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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2015
Number 83
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

A Model of Courage

A Review Essay by Alison Rose

And when my eyes begin to flutter and close
I shall be sad; but why should my courage shake?
If there is darkness, why then, I will sleep,
If light, I shall wake (100).
— Sam Levinger

Laurie Levinger’s book, Love and Revolutionary Greetings: An Ohio Boy in the Spanish Civil War (Eugene, OR: WPF & Stock Publishers) is a labor of love for an uncle she never met, but whom she came to know intimately through his writings, her research on his life and death, and her search for his final resting place. Sam Levinger, son of Reform rabbi, Lee J. Levinger, and writer, educator and Jewish communal leader, Elma E. Levinger, and student at the Ohio State University, was one of approximately 2800 Americans who went to Spain to fight as a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American contingent of the International Brigades, during the Spanish Civil War. Sam was mortally wounded in the battle of Belchite in September 1937 and died in a field hospital at the age of twenty. This book tells the story of Sam’s life and death primarily through his own writings and those of his mother, supplemented by other eyewitness accounts of the Spanish Civil War. Sam’s experiences, idealism, and character come through vividly as does the strong bond between Sam and his mother Elma.

Levinger opens by describing her discovery of a box of Sam and Elma’s writings in her father’s basement in 2001. The chapters that follow, arranged more or less chronologically, reveal some of Sam’s earlier experiences and influences. We learn of his sense of adventure as young child, an encounter with anti-Semitism, the impact of the Great Depression, exposure to students’ discussions of politics in his home (his father was the director for the OSU Hillel Foundation), his family’s travels to Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Europe, his involvement with the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), and his arrest at a coal miners’ strike at the age of 17. Of Elma, we learn of her devotion to her writing, her pacifism, her war-wounded father (he had lost both legs), and the loss of her first child, Moses, to influenza during the First World War in France where Lee was serving as a chaplain.

The bulk of the chapters focus on Sam’s life as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: his preparation, travel, training, and fighting. He was twice wounded and although according to the Brigade rules should have thus returned home, he escaped from the hospital and made his way back to rejoin his unit at the Battle of Belchite. Although he was assigned to a relatively safe task, he volunteered for a more dangerous one and received his fatal injury. Sam’s letters home depict his sense of purpose, the loyalty of fellow Brigade members, and the importance of their cause, while downplaying the seriousness of the dangers and deprivations under which they lived with his light and casual tone. Touching accounts of others’ war stories, such as his portrayal of the death of one of his comrades, Jim, and an encounter with a Spanish woman in a small village who had lost both of her sons, provide a more emotional perspective on the costs of the war (67-73).

The later chapters focus on Sam’s final days and death written primarily from Elma’s imagination, the aftermath of Sam’s death, and the author’s quest to find Sam’s final resting spot. Included are letters received by the family, reflections of Sam’s sister Leah on the loss of her brother, more recent responses to Sam’s story, and other interpretations of the Spanish Civil War. Levinger recounts that she began her search for Sam when Leah had a vision, shortly before her death, of Sam and Elma waiting for her. Through research Levinger was able to confirm the location and circumstances of Sam’s death, but in order to find where he was buried she had to travel to Spain. When Levinger found Sam’s final resting place in the town cemetery in La Puebla de Hijar where the men who died in the field hospital were buried, she chanted the Kaddish, and scattered Leah’s ashes. She said, “Uncle Sam, I wish I’d known you. You gave us a model of courage, fighting for what you believe in, making a commitment and putting your body on the line. You lived your ideals and your passions” (150).

While there are a few references to Sam’s Jewish upbringing, one is left wondering how Sam really felt about his Jewish identity. Most of the material referring to Judaism is actually from Elma. For example, the discussion of Sam’s encounter with anti-Semitism and his enjoyment of religious practices at home on pages 7-8 is presented under the heading “Sam” as if it were his words, but the footnote indicates that the passage is actually from one of Elma’s two unpublished novels about Sam, Death in the Mountains. The only indication of Sam’s feelings about Judaism comes from his letter to be delivered “in case of death,” where he reaffirms his commitment and lack of regret and describes death as “unfortunate” but necessary. In an effort to console his parents, he reminds them of their two surviving children and their “extremely valuable work.” He writes, “I am less able to evaluate father’s work, though I realize its great worth; but in my field, that of an author, I can say I think mother will become one of the most valuable authors of the generation” (158). While this statement indicates respect for his father’s work, he does not seem to relate to it as well as to that of his mother. Together with his general silence on Jewish topics throughout his writings, one might conclude Sam was somewhat ambivalent his Jewish identity.

On a related note, the story of the Jews’ role in the International Brigades is left largely untold. A passage from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade publication, No Pasarán describes the members of the Brigade as “Black and White, Jew and Gentile, they came from every corner of the U.S” (20) but the Jewish participation in the Brigades could be expanded upon. According to Derek Penslar, at least one-fifth of the International Brigades’ 30,000 volunteers were Jews, and 38 percent of the American contingent was Jewish. A Jewish brigade was formed in December 1937 within the Polish brigade and named after Naftali Botwin, a Polish communist who had been executed in 1925. Jews supported the Spanish Republicans as part of a larger struggle against fascism, Nazism, and anti-Semitism; they were also motivated by their sympathies with leftist political movements and their desires to counter stereotypes of Jewish cowardliness. [1]

As an unfortunate side note, I found that anti-Semitic groups in the U.S. seized upon Jews’ role in the Spanish Civil War, and specifically upon the honors paid to Sam after his death, in their attacks on American Jews as anti-Christian communist sympathizers. [2]

I first learned about and became interested in Sam’s story when I was writing an article on Jewish confirmations; I came across the book Folk and Faith: The Confirmant’s Guide Book by Lee and Elma Levinger at the OSU library and learned that they had a son who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Levinger’s book was a welcome source for me to find out more about Sam and his family and I read it with enthusiasm. It provides both an eyewitness account of the turbulent times and a meaningful tribute to Sam and the other volunteers who gave their lives to the fight against fascism. On a personal note, this book resonated with me on many levels. First, I currently live in Columbus near to where Sam grew up. Also, as a mother of a son around Sam’s age, I can only begin to imagine what Elma must have gone through and wonder how she was able to continue on with her life and work after Sam’s death. I believe she was driven by his memory to carry on.

I will conclude with Elma’s poignant words:

And there are two worlds — the world we live in and the world we cannot see. If we could bridge the gap — but we cannot. Yet sometimes the veil between the worlds is so very thin. You walk beside me and in every weakness I lean upon your arm — so hard, so strong, so young. I gave that I have — and now nothing can take you from me.

When he came in, he always called Mother are you there?
Sometimes I still pretend
I hear him.
And I answer, yes son I’m here (151).

[1] Derek Penslar, Jews and the Military: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013): 200-207.
[2] For example, John Merrick Church, B’nai B’rith: An International Anti-Christian, Pro-Communist Jewish Power (pamphlet, 1938).

Alison Rose teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island, and is a contributing editor.

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