On this day, March 3, in 1938, the antifascist Hyman Katz was killed at the Belchite battlefield in Spain. He was 24 years-old.
Hyman (Chaim) Katz was a volunteer to the Spanish Civil War from New York, from a Jewish background. He joined the International Brigades and fought in the ranks of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. He was one of the 60,000 heroic antifascists who traveled to Spain from all over the world in order to fight against the military coup led by General Franco.
His letter reveals the crystal-clear view that a lot of rank-and-file working-class people had at that time. They saw the danger posed by the rise of fascism, and the need to join a united and international struggle in order to stop it.
Katz had left for Spain without telling his mother. He did not want to upset her, and he knew that she would try to stop him. But when he was wounded in a battle in 1937, he decided to write a letter to her explaining why he joined the International Brigades. In an effort to convince her that her son needed to make this sacrifice and go to war he writes “this is a case where sons must go against their mothers’ wishes for the sake of their mothers themselves”. And goes on to say that it is understandable for anybody to fear for his loved ones, but if the battle against fascism is not won –and personal sacrifices are needed for this– everybody will pay the price. The millions killed in the slaughterhouse of WWII would confirm that …
The heroism and the instinctive far-sightedness of ordinary working-class people was definitely not met by their leaderships. Stalinism, with its policy of rejecting a united antifascist front between the parties and organisations of the working class, bears a key responsibility for the rise of fascism in Germany. Reformists (the Social Democratic parties of the time), Stalinists and Anarchists bear a heavy responsibility, for different reasons each, for the defeat of the antifascist struggle in the Spanish Civil War.
The story of the antifascists that fought under the slogan “No passaran” in Spain should serve as a reminder of the sacrifices needed to fight against fascism. But the defeat in the Spanish civil war should also serve as a warning. The duty of those who seek to continue the antifascist struggle today is to draw the lessons from the mistakes that were made by the leaderships in the past, so that they are not repeated in the future.
Letter from the Front in Spain
November 25, 1937
It’s quite difficult for me to write this letter, but it must be done; Claire writes me that you know I’m in Spain. Of course, you know that the reason I didn’t tell you where I was, is that I didn’t want to hurt you. I realize that I was foolish for not understanding that you would have to find out.
I came to Spain because I felt I had to. Look at the world situation. We didn’t worry when Mussolini came to power in Italy. We felt bad when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, but what could we do? We felt -though we tried to help and sympathize- that it was their problem and wouldn’t affect us.
Then the fascist governments sent out agents and began to gain power in other countries. Remember the anti-Semitic troubles in Austria only about a year ago. Look at what is happening in Poland; and see how the fascists are increasing their power in the Balkans -and Greece- and how the Italians are trying to play up to the Arab leaders.
Seeing all these things -how fascism is grasping power in many countries (including the U.S., where there are many Nazi organizations and Nazi agents and spies)- can’t you see that fascism is our problem – that it may come to us as it came in other countries? And don’t you realize that we Jews will be the first to suffer if fascism comes?
But if we didn’t see clearly the hand of Mussolini and Hitler in all these countries, in Spain we can’t help seeing it. Together with their agent, Franco, they are trying to set up the same anti-progressive, anti-Semitic regime in Spain, as they have in Italy and Germany. If we sit by and let them grow stronger by taking Spain, they will move on to France and will not stop there; and it won’t be long before they get to America.
Realizing this, can I sit by 37 and wait until the beasts get to my very door – until it is too late, and there is no one I can call on for help? And would I even deserve help from others when the trouble comes upon me, if I were to refuse help to those who need it today? If I permitted such a time to come -as a Jew and a progressive, I would be among the first to fall under the axe of the fascists; -all I could do then would be to curse myself and say, “Why didn’t I wake up when the alarmclock rang?” But then it would be too late – just as it was too late for the Jews in Germany to find out in 1933 that they were wrong in believing that Hitler would never rule Germany.
I know that you are worried about me; but how often is the operation which worries us, most necessary to save us? Many mothers here, in places not close to the battle-front, would not let their children go to fight, until the fascist bombing planes came along; and then it was too late. Many mothers here have been crippled or killed, or their husbands and children maimed or killed; yet some of these mothers did not want to send their sons and husbands to the war, until the fascist bombs taught them in such a horrible manner what common sense could not teach them.
Yes, Ma, this is a case where sons must go against their mothers’ wishes for the sake of their mothers themselves. So, I took up arms against the persecutors of my people -the Jews and my class – the Oppressed. I am fighting against those who establish an inquisition like that of their ideological ancestors several centuries ago, in Spain. Are these traits which you admire so much in a Prophet Jeremiah or a Judas Maccabeus, bad when your son exhibits them? Of course, I am not a Jeremiah or a Judas; but I’m trying with my own meager capabilities, to do what they did with their great capabilities, in the struggle for Liberty, well-being, and Peace….