I have never been to Spain, and I do not speak Spanish; but because I am a New Yorker and many signs are printed in English and Spanish, I have learned a few words and phrases in that language. And, of course, there was always Spanish Cuisine, to which I was introduced by Robert Able, my editor at Dell Books more than thirty years ago. The restaurant was The Spain and was located on 13th Street, just off 6th avenue. To my knowledge, it is still there.
My ability to speak and understand French is much better than my ability to speak Spanish because I had three years of it in high school and two years in college. I also spent some time in France, specifically in Paris, where with some difficulty I was able to communicate with people of that city.
But where does my connection, however tenuous to Spain come from? The only way I can explain it is to connect the dots. By nature, I’m a dot connector rather than a person who dots their i’s and crosses their t’s. For me, all of the events that make up our individual lives can be graphically represented by connecting the dots that represent events in our lives, and by extension, all of human history can be represented the same way.
The Spanish Civil War (July 17, 1936—April 1, 1939) was the beginning of my odd connection to Spain. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. I was seven years old when the war began and 10 when it ended. Before the war and after it, the world was in the stranglehold of depression that began in 1929, the year I was born.
My father worked for George Harris in the Diamond Exchange located in the Bowery, off Canal Street. Sometime during 1936 or 1937, he was let go, and with the last bit of savings my mother and father had, she convinced him to buy a candy store on the north-west corner of Hopkinson and Lot Avenues in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn; and the family moved from East 45th Street in East Flatbush to Chester and Lot Avenues, a short walk to the candy store. Neither of them knew how to run a business, and the candy store went “belly up” after a year or so. It was there that I first heard about the Spanish Civil War.
Many neighborhood boys joined the Lincoln Brigade to fight Fascism. My middle sister, Roslyn, a student at Tilden High School, wanted to volunteer as a nurse. Certain she would be sold into white slavery, my mother became hysterical and stopped her.
Before the war ended, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade left Spain; and the neighborhood boys who fought in the Brigade, many without an arm or leg returned. It was at that time that I heard the name Alva Bessie in connection to the Spanish Civil War for the first time. I would hear it many times later, and many years later I would read the book he wrote about the war. The neighborhood men who were in the Lincoln Brigade came from the same neighborhood that the infamous Amboy Dukes came from; Amboy Street was a few blocks from Hopkinson Avenue.
More years passed. World War 11 came and after four years of slaughter ended in August of 1945 with the surrender of Japan. I ran away from home, returned and became a student at Brooklyn College, where I met my future wife, Anita Grace Mittag. When I first saw her, she looked Hispanic. But the only thing Hispanic about her was the medal she won in high school for being the best student in her Spanish Class.
When I became eighteen, I registered for the draft which was still in effect, and I joined the Army Reserve to ensure that I would not be drafted and would be able to graduate from college.
Anita and I became engaged and when we graduated we married. But the Korean War had broken out in June of 1950. I spent six days with my wife and off I went. I did not see her for another two years.
Again more years passed, perhaps decades. I don’t remember. We had two sons, Richard and Nathan. Anita became ill; again I don’t remember the circumstance, but our family doctor recommended that we go to a warmer climate for a couple of weeks.
We took his advice and flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico and stayed at the San Juan Hotel. One night we went to dinner at a nearby restaurant that was recommended to us by the concierge. Seated across from Anita and me at a different table was a small, bald, nattily dressed middle-aged man wearing horn-rimmed glasses; he appeared to be studying us. I recall mentioning as much to Anita. Then, to my surprise, he nodded and in Yiddish asked if we Jewish. Also in Yiddish, I said that we were. He smiled, and in perfect English with a trace of an accent that I later found out was Polish, he said that his name was Jacques Grumblatt and that he was a medical doctor, and he added that Anita looked as if she were recovering from illness.
I invited him to join us, which he did and that began a friendship that lasted until he died. To my amazement, he turned out to be a survivor of the Spanish Civil war. Sometime later, Anita and I visited him and his American family in North Creek, New York where he lived and practiced medicine. I tape recorded his reminiscences of his time in Spain.
When the war started, he was a third-year medical student at the Sorbonne University. He abandoned his medical studies and joined the Polish Brigade. Once in Spain, he took part in many battles, the most famous the one at the Ebro River. Shortly after the battle, he found himself face to face with a Spanish Moroccan soldier. Both had rifles but were so surprised that they turned and fled.
While he was in Spain, he married a woman who became pregnant with his son. She could not follow him when the war ended, and he and surviving members of the brigade crossed the Pyrenees Mountains in the winter of 1939. The weather was harsh, and many of the men didn’t survive. They either died on the march or were captured and executed.
When Jacques and the other survivors of the Polish Brigade reached France, they were interned. Jacques managed to become an ambulance driver and was permitted to go in and out of the internment camp on a daily basis. On one of his trips, he learned that internees were going to be shipped to French Morocco. He planned to escape and did, landing in Tunisia. From there he went to Mexico, where he finally obtained a medical degree. Eventually wound up in the United States, married another woman and had children with her. As soon as General Franco (1892-1975) died, he was going to return to Spain with his American family and introduce them to Spanish family, which he did just that before he died.
The actual interview was an hour and a half long and filled with many details that would be superfluous here. I met with Jacques one more time before he died.
Many more decades passed before my grand-nephew, Benjamin Mittag visited Spain when he was in his Senior Year in high school. He fell in love with language, the food, and the Spanish people. When he graduated from high school and went on to college, he majored in economics and Spanish. In 2016 he graduated from college with honors in both subjects. Presently, he’s in Barcelona teaching English to Spanish students and enjoying the challenge.
I would not have written any of this if I hadn’t read the book, Keeping Time by Peter N. Carroll in which he devoted an entire chapter to the Spanish Civil War. What he wrote evoked my memories of the men I had known who had fought there. Those memories were the beginning of my tenuous connection to Spain.