Supine in an ambulance train, doped up, head immobile, a Spanish nurse feeding me slices of orange and the sweet meat of pitted dates, the passage of time snail-like, I arrived with hundreds of I.B. wounded in the rich market city of Murcia. I was deposited in a hospital named after La Pasionaria. Forgive me my latter-day bitterness; she was an impressive ﬁgure, a great orator, who kissed Joe Stalin’s ass before breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and once more before going to bed. She blackmailed the Spanish govemment: the Soviet freighters lying outside its harbors would not unload their cargo of arms unless there was acceptance of the Party demands that each army unit have political commissars (and who were they to be?) , that the voluntary collectives be demolished and abolished, and that the POUM be outlawed. In Mundo Obrero, the Communist Party newspaper, she wrote that it is better to kill a thousand innocent people than to permit one Trotskyite to live. She was a charming woman who aﬁirmed her love for Joseph Stalin until the day she herself died, long after his own people had convicted him for his massive docket of crimes. There are those who still call her a great woman. I am not among them.
I was bedded in a broad corridor of a stately municipal stone building making do as a hospital, and was soon joined by my buddy, Joe Mendelowitz Gordon—a bullet had grazed his temple and left him blind in one eye—and not a few other Americans wounded on February 23. Though the machine gun company had been held in reserve on the 23rd, it did not stop Joe from becoming a hero. The infantry commander John Scott lay out there wounded, screaming with pain. In an early evening lit up by a ﬂaming, exploded tank, Joe and several others decided to bring him in. Two of the men with Joe were soon hit, but Joe and the ﬁrst aid man, Toplianos — who was to become one of the true heroes of the battalion — running and ﬂopping managed to reach Scott and bring him in. Then they went back under heavy ﬁre to get one of the two men who’d started out with them. As Joe said, he ate dirt, he vomited, but somehow he and Toplianos were able to bring this second man in. Scott died, this man survived. “Killing,” Joe said, “is a pleasure compared to saving of life.” Darkness having fully descended, after having made an advance the infantry was ordered back to their original positions. Angry, discouraged, as the medics went out to tend the wounded and dying, himself dead tired, Joe returned to his trench, on his way kicking someone hiding under a blanket — someone he would never forgive, for he was not, after all, the forgiving kind—threw himself to the ground and fell asleep. He was found in the morning, unconscious, blood at his temple.
Within a few days we were joined by new American wounded, the battalion having gone over the top again on February 27, again senselessly, heroically, by orders of Colonel Copic, Yugoslav, Soviet Red Army man, commander of the XVth lnternational Brigade of which the Lincoln was a battalion. Bob Gladnick has said that within minutes of going over the top, the men remaining in the trenches were protected by the heaped dead bodies of the Bronx Young Communist League. Copic’s orders, almost everyone agreed, would somehow have been thwarted by Jim Harris. Merriman, amateur, didn’t have the ability and courage to stop him. To everyone’s sorrow, Doug Seacord had been killed, and Merriman himself wounded; in fact he now lay in another part of La Pasionaria hospital. When Joe heard about the 27th, in his anguish his slurp more pronounced than ever, he said, Twice, the dumb bastard, twice in four days. Fucking Captain Murderman. So dubbed by Joe Gordon, hero, Merriman remained forever.
I was examined by a Dr. Catellet, a French surgeon and chief doctor of La Pasionaria, a very handsome, very soft-spoken man. He found the bullet’s tiny entrance hole, but could not find an exit. The bullet is still in there, he said, shaking his head. He hoped the numbness in my ﬁngers would go away, and the pain in my neck as well.
The corridor in which we were bedded was broad and sunny. It was ﬁlled from one end to the other with I.B. wounded, some of whom never stopped screaming. One becomes accustomed to it. The guy next to my cot had lost half his face, and his head was encased in plaster with holes for eyes, nose, and mouth. I learned to distinguish between his cry and his laugh; his scream was a gurgle. Another man lay in his bed motionless, his body numb from the neck down, something I had been lucky enough to avoid. There was an Englishman who’d had a bullet enter his right ear and emerge from his left cheek, yet had not suffered major damage. Mashed faces, shoulders, arms, legs. A Pole who had lost his leg screamed the loudest. They screamed in German, English, French, Serbian, Hungarian. I screamed in New York Gutter, my very own tongue. When it hurts, you scream, and if you scream in obscenities it helps more than if you scream in the language of the tea room. If you didn’t understand what a comrade said, you tried Yiddish, and as likely as not he responded in kind. How did we, always suckers for an alleged good cause, come to be the burr, the thom, in the human promenade through this so lovely—oh, dear!—garden of life? Always looking for trouble. Tsuris, tsuris, as my mother used to say.
If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, ask one of your best friends.
So I lay in my cot, head immovable, hands numb, having to be fed by the nurses. Joe, however, was soon ambulatory, his bad eye staring wildly, and he would come to sit at my side and together we would sing pop tunes, It ain’t gonna rain no more, no more, Life’s just a bowl of cherries, Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas todaaaay, at the top of our voices as nurses, doctors, walking wounded, men and women from the countries of the world, paraded endlessly past my cot. Joe went out every afternoon during siesta to get laid, and soon became infatuated with a pregnant neophyte whore, recently a refugee from Malaga, which had been captured but weeks before by Franco’s forces. Franco also captured Cordoba; his iron ring was slowly closing, but Madrid stopped him cold.
One morning I woke to ﬁnd a note pinned to my blanket: I couldn’t stand it no more and got myself a lift to el frente to kill more fascists. I’ll give Doug a kiss for you. José can you see?
Life burgeoned from him, and I had drunk from it to keep me alive. His energy was boundless. He was brave above and beyond, he loved war, was careless with his life, and though one-eyed he became what everyone admitted was one of the best soldiers in the line—the bester, as he himself put it, being Doug Roach.
From what guys who came from the front kept saying, it didn’t take long for Doug to be admired by everyone in the battalion, what was left of it. He rarely opened his yap, unlike Joe, who never shut his, but was the man everyone turned to when in greatest despair. After the massacre of February 27 with Seacord killed and Merriman wounded and after a short-lived mutiny about which there have been 57 different stories, brigade appointed an infantry squad leader named Martin Hourihan battalion commander, and Oliver Law battalion adjutant. Law, they said, had been a sergeant in the American army. A patent lie. He’d been a buck private, and not for very long before he’d been discharged. Law never showed his face to his troops in the line, and was seen hiding in the cookhouse guzzling vino during the battle of February 27 as reported by Bob Gladnick. He was being pushed ahead simply because he was a Negro. Great agitprop for a battalion named after Lincoln. Steve Nelson, a topnotch battalion commissar—later co-opted to the central committee of the Party, and later still to courier for Stalin, and yet later still to the Soviet nuclear team organized to steal American secrets, a very competent man was he—Nelson admitted in old age that it was he who made the decision to push Law ahead. He even went so far as to say it had been a mistake. He could say that because he was no longer a Party man, so far as we know, when he said it. Just a simple mistake that was to cost many lives, and in the end Law’s life as well, killed by his own men after leading them into several ambushes during the Brunete offensive. Agitprop, Lenin’s great invention.
Doug comported himself with great dignity and bravery, and was considered the ﬁnest soldier in the battalion as it began to resume full strength by the arrival of fresh volunteers and the addition of young Spanish conscripts. (Soon some of the latter were sort of co-opted as buddies by the older merchant mariners in the battalion, and Brigade Major Nathan, an English officer right out of Sandhurst, took one for himself.)
When Oliver Law was appointed battalion adjutant, Doug and Oscar Hunter, another Negro, scribbled up some picket signs demanding equal rights for whites, much to the delight and laughter of our comrades, who’d said nothing for fear of being called racists. Sound familiar? Doug seemed to take Oliver’s diﬁiculty personally. He even went one day back to battalion h.q., cornered Law, and asked him to resign his command.
Law told him the truth. In the Party, Law told him, you can’t resign. You don’t volunteer nothing. You belong to the Party. And the Party means a lot to me. It gave me a life I never had before. Try to understand.
Doug refused to understand. With all his dignity, his self-respect, he was still a kid — we were all kids. So he refused to understand. What are yuh, a fucking Uncle Tom? Still a slave? Give it up, you’re not ﬁt to be a commander.
Leave me alone, just leave me alone. Go away. Poor Oliver, he was a hooked ﬁsh.
On another day early in March, Hourihan was away and Law was in complete command; the enemy attacked our lines, almost overran our trenches, and Law just wasn’t there, did not come forward. Doug, Gladnick, Mickenberg, Bob Raven, and several others held the battalion, what there was left of it, together—the dead and wounded of February 27 had not yet been replaced — by sheer will, and managed to repel the attack. Raven, in his nervousness and lack of training, pulled the pin of a hand grenade, dropped the grenade at his feet and threw the pin at the enemy. The bursting grenade maimed him for life, blinding him.
By chance, soon after that Doug met Law one night at the latrine trench. Doug refused to acknowledge the man’s presence even though Law tried talking to him. The man needed a friend, but Doug was too infuriated even to give him a crumb. Perhaps it would have been different if he had.
Doug was the obvious choice for a command position, but never got beyond corporal. He didn’t care, because, like Joe, he was a born rank-and-ﬁler command positions meant nothing to him. He wasn’t jealous of Law, he just identiﬁed with him too much; they were both black, and Law’s inability to overcome the shakes in the front lines made him ashamed the way a Jew is ashamed when he reads that a Jew whom he doesn’t even know has been caught with his hand in the till. Only when you grow up, say around ﬁfty, are you able to separate yourself from the racial stereotype that the ignorant and malicious have created for you. Doug, sweet man, never had the good fortune to reach the age of ﬁfty. Still, kid that he was, he was a man of insight, had marvelous antennae, but could not escape from himself. Those stereotypes can be the death of us.
It took a good month for the numbness to recede from my hands and for the pain in my neck to diminish, and for sex to raise its engorged head. I had fallen silently and passionately in love with a nurse to whom I had never spoken. Twice a day, to and fro, she strode in queenly dignity past my cot, her uniform crisply white. Tall, erect, her black hair cut Nefertiti style, her eyes black as well, her skin honey-colored. She looked to me to be Egyptian. She had full dark red lips, her nose was slightly aquiline. Every time I saw her, my heart somersaulted. Looking neither right nor left, she strode regally through our corridor ward, my wounded comrades and I dazzled. I suddenly realized I was alive. It made me happy. It also made me sad. Guilty is probably the right word. So many of my comrades had been killed, and here I was, alive, and damned glad I was. Doctor Catellet took a picture with a small portable X-ray machine and there was the bullet, a sixteenth of an inch from the spinal cord. Suerte, he said in Spanish, muy suerte. Very lucky. You see, I said to myself, you are immortal. But if I was not going to die, why couldn’t the god-dammed bullet have waited until I’d had enough time at the front to become a hero, to have experienced war to the fullest? To have proven myself? Be glad you’re alive, I kept repeating to myself. All around me were the wounded, men with half faces, with smashed legs, amputees, splintered arms. Be glad you’re alive, I said again and again, feeling guilty as hell.
One morning a tall Frenchman appeared at my cot, the payroll master. Name, battalion, company? Mitmilleuse, he wrote. Ofﬁcier, sous-officier? I shrugged. Iwas an idealist; I didn’t believe in an ofﬁcer caste, or that ofﬁcers should receive more pay than the ordinary soldier. Besides, I had been wounded so early I hadn’t earned it. He gave me seventy pesetas, seven pesetas a day for ten days. That was the ﬁrst money I had received since my arrival in Spain. It surprised me; I’d never thought of receiving money for my military service. It also exhilarated me — money in my pockets. Later, when I told Joe that I hadn’t asked for ofﬁcer’s pay, he told me I was a dumb jerk. He was right. Mostly it was guilt, sheer guilt at having been wounded so early.
Except for the continuing pain in my neck, an inability to move my neck other than stifﬂy, numbness at the tips of my ﬁngers and slight tingles in my toes, I felt strong and healthy. With the help of my little Spanish nurse I dressed in my new I.B. uniform — brown corduroy ski pants, khaki shirt, straw alpargatas — and, head held stiﬂly erect, I trod my way out of the hospital into a scorching sun. It was siesta hour. I was in a vast square bounded by the hospital, another stately govemment building alongside it, the Segura River across the way, picturesque and stinking like an outhouse, and near the river, an old obviously fancy hotel, the Regina Victoria. Wounded I.B. men stood about smoking, talking; men on crutches, men in winglike casts. Before he left, Joe had instructed me. Get a droshky and tell the driver, Muchacha, and he’ll take you there. A girl, I wanted a girl. The old nag clopped through busy narrow cobbled streets and when we came to a small plaza the droshky driver pointed in the general direction of several casas where I.B. men lolled about. I went into one, smiled at the ﬁrst girl in a bathrobe I encountered, and she led me into her room.
I had heard the rumor that a wounded I.B. man had died atop one of the women, and so, obviously, had she. She questioned me about the bandage around my neck, having to use her hands more than words for me to understand her. Bueno, bueno, I’m good, I told her. Mucho bueno. Mas bueno. She smiled, nodded, disrobed. I just stared at her. All of her. I wanted to bury myself in her, be ingested by her into her womb. I was alive, and so was she. I no longer remember what it cost, but I gave her my entire hoard and stayed with her until she kicked me out. She had been very accommodating. My neck hurt, but who cared? I was alive and this was one of the sweetest hours of my life.
Through narrow cobbled streets, across wide plazas, passing swarms of wounded I.B. men, talking, talking, smoking, drinking, ignoring Murcianos and they ignoring me—we seemed to have pushed them off their very own streets — I found my way back to the hospital, climbed the broad marble stairs, found the corridor, my cot, undressed, and fell asleep.
So the days went in sunny Spain. I would lie in my cot until mid-morning, be washed by my Spanish nurse, a sweet young woman who would giggle and ask me to wash my private parts myself; my commander, Robert Jordanesque in his winglike cast, would stroll past, give me a cool nod, continue on, followed by Bill Wheeler, muy simpatico, one of the infantry company adjutants who would stop a moment to chat. Then Frank Flaherty, a Boston Irishman who had two brothers at the front, an intelligent, literate man with his leg in a cast, would come to visit and we would talk for an hour before he went out for his daily shave. A barber who visited the hospital daily had been shaving me, but soon I would be joining Frank. It cost a peseta or so, and no tips were allowed since the beginning of the civil war. Tips lead to obsequiousness and they were forbidden, as were masturbation and prostitution, the Anarchists proclaimed in the most beautiful posters you ever saw. The Party, more realistic, merely forbade prostitution. Thus they vied for the minds of men. On occasion a man just come in from the front, either wounded or given a short furlough, would stop by and give much-wanted news of the battalion and my friends. The front, it seemed, was quiet; the boys played ball and held boxing matches, on occasion went out on patrol. How jealous I felt, and inferior, also, to those who hadn’t been hit and were still at the front. Ah, to have been a dead hero.
I read Mundo Obrero, the Party paper, with the help of a dictionary. Also the Daily Worker, which arrived weeks late. I perused the pictorial magazine Soviet Union Today. The fronts were holding. In April we won a major victory in the Guadalajaras against one of Mussolini’s divisions, our ﬁght led by the Garibaldis, an Italian International battalion. (Where was the Spanish Republican army? one wondered. A battalion defeated a division?) The Garibaldis were led by Carlo Penchienati, a Socialist, later to write one of the bitterest condemnations of the International Brigades and the Communist Cheka in Spain. He had been harried by the commissariat until he was forced to resign so that the Party could take control of the Garibaldi battalion. He left Spain.
Though my neck was still stiff, the pain was not too bad, I became more ambulatory. My toe and ﬁnger tips were numb, but still I felt healthy, strong. When I spoke to Dr. Catellet about being released, he laughed. I drank vino with American comrades in one or another cafe on Plateria, a promenade street of silver shops and cafes, off Calle Traperia, the street of what were called rag shops, dry goods, and the like. That area was our hangout, and it teemed with young women from Malaga and Andalucia, exotic in their colorful clothes, beautiful, dark. We would buy them drinks, and later visit them in one or another bordello.
I never felt any guilt about exploiting them, and so far as I know neither did any of my International Brigades comrades, though who knows. One American, a union brother of mine, fell in love with the most beautiful woman of the lot and urged gifts upon her. I have no idea if he was jealous of her many customers. The Anarchists and the Party declaimed their opposition to prostitution, but I never discerned any attempt to prevent it. In fact, months later, in Barcelona, several American comrades and I visited a magniﬁcent bordello which we learned was inhabited by whores who belonged to the CNT, the Anarchist union. Have you ever heard of a union that turned down an opportunity to enroll dues-paying members?
Early one afternoon, heavily involved in a tumultuous encounter with one of the whores, I heard someone laugh in the adjoining room, a booming familiar voice speaking Spanish with a Russian-American accent, and sure enough it was Bob Gladnick. He was wearing a beautiful Harris tweed suit, and carried a side arm on his hip.
Are you Cheka now? I asked.
He laughed his booming laugh. Gladnick was not a shy man. He was now, he told me, an interpreter and tankman with the Russian Tank Corps in Spain. He hobnobbed with generals and leather-jacketed political commissats. Right now he was stationed in Archena, the Russian tank base.
How come? I asked.
He had been one of the spokesmen for the ninety-some men left of the battalion after the massacre of February 27 Most of them had just picked themselves off the ground and headed for the road. They were getting the hell out of there. Before they got very far, I.B. military police rounded them up and returned them to brigade. They demanded further training and competent ofﬁcers. Several Russian ofﬁcers were present during this meeting. One of them asked Gladnick, who had spoken to them in Russian, “What is a nice Russian boy like you doing with these idiots?”
No, they were told, they could not be sent back for further training. It would seem the safety of Madrid depended on these ninety bedraggled, demoralized Americans. The Spanish Republic only had over two million men in arms. Could Madrid rely on them? Martin Hourihan, one of the two or three spokesmen, an infantry squad leader, was given command of the battalion, and Gladnick, a vociferous spokesman, was ordered to volunteer to be an interpreter for the Russians. I eat like a king, he said, and have lots of pesetas.
Great, I said, then take me to a restaurant and buy me a decent meal. All I’ve had for supper now for three weeks running is one artichoke and some vino.
Bob did have lots of money, and I ate well. I ate two plates of huevos diablo and four pork chops and half a pound of grapes. Later, I walked him to the railroad station where he picked up the train to Archena, which was not too far from Murcia.
A week or two later, I saw a group of Russians—they were called Mexicans, though everyone knew who they were—all wearing Harris tweed suits, going from one haberdashery store to another on Calle Traperia, and I ran over to see if Bob was among them. He wasn’t, but I was astounded to see them piling up boxes of underwear, shirts, socks, and suits. They think Spain, Bob later told me, is among the richest countries in the world. Ignorance is bliss.
In the beginning of May the newspapers erupted with stories of street ﬁghting in Barcelona. According to the Party press, the Anarchists and POUMists had staged an uprising against the forces of the Republic, and the Anarchists had attacked the Telefónica. I read that again. How could that be? At the very beginning of the Franco rebellion, the Anarchists had taken to the streets and seized many government buildings, one of which had been the Telefónica in Barcelona. Why in the world would they have staged an attack on a building they themselves held? It was a bold Party lie, and if the Party lied about that, could the rest of what it said also be a lie? Was it the Anarchists and POUMists who had staged an uprising, or had the Party provoked it? Since I did not believe the Party lie that the POUM was Trotskyist and fascist, why should I believe this lie? It is my belief today that if the Anarchists and the POUM had brought their troops in from the front to help their poorly armed forces in Barcelona, they would have won and the course of the civil war might very well have been changed. Of course, that would have left the front which they covered unprotected. (Burnett Bolloten’s The Spanish Revolution: The Left and the Struggle for Power during the Civil War gives a minute-by-minute account of the Communist provocation.)
Soon thereafter, Largo Caballero, the leftwing Socialist who was prime minister, frequently called the Spanish Lenin, was deposed and replaced by Negrin, a pliable rightwing Socialist. Among my comrades there were secret smiles; we had broken the power of the Anarchists and the POUM, and were now in control of the Republic of Spain. Ercoli, we whispered among ourselves, Ercoli is running Spain. He was the Italian Togliatti, our very own. Natie, my nemesis, had been right—we had betrayed the revolution, we were the most counter-revolutionary party in Spain. Damn him! Why hadn’t he left me alone? I wished I hadn’t known what I knew. I wished I were a total, utter, complete believer. All these men in the hospital, with their smashed faces, their shattered limbs, were my comrades. Brave men who had come to Spain prepared to give their lives for the ﬁght against fascism, for the Party, for the Soviet Union. My comrades at the front, my friends, Doug, Joe I had to pretend, I had to watch what I said. I knew if I asked about the events in Barcelona, challenged the Party view, questioned it, my life would be in danger. Rumors were already ﬂoating all over Murcia about comrades, leaders, having disappeared, shot perhaps. Hans Beimler, the German Party leader, had disappeared; arrested, shot, killed by an enemy bullet? One wondered.
Then General Kléber disappeared, the commander of the I.B. during its brilliant defense of Madrid. Who was he anyway? Some said a Canadian. A Yugoslav. He was gone, disappeared off the face of the earth. (Kléber turned out to have been General Moishe Shtem of Soviet military intelligence. He had been recalled, sent to the Gulag, where he died.) Why? The same question could be asked of some scores of millions. Why? Rumors, rumors. Like snakes, they reveal themselves for a moment in the sun then suddenly disappear under a rock before you have a chance to examine them.
As a reign of terror by the NKVD began against the POUM, in the Soviet Union the magniﬁcent Marshal Tukachevsky, the general staff, the admirals of the Soviet navy, tens of thousands of Red Army officers were being stood at the wall, murdered by order of, guess who?
Those of us who ﬁlled the hospitals of Murcia, the wounded of the International Brigades, the very cream of the intemational Communist movement, heard about it, whispered to each other about it with pained faces, then shut up about it. Perhaps it was necessary. Denial can save your life.
I spent the days drinking Spanish beer, eating Spanish peanuts, shooting the breeze on the Plateria, going to whorehouses. Why the lot of us did not come down with a nail or a spike, I’ll never know. I met Gladnick again and he invited me to go with him to Archena. You’ll get a topnotch meal, he said. We went by train, not too long a trip. At Archena we sat at a table with several Austrians who’d been in the ski patrol in the Pyrenees, and now were tankists. We ate a seven-course meal served by Spanish waiters wearing white gloves. (Years later, when I was a freelance verbatim reporter, I covered a luncheon meeting of big-shot bankers in the exclusive Union League Club in New York and was served by African American waiters, also wearing white gloves. Remembered with a pang.) I was impressed. My Russian comrades did not spare themselves. Smoked ﬁsh, pork chops, mashed potatoes, soup, cake, ice cream, vino.
After we ate, Gladnick approached the plump commander, and, speaking in Russian, asked if I could be enlisted as a tankist, since I had driven Caterpillar tractors on a farm. No, the commander said, I was too skinny (I had lost some twenty pounds), but he could give me a job driving half-track trucks called Cominterns. No, I said; brave me, I wanted to go to the front. A month later, the commander, who looked like Khrushchev, was recalled to Russia and purged, along with thousands of others.
On the way back to Murcia on the train that night, my ﬁngers felt stranger than usual, and every time I moved my head something like an electric shock ran down my spine. Tired, I thought, just tired. In the morning, when I was given my mug of chicory coffee, I dropped it.
At this particular time, internecine political warfare had broken out in the hierarchy of the International Brigades. Up to now the French Party had run the show, but suddenly the German Party was given control—except, of course, for André Marty. Dr. Catellet had been displaced as head doctor of La Pasionaria by two German doctors named Lang, man and wife. They examined me together, using a large X-ray machine, and said they saw no bullet in my spine; it must have come out the other side of my neck, though no scar was visible. Perhaps I was imagining it, or malingering. No, I said to them, I had shit it out. Day after day it became worse. My hands were totally numb; every time I moved my head an electric shock convulsed me. I didn’t know what to do. Serendipity intervened. The French, Polish, Belgian, and this American wounded mutinied, took over the corridors of the hospital, and demanded the return of Dr. Catellet as head doctor. The Germans ﬂed—they were later replaced by Tito’s Yugoslavs, who proved most efﬁcient—and Dr. Catellet resumed as head doctor of the hospital.
He examined me again, using the large X-ray machine, saw the bullet, said it had moved, and decided to try to extract it. Frank Flaherty waited for me outside the operating room. Later he told me he had waited eight hours. In the post-operative recovery room, Dr. Catellet told me with sadness that he was unable to get to the bullet without either killing me or thoroughly paralyzing me, but that he had been able to manipulate a muscle enough to nudge it further away from the spinal cord. “Let’s hope it helps,” he said.
I was lucky; it did, and I have been forever thankful to the man for his kindness and his skill. A slightly stiff neck, numb ﬁnger tips, toes, and left thigh; one can live with that.
I also had a new nurse. My heart leaped, so did other parts of me. I wasn’t sick, just wounded. She was my silent love, my Queen Nefertiti, Elizabeth; not Egyptian, but Hungarian, half Magyar and half Jew. We spoke in German. My German was of course half Jewish, but I had taken three years of it in high school, plus two years of French, and that helped, too. Her hands were gentle when she washed me, changed bandages, and for a time fed me. I literally spent hours observing her as she moved around the ward — a huge square room with a high ceiling and large windows through which the sun poured, magnanimously healing us—watching the way her buttocks moved, her breasts rose and fell, and when she leaned over me her fragrance overwhelmed me. I knew she was vain because even wearing her starched white nurse’s uniform she managed somehow to give off the aura of Parisian chic. No, she smiled, Budapestian chic, second to none. I appreciated chicness; remember, I was the son of a woman who made chic with her ﬁngers in a very chic dress establishment for the most modish women in the United States, and who herself was the most chic habitué of Cafe Royale on Second Avenue, New York City. I soon realized Elizabeth favored me, because whenever she became tired from her arduous labors she would come to sit on the corner of my cot and then not move when my foot under the linen coverlet would manage to ﬁnd itself pressed against her lovely haunch.
It turned out she was the wife of the political commissar of the Hungarian Rakosi battalion, who alternated between the front and Albacete. He, as far as I know, was Laszlo Rajk.
So taken with Boishke, as she was called by her friends, am I even today that I have neglected to mention that next to me in my new ward was Oscar Hunter, who’d had to leave the front because of an anal ﬁstula that required repair. He was an ebullient man, full of laughter, and we had great fun that drew Boishke to my cot as much as, if not more than, her feelings about me. Oscar spoke English only, and beautifully, a graduate of Morgan State University. I spoke my half-assed German, Yiddish, and even less French, and Boishke spoke German, French, and Spanish, so somehow we managed to make hilarious sorties into the vagaries of Magyar, Yiddish, and Negro life.
Oscar soon became ambulatory. With the ﬁnagling of Ruby Kaufman, one of the Jarama wounded, and myself, Oscar became the political commissar of the Americans and English in Murcia, replacing a man who had never been to the front. During the meeting, Ruby kept calling the man we wanted to replace a Trotskyite (a bit of overkill) and to her glory an American nurse, the wife of G. Marion, the Daily Worker reporter in Spain, stopped it cold. Ruby didn’t even blush. That sort of talk could get a man imprisoned, if not killed.
Oscar told me he had not wanted to come to Spain, but as a Party functionary he had been ordered to volunteer. Because of his initial refusal, the Party punished him and made him remain in Spain until the last American left. He was a marvelous commissar, thoughtful, understanding, wily in his negotiations for the beneﬁt of the men under his jurisdiction. He remained in the Party most of his life, and never advanced in its hierarchy because of his one and only demurral to a Party order.
I fell in love with Boishke, and as soon as I became ambulatory we became lovers. I sneaked into her room in the attic of the small I.B. cholera hospital near the Segura River, which curved through the city, and spent the night. Later she rented a room for us at the edge of town, on the Paseo de Malecon, where the lush huerta began. She always seemed to have lots of money. I never asked how come. I say we became lovers, though actually she never said I love you, it was I who was always saying Ich liebe dich, yo te amo, I love you, and serat lak in Hungarian. I called her Liebchen, she called me Bill. We’d meet in our hideaway four or ﬁve times a week during siesta. The straw blinds down, the heavy curtains drawn against the African sun, we would drink cool wine or limonada, talk about the progress of the war, discuss books we had read, and make love. My stiff neck was a hindrance, but as they say, love always ﬁnds a way. I was very proud of being loved by an older woman. I preened, I swaggered. I wondered how I could have loved Evelyn so much just several months ago (and before her and simultaneously Sarah Walton, my taxi-dancer sweetheart) and now love Boishke? Was I ﬁckle, shallow, or was this something that happened to young men normally? Murcia was outside the bombing limits for Nationalist planes; still, the wounded and the medical staff seemed to be so elated to be alive that sex became an urgency. Could that have been it?
But sex was not our only amusement. The internecine politics among the high muckamucks of the I.B. was ludicrous. The Germans, as I said, fought to displace the French administration, and, after succeeding, lost out to the Yugoslavs. Great internationalists all. But it didn’t really matter, of course, because no matter who ruled, the NKVD, since May, overruled.
When I ﬁrst became ambulatory after the operation, Boishke decided to take me out during siesta for a short walk across the square to the outdoor cafe of the Regina Victoria. My legs were weak, my skin pale, my neck very stiff and sore, but I was so damned happy to be alive I felt no pain. And Iwas on the arm of this handsome older woman, and, boy, did I beam when we ran into some of my American comrades.
As we sat down in the shade of the canopy, Comrade Neumann saw us and came over to sit with us. It seemed Boishke and he were old friends. He carried a gun on his hip. Short, broad, head shaven; his head was a cannonball, his eyes bullets. I had seen him once before when I was bedded in the corridor-ward on my arrival in Murcia. He was striding through the corridor and ran into Bob Merriman, whose arm was in a winglike cast. They greeted each other in English, Neumann’s accent mittel-Europish. My commander, incidentally, who had paid us but cursory attention—perhaps he was just too good for us, having been sent to us Stalin-blessed, or it could be someone had reported to him that Joe Gordon had dubbed him Captain Murderman — was gone now, arm still in a cast, and last heard of was training an American-Canadian battalion in Tarazona. Oscar, too, had mentioned Neumann to me. He told me that after he became political commissar he reported to a Comrade Neumann, and was given tasks like reading mail to and from English and Americans, and the like. Oscar said the man served a dual purpose in Murcia. He was superintendent of I.B. hospitals and also chief of security; of what Party organ he did not say, whether NKVD or SIM — Servicio de Investigacion Militar, run by the Hungarian Erno Gero, also known as Pedro in Spain. There again we see the marvelous use of the unity of opposites. One half of Neumann saved men, the other half killed them. Sure enough, after the amenities, cognac glass in hand, Neumann began to boast how he and his men captured a merchant seaman who’d jumped ship in Cartagena and who, he said, turned out to be a foreign Trotskyite fascist trying to inﬁltrate our lines. With a smile of satisfaction, he told us they shot the poor bastard. Innocent me, I felt myself blanch, my lips become dry, and Boishke, noticing, turned Neumann off to more innocent subjects. A young, callow American. Idealistic. That was me. To Neumann, it was just plain table talk. I didn’t believe that so-called Trotskyites were working for the enemy, and I didn’t believe they should be shot. The more I read the newspapers and magazines that came my way, the more I was becoming divorced from my Party, my life’s blood. We were duplicitous, pure and simple, without the dialectic to gussy it up. And now that we had destroyed the revolutionary forces in Spain, we were not doing any better at the fronts, either.
Another time, having earned a few days’ leave, Boishke obtained a pass from Neumann for the two of us to go to Alicante for a short holiday. She was my nurse, she was taking care of me. We went by train, and it took many hours. Alicante was a beautiful old port, a resort town for the rich; she checked us into a posh hotel, a palace of a place, again for the rich, our room spacious and overlooking the sea, the bed large and comfortable, no hospital cot, and in the morning sitting on the terrace, the sea sparkling gold and green, we had a breakfast the likes of which I had not had since working in the posh Miami Beach restaurant. Boishke’s Magyar father was a banker and she had grown up rich, only to become a revolutionary when in gymnasium, and she knew how to live it up. At the table next to us was an American seaman off one of the freighters unloading arms from Mexico. I invited him to have coffee with us, and he gave us Lucky Strikes to smoke. He couldn’t keep his eyes off Boishke’s bosom as we talked about the growing CIO, he was an ardent union man, and ﬁnally she nudged my arm and said we had to leave. Were you selling my breasts for American cigarettes? she asked angrily as we left. In that sweater, what would you expect? I said.
Later, as we sat in a small seashore park, two enemy planes ﬂew over Alicante and dropped several aerial bombs. I threw her to the ground and covered her with my body, and told her I loved her, Yo te amo, Liebchen, and she muttered something about me being too young. When I asked her what she meant, she wouldn’t elucidate. I guess what she meant was that for her this was simply a little affair and for me it was a very serious matter. If so, she was right. She was an older woman, about twenty-eight or twenty-nine, I was just twenty-two; she was a sophisticated European, I was a dumb American kid. What did I know?
Back in Murcia, a French fellow who suffered from a head wound and I started, at Oscar’s prompting, an English and French newsletter for the wounded. Oscar also gave me a book to read and to report on whether it was ﬁt for the troops. It was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. A good read, I reported, but sympathetic to the South, and patronizing of Negroes. Good Communists, we decided it should not be read. I asked to be discharged from the hospital and sent back to the battalion. Iwas examined this time by an American doctor, who merely shook his head. You’re lucky, he said. Don’t push it.
Another day off, Boishke decided to take me on a picnic to the hills in the huerta, among the date, ﬁg, and orange trees. We went by bus to a tiny village-—a grocery store, a bakery, a bar, and a fortress church. The native women and children nodded in salute, we nodded back. All their men above the age of fifteen were at the front. We hiked up a hill under a very hot sun — I always think of the sun in Spain as African—until we found a level spot surrounded by a decent stand of scrub pine. I was happy to discover that I was recovering my strength despite what the doctor had indicated.
We unrolled our blanket, undressed. She had a magniﬁcent body, tawny, feline. She told me to stop staring. I smiled, kept staring. She said, Be patient, Bill. I paid her no heed. She laughed at my impatience. Afterwards when I raised my head I saw a young peasant boy, maybe thirteen, standing among the trees, his mouth agape, his dark Spanish eyes as round as half dollars. He tumed and ran. Startled by the noise behind her, Boishke asked what that was, and I told her it had been a dog.
We ate oranges, ﬁgs, and dates, and ﬁnished the wine in her canteen, and discovered that in my rush to get away with her I had neglected to ﬁll mine. It made her angry and she was short with me. She turned away to read her book, a novel by the Communist author Anna Seghers, and I began to glance through the only thing in English I had been able to ﬁnd on short notice in the hospital reading room, a pictorial book about the Soviet Union. It was full of palaces of culture, of labor, of justice, of this and that, and without thinking, forgetting in my bliss, I suppose, who I was and where, and with whom, I said aloud, Why do they continue to build these palaces when what they need are just simple places for people to live in? (Note it was in the form of a question.)
Boishke sat up very fast and very straight and gave me a very cold eye. I remember her exact words. “Du bist ein Opportunist, Bill.” She wasn’t kidding. She continued to stare at me for a good minute as I bit my lip, speechless, then she returned to her novel. I knew I had made a bad slip, just lay back and pretended to nap. Thank God, she hadn’t called me a Trotskyite. Later we made love again, resumed as before, loving and laughing at my linguistic malapropisms.
Boishke did not bring my breach up again. Several days later, to my dismay, she advised me she was leaving Murcia. She had been transferred to Albacete to work in the base headquarters of the Hungarian battalion with her husband. She didn’t say so, but I believed that our affair had become too public and word had gotten to her husband, who found it embarrassing. (He was one of the top Communists in Spain; later he was one of the rulers of Communist Hungary—with a different wife — and then he was purged—but of course.) I was extremely unhappy at her going; we stopped meeting at our trysting place, and then she was gone without a chance to say goodbye. I was out with some of the ambulatory wounded on the Street of Ragshops when I saw her sitting in the back of a staff car as it was leaving the curb in front of Neumann’s ofﬁce. I waved, I suppose you could say frantically, but there was no response from her. I was heartbroken. I left my friends and went to a very crowded bar on Plateria and drank myself silly.
I mooned about for several days under the sympathetic eyes of Oscar Hunter. On the third morning of her departure, I was wakened in my hospital cot by two I.B. men with guns on their hips and ordered to dress and to follow them. It was still pre-dawn; the night nurse was nowhere in sight, and the wounded patients were either asleep or pretending to be. Perhaps another comrade was found to be a Trotskyite and would be lost from sight. I started to ask what the hell was this about but they told me to keep quiet and dress. In the cot next to mine, Oscar Hunter continued to sleep, or at least pretended to sleep. He never once mentioned it later.
I walked between them through the silent streets of Murcia, plane trees rustling in the pre-dawn breeze, to the Calle de Traperia and thence to what everyone in Murcia knew were the offices of the Chief of Security, Comrade Neumann. I was ordered up the rickety stairs ahead of them, and then they shoved me from behind into Neumann’s oﬁice.
He was sitting behind his desk, a light directed over his shoulder on to papers he was reading. When I stood before him he didn’t raise that cannonball head of his, and he said nothing. Lying on the desk, staring me in the eye was the barrel end of a large black pistol, probably a German Lueger. The sight of the gun frightened me. This was serious. What the hell did he have it out there for? I had kept to myself my dismay at the betrayal of the social revolution by my Party in Spain and had never said a word about the executions of Marshal Tukachevsky and the others; I sure didn’t want to be stood at the wall, and Boishke could not possibly have turned me in for that trivial remark about the Soviet Union, could she? Would she? True, she was a cool, sophisticated Party militant, but she’d been a passionate and tender lover. Of course, the Party came ﬁrst, it always came ﬁrst. I’d revealed a tiny crack, that’s all. Neumann continued to read his papers, the light glancing off that shiny shaven skull of his. I stood erect, my eyes hypnotized by the barrel end of that German-tooled black gun. He never looked up once. I stood. He read. On occasion he scribbled a note in the margin of one or another of the papers. Who the hell was he? What did he want from me? I have no idea how much time elapsed. I suddenly needed to piss. When I was shoved into his room, it had been dark outside. Now the sun was rising, its rays beginning to spray the room. Still he read. Still the barrel end of the gun hypnotized me, held my attention. All I was aware of was my fear. Fear emits a bad odor. You sweat, you stink. My bladder was bloated and I badly needed to piss. Soon that was all I was aware of. That terrible need to piss in the morning. It began to hurt. Finally it forced me to speak. I need to urinate, Comrade Neumann. No response. The son-of- a-bitch. He read reports, the black gun, which seemed to be getting larger and larger, kept staring at me with its lethal one eye. I simply had to go piss. Again I dared. Comrade Neumann, please, I need to urinate badly. Nothing from the bastard. I tried to hold the piss in, tried hard, but ﬁnally I coudn’t. Just let it run and run, my pants leg soaked with it. It smelled of sour wine. The shame of it. I hated him. Wanted to grab the gun and put a bullet through his fucking head. What had I done? Had they read my mind? I stood there immobile, stinking of sour wine and piss, keeping my face as impassive as possible. I would have to dissemble. Beat them at their own duplicitous game. We, they, us, them. I stood erect. Immobile. He read his papers. Outside, the streets were coming alive with holas and laughter. The gun’s eye stared. I stank. Finally, the man raised his cannonball head. Stared at me with those bullet eyes.
When he spoke, it was quietly, with no threat in his voice. Elizabeth said you’re an opportunist, still young.
It seemed he was not after all going to shoot me. And she … and she … Party comes ﬁrst. Discipline is all. I had revealed a tiny crack in the foundation of my belief. Tiny cracks widen, become crevices, and soon the foundation crumbles. The ediﬁce comes tumbling down. There is a purpose to the total discipline of a total party running a total state. I am a good example. The best thing to do with people like me is to shoot them.
I sighed with relief. No, he was not going to shoot me. I would not have been his ﬁrst, would I?
Then he put me through the grinder about the Party line. I knew the line as well as he did, inside out, upside down. The revolution must wait, ﬁrst the war has to be won. We were for democracy. The revolution and winning the war were not indivisible, as the Anarchists and the POUM said. I passed my orals with ﬂying colors. Didn’t I read Inprecor and The New Masses and the Daily Jerker every day, memorize every word?
Finally, he let me go, but, no, I wasn’t through with him yet. How I hope he got his, the piece of scum, when Stalin began to purge his deracinated Jewish Party leaders in eastern Europe, nearly all of them veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Boishke’s husband, Laszlo Rajk, too, though according to the newspapers his wife’s name then was Julia. He was purged in Hungary by the hangman Erno Gero, who in Spain was known as Pedro, leader of the United Socialist Catalan Party (PSUC) as the CP was known—Gero spoke Catalan like a native—and also capo of the military intelligence service (SIM) resident address for several members of the Lincoln battalion as well as the NKVD. (There was also a Spanish SIM.) It was Gero and the Russian, Orlov, chief of the NKVD in Spain, who engineered Operation Nikolai to torture and murder the most brilliant revolutionary Marxist in Spain, Andreu Nin, the POUM leader. They also murdered Kurt Landau, a German dissident Communist; Camilo Berneri, an Italian Anarchist; the Czech Erwin Wolf and the Pole Hans Freund, two Trotskyists, as well as Mark Rein, son of the exiled Russian Menshevik leader Rafael Abramovich. It turns out that they had George Orwell on their to-be-murdered menu while he was in Spain, and little did he know how close he was to death when he left. All the above while my comrades and I were giving our lives for the Communist International as democrats and anti-fascists.
I don’t know what happened to Boishke. I have often wondered if she survived World War II and the Holocaust—remember, she was half Jewish. Her Magyar father had divorced her Jewish mother, who then went to live in Paris. Perhaps he protected his daughter, though I doubt it. In any event, when Rajk became a leader of Communist Hungary after World War II, Boishke was no longer his wife.
Neumann had a job for me. He still had to test my loyalty to the cause, I suppose. He was concerned, he said, about Philippe, who was putting out the hospital newsletter with me; would I talk to him, and if he said something he shouldn’t, report it? Now he was making an informer out of me. Of course, everyone knows by now that the Communist movement was also known as Informer University International. One of the ﬁrst lessons you learned when you joined a Party unit was the necessity for informing your organizer if one of your comrades uttered a critical word about the Party or the Soviet Union. If you informed on yourself, something called self-criticism, you got an A+. I was now going to matriculate for my B.A. Boishke, it seemed, already had her Ph.D. The very ﬁrst time I saw Philippe after Neumann’s order, he began to blow off about executions of comrades in the I.B., and about the I.B. prisons overﬂowing, and so on. I recognized immediately what this was about. A set-up, a trap. I wasn’t a total idiot. This kind of talk was verboten. Neumann was testing me, with Philippe as shill. Next time I saw Neumann, he asked me about Philippe. I smiled, then said, Oh, he’s suffering from his head wound. Neumann seemed to understand that I had caught on to his petty game. He also smiled, said, Yes, you’re right, and, to my relief, let it go at that. When I saw Philippe at our little ofﬁce on Calle Nicolai several days later, he greeted me sort of sheepishly, embarrassed. He had no reason to be embarrassed; he had in his way let me know what was up, and we still had our heads attached to our bodies.
Neumann wasn’t through with me. I was being put through Herculean labors. Another test or two. One day I was in Neumann’s office, actually in a cubbyhole near the water closet, reading incoming letters addressed to American and English truck drivers located in Almeria. I was looking for enemies of the people propagandizing our dear comrades, sort of pre-censoring the war censor’s work. Of the hundreds I read, one was from an English Trotskyist who not only criticized the Party, but the Anarchists and the POUM—which, despite its being labeled so by those who knew better, was not Trotskyist but Bukharinist—so I lit a stinky Gaulois with my trench lighter, a simple device of ﬂint and lint, and put torch to the wayward letter before the English comrade to whom it was addressed was accused of heresy and burned at the stake. As I was leaving late one aftemoon, on my way down the rickety stairs I encountered Neumann. Be here at eight tonight, he ordered, and passed on.
Now what? I was there, of course. Right on the dot. When was I going to be through with this bastard? Maybe I ought to make a contract with some Murciano hood to slip a dagger into him. Every week or so, one comrade or another was waylaid at night and killed in the Murcian manner. Murcianos are renowned in all of Spain for their knives and knife work. If I could only manage it. I would have loved to see his throat slit. At eight that night, he was there with several of his I.B. apparatchiks.
We piled into a couple of cars. I sat with Neumann in the rear of one of them. We sped into the huerta; above us a very bright yellow moon illuminated a strange landscape of olive trees and various fruit groves. We passed Monteagudo, a black basalt natural monument. We rode for about thirty minutes, and ﬁnally stopped at a fortress-church. There were guards at the entrance.
I now discovered what this particular heap of Gothic stone was being used for. The heavy stone steps lit by lantems, we descended into the cellar, more like a dungeon. The lanterns burned a greenish fuel and the dungeon was eerily green. We were in a large, stone-walled space.
I am standing near Neumann only because he has grabbed my arm and pulled me to him. There are a couple of Interbrigade goons standing around in addition to those who came with us. Neumann is impatient. Let’s go, he says in German, and issues an order. A Belgian whom I have met at the office on Calle de Traperia, as solid as a dray horse, leaves us and shortly returns, pushing a skinny kid ahead of him. The boy has his hands tied behind his back. He is dragging his feet, is terribly scared, smells of shit. He is wearing straw alpargatas, and his clothes are ragged and ﬁlthy. A Spanish boy.
Yes! Neumann orders, and the Belgian raises his side arm and puts a bullet into the base of the Spanish boy’s skull. The shot reverberates like thunder through the entire church.
Right there in front of me. Where is my revolutionary bravery, heroism? Why don’t I step forward and cry, Stop! Stop! Why don’t I ask, Why are you doing this, why? I’m a great hero. I say nothing. I stand there stifﬂy, biting my lip.
The boy slumps to the stone floor like a pile of bones, and one of the German comrades, a Communist who escaped from Hitler and came to Spain to ﬁght fascism, picks the boy up and with ease throws him into a corner.
The Belgian leaves and returns pushing another kid ahead of him. This one is a girl. Skinny, all bones. Her clothes are torn, ragged, dirty. Hysterically, she screams, “¡Viva la revolucion!”
Neumann is holding my elbow in a vise. Do it! he barks.
Again the shot, again the thunderous roar, again the heap of bones on the stone ﬂoor.
Neumann is still holding my elbow, but I am standing there shaking with fear, with shame — oh, the shame of it. These are my comrades who are murdering my comrades. Confusing, it’s very confusing.
The German picks up the dead girl and throws her on top of the ﬁrst boy.
Now the Belgian comes out with another. This one is not being pushed ahead. He walks out on his own. Straight. Older than the others. An old man. He is about my age, twenty-two. A Spanish man. Powerfully built. Filthy. His hands are tied behind his back, but he tenses his shoulders as if trying to sunder the cord tying his hands. He spits at us once, then again, as Neumann orders, Do it! and the Belgian puts a bullet into his skull. He is a dead man. All twenty-two years of him.
Neumann issues an order, then he and his men turn to leave. I merely stand there staring at the dead. Thou rt dust, and to dust shalt thou return. Neumann’s ﬁst, like a claw, grabs my arm and pulls me along.
In the car Neumann closes his eyes and nods off. A Yugo in the front seat passes his canteen of vino rojo around. I drink and drink. We are soon back on the Street of Ragshops, in front of Neumann’s headquarters. I haven’t said a word and neither has he, not even as I turn back toward the hospital. Before the Yugo gave me his canteen, I had puked out the window, my queasy stomach again. Do you think that if I’d had a stomach lined with steel I would have made a better bolshevik, been a man of steel like my great leader?
I ask myself now, and have asked myself for more than half a century, what, William, would you have done if he’d shoved a gun into your ﬁst and ordered you to shoot one or even all of them? Killed them, you cowardly son-of-a-bitch! Yes, killed them.
And wouldn’t you have?
Neumann never bothered me again. Had he been testing me to see if I could become one of his? Was he merely trying to scare me? I don’t know. I have no idea. He never said, I never asked. I did as I was told simply because I felt my life depended on it. Just simply that. Once I ran into him on Plateria. He seemed lonely and he asked me to have a beer with him. He told me he’d seen Boishke, that she was doing well and had sent her regards. You ﬁgure it.
Neumann was not a professional agent from the NKVD or Cheka academy; he was on the pick-up team made up of European and American Communists whose zeal was so great it gave them enough of an adrenalin charge to kill. They may have been well paid, but money was not the object; their aim was to be placed on the honor roll of those who proved they had given their all for the good ﬁght. Vae victis.
Tell me, I ask all those who have spent their lives studying our pitiful adventure and which some have deigned to call an Odyssey, an Iliad-Joe Stalin our Agamemnon? the likes of Erno Gero our Odysseus? — studying the Movement, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, the late USSR, you whom my mother would have called gelehmte menschen, learned men, searchers for truth, do you still believe in the tactical lie, the murder which Auden in his callow youth called necessary? Do you still think the slaughter of scores of millions of people, of the horrors of the Gulag, was just an aberration, one of those things, merely another failed experiment in a Cambridge or Palo Alto laboratory? I didn’t sleep for nights. My neck seemed to become stiffer, I could almost feel the fascist bullet in my spine, and it hurt terribly. The numbness at my ﬁnger tips and toes spread upward. My half-dead left thigh began to hurt even though it was numb. It was all in my head. I felt ashamed, and that was the worst of all. Should I have spoken up? What should I have done? Should I have kept a poker face? Would Joe or Doug, my brave friends, have been brave enough to have spoken up? Later I was to learn that they too had committed what they thought to be a necessary murder—life or death, and I refused to judge them. Were some murders more necessary than others? Can you answer that? I, yes, I, had murdered three Spanish revolutionaries. Real ones. Somewhere along the way, Neumann had said something about Trotskyite fascists. Who, goddammit, was the fascist? I remembered Lyovka, that love of a man, who had disappeared off the face of the earth, and how I had shrugged it off. I remembered the picket lines I had walked, demonstrations I had attended, my comrades at the front in Spain, dead, wounded, my comrades in the American South daring vigilantes, the Ku Klux Klan, tar and feathering, comrades all over the world rotting in prisons, and, yes, comrades being murdered in the Soviet Union. And these three Spanish kids. They were Natie. They were me. I was them. I had murdered them. I had murdered myself. Crazy. I wept into my pillow so Oscar Hunter, asleep next to me, couldn’t hear me. He never said a word. Perhaps he didn’t know. The bodies of those kids were probably thrown in a heap at some square’s edge near the Segura, which stank like a latrine. A warning, a threat.
For years a shame I couldn’t quite understand stood in the way of my revealing this incident. I’d approach it, stop short. Finally, after several attempts ended in the wastepaper basket, I wrote a ﬁctional scene in ¡Hermanos!, founded on what had happened in the church basement, and it was the protagonist himself who shot one of the young revolutionaries. Afterwards, readers, friends, even professional historians, all who should know better than to confuse a ﬁctional character with the writer kept asking me, some even insisting, whether I had executed someone in Spain. Now I was afraid I would be called a killer. Of course not, I would respond indignantly. Don’t you give me credit as a ﬁction writer? It never happened; I was never in a church basement in my life; I made it all up.
Of what was I ashamed, of what was I guilty? I knew, whether I admitted it or not, that if Neumann had pushed a gun into my ﬁst and ordered me to kill one of them, the chances are very great indeed that out of fear for my own life I would have committed the crime. I was not, after all, the hero I thought I was, or hoped to be.
There is, of course, a vast space between would have and did, but in my case I have had to live with the thought that would have was as close to did as my skin is to my ﬂesh. Up to the moment Paul Berman, a sympathetic interlocutor, seduced it out of me, I resisted revealing that to anyone, even to myself. Another human being’s life was cheaper, I guess, than my own.
(I must note that when Paul Berman interviewed me and I decided at last to reveal the incident, so distraught was I that I kept calling the three young people “guys,” not mentioning that one was a young woman. Yet, it’s my image of her which is the sharpest and most poignant.)