabineros

at the top than the Guarde Mobile spotted me—It was a bright night and they

fired a couple of shots over my head. I lay low for an hour and then began again, changing

my line to come out at another place on the road. Then when I got to the road I was so

damned jollied up and excited that I made a mistake and started right back into Spain

again. I got almost to the French Customs before I was able to get my bearings. The Carabineros

had told me about a staircase going down the mountain to Cerbere from the road. I couldn’t

find it for the life of me, and I kept going back and forth and back and forth around

those turns in the moonlight. If the Guarde Mobile were looking they must have

thought the whole 43rd Division was on its way over. And they did think something like

that, too, because finally I gave up looking for that staircase and followed the road

right in and then I found the staircase—the bottom of it where it meets the road

again—six Guarde Mobile were there. I couldn’t dodge them. They wouldn’t

believe that I was the only man coming down the mountain. "Why we saw at least a

dozen" they said. And two of them took me to the station and the rest went up the

mountain to hunt. They hunted all night.

You know Port Bou—the way the whole town seems to be in the bottom

of a cave. Well the Fascists bombed us twice the day I was there. There are good refuges

but even then it’s not a nice place to be bombed. When I got over and the Guarde Mobile

had me I said, anyway, that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about anymore. There’s a

good big mountain between me and those planes. Can you believe it? I was not in that jail

one hour—had no sooner gotten to sleep and I was tired—before there was the God

damndest crash of bombs just up the street—not a hundred yards away from the jail. I

was all alone and locked in of course and everybody was running up the street and women

screaming. First I felt haunted as if they were following me, and then I felt glad that

the French were getting a chance to run screaming through the streets for a change. I even

thought they might let me go the next morning as a mark of solidarity or something.

The next morning they took me to Perpignan on the train. Everybody was

talking about it in the train. The Pyranees Oriantele was getting really bellicose. They

were all scared and mad. The Guarde Mobile were extra sympathetic to me—bought

me cognac and tobacco out of their own money and forgot about handcuffs—But that was

as far as the solidarity went.

At Perpignan I found out that I was up against six months. No

alternative, no way out, except pull. I was scared. It was a nice jail and all that but

the prospect of six months made me feel very bad. I wrote at once to Desnos to get in

touch with Martha, who I remembered had some pull with the Radical Socialists at one time,

and also Senator Hollis from N.H. who used to be a friend of my father’s and who practices

now in Paris. They all got started right away and Charley Sweeney, too, went to bat for

me. But here was the funny thing. And if you think a minute—you will see the queer,

uncomfortable position I was in. Father used to have a friend in Paris—a very rich

man named James Johnson who helped father a lot—and I never could abide him. So

Desnos, on Senator Hollis’s advice goes to Johnson. And the first thing I know—the

first thought of Johnson that I have in two years I guess—there he is down at

Perpignan—come all the way down from Paris to help me out of jail.


Madrid, December 17, 1937


"The moon is very big tonight"–this sentence has been on my

mind for days. It is a beautiful sentence, I can’t stop rolling it off my lips. I came

across it in a letter among my documents while searching for material for the book I am

now working on.

A girl in New York started her letter off to her boyfriend in Spain

with that–on the very night her boyfriend was killed. He died very bravely under that

very big moon and that very big moon lit up the whole landscape, throwing a ghostlike

silvery flame on No Man’s Land, silhouetting the rescuing parties against the sky, and the

fascists opened fire, wounding many of the brave volunteers who were risking their lives

trying to bring in the body of that boy who was lying dead out in the field under the very

big moon his girl was writing about in New York. She was very lonesome for him and so she

was looking at the moon in New York and the moon was very big; it reached all the way to

Spain. He never received the letter. I was the one who received it and I read it ten

months later, a few days after I finished my chapter, on the night of the very big moon,

and I never heard till then about the girl. But ever since I read that letter my heart

went out to that girl. I keep on wondering whether she still notices the moon and hope she

is proud of the boy who died a death worthy of his principles and his class. I want to

raise a monument for that boy and girl under that very big moon, a monument of love and

class struggle and of heroism and self-negation and sacrifice that shall be at the same

time a monument of the struggle against fascism in Spain.

The moon has been very big a number of times and I hope the time will

be soon here when it will shine on a free Spain and we, two, will walk arm in arm under

that very big moon, thinking about that other boy and girl….Sanyi

REPRINTED from Cary Nelson and Jefferson Hendricks, eds. Madrid

1937: Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War, copyright

1996 by Routledge.

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