This Day in Jewish History

1937: Jewish Force Formed to Fight Fascism in Spanish Civil War

The fighting force was named for Jewish political martyr Naftali Botwin, and some think they were just cannon fodder.

The Naftali Botwin Brigade of Jewish volunteers, during the 1937 Civil War.
YouTube

On December12, 1937, for reasons that remain murky to this day, a Jewish company was established to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Part of the International Brigade of volunteers who flocked from around the world to help fight against Francisco Franco and fascism, the company was named after Naftali Botwin. He was a Jewish communist who had been executed twelve years earlier, in 1925, in Poland after assassinating a government agent who had infiltrated the Communist party as an informer.

Even before the establishment of the Botwin company, a disproportionate number of anti-Franco volunteers in Spain were Jewish.

Jews against fascism

Some 5,000 of the 35,000 International Brigade's volunteers were Jews, estimates the historian Gerben Zaagsma.

In a 2003 article, “'Red Devils’: The Botwin Company in the Spanish Civil War,” Zaagsma examined the commonly-held concept that Jews were motivated to fight out of a desire to battle Hitler’s Germany, which was openly assisting Franco and his army.

The Naftali Botwin Company, an all-Jewish, Polish-based unit of the International Brigades in Spain, was formed in 1937.
Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum / Photo Archive

Most Jews who joined the fight in Spain did so because they were communists or socialists – and because they had been encouraged if not ordered to do so by the Soviet government of Joseph Stalin, says Zaagsma, citing first-hand accounts. “The opportunity to fight against fascism was probably the major motivation of most volunteers,” he writes, although “the possibility of regaining one’s self-respect played a role in the decision of those who lived in poor and difficult circumstances.”

Wanted: Cannon fodder

The initiative for the Jewish unit came from Albert Nahumi (born Arieh Weits), a leader in the French Communist Party, who proposed the idea in October 1936. At the time, things were not going well for the Republicans (they didn't improve), and it was getting harder to recruit foreign volunteers.

The proposal to appeal to Jews separately was approved by Moscow, which apparently saw this as a “marketing” ploy to attract what amounted to fresh cannon fodder for the cause.

The Naftali Botwin Brigade, in Yiddish YouTube

The plan was not implemented at the time because Nahumi died. Only a year later was the suggestion revived, again by communists in Paris, where the recruiting office for the International Brigade was situated.

Giving credence to the idea that the establishment of Botwin was a propaganda move is the fact that the company was not new, but rather just a rebranding of the existing 2nd company of the Palafox Division of the 13th Dombrowsky Brigade.

Having a distinctly Jewish company was expected to make it easier to raise money from Jews around the world, and also to increase support for Communism.

Most of the members of Botwin Company were Polish Jewish communists, many already living in exile in France. (Other volunteers came from Belgium, Spain, France and Palestine. Among the latter were two Arabs, one of them a Yiddish-speaking Palestinian from Jerusalem.)

Sigmund Stein, a former and disillusioned member of the Botwin who wrote a Yiddish-language memoir of his experience in 1961, believed that party members in Paris saw the company as a way to get rid of Polish Jewish émigrés to their country, and knew that the party members among them would be hard-pressed to reject the demand that they join the fight in Spain.

Botwin Company published its own Yiddish-language newspaper, called Botwin (which came out seven times), and had a flag that bore the motto “For your freedom and ours,” printed in Yiddish and Polish on one side, and in Spanish on the reverse. Its anthem, also in Yiddish, was written by the fighter Olek Nuss, and ended with the following lines:

“And in that future time without war,
Our efforts will be remembered,
As the Jewish Botwin soldiers,
The fascist plague, they chased away!
No pasaran!”

Members of the company had a reputation for bravery, and were often referred to as “red devils,” although it is not completely clear if the reputation was genuine or if it was part of the propaganda generated from above.

What is known is that Botwin Company saw action in two battles: Estramadura, in February 1938, in which only 20 of the original 120 survived, and later, in July 1938, in the Ebro offensive, in which all who didn’t die in combat were later executed by the victorious Nationalists.

The International Brigades, Spanish Civil War YouTube