I’ve gotten into the habit of checking the obituaries of a small town newspaper in Western, Pennsylvania, because it is a small town and because I lived there for quite some time in the 1970s and 1980s and I sometimes recognize a name. I rarely look at the obituaries in larger papers, but one did catch my eye this past Sunday in the NY Times.
"Moe Fishman, who as a 21-year-old from Astoria, Queens, fought Fascists in Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and was severely wounded, then led veterans of that unit in fighting efforts to brand them as Communist subversives, died on Aug. 6 in Manhattan. He was 92."
The photo caught my eye. I have one friend who wears a beret; it is a very hard look to pull off. It helps if you’re playing “Flambee Montalbanaise” on an accordion. But exceptions can be made, and a 92 year old Spanish Civil War veteran on the streets of Astoria can wear a Viking helmet if he likes. I wouldn’t complain.
One discovery I made when I started writing a blog was that every post seems to send me off into odd corners of the internet and I always seem to return with unexpected little bits of information I found just sort of floating out there, drawn to me as if by gravity as I wander about.
I knew that George Orwell had gone to Spain to fight the fascists. I remember a journal entry he’d made during that time, something to the effect that “I’ve been here for two weeks and haven’t killed my first fascist yet. . . . If we could each shoot one fascist they would quickly become extinct.” I found that a year or so ago when I was writing a piece about Woody Guthrie, and how the phrase “This machine kills fascists” that he’d written around the border of his guitar was not entirely meant to be taken figuratively.
What I did not know, however, was that George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair. The son of a British civil servant, he was born in eastern India in 1903 and joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, then a British colony. He resigned in 1927 when he began to think of himself as a writer. He took the name “Orwell” just before the publication of his book Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933.
I’ve thought, like I suppose most people have at one time or another, of changing my name, adopting a new one or adapting an old one. When I moved to West Virginia in 1977 I’d planned to tell everyone my name was Mike. My confirmation name was Michael so I thought I had some claim to it, and I have always liked the name. I’ve met a whole slew of Mikes in my life and, with one notable exception, always seemed to like them right off.
My family name was originally “Dzieniszewski” and I may yet use the name “S. Dzieniszewski” if I ever finish the novel I started in 1970 (the working title of which is Everything, which may point in the direction of the problem).
Late in 1936, Orwell traveled to Spain to fight for the Republicans against Franco's Nationalists. He was later forced to flee in fear of his life from Soviet-backed communists who were suppressing revolutionary socialist dissenters. The experience turned him into a lifelong anti-Stalinist. Orwell died of tuberculosis on 21 January 1950, not yet 47 years old. Moe Fishman, however, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, managed to live to the fine old age of 92.
As my generation ages there are continual attempts to redefine the various signposts as they approach. “Fifty is the new thirty” is one example. I definitely remember 30 feeling a whole lot different that 50. “Sixty isn’t old” is another that is quickly making the transition from catch phrase to mantra. So far however, no one has tried to make 92 anything but what it is. Which is why I don’t write this to mourn Moe. I am sorry I never knew him. I bet he was a fine man and I bet he was great fun to sit with on a sunny afternoon with some tea and stories.
As of today about 40 of about 3,000 American veterans of the Spanish Civil War volunteers are living. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives keep records for these men. It was Moe Fishman who kept the group going during the long, ultimately successful legal battle to remove the group’s subversive label. Mr. Fishman put out a newsletter, kept scrupulous books, ran the office daily and spoke widely. In 1937, Mr. Fishman was a high-school dropout working in a laundry and driving a truck. He was also a member of the Young Communist League, having joined partly to meet like-minded young women at dances the organization sponsored.
In 1968 I joined the Young Peoples Socialist League because they had blood red membership cards and a girl from south Philadelphia I’d gone out with a couple times thought it looked cool and was impressed at how angry it made her father.
Moe joined because he liked how the Communists responded when a family behind on the rent was evicted and thrown on the streets with its furniture. He saw party members use an ax or hammer to break the lock on the door and put the family back in. Many believe that at least half of the volunteers for the Lincoln Brigade were Communists.
Moe Fishman’s reasons for going were more complex. In 1969 he told The Times, “Why did I go? That’s hard to say. That’s a key question. I was active in trade union work. I wanted to travel. I belonged to the 92nd Street Y.M.H.A., and we were very anti-Fascist, much opposed to Hitler, Franco.”
The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 after Gen. Francisco Franco set out to overthrow the newly elected leftist government. Americans soon volunteered to fight Franco in what came to be called the Lincoln Brigade. It was actually a battalion. Officially, Americans joined it or the Washington Battalion. The two American battalions, which informally have come to be known as the Lincoln Brigade, joined with four other battalions of volunteers from other countries to form the XV International Brigade. On July 5, 1937, during the Brunete offensive west of Madrid, a sniper hit Mr. Fishman’s thigh, leaving 32 pieces of bone and metal. He spent a year in Spanish hospitals, and a pin was put into his leg. He was in and out of hospitals in the United States for two years.
He was born Moses Fishman on Sept. 28, 1915, and grew up in Astoria. He’s gone now and we are, I think, a little bit worse off without his voice.