Saturday, February 02, 2008

Dyed-in-the-Wool Red Dies: Milt Wolff

Milt Wolff is the second American veteran of the Spanish Civil War we have had to bury in a very short time.

In August,
Moe Fishman died and only the gods neither of them believed in know if the passing of one led to the passing of the other.

Wolff died about two weeks ago, but we're focusing on him now simply to extend his stay on earth a few days longer, although naturally, he lives on through the impact of his actions and activism.

The Spanish Civil War lasted only three years (1936-39) and Wolff lived for 92 busy ones, but his time with the Abraham Lincoln Brigades as a commander in the crushing defeats of La Republica at Brunete and elsewhere are the reason we know of, and care about, him.

All the elements of a well-deserved legend are there: his fighting on Hill 666 in the Sierra de Pandols, the acquaintance with Ernest Hemingway who called Wolff, "as brave and as good a soldier as any that commanded battalions at Gettysburg."

That last quote was cribbed from an obituary by Douglas Martin at the "New York Times," which will give you some idea of the esteem in which Milt Wolff was held, in spite of his being a dyed-in-wool "Red."

According to that piece, Wolff's was the typical pedigree of a '30s radical. Born in Bensonhurst (Brooklyn) in 1915, he quit high school to join Roosevelt's (Franklin, that is) Civilian Conservation Corps, and lost that gig for complaining about how an injured friend was treated.

He worked in Manhattan's garment district and joined the Young Communist League, which was a very good way of ending up behind a machine gun in Spain, whether you considered yourself a pacifist, as Wolff did, or not.

The bloodshed being what it was, especially for the good guys, Wolff found himself promoted early and often and rose to the rank of commander in the final, agonizing months for the Republican army.

The famed Robert Capa shot a picture of him with Hemingway, which, according to "The Times," was the first time Wolff's mother knew where he was.

Spicing up the account was the fact Wolff had stole "Papa's" mistress, and the famed scribe didn't even mind.

"Activism is the elixir of life," Wolff liked to say.

And it was at least true for him.

In the "Berkeley Daily Planet," Richard Bermack had still more to relate: "To have lunch with him was to take a journey through history. And it wasn't so much his retelling of Spanish Civil War adventures, but his tales of a time when actions had meaning and taking a stand against injustice was clear cut. Wolff radiated a sense of purpose that was contagious."

Call us romantics, but we long for that world and work, in our small way, to make it current by remembering people like Wolff and Fishman.

On top of his life-long work to keep the memory of the Abraham Lincoln Brigadiers alive, Wolff fought the victorious Franco regime until it gave way to Spanish democracy, fought alongside anti-Fascist partisans in Italy during World War II, and took many whacks at the U.S. war in Viet Nam.

He is the author of "Another Hill," "A Member of the Working Class," and "The Premature Antifascist."

A memorial will take place on March 29. For information on that go to

Hasta la vista companyero!

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