Kids know when they’re not being told the truth by their parents. And they know when double messages come their way that something has gone awry. Bewilderment unsteadies them creating disturbances that can, if hooked up to a live psychic wire, become part of the emotional bedrock of their lives. This happened to me when my father spoke of his brother, Dave, who was shot by a sniper in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
My father kept a shoe box in the back of his closet which he pulled down occasionally, clasping it gingerly between his hands. He gazed at it, but never in my sight did he take anything out to look at. He never even opened the box. Once when he caught me staring at him, he said, “Maybe some day I’ll tell you about my brother.”
When Dave’s name came up my father might say, “Listen, I couldn’t find anything wrong with him, that’s why I loved him. He was very sweet. I loved him dearly.” Then he added contemptuously, “Ach, he threw his life away. He died for nothing.” My father didn’t describe specific acts or invoke biographical details about Dave. Nor did he express admiration even though in the eyes of many, his brother was a hero. He, along with 2,800 other Americans from every state in the union except Delaware and Wyoming, and 35,000 men and women from 50 countries went to Spain on their own between 1936 and 1938 to fight fascism. These international brigadistas, as they came to be known, understood that the Spanish fascist Francisco Franco was the forerunner of Hitler and Mussolini.
Dave—Dovid Lifshitz originally—came to America with his mother in 1927. The father and the other brothers—Louis and Philip—arrived a couple of years earlier. They were middle class people in Riga, Latvia, where they owned a grocery store and went to the opera. By the time they arrived in New York most of their money was gone and they, like so many immigrants, slipped into the working class. Grandpa and his two older sons painted apartments; Dave at thirteen went to school. Grandma trekked from building to building in the Bronx peddling canned sardines and old clothes. They moved often, following the painting jobs the boys and their father landed.
My father, Louis, itinerant most of his life, picked up odd jobs especially in the fruit-selling business where relatives on both sides of the family worked. He was also a gambler, loved boxing and dancing, and girls.
Dave went in another direction. In 1933 when he was a student for a year at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn he joined the Young Communist League, the YCL. This was not unprecedented in the Lifshitz family; grandma’s brothers were Bolsheviks and had moved to the Soviet Union. A year later he became active in the nearest YCL branch in the Bronx. He organized strikes, helped people put their furniture back into their apartment after the landlord had thrown them out, sold the Daily Worker. He participated in study groups and studied mechanics at the Baron de Hirsch Trade School while finishing an academic degree at George Washington High School.
Next to his name in his High School yearbook was written, “Athlete, scholar an’ everything. Soccer Team—Physics Club—Arista Chess Club—Cherry Tree Rep.” He was also in the German club and did a good job in English, Yiddish and Spanish.
Dave was becoming a complicated man, a well-rounded American and a revolutionary.
He was described by his YCL comrades whom I tracked down as gentle and devoted. A patient, kind person, dutiful and diligent.
One woman whom I located with some difficulty in upstate New York in a former leftist enclave, told me, “I never knew a man like him, so soft and kind and good. I’d be early for a class and hiding behind a book. I had things to say when necessary, but I was shy. Dave would come over and talk to me. It meant a lot. And it wasn’t easy in those situations. The men were always vying for the limelight. But not him. He wasn’t a flashy, talky, leaderly type. He was dependable, constant. He never raised his voice. He listened… The others could be ruthless.”
My father excised most facts about my uncle’s life. It turns out he had a lot to hide: a betrayal of breath-taking proportions and outright lies to their parents. Dave, it turns out, had lied too.
In mid May 1938, Dave told his parents that he had taken a job in the Catskills as a waiter. But on May 18, he boarded the SS Manhattan in New York for Europe. On board were six men returning to Spain for a second time. One of them was named Bill Wheeler. Bill would loom large in Dave’s story.
Consistent with his original lie Dave wrote several letters before he left for Spain that he gave a friend to mail to his parents from the Catskills. Once in Spain he changed his mind and wrote to my father telling him where he in fact was and that he wanted their parents to know. Louis worked out a rather baroque scheme with Dave and told him to mail letters to him care of their uncle at another address in the Bronx, and not to send them to their parents.
Here is an excerpt from Dave’s first letter, translated from the Yiddish by my father:
My dear Parents, I am sitting on a mountain among vineyards and olive trees covered with the blood of Spain. I am looking at the sunset and I weep, and weep and weep. I am crying with hot tears that are pouring out of my eyes and I don’t want to stop that flow of tears, because I think of you, my dear parents. The thought of the pain and anguish I cause you and the thought that you think of me while you are reading this letter. I cry because I could not kiss you before I left, because I could not tell you where I was going and not explain why I was going, and I could not tell you what Spain means to you and to the whole world…. Forgive me, understand me, and please don’t be angry.”
In another letter, Dave shyly requests them to “Write soon and often.” “Write often, every week …..” He closes several letters with “Mother, don’t cry.”
On August 10, ten days before he was shot, Dave wrote, “Have not heard from the States yet.” He never would. My father made sure of that.
The clearest piece of misinformation that I got as I waded deep into my search for Dave’s life among his former comrades in the Bronx YCL and in Spain, came at Brandeis University where there was a large cache of documents and photographs and video tapes known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive. This archive has since moved to the Tamiment Library at NYU.
I introduce myself to Victor Berch, the librarian. I give him some publicity about my last book and show him photographs of Dave. Then I carefully lift up a tattered flyer for Dave’s memorial in the Bronx, on January 18, 1939. I can see that Mr. Berch is not impressed. He points to the three speakers listed on the flyer, David McKelvy White, Yale Stuart, and Bill Wheeler. “Dead. Dead. Dead,” he says.
When I return to New York, I visit the office of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB which has since been renamed ALBA) on East Eleventh Street, close to Union Square, a location so rich in American radical leftist history. I’ve spoken to one of the men, Abe Smorodin, on the phone. Smorodin had been among the swiftest and most courageous runners in Spain, dealing with transmission problems, carrying information from one part of the battlefield to another, gathering officers for meetings. He’s eighty-one, with one eye nearly blind since birth and another the color of black onyx, which fixes you with unwavering attention. I remove my photos and flyers from my briefcase and, to show him how in the know I am, I point to the three names on the flyer and repeat Berch’s hortatory: “Dead. Dead. Dead.”
“No,” Abe shakes his head. “Wheeler’s not dead.”
“He’s not? Where is he?” I’m shouting.
“I’ll get you the address and phone number.” In a few minutes, he returns, saying, “Look, here’s the information about Bill, but here are a couple of other names of guys who were in the same company.” When I’m almost out the door, he adds, “And where the hell were you twenty years ago? There were a lot more of us around then, and we had better memories.” I begin to answer—I was doing a PhD, I was a student, a feminist art history professor, a Marxist art historian—but I change my mind.
Bill Wheeler is alive!
Where my father never served up juicy details of Dave’s life, Bill was all generosity. He was one of the most heart-warming discoveries of my long work on my uncle. When I first reached him with a letter of inquiry, he answered me by fax this way,
“I do remember your uncle Dave Lipton and now thanks to you, he has a name that time and a flagging memory have erased. Dave’s death more than any of the too many others I have witnessed has haunted me to this day. Dave and I first met aboard the ship that was carrying several new volunteers and seven of us who had been sent home and were returning for the second time. That would have been early spring 1938.
Dave and I were both assigned to the 3rd company of the Lincoln Washington battalion. After a short period of training, about the end of June or beginning of July 1938, we assembled on the banks of the Ebro River in preparation to launch the Ebro offensive….
We were at rest the evening before the crossing. Dave handed me a letter written in Yiddish asking me to mail it to his brother (as I recall) if anything should happen to him. I remember telling him “You will make it O.K. Just keep your head and fanny down.” The next morning he asked for the letter back and tore it to bits…. [Later that day] I was checking our position at the front when Dave walked over towards me asking if he could return to his regular squad. Just as I yelled to him to get down, he was struck by a sniper’s bullet and sank slowly to the ground in front of me. In war, one becomes inured to death but Dave’s has haunted me ever since.“
I had so much to tell my father now about his brother. But it turned out that he didn’t want to hear any of it. And that’s because he had been hiding much more devastating lies than I could have imagined.
A friend said to me recently, “Why is one brother willing to die for an idea, while another brother thinks it is a wasted life?” Indeed.
My book, A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and a Family’s Secrets, tells more of my family’s story. Join me if you can at the Museum of the City of New York [use the code: SPAIN for $10. tickets] for a presentation of my new book and discussion about memoirs of activism with Sarah Seidman, Puffin Foundation Curator of Social Activism.
All primary source material, citations and conversations in this post are drawn from material in the author’s possession: taped conversations, letters, photographs.