The Jerusalem-born Jew Who Preferred Fighting Franco to Fighting for Zionism

In the 1930s Meir Levy left the Holy Land to fight in the Spanish Civil War. His descendants are trying to bring his body back to Israel

Volunteers from British Mandatory Palestine who set out to fight in the Spanish Civil War in 1936
Courtesy of Mihal Sela

In the cemetery of the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña in Spain, a Jewish man born in Jerusalem is buried. Meir Levy, who was born in 1909 to an old Sephardi family, was a descendant of Rabbi Eliezer Papo, the author of a 19th-century treatise on ethics, “Pele Yoetz.”

How did Levy, a construction worker, end up in a Catholic cemetery in Spain? His story is being documented in a study headed by genealogist Eli Brauner, a distant relative of Levy's who’s taking part in efforts to bring his ancestor's remains back to Israel.

Levy left the country in 1936 with about 300 other Jews from British Mandatory Palestine, most of them communists. They headed for Spain, where they joined the volunteers of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, who were fighting Franco’s forces supported by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

At the time the Jewish community in Mandate Palestine was busy with its Tower and Stockade settlement efforts during the 1936-39 Arab revolt. But Levy chose not to die for his country, but rather for the freedom of others and what he considered a lofty ideal.

Meir Levy prior to heading off to war.
Eli Brauner

“Meir was part of a group of extreme leftist ideologues of the type you no longer see today,” Brauner says. “They abandoned their families and their lives, set out to fight in a foreign country and paid a high price for it.”

The International Brigades numbered about 40,000 volunteers from all over the world. About 15 percent were Jews, a very high number. Between 250 and 300 of them came from Mandate Palestine, and some – though not Levy – were sent to a Jewish unit that was named after Naftali Botwin, a Jewish communist who had been executed in Poland in 1925. Most of the Jewish volunteers spoke Yiddish; Levy, a Sephardi Jew, was one of the few who spoke Spanish.

About 70 members of the Jewish unit were killed in Spain. A few dozen others were taken prisoner and later murdered by the Nazis. Levy is the only volunteer from Mandate Palestine whose place of burial has been found. He will also probably be the first whose remains will be brought to Israel; there are no similar cases, says Nira Granatstein, who is assisting in the research.

We know very little about Levy. His great-nephew, Yigal Cohen, who lives in Motza Ilit near Jerusalem, grew up on the story of “the uncle who went to Spain and disappeared,” as he put it. “There were all kinds of theories about the circumstances of his death, but nobody knew anything. Nobody tried to search for him in Spain. I assume they had no idea where to go and whom to ask.”

Levy the commissar

There was another reason for the lack of interest: Levy was a communist. As a result, he was hounded back home by both the Zionist leadership and the British Mandate authorities. Newspapers from the period, available on a Hebrew-language website, show the trouble Levy got into. In 1935, for example, he took part in a stormy communist demonstration in Jerusalem where he was shot by a British policeman and wounded in the foot.

A DNA test being conducted on Meir Levy's nephew.
Eli Brauner

The next significant reference to Levy, from 1966, is in an article in the now defunct left-wing socialist daily Al Hamishmar on the 30th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War.

“Meir Levy, in his first steps on Spanish soil, was no different from the Spanish fighters and looked like one of them due to his knowledge of the language,” Al Hamishmar reported. “Due to his political savvy and unquestioned bravery, within a short time he was appointed a political commissar in a Spanish unit. He died on the front in his prime.”

Over the past two years, Brauner has been setting up a database that contains all the information available on volunteers from pre-state Israel who set out to fight in Spain. His research shows that Levy served in the Hungarian brigade, not in the Jewish unit, as a politruk – an officer teaching ideology to his comrades in arms. “We know very little about what happened to him in the army,” Brauner says.

Levy didn’t fall in battle. He was imprisoned at the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña near the city of Burgos north of Madrid, a monastery of Trappist monks who took a vow of silence, similar to the monastery at Latrun near Ben-Gurion Airport. The Spanish monastery became famous as the burial place of El Cid, who captured the port city of Valencia from the Muslims in 1094.

During the Spanish Civil War, the monastery was turned into a huge prison where thousands suffered in horrible conditions. “Meir died there of an illness. We found his death certificate,” Brauner says.

The cause for which Levy sacrificed his life – stopping Spanish fascism – was a resounding failure. In 1939, Franco and the Nationalists won the war and imposed a dictatorship on Spain, shortly before World War II broke out.

Levy’s body remained at the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña; his family didn’t look for him. But in 2004, Cohen, the great-nephew, decided to act. He flew to Spain, arrived at the gates of the monastery and declared that he had come to recover Levy’s body. But the monks told him that a few years earlier the cemetery had been destroyed and the bodies, including Levy’s, had been interred in a mass grave. Thus there was no way to identify Levy’s remains.

Cohen returned to Israel empty-handed, but he told Brauner about his experiences and the project was launched. “We did a real in-depth study,” Brauner says, telling about the efforts to find and identify the body: aerial photos, death certificates that note the number of the grave, and DNA tests on Levy’s nephew.

Franco's mass graves

Brauner believes that Levy is still interred where the cemetery originally stood. He says the monks removed the tombstones but didn’t remove the remains to a mass grave as they said they did. To test the assumption, a dig at the site is necessary, followed by tests to locate Levy’s bones, and for that they needed the monastery’s permission, which was recently obtained.

“Anyone who can help bring the bones of a Jewish soldier to a Jewish grave in the Land of Israel – it’s a big mitzvah and a true act of kindness. And he will be blessed from heaven,” wrote Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef.

Now the family is preparing to raise the money to pay for the project. They are being assisted by Spain’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which includes archaeologists, anthropologists and forensic experts. In recent years they have collected information on victims of the Franco regime, striving to find remains in mass graves and return them to their families.

Worldwide there is a great deal of interest in the volunteers; both online and real sites have been set up in their memory in a host of countries. “The subject is alive and kicking, but in Israel people have no idea about this period,” Brauner says.

In 2006 director Eran Torbiner documented the last Israelis who fought in the Spanish Civil War in his film “Madrid Before Hanita” – Hanita was a Tower and Stockade settlement.

“I got to them at the last moment,” he says. “I discovered a very isolated group that had been erased from history because it didn’t accord with the Zionist narrative. I felt that this was unfair; after all, they were so heroic, and they were willing, completely voluntarily, to travel thousands of kilometers  from home to die for their ideals.”

Six years later their story was presented in the exhibition “From Here to Madrid” in Tel Aviv's Eretz Israel Museum. Since then all the featured veterans have died.

Torbiner has reservations about bringing Levy’s body back to Israel. Levy is the only one of the Jewish, Mandate-Palestine volunteers killed in Spain whose grave has been found. “I understand and respect the family’s need for that, but I think Meir would have preferred to remain buried in the soil where people like him were interred,” Torbiner says.

“These were people for whom the welfare of humanity was important, and who set out to fight for a democratic world – a world that differs completely from Israel, where Meir and his friends were ostracized.”

Brauner, on the other hand, is determined to complete the mission. “I’ve already carried out several crazy projects in the past including an operation to search for the remains of my grandfather, who didn’t return from World War I. Usually I accomplish my goal,” he says.

Brauner considers returning Meir Levy’s remains to Israel from Spanish soil, which he calls “the testing ground for World War II,” an “emotional, symbolic and religious” act.