Jack Shulman: Testimony of an American Communist. Part One: Spain (1937-1939)

The following interview was conducted with veteran American communist Jack Shulman shortly before his passing in 1999. This section, dealing with Comrade Shulman’s experience as a member of the anti-fascist Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War will be the first of three testimonies. The other two testimonies will focus on his activity organizing for the Communist Party, USA in the American South, and on his work with CPUSA Chair William Z. Foster and the struggle against Browderism and Khrushchevite revisionism.

Jack Shulman prior to the Battle of Brunete (1937).

SHULMAN:   Finally, we started to move around January or February of ’37. Went to New York with a group and we got ourselves a little orientation and organized and split up into little groups and given tickets and what not. As we get on the ship we got over to France in March, sometime in March, we got over to France.

INTERVIEWER:   So, you basically you all had worked out a cover story because it wouldn’t have been legal –
SHULMAN:   Each one, individually, I mean — we were just tourists, students or something. Each one, individually, was going, getting a ticket and going to Europe. Not as a group … Of course we were organized in small groups to sort of keep track of each other. I was one of the group leaders. The groups were about 6 or 7 people at a time, but we didn’t stay together, we didn’t hang out together, we didn’t have bunkrooms together. We especially were cautioned not to congregate together and make it obvious that we were going as a group. In fact, we were supposed to pretend we didn’t know each other, which was true in most cases. Even the small group, we weren’t supposed to be visible as a group.

INTERVIEWER:   At this time — we’re talking about like February, March of ’37 — was the embargo in effect, the arms embargo?
SHULMAN:   Oh, sure.

INTERVIEWER:   And so it was — and the United States was supporting that and was pushing that?
SHULMAN:   Of course. So was France. The French government of Leon Blum was supposed to be a united front government or something and he was supposed to be a socialist, but he was very strict observing the boycott. He was trying to stop all volunteers from getting through France to go to Spain. We had to go sort of underground all the way through France in order to get there and that took time and a lot of organizing and a lot of care and planning to do it.

INTERVIEWER:   The group you went through — was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Was that right or was that brigade formed once you got to Spain or was it formed –
SHULMAN:   Well, it was formed in Spain after the first group got there. When we got over into Spain, we didn’t know there were several battalions — the Lincoln Battalion, the Washington Battalion.  We were processed and split up and sent to different training centers to join different brigades and battalions as the need occurred.  So when we went we went through France and crossed over the mountains — we didn’t know where we were going to end up or what we were going to be doing or where we were going.  Everything had to be carefully guarded as a military secret. Most of all there were Fascist spies all over France — everywhere — who were working with the government trying to stop us and trying to get all the information they could about us — where we were going and how — to feed to the enemy so they could stop us and kill us if necessary.  We just followed our instructions and orders. There was pretty good organization there. I don’t know who was behind the organization, but it’s fairly clear that it was probably some leadership groups of the communists in Europe who were organizing this operation of getting through France and getting into Spain.

INTERVIEWER:   But before you left, while you were still in the United States, was there any sort of ceremony or procedure where you were sworn in as like a member of this military —
SHULMAN:   No,no, no, no. Nothing at all like that.

INTERVIEWER:   No basic training?
SHULMAN:   No, nothing, nothing.

INTERVIEWER:   No drill?
SHULMAN:   Just a bunch of guys. We got to New York. We were told to go to a certain — a little flea – flop house, to stay and to come to some meeting the next day.  And we listened to some political propaganda speech on why we were going to Spain and that was all. And then we were broken up into groups and told to go back and stay put until we got further instructions and that was it.

INTERVIEWER:   You said yesterday when we were talking that you had been in ROTC, so you were somewhat familiar with military chain of command, points of discipline, instruction, organization of the military. I’m assuming that among a number of the other volunteers that they had absolutely no military training or experience whatsoever.
SHULMAN:   Most of the others, yeah.

INTERVIEWER Was there any sort of, like instruction, or anything given to these young men?

SHULMAN:   Military?


INTERVIEWER:   Yes.

SHULMAN:   No.

INTERVIEWER:   Before leaving?

SHULMAN:   No. We had no military instructions. It was all political. In fact, when we got into Spain and we got into our so-called training, we didn’t have any military instructors even then. They were just political instructors. Political leaders who themselves didn’t know much about military training. ………

INTERVIEWER:   How was your passage paid for?
SHULMAN:   I don’t know. Somebody paid for it and gave us tickets. I mean it was an organization; they were collecting funds to support Republican Spain.  I don’t know who was in the organization or who was leading it or how they were raising the funds but they — you know, there were a lot of affairs in those days.  Public meetings, progressive people contributing funds, etc. I assumed that’s where the money came from.

INTERVIEWER:   Did you have spending money or anything for food on the way over or travel when you got there?
SHULMAN:   Well, when you got in that ship, you know, everything is paid for. You don’t need any money. I think they did give us a few bucks each to have in our pocket, but didn’t need any money on the ship. You got off the ship and we were met by some guides and we were told where to go. We went to some kind of pension or some little places where to stay and that; we didn’t need money for that, either.  So we didn’t have any money to speak of. Couldn’t go wandering around like tourists and having fun. We had to stay put. Stay in the room. Keep quiet and keep our noses clean and wait for instructions. About a day or two later there would be a meeting and somebody would come and round us up and take us to a meeting where we had some more political talk and then instructions on how to get organized to travel through France.  Which was quite a job.  We had to do that in small groups, too.  But meanwhile, when we were travelling through France, we didn’t have money to spend.  Of course, we couldn’t go out and spend it. We had to stay hidden all the time.

INTERVIEWER:   Were the French police actually arresting?
SHULMAN:   Oh yeah.

INTERVIEWER people who were coming in to try to help the Republicans?
SHULMAN:   Oh, sure. They were trying to stop us. But you see there was — the government was dead set against letting any of us get through, but not the people. Most of the people were very friendly and sympathetic. They couldn’t influence the government. The way we succeeded was this: there was a popular front. Leon Blum was the leader of the Socialist Party and it included some other parties, I think even the communist party. I’m not sure. There was a Popular Front government and nationally that was the policy of no help for Republican Spain — boycott, etc. Embargo, no arms, no volunteers.  But the people had a different idea. And this popular front government in some of the villages or towns the socialists were predominant and they had control of the town.  Or some others, the communists, were in control of the city and town. They had the city council and they’d control the police, etc. and some other towns, other parties had the majority and control of other areas. So, the trick was to hopscotch from one town to another where good guys, the friendly guys, were in control of the town. We would end up in little towns where the mayor was a communist and the chief of police and about everybody else were very helpful and friendly. They knew we were going through. They knew we were there. They knew where we were hiding. Nobody said anything. They actually underhandedly were helping us. That’s how we made it. Of course, even in those towns there were fascists — they were no doubt snooping around, trying to see what was going on and report it to other Fascists. We managed to get through and all the other volunteers managed to get through in groups.

INTERVIEWER:   Did you speak French?
SHULMAN:   A little bit, you know. I had it in high school. I was sort of a spokesman for my group. If they had to send out to get — you know we were holed up here for days, a week. Had to send out to get cigarettes and a few things like that, they would send me because I was the only guy who knew a little French. Sometimes we would team up with another group from England and there would be a couple university guys who knew French very well. They would go. Very often, I had to go. For instance, if it was time to move on, someone had to go to the railroad station and buy a bunch of tickets to go to the next town. Very often it would be me; they’d send me out because I could speak a little French. I would go and ask for a ticket to Biziet or someplace, ask how much and I’d say “Give me 18 tickets” and they’d look at me and they knew right away, but they didn’t say anything. Smile a little bit and give me 18 tickets.

INTERVIEWER:   Is that how many people would be in your group, these small groups?
SHULMAN:   Yeah. In these small groups there may be 15, 18 etc.

INTERVIEWER:   Were they all Americans?
SHULMAN:   Yeah, mostly. Well, once we holed up in a place, we were in a town in the south. I think it’s called Sete and we were stuck there for about 2 weeks because there was a break down in the railroad. Other groups came. What we were doing — there was a big school, run by the city, of course and it was not operating. Some kind of vacation period or something.  It was empty and we were holed up in the attic of that school. We had to stay there, keep quiet, not make noise.  It’s a wonder we didn’t get cabin fever, you know. Stir crazy. We couldn’t make noise. We couldn’t sing. We couldn’t talk loud or anything.

INTERVIEWER:   What did you do duringthat time?
SHULMAN:   I don’t know. I don’t remember. We were disciplined; we had to be. Play cards, keep quiet. And then other groups would come. One time we had maybe 60, 80 people. Some of them were English, some were Belgian, I think. A mixture of groups — of course, groups more or less stayed together and separate. The reason we were stuck there and broken down was the route, at the beginning for about 6 months or more, had been to go down to southern ports like Marseilles, get into a fishing boat that belonged to a friendly progressive guy, at night, and we would — small groups would get in the fishing boat and we’d slip around the coastline and get over into Spanish waters and then, with luck, drop us off right into Barcelona or someplace like that.  And that was going along pretty well until one day — March, April, end of March or early April one of these fishing boats was minding his own business and, all of a sudden, an Italian submarine comes by and torpedoes it. They knew where everybody was going and when and where. And the Italians had their submarines cruising all around the border there. They blew the thing up sky high and killed half the people right off the bat and the other half most of them couldn’t swim. Fortunately, it was not too far from the coast. They stayed close to the coast. Some of the guys managed to swim there and pull a few others with them. Some of the peasants or fishermen of Spanish towns around came running, giving help with their boats and tried to save some of the guys, pull them out of the water.  A few, quite a few, were saved, but those that came through, they were shell shocked. A little fishing boat getting hit by a torpedo — they were shell shocked. They weren’t much good at the front, at fighting, but they kept going, they did their best. . .  So they had to figure out a new way to get across. The only other way they could see was to climb across the Pyrenees. And that wasn’t easy either. The Pyrenees was the Pyrenees. It wasn’t Central Park. You had to do it at night and you had to do it to evade the fascists and the border guards and the French had a lot of border guards, guarding that border, trying to stop any volunteers going across as well as smugglers. Ordinary smugglers, you know. It was quite a job, but they finally made arrangements to get us across the Pyrenees at night.
(We were in) Southern France, near one of the inlets, fishing inlets, maybe it was a town called Setee.  Bunches of taxis drive up, so apparently the taxi cab union — it was under control of the progressives in that area. A bunch of taxi cabs drive up and we were marshaled down and jammed into the taxicabs, as much as we could get.  And then we take off and we drive and drive and drive and we go straight for the mountains.

INTERVIEWER:   How many of you are there at this point in the taxi cabs?
SHULMAN:   A lot. We couldn’t stand there and count them. We had almost — over a hundred people holed up in that school and they cleared us all out. They drove us to the foot of the mountains ‘ I don’t know exactly where. Maybe it was about 20-30 miles in from the coast, the foot of the mountains. It was getting dark and we got out on the lower slope of the mountain, as high as the road could go. There were still some French farmers along that stretch that didn’t go very much higher because the mountains became very steep. We had to get out and they organized us into single file groups and we started to hike up the mountain. Single file, one at a time.  We had to be very careful, very quiet; we had to follow one after the other, footsteps, because we were going through French farmers’ farmland until we got up higher on the mountain slope.  We couldn’t leave a single sign that we had been through there. Being civilians there was a tendency on some of the guys — when you had to come to the end of a field and make a sharp turn, they would just short cut the corner and trample on the corner of that field. Well, the guide got mad and he slammed this guy and “Get back in line” and got on his knees and fixed up the soil and the ground and the plants so it would look just perfect, the way it was before. He didn’t want the farmer to know.
……. but the leader — the way they worked it out — the leader, the guides that were taking us up the mountain and evading the guards, border guards, they were professional smugglers from Andorra.

INTERVIEWER:   Andorra?
SHULMAN:   Yeah. And they had made out — the leadership of the – – whoever was organizing this operation. They got together and made deals with the Andorra smugglers and the Andorra smugglers were recruited to be the guides. And they did a very good job.

INTERVIEWER:   Was there any — you mentioned the taxi cab drivers and sort of suggested that they had been in political sympathy with you all?
SHULMAN:   Well, of course, they had to be or they couldn’t be trusted to take us there.

INTERVIEWER:   What about the Andorrans?
SHULMAN:   The Andorrans?

INTERVIEWER:   Was this a business deal?
SHULMAN:   Business deal? They were smugglers. They were professional smugglers. They didn’t have too much political interest, but I think they did a little bit. If you know Andorra, it’s in the middle of the Pyrenees Mountains in between France and Spain. Actually, it belongs half to France and half to Spain. And most of the inhabitants, the Andorrans, at that time were sort of closely related to the Basques who were north of Spain. The Basques, on the other hand, were pretty near all supporters of Republican Spain because the Republic promised them autonomy and freedom and so forth. So, there was a political interest, I think, on the part of practically all the Andorrans, even the smugglers. And most Andorrans were smugglers, there wasn’t another way or them to earn a living and they’ve been doing it for generations.  So, they did a beautiful job. We would climb up one gulley and then we would hear some wild animal, you know, croaking, far away, from another mountain top and the guide would make us stop. And we’d hear some funny noises you know, like birds and what not and they’d make us turn around and go back into another gully. They had lookouts all over and they knew where the guards were and they sent us warnings if we were going to run into border guards. So, they guided us through very well. The problem was most of us were civilians, students. We weren’t very strong. We weren’t very hardy. We weren’t mountain climbers. And we had to go like hell to go from the foot of the Pyrenees over to the top and over the top and over the borderline to get onto Spanish soil and we had to do that before sunrise. And it was pitch black and we couldn’t have even a cigarette light, nothing.

INTERVIEWER:   Is there snow on the ground?
SHULMAN:   No, there was no more snow then, at that time. The snow had already melted. They took us through some lower passes where there wasn’t snow, but it was spring. I remember when we got into Spain it was very close to May, so it was probably around the end of April. We didn’t run into any snow.

INTERVIEWER:   Were there any that tried to turn back in the course of that climb?
SHULMAN:   No, but some accidents happened. Some guys would — we would have to go up narrow trails with a big precipice on the side.  We had to go up creek beds that were dry and rocky and what not and slip and skip and try not to make noise.  And it was hard on us. Hard on me.  We were huffing and puffing and we didn’t think we would make it — because, you know, we were youngsters from the cities. Of course, some of the group in our caravan were some French volunteers, some Belgian volunteers.  The Belgian volunteers were old radical Progressives, from the sea front, from the seaports. Many of them were stevedores. They were big, built like a brick shit house. They could pick up a 300-pound trunk that came off a steamer and carry it up the stairs.  One of their guys twisted his ankle. Big, strong, husky guy, but twisted his ankle and he couldn’t walk. They weren’t going to leave him behind, nobody could take him back. We were halfway up the mountain. There was this feeling of solidarity and what not. So the other guys, the stevedores, that’s what they called them, stevedores, four guys got a hold, picked him up, two legs, two arms, carried him. Not only carried him, they ran with him up to the head of the line. We were huffing and puffing trying to keep up the line and they were passing us and running ahead of us carrying this big, 250-pound stevedore with them and they lead the line from then on. The policy was never leave anyone behind.  Of course, once in a while, somebody would miss his footing and fell down a 1,000-foot precipice and that would be the end. We had to leave him there.

INTERVIEWER:   Did that actually happen?
SHULMAN:   Didn’t happen in my group, but it happened in other groups. So that’s how we — we huffed and we puffed and finally there was a little false alarm and we were worried, but we were near the top and we kept going. They’d give us little rest period. Maybe five minutes at a time, after an hour or so. They would stop and let us sit down and relax and catch our breath. They didn’t give us too much time for resting. They kept pushing because it was a long climb and a very hard one. I think everyone made it. Everyone made it. We finally — just as dawn was breaking finally got over the top and we were on the other side and we could see the Spanish country side. And what a relief that was. What a relief and a surprise, too.  Especially — guys like me who weren’t very strong and I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it.

INTERVIEWER:   What were you carrying with you? Did you have packs or anything?
SHULMAN:   No, just a little hand bag. We were allowed to take little hand bags. The big suitcases and things that we brought from home — we left them with the French and the French got them over into Spain, into the base at Albacete and got there ahead of us with them.  Apparently, they didn’t have too much trouble just getting baggage across, although they had to be careful too because there was an embargo on everything going into Spain, food, clothing, ammunition, military equipment, anything, but they managed that all right. So we were each carrying a little bundle. Carrying little bundles.  That’s how we got through France. Each guy was carrying a little bundle. They wanted us to look like French peasants or at least tourists so they made us all buy berets. They gave us, each one of us, a beret and each one was carrying a little hand bag. And when we would go to the —

INTERVIEWER:   Is that when you first started wearing berets?
SHULMAN:   Yeah. Then — say we were walking to the railroad station from the hideout, and we were told not to go as a group, but to go single file with about 10 feet or more between each guy. So here we would be parading, a whole line of guys, all about the same age, all wearing berets, all carrying the same little bag, and people would look at us and smile and not say anything. We really stood out.

INTERVIEWER:   Did you have to leave your identification behind or did you have your identification on you, like your passport?
SHULMAN:   I don’t remember that. The upshot of it was — we lost all our ids, our passports, together with the clothing we had brought.  We put them, usually, in the little hand bag, or bag, whatever it was we had, for safekeeping. It was safe, all right, but we never got them! I don’t know who got them. Probably — there were a lot of fascist infiltrators into the national brigade, especially at the base. There were a lot of them and also anarchists and all kinds of people and they were stealing stuff, too. Peddling it and making money out of the war. On the whole, that was it. We went there and apparently some people felt we were never going to come out anyway so they just made use of all the equipment we had brought.

INTERVIEWER:   when you got to Spain, you said you saw the sun come up and you were really thrilled about that. Was there somebody waiting there for you to put you up or something that first night?
SHULMAN:   No. There was nobody. It was just a mountain field. A pasture like.  You see the topography of that area is very strange. The Pyrenees, for instance, on the French side it’s a very tall, very steep, very harsh mountain. But on the Spanish side it slopes down gradually. Almost like a pasture land. A slope, a gradual slope.  When we got over to the other side, we could see vast distance away. Down below us there was a little country road running parallel to the top of the mountain. Where it came from or where it was going — we didn’t see any people around there at all. No people at all. Just an empty field and we were surprised. There was an old tough mountain to climb down, but we just flopped on the ground, exhausted and jubilant that we had made it. Somebody told us this was Spain, you’re going to spend the night, you don’t have to worry.  After about half an hour some trucks began to appear from the distance on this little country road. They were coming to get us, they knew we were coming, they knew where we were going to be, etc. If they had been there waiting for us, the French guards and fascists would have noticed it and they would have been on the look out to stop us. There was nobody there. We just got over the top and after lunch we were there and then the trucks started to roll from about 30 miles away. They came from a town called Figueras. Figueras — which was an old Spanish army fort that dates way back to the Napoleonic war or something like that.  This is Catalonia. Pretty close to the Basque region but actually it’s Catalonia.

INTERVIEWER:   In the countryside there, there was a lot of support for the Republic?
SHULMAN:   Well, I don’t know. We didn’t get too much contact with the countryside. Most of the people in the north there and in Catalonia supported the government, but there were also strong fascist elements among the people. Not fascists so much — anarchists. Anarchists and also in the progressive movement there in Catalonia there were a lot of Trotskyites who were sort of closely allied with the anarchists, more than with the communists. So, we came there about sometime in early April and we spent a couple weeks, two, three weeks in this fort — the Figueras which is very close to the French border and close to the Mediterranean coast.  That’s an interesting place to talk about. At any rate, from there we went down to the international base in Albacete which is around the central part of Spain.  While we were on our way down there, down to Albacete, we heard stories and saw reports of an uprising in Barcelona, in Catalonia against the Republican government organized by the Trotskyites and the anarchists.  This was right on May Day. The Trotskyites picked May Day as a day for liberation — liberate the workers from government control. Very messy.  The government kind of had to take some troops — send some troops in there — away from the front to restore order and put a stop to this uprising, which they did, in about 2 or 3 days without too much trouble. It caused a lot of harm.  But actually, orientation lectures and talks we got all the way through and every group travelling in a big group there was always some English university professor or student who was well versed in politics, who would be giving us orientation talks and what not and what was going on. And a little bit of the history –

INTERVIEWER:   Did you ever have, in the course of those talks, anyone ever talk to you about military tactics or . . .  
SHULMAN:   They didn’t know anything about military … we weren’t there to be soldiers. We were there to be political supporters of the Spanish Republic.

INTERVIEWER:   But doesn’t that seem to you to be somewhat a contradiction in the sense that you were there to be soldiers. You were there to fight.
SHULMAN:   Yeah, but we didn’t know how and the guys who were leading us didn’t know how. They had to be sure we knew what we were fighting for and what we were going to get killed for so that we would go willingly. And they did a pretty good job with that and I was supposed to help out in the political talks but I didn’t know too much. A lot of these political leaders who went along with us they knew a hell of a lot. They usually were students from the British universities and things like that. That’s one thing that kept us organized and kept us quiet when we were lying low and hiding out in these hideout places and had to keep quiet for days on end.  So, they organized card games, they organized political lectures, chess and checkers they provided and things like that. Keep us occupied and keep our spirits up. And, of course. they brought us food and drink which the local friends would supply during the night. It was well organized. We managed to get by, but as far as military was concerned, we didn’t get anything at all in that respect until we got into the training center and even then, we didn’t get a hell of a lot.

INTERVIEWER:   Let’s talk about that. When you got there, were you assigned to a particular unit or how did all of it work? They took your civilian clothes away, gave you uniforms. What did your uniform look like?
SHULMAN:   You have some of those books, the Spanish soldiers and volunteers? They didn’t look like much of uniforms, but –there was baggy pants, generally brown and shirt and that’s about it. Maybe a little cap and that was the whole uniform.

INTERVIEWER:   Did you have a canteen? Were you issued a gun?
SHULMAN:   No, we weren’t issued guns and we weren’t issued canteens or anything like that.

INTERVIEWER:   A compass?
SHULMAN:   Compass! Oh god. That was high tech. No, I don’t think even the officers had a compass or even binoculars.

INTERVIEWER:   Did they take your berets away?
SHULMAN:   No. No, we were keeping them mostly. Sometimes they didn’t have enough of those army caps and we would still use the beret. We got there and we get some more orientation and we get barracks place to sleep in, etc. Then we would be called out once or twice a day to do a little drilling. Just cold sort of drilling you know, marching and this and that. Not a hell of a lot of military training. After 4, 5, 6 days and when we go through processing center, they take down our names, addresses, data, everything and where we came from and what we knew, etc. Then they assigned us to different places. Most of the guys were assigned to the Lincoln battalion.

INTERVIEWER:   Was there another battalion for Americans?
SHULMAN:   Yeah, Washington Battalion.

INTERVIEWER:   Why do you never hear about them?
SHULMAN:   They got wiped out, practically, early on and not too many survivors so what was left of them was merged in with the Lincoln Battalion and then it was the Lincoln Battalion that was known and referred to all the time. The Washington Battalion didn’t last very long.

INTERVIEWER:   Well, they usually refer to it as the Lincoln Brigade, though.
SHULMAN:   They call it a brigade, but it really wasn’t a brigade. It wasn’t big enough to be a brigade.  Things weren’t too militarized in those days. Everything was very fluid. So, we registered and then some wise guy would decide, well, you to the Washington Battalion and you go to the Lincoln Battalion and they would separate us into different groups. Then other leaders would take us and give us some drills and talk about how the military — they didn’t know too much themselves. Didn’t take long.  Sometimes only — some of the guys would be there only two weeks and didn’t know how a hell of a lot of anything and there would be a big offensive battle around, say, Brunete — Jarama. When we got there, the Jarama offensive was over, more or less. That’s where a lot of the Washington Battalion got wiped out. Some of the guys were only there about 2 weeks. They were sent up as reinforcements to the Lincolns or Washington, I don’t know which. Many of them never even got there. They were marching along the road to get close to the front and along come fascists bombing planes or fighter planes or whatever. German, I guess. Or Italian — and they would strafe the road with it and they killed off half the league, recruits before they even got to the front, before they even were able to fire a single shot. They were just on their way marching to the front line. And they hadn’t had more practice than maybe two or three shots fired before they went out. That was their whole military training.

INTERVIEWER:   How long were you in training?
SHULMAN:   Well, mine was different because I wasn’t assigned to the Washington Battalion or the Lincoln Battalion or any place else. I was assigned to a special unit of artillery.

INTERVIEWER:   That was based on your ROTC?
SHULMAN:   That’s right.

INTERVIEWER:   You were considered to be a seasoned military –
SHULMAN:   I was — in fact they had me slated to be a sergeant right away practically, because I knew something about artillery and aiming and firing and so, they assigned me to another small group, to an artillery unit. It was a very interesting artillery unit, because we didn’t have any artillery. And we didn’t even have a unit.

INTERVIEWER:   How many people were in your unit?
SHULMAN:   I would say about 15 or 20 at the most. And we were supposed to be training for use of artillery, which we didn’t have. The people who were training us didn’t know anything, and they didn’t know what kind of guns we were going to get, if we were going to get any. Actually, that’s quite a story there. They were expecting to receive a shipment of light artillery pieces, very modern, very new, from Russia. The Russians were trying to send military equipment to Spain, sort of illegally, too, you know, it was against the League of Nations embargo, but they were loading up ships in the Black Sea and sending them through the Mediterranean and getting some stuff into Spain. Including some of their new little artillery guns. They were called 76s — 76 millimeter — artillery. They were nice little guns, but they didn’t have very many of them. There were a couple of — 2, 3, 4 units of those operated by the Spanish forces that took part in the offenses and defenses. Which was good.  We were hoping, expecting that we would get another shipment of those and the next shipment was supposed to be our guns and then we were going to have a real artillery practice and go into action to help the Internationals on some of their offensive. Well, that shipment never came. Several of the Russian ships were torpedoed by the Italian submarines in the Mediterranean and all our equipment down at the bottom of the Mediterranean. They’re still there waiting for us to retrieve it but I don’t know if we’ll ever get it up again. That’s what happened. We waited and waited and waited. We were worrying — I guess the Russians were worrying too — about how much the Italians, the fascists — knew exactly.  What ships were carrying military equipment and where they were going and what their route was because they were sinking a lot of them.  My hunch was, our feeling was that there were some traitors among the Russian military generals and they were of course exposed either by Stalin and his purges and some of them were disposed of.  And we had no doubt that there was a lot of sabotage there, too. Some of the — I don’t know how it happened — the Spanish Republic got. . . I don’t know. They got some old artillery pieces that were left over from the Napoleonic war, I guess. They were fantastic. If you go to a Russian military museum, you’d see these old big cannons standing outside on cement pedestals as a symbol of what artillery was like say a hundred years ago, or something.  They had some of those guns around and they brought them over to us and told us they were ours and that we had to use them and shoot with them. Oh, what a fantastic job that was. They had big wheels, wooden wheels that were this high– ………Six feet at least, or more.

INTERVIEWER:   Andthey were wooden?
SHULMAN:   Wooden with wooden spokes and a steel band around them and they weighed — oh, fantastic, they were tons. They shot a big shell.  Maybe seven, 8 inches.  Something like that, down there.  And they were loaded. You had to load the shell and you had to load a big powder bag and then you had to load another one behind it and then they closed the breach and you had to put in a fuse into the breach and fire it.

INTERVIEWER:   How long was the fuse?
SHULMAN:   Oh, not very long. Maybe 4 or 5 seconds.  And then you had a long line and you’d get over to the side and fire the thing. The whole shooting match would roll back about 10 feet and you had to push it back into position again to get ready to fire the next round.  The guns were first made … I don’t know … They’re probably dated to 1890 or something like that.  I’m sure they were never even used in the First World War they were outdated and they were falling apart.  The wooden spokes of the wheels were all rotten. They were falling out and we had to get some of our guys who were good mechanics. A couple of Hungarian mechanics from Cleveland or some places like this — Ohio — they’d be — they would chop down some trees and fashion some wooden spokes and replace the spokes on the wheels because the wheels were falling apart.  They had to take off the steel band around the wheels and replace them with other steel. They had to hammer and blacksmith, actually, steel bands.

INTERVIEWER:   But how did you move these up to like firing position?
SHULMAN:   Well, muscle power

INTERVIEWER:   You didn’t have horses or mules or anything to pull?
SHULMAN:   No horses. No mules. They were — we had three of them and we’d draw them up to the front line with trucks. We sort of put them more or less in position and then the trucks would have to back off. They were carrying the ammunition and then we would have to push them by muscle force into correct position. That was quite an operation to figure out how to aim them and all that.

INTERVIEWER:   Could youaim them?
SHULMAN:   Oh yeah. Yeah. More or less.  That’s a story in itself. Very often with those old guns, because there were some other outfits– some other batteries that had been firing them already before us — they fired the first shot and the breach would explode. Killed a few people.  They put the gun out of commission. We heard about that. So, our mechanics — they picked up some spare iron and being good blacksmiths they built a steel band around the breach so that it would strengthen it and would keep it from exploding, which is very smart. We didn’t have any exploding on our side. 

INTERVIEWER:   What was the distance that those guns could fire?
SHULMAN:   Technically, maybe 3, 4, 5 miles, I guess, but I’m not sure because they were so old. I don’t know if they would ever reach that far. Very heavy and cumbersome.  They were useless. Utterly useless.  The fascists had nice modern little light artillery pieces that would go boom, boom, boom, boom and we would take 10 minutes or so to load up and fire one of our guns and they were no good. We were more worried about them exploding in front of our faces and the breach exploding than the fascists were worried about us. ……………..

INTERVIEWER:   How long were you in Spain all together?
SHULMAN:   About 2 years and 2 months

INTERVIEWER:   You said that when the different seasons would come, you’d have different stuff to eat. What happened in the winter?
SHULMAN:   Sometimes we’d have some rice. I don’t know where they got it from, but they managed to supply us even with some rice or chick peas or lentils and that’s about it. Once in a while we’d have a little meat. We supplied our own meat. …………. once in a while one of the horses or the burros or the mules would get shot in No Man’s Land and it would be lying there, you know. And that night, of course, there would be a big race, a fight over it.  Everybody, on both sides, to get the dead mule.  They — the fascists — were after it just as much as we were. And once in a while some of the Spanish troops would get into that No Man’s Land at night and be able to haul that dead mule back up the hill into our lines. So they would dole out some of the meat to each little outfit around there and we would get a share of it. So that’s how we would have meat once in a while.

INTERVIEWER:   Was there much illness?
SHULMAN:   No, not too much, except well — I was one. I picked up malaria while I was there, down in the Toledo area. A lot of wet marshlands and trenches and full of mosquitoes and invasions of locusts and what not.  I got a case of malaria and that was interesting deal.

INTERVIEWER:   Did you ever — during the time that you were in Spain, it must have been just a lot of hardship, in terms of not enough to eat, exposure to the elements. You’ve talked about being put in areas where it made no sense for you to be there and completely exposed and vulnerable. Did you ever have doubts or questions about ‘What am I doing here?’ and ‘this is crazy.’? 
SHULMAN:   No. One or two of the guys would get demoralized like that, but usually we’d have political discussions and they’d overcome that. Once in a while, one or two during the course of two years, would be in such a bad state that they would send them back. But most of the time we — most of the guys just bore it and they stayed through it and we didn’t — Of course, you know, this was a time of the deepest Depression and back home we were used to hard times anyway. So there wasn’t too much difference, but at any rate, we felt we were doing some good and we always had a little glimmer of hope that things would turn around and change and we would get some guns and armaments, and the non-intervention policy would change and the international situation would change. After about a year, year and a half, middle of 1938, of course we listened to the news and we had a radio and little news bulletins. This was the time when Chamberlain sold out in Munich and the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia and when we heard that, we knew we were lost. We knew who we were, we couldn’t possibly win. We had been sold out all right from the start. That’s when our morale began to fade away a little bit. That was — close after that the League of Nations came to a decision. It was a sort of an agreement, a compromise with the Republic that all the foreign troops or foreign volunteers — that we would withdraw. This is part of the non-intervention pact. League of Nations was still functioning to help the Fascists. So the Republican government, leaders of the government were kind of weak and wishy-washy at that time.  They were persuaded by the League of Nations that if they would withdraw their volunteers that the League of Nations would see that the Italians and the Germans would withdraw their troops and they would work out a peace settlement or something.  So officially we were withdrawn and it took about three, four, five months to be arranged, before we got out. We were nearly trapped, so we couldn’t get out, but that’s another story. At any rate, we were withdrawn from the front.

INTERVIEWER:   Do you remember when that was?
SHULMAN:   Well, in the fall of ’38.

INTERVIEWER:   And where did you go when you were withdrawn?
SHULMAN:   First, we went back to Albacete, which was our entry point, the base.  We were looking to pick up our passports and there were suitcases that we had brought. All of it gone. All disappeared — nobody had anything.  Then they shipped us all, our units to Valencia. And that was supposed to be a port of embarkation. We were supposed to go from Valencia and they were going to arrange some boats to get us out of Valencia. They never did. We hung around there for weeks — we hung around there for weeks. Meanwhile, fighting was going on further up north around Tarragona and the Fascists had gone on a big offensive — broke through the Republic lines and got clear to the coast and cut the country in two.  So, Valencia in the south was cut off from our forces along the north and we were supposed to go up by train from Valencia to Barcelona and into France. Now it couldn’t be done. The Fascists were there. So, they figured the only way out would be to get us by boat along the coast up to Barcelona and the Fascists had the seacoast for a big stretch there in Tarragona.  And the Italian submarines were all over the place. And blowing up any ship they could see. So, our leaders didn’t know what to do. They finally decided they had to move us out somehow or other. They took a gamble and then one night they got us into an old coal carrier, coal freighter and they stuffed us, hundreds and hundreds of us, into the hold. It used to have coal in it — full of coal dust. Covered up the hatches and the ship took off, hoping that it would evade the Italian submarines. And that was a really dicey situation to begin. Stuck in a hold, you couldn’t even lie down. Couldn’t breathe and dark and couldn’t make any noise or light a cigarette or anything.  And you go for hours and hours on an old lumbering freighter along the coast. Riding through the Italian submarine waters.  Never knowing when we were going to get blown up. Well, finally, somehow or other the captain managed to get it through and when the sunlight came, they opened up the hatches and told us we could get out and get some fresh air. We were past the danger zone. And we were fairly close now, getting close to Barcelona. And then one little tiny Russian airplane came buzzing over us to sort of salute us and guide us in. We were cheering. It was one of those little mosquito planes that they call a mosca. We were glad to see that because we figured well, we almost had it made and we did. About an hour or so later, we managed to get into the port in Barcelona. We stayed there a while — 3, 4, 5, 6 days, a week. Nothing much happening — it was almost two weeks. And the big leaders were dickering and arguing and fighting and planning and unplanning and all that. A lot of confusion and chaos.  There was a breakdown of unified planning and leadership at that time. Interesting stories about some of the leaders in the Comintern at that point.  Come into that later. The Fascists are advancing. They’re advancing, coming closer and closer to Barcelona. Beginning to bomb Barcelona and here we are stuck in Barcelona, a lot of us. They had had a big parade in Barcelona — oh, months before, a couple months before when a lot of them, a lot of the International Brigaders that were in the north were assembled in Barcelona. Made a big parade.  Dolores Ibaruri (La Pasionaria)greeted them, made a big speech and then they got into the railroad trains and got into France and they were all finished. But we weren’t finished; we were still stuck down there and fighting to get back out and get up to France. We weren’t sure we were going to make it. Finally, they put us on a train and we go as far as some city about halfway between Barcelona and the French border. I forget the name of it. If I looked at a map, I could pick it out. (It was Girona).  We got out there — as far as the train could go. I don’t know why. And we stayed there — holed up in some kind of a makeshift barracks for 2 or 3 days. Meanwhile, the Fascists were already attacking Barcelona, coming closer and closer and closer. And we’re stuck there. Well, it turns out that some of the leaders who were responsible for the international brigades wanted all the volunteers not to leave, but to keep on fighting. And others said ‘no, that’s crazy, that’s suicide. There’s no use wasting lives like that. ‘So that’s one reason there was a stalemate and there wasn’t much action.  The rumor was that it was under Andre Marty who was standing in the way and telling the different units that they should go back and fight.

INTERVIEWER:   Who was that?

SHULMAN:   Andre Marty. He was one of the big shots.  Frenchman and big shot in the communist movement.  Was a little nutty.  A Martinet.  So, he made a lot of political speeches to all the different groups, convinced some that they should go back. They were already disarmed — they had no guns, they had nothing. And they were on their way home, but he said you have to fight.  With what?  He said go to the front and there will be plenty of soldiers who will be killed in front of you and pick up their guns and use their guns and go and fight the Fascists.

INTERVIEWER:   Did many people do that?
SHULMAN:   Some did. There was resistance to that and a lot of the international brigade units refused to do that. But there were some who listened and did it. Who were they? German anti-Fascists who had no place to go.  So, they listened and they went back to fight and they all got killed. Cuban anti-Fascists.  Italian anti-Fascists.  All these people who had no way, no place to go back home, so they were convinced and talked into going back and fighting some more and this was practically suicide.

INTERVIEWER:   So, you were saying that it was the ones who had no home to return to, basically went back …
SHULMAN:   They were anti-fascists. Very strong anti-fascists.  They were actually being sacrificed for nothing. I guess there was no chance that they could survive. No chance that they could hold back the fascists. They had guns, artillery, planes and submarines, the whole works. These guys didn’t even have a rifle between them. They were supposed to go and pick-up rifles off the field from the dead troops. Fantastic!

INTERVIEWER:   So, they you are….
SHULMAN:   There I am and our unit came under the pressure to do the same thing and our officers, leaders were also debating what to do. Whether to do it or not.  Some guys thought we should. You know, they were the hot politically developed guys. Others thought we shouldn’t.

INTERVIEWER:   What was your opinion?
SHULMAN:   Well, I’ll tell you. They finally decided that they would lay the choice before the units and asked for volunteers. If anyone would volunteer to go back and continue fighting, OK, they could leave and go. If anyone wanted to go back home, they could do that. So, they asked for volunteers. So, we had about 100 in our group I think, and we got about 6 or 7 volunteers. I was one of the crazy ones who volunteered. So–

INTERVIEWER:   Why?
SHULMAN:   I was crazy. I mean — full of political juice, what would you call it? Fervor and anti-fascist hatred and what not.  I felt it was my duty. I don’t know why. It was nutty, but I did. We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have maps, we didn’t — how are we going to be artillery men without artillery pieces and guns — without even rifles, without maps, without anything but they told us go around and look in all the stores and all the armories and what not and see if you can just pick-up things that are around that you could use. We tried to do that, but it was a hopeless case. After about 2 days of that, I don’t know who prevailed, but there was controversy, a struggle going on in high places about this policy. Finally, our group leaders decided that it would be foolish and useless to send us seven back, to stop the fascists so they decided that they would rescind the volunteer business and put us back into the group to go back to France. About a day later we were on the train going back to the French border. The fascists, by that time, had already taken Barcelona and were creeping up behind us and pretty close, coming pretty close just one day behind us. But we finally got to the border and there was a group from the League of Nations that greeted us and took us over the border, took care of us. That’s an interesting way they took care of us. The fascists came up to the border, about a day later. So we were really about 24 hours ahead of them and some of the guys who were left behind, who missed the train, for one reason or another. One of our buddies, American guy, he had a cold or something was a little sick and so he couldn’t go with us on the train. He was in the clinic getting treated so he fell behind and he was about a day behind us. He got captured and he was very lucky because the fascists when they’d catch Internationals, they’d just shoot them right away, without any questions asked. He for in the prison, the fascist prison for 2 years or more I think.  He wrote some interesting books. We got across & some the guys didn’t & got captured or killed. When we got into France, of course a lot of the Spanish people were put into concentration camps by the French. And they stayed there 3, 4 years —

INTERVIEWER:   The Spanish ones?
SHULMAN:   Yeah, they were prisoners

INTERVIEWER:   So, going with you in this retreat are not just international brigades from other countries, but it’s also —
SHULMAN:   Oh, a lot of refugees, too, were crossing over. Trying to get away from the fascists.

INTERVIEWER:   But were there also, like Spanish fighters of the Republican army?
SHULMAN:   There were some, yes. There were some and civilians, too. And some Internationals who were not under control of the League of Nations. They got thrown in with the civilians in the concentration camps. French camps.  And that was a big story about their life there and how they struggled there and what finally happened to them. We were Internationals and under the control of the League of Nations, so we were in a safe area, supposedly.  A little bit better than the safe areas in Bosnia, but not much. So we were actually prisoners of the League of Nations. They gave us one little meal — omelet and some bread and butter — Oh, it was heavenly.  I think it was the best meal we ever had in our lives. A banana, some eggs, some potatoes, and some bread.  They put us on a train. The train was sealed, guarded by soldiers. We weren’t allowed to get down off the train at all. Nobody was allowed to come onto the train. Nobody was allowed to come near the train or even talk to us. Wherever the trains went, they tried to keep the local French people away and keep us from communicating with the French people and the French with us. We were like prisoners. Couldn’t get off the train.  When the train was supposed to come to Paris the Progressives in Paris organized big demonstrations and groups to come and greet the volunteers on the train. So the French government, anticipating this and knowing all about it, they re-routed the train around Paris so it wouldn’t go through Paris and kept that going directly to the docks Le Havre. That’s how they avoided demonstrations in Paris. We get to the docks in Le Havre. They don’t let us off the train at all at Le Havre; they rode the train right onto the dock.  Right onto the dock next to the ship.  Under police escort, or soldiers escort, we were taken from the train right into the ship and nobody could talk to us and we couldn’t talk to anybody.

INTERVIEWER:   What wasthe mood of the people on that train like while youwere making this trip?
SHULMAN:   Well, I have to describe it. We were relieved, of course, that we were still alive. We were, of course, not too happy, because Republican Spain lost, but we had been anticipating this for months and months — half a year actually so we were able to overcome that, we were used to that and we were looking forward to getting back home in one piece. So it was a sort of a mixed attitude. Mostly relief but a little, quite a bit, of bitterness, you know, against the ones who helped the fascists, the League of Nations and what not. We were practically prisoners on the ship, too. It was another big —

INTERVIEWER:   It wasanother bigocean liner?
SHULMAN: Oh, like the USS President. When we got to New York, of course, they were having good size demonstrations to greet us. By then we were — on that side we were heroes. Temporarily at least, anyway.  We were heroes and so we had the usual treatment, reporters and what not and friends. I don’t know what happened then. A few days I supposed in New York, being checked out by the organization or whatever it was. And then be given the fare, tickets, to go back home. Rochester.

INTERVIEWER:   Do you remember when this was? When was that? The month or — this is all 1939?
SHULMAN:  ’39, yeah.  Must have been around May, June, something like that — finally got home. 

INTERVIEWER:   Weren’t there very high casualties?
SHULMAN:   Yeah, very high. Because when the international brigades came in, they were sent into the most dangerous places where there was danger of break through because the Spanish people weren’t trained very well. They weren’t well organized. They didn’t have good guns and, in many places, there were break throughs — dangerous places — and they would send the international brigades to plug up the little holes.

INTERVIEWER:   But the brigades weren’t trained and didn’t have equipment, either.
SHULMAN:   No. But with the help of the brigades, they managed to plug up the holes. There were high casualties in all those battles. Allthose battles, very high casualties.  Especially among the infantry. 

INTERVIEWER What impact do you think this experience had on your political outlook? Your political views? 
SHULMAN:  Well, that’s hard to say. It’s sort of a — well, it hardened us. Most of us, me especially — it hardened us to be more devoted. Some people got disillusioned and drifted away and others got a little hardened and stronger and devoted to the cause, the so-called cause. It was a good cause. But when you fight and you’re beaten it isn’t good for your morale, but you keep on fighting. We used to have a slogan in — back in the trenches there. Towards the end.  He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.  So, we knew we had to get out, we were beaten and we had to withdraw. That made sense. But it didn’t mean that we were going to give up fighting. Most of us didn’t give up. In fact, a high percentage of vets, when we had left — there was January, February, March — March, April, around there, the last volunteers had left Spain. In September World War II officially broke out, just six months later and a lot of our guys volunteered into the merchant marine, they were seamen, sailors, longshoremen – – into the army directly, even before we became involved.

INTERVIEWER:   Did you ever try to join the United States military during World War II?
SHULMAN:   Yeah, I did join, but a little later. I was working in defense work for a couple years and then, when the U.S. became directly involved, I had an exemption because of being married, having a kid, working in defense, in defense work.  I volunteered again (in ’44) this time and they accepted me, even though I was kind of old for a volunteer, you know.  Yeah, the army. They had my record; I didn’t hide anything. I told them I was in Spain and I was in artillery and all that. Much to my surprise, when my basic training was over the officers recommended me to go to officer’s training school.  I was a little surprised at that, but I went and I got through it with difficulty and a lot of difficulties because I was getting a little old and I wasn’t too strong. But I made it. A lot of others were thrown out in the course, never got to finish, but I was surprised that I made it on. I was assigned again to artillery.

INTERVIEWER:   Were you able to get any political newspapers or literature while you were in the army?
SHULMAN:   No.

INTERVIEWER:   Were you a member of the party when you went to Spain?
SHULMAN:   Well, more or less. Actually, I was a member of the YCL.

INTERVIEWER:   What was the difference between the two?
SHULMAN:   Not very much, because I was — as an YCLer, actually, I was meeting with a unit of the party, which was small, and practically duplication, it wasn’t a big part of their anything.

INTERVIEWER:   Were there age restrictions? Did you have to bea certain age?
SHULMAN:   I don’t know — restrictions at all. You could come in at 17 and you could be a unit organizer for the party, right away, without knowing anything. There were no hard and fast rules. There was a lot of talk about discipline and this and that and regulations, but there was really– very loose, very loose organization.

INTERVIEWER:   When you came back from Spain, were you — did you pick up again in terms of party meetings?
SHULMAN:   Oh, yeah. Sure.

INTERVIEWER:   Were you still in the YCL then?
SHULMAN:   No. No, then I was nominally in the party.

INTERVIEWER:   What do you mean, nominally?
SHULMAN:   Well, before I was in the party but I wasn’t nominally. I was nominally a youth. Now I — I have to spend a few years in Spain, I became, perhaps, an adult, as it were. So, I started out an officer, as a private. I was living on the lower east side and, they had big branches in those days.  It was the result of Browderism; it was almost like a public meeting when you had 150 people in one unit — lower east side.  A lot of people were inspired by this kind of struggle. So, they fancied themselves as communists and joined the party and attended the meetings. But that’s about all it amounted to. What we did at the meetings I don’t know. I haven’t the faintest idea. We were supposed to get up and make speeches, but that’s about all there was to it, and I didn’t even know what kind of speech to make.

INTERVIEWER:   Did you study Marxism much? Were you reading books?
SHULMAN:   We were supposed to, but it wasn’t well organized. It wasn’t well organized. Actually, we kept busy, doing nothing practically. We were so busy that we didn’t even sit down and have study courses and study. We weren’t organized very well. Part of the problem we had a tendency that could convert the party into just not a political party really, but a social organization of Progressives. And then little by little, in the course of a year or two years it began to fade away.

INTERVIEWER:   Were you in the army at the time the party dissolved? The Browderites dissolved the party?
SHULMAN:   Yes, I was

INTERVIEWER:   How did you find out about that?
SHULMAN:   Some friend of mine sent me some clippings from the Daily Worker and I got it in the mail after the thing happened. That was a shock. And that really upset me. You kind of get lost, disoriented. And then we were in the army and nothing we could do about it. Nobody we could talk to about it so we just kept doing our jobs in the army and waiting to see what would happen. And shortly after we got out of the army back into civilian life, we began to straighten things out.

INTERVIEWER What did you do when you– how’d you straighten things out?
SHULMAN:   Well, I don’t know. We didn’t do anything. We stayed — see the party was reconstituted again, immediately and I stayed in.  And that’s about it.

INTERVIEWER:   Did you go back to the lower east side?
SHULMAN:   Yeah, I was living in the lower east side. Got married.



Categories: Anti-Fascism, antifascism, History, International, Interview, Revolutionary History, Spain, U.S. News, United States History, World History

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