John Murra’s War in Spain & France

June 1, 2010

Editor’s Note: In 1983, Lincoln vet John Murra gave a lively videotaped interview to Vet Manny Harriman, which is now housed at N.Y.U.’s Tamiment Library, which also holds Murra’s papers. That interview, plus half a dozen interviews Murra gave to the author in the 1980s and 1990s provided material for this article. Murra went on to become a world-class anthropologist at Cornell University.

John Murra (1916-2006) claimed he made up his mind to go to Spain in 20 minutes. “[A recruiter asked me to go], I’d never been to Spain. It was a place I was interested in.” In February 1937, Murra put his plans to do graduate work in sociology on hold and set out for Spain. He’d just graduated from the University of Chicago, where he’d been sent by his parents, three years before, having barely escaped with his life from prison (for communist agitation) in his native Romania.

John Murra

John Murra, Spain, May 1938 (Tamiment Library, NYU, 15th Brigade Photo Collection, 11-0221, #B597)

Shortly after arriving in Paris, Murra was instructed to catch an overnight train south to a town near the French-Spanish border. He remained there until April 1937, helping to hide and provision several thousand U.S., Canadian, Scandinavian, and other English-speaking volunteers in tiny villages like Arles-sur-Tech as they were smuggled over the Pyrenees into Spain. Murra marveled at the trust and responsibility thrust on him at age 19. “I’d be told where to meet four men with Luxembourgian passports who spoke no French or German. . . . .or I’d be told, ‘Meet a train at such and such an hour.’ [Someone would hand me a suitcase.] We were handling thousands of dollars in suitcases without any receipts.”

“We instructed the volunteers: Don’t shoot guns. Don’t get drunk. Stay in the barns [where they’d be billeted.]. But they were bored. It [would be] two, three, four weeks, sometimes, nothing happening.” Murra worked with Ferrer Mercelin, a French Canadian. Instructions came in Russian from someone at Communist party headquarters in the French border town of Perpignan.

One of Murra’s “housekeeping” responsibilities on the French border was outfitting International Brigade volunteers with alpargatas. Volunteers were issued the rope-soled sandals to climb icy stretches of the Pyrenees. “[But] the alpargatas [they sent us at first] were too small—four sizes too small. We had to write letters [to the workshops making the alpargatas] that these big American or Swedish types had very big feet. After a while they started making them bigger. We’d get a sack with 30 pairs.”

Murra was chosen to help the arriving Internationals because he was fluent in French, English, Russian, German, and Romanian, and spoke some Italian and Croatian, as well. Ironically, Spanish was one language Murra did not know, until he was finally allowed to cross the border himself into Spain in mid-April.

Murra never took a Spanish lesson and never bought a dictionary, but he quickly picked up the language. His first assignment in Spain was as translator and assistant to Bill Lawrence, commissar of the XVth (English-speaking) Brigade in Albacete. From May 1937 to February 1938 Murra translated for Bob Kerr in the Canadian office and Will Painter in the British office. He worked out of a 20′ x 15′ office. Nights he slept on the office couch. “French was the administrative language most in demand,” Murra recalled. Occasionally he heard Russian, as well, always spoken with an accent: “In two years in Spain, I never saw a Russian. Everybody says they saw Russians. All the Russians I saw were Bulgarians, Slovenes, Croats, Poles–10, 15 years earlier thrown by some revolution to Russia. People in the tank corps, or air corps saw Russians, because Russians wouldn’t let Internationals near tanks or planes.”

Occasionally, Murra corresponded with U.S. consular officials in Spain. He quickly adjusted to the Americans’ bureaucratic sensibilities. Murra referred to his boss, Commissar Bill Lawrence, as “Commissioner” Lawrence.

One of Murra’s duties at International Brigade headquarters at Albacete was choosing replacements for volunteers killed and wounded: “A troop train would come in from Valencia. I’d go to the bullring. [A new batch of international volunteers would] be standing there all tired. They’d just climbed the Pyrenees. I knew what shortages there were . . . for all these trucks and ambulances–we needed people all the time. . . . For a Pole or Norwegian to drive–that was a profession. [But] every American knew how to drive, even in ’37.” Murra found it hard to cajole Americans to volunteer for the Auto Park/ Regiment de Tren (transport unit). “They’d come to fight fascism.” He hit on a winning sales pitch, “You can be pretty assured of being bombed.”

Once a week, Murra delivered packages and letters to American volunteers, traveling in the back of an ambulance or on motorbike. “I used to go around remembering 2,000 addresses. . . . North Americans were the envy of other foreign brigades at mail call. Cigarettes piled up in the Albacete storeroom–hundreds, sometimes, of cartons of cigarettes addressed to American volunteers. Volunteers from other countries in Europe, especially those ruled by fascist governments, exiled from their home countries, [often] got no letters or packages at all. “You didn’t want to give one guy something and the guy next to him nothing. . . . I always tried to do it surreptitiously.” Occasionally brigade headquarters “equalized” the quantity of cigarettes each national group received from home. “Bill Lawrence would trade cigarettes for supplies. Cigarettes were currency.”

Attempting to deliver mail to the American volunteers, Murra had a devilishly hard time prying hometown newspapers loose from mail censors (who Murra remembered as: “grizzled old censors left over from the 1905 revolution . . .or who fought in 1923 on some barricade.) How do you explain to someone like that–this guy should get his Worcester Gazette?”

“Capitalist paper,” the censors would grumble. The censors would only let through the “national paper,” Murra recalled. “I told them, ‘There’s no national paper in [the U.S.]’ And I would speak to the guy in Russian. I wouldn’t inflict English on him. . . . ‘You know, comrade, it’s a different country.’ All papers were stopped. All you got was the Daily Worker or the Spanish equivalent, which was nothing to read, just sermons.”

“All the Wobblies’ letters had to be read. In our office we received stacks that the censors wouldn’t let out. All the ‘Dear John’ letters–censorship stopped [those] to prevent loss of morale. Battle issues, military secrets, complicated political judgment–they passed it to us.”

Because he was bearing letters and packages from home, most of the U.S. volunteers greeted Murra warmly. A few, however, taunted Murra for cowardice, as if he were shirking front-line duty with his rear-lines “delivery boy” duties. “Everyone thought I had a soft job. [But] people woke me up at 1 a.m. swearing to kill me, unless I came out and gave them a flop [lodgings for the night].” Twice Murra “deserted” to front-line positions only to be arrested for not having the proper papers. Even when he was transferred to Estado Mayor, military headquarters in Barcelona, as a translator, Murra yearned to prove himself at the front.

The headquarters duty Murra loathed most was translating speeches by American commissars to the Spanish recruits in their battalion. Murra found his commissars’ “god-awful” speeches insufferably clichéd, pontificating, and full of inanities. Murra admired military commanders Phil Detro, Hans Amlie, and Howard Goddard, but he had complimentary words for only one American commissar–Steve Nelson. Nelson sought out Murra with a humane procedure for dealing with the surprising large number of would-be deserters. Nelson advised Murra, “[being] a deserter isn’t a permanent condition. . . .Treat him like a human being. . . .Don’t talk to him about fighting fascism.” Nelson urged Murra to get deserters a 48-hour pass so they wouldn’t be arrested, and if possible a meal in a restaurant and a hot shower. Nelson predicted that “overwhelmingly these men would go back to fight.” Murra found they did just that.

The second time Murra “deserted to the front,” he was grudgingly allowed to stay. He served on the Aragon and Ebro fronts. Outside Gandesa, he was gravely wounded. The bullet hit his spine and filled a lung with blood. Murra would have bled to death in no man’s land, but Bill Wheeler and Jack Shafran braved enemy fire to drag him to Doc John Simon’s medical station.

Harry Fisher’s Comrades: Tales of a Brigadista in the Spanish Civil War reports that Murra’s spinal wound initially paralyzed him from the spine down. However, “a wonderful Latvian nurse [in his hospital in Barcelona] pressured him to get out of bed and on his feet. Slowly but surely he began to walk, though with a noticeable limp that he still has today.” His nurse had been one of thousands of volunteers Murra had helped cross the Pyrenees in 1937. They remembered each other because it took Murra an immense effort to persuade the smugglers to take a woman across the border.

Lacking a valid U.S. passport, Murra missed out on being repatriated by the League of Nations. He was still recuperating in a hospital in February 1939, when Franco’s forces approached Barcelona. Murra walked most of the way from Mataro, on the Catalonian coast to the border, then chanced to meet up with American volunteers Hy Tabb, Sid Kaufman, Conlon Nancarrow, and Stanley Postek. They only survived because a Yugoslav named Babin joined their party. At a military supply depot on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, Babin ordered Murra and his fellow Americans to load up a truck, one of many abandoned by the Spanish army, with 50-60 pound packages of dried beans, cocoa, sugar, and flour.

“What good will this do us?” griped the American volunteers.

“Fill up the truck,” ordered their wiser Yugoslav comrade Babin.

Expecting sanctuary, food, and shelter upon reaching France, Murra, his fellow Americans, and some 400,000 Spanish refugees, soldiers and civilians, were herded onto beaches near the Spanish border. Murra’s party were interned in a makeshift camp at the beach of Argeles-sûr-Mer. It was February and cold. Along with 72,000 others, they initially went without food, shelter, blankets, or latrines. Historians estimate 500 Spanish refugees died of malnutrition, exposure, and attendant diseases every week during the first months in the French internment camps.

Murra’s crew, however, were luckier than their fellow sufferers. Their panel truck provided rudimentary shelter for their wounded, a place to sleep out of the elements. They had dried food and canned goods, with sacks of food left over to barter.

Hope briefly flared when U.S. prisoners-of-war held by Franco in San Pedro de Cardeña jail were released in February 1939. Transiting France on their way back to the United States, these POWs were briefly detained by French officials near Murra’s stateless volunteers. Murra explained the predicament of the stateless American vets to the just-released American POWs. He claimed the San Pedro POWs voted overwhelmingly to issue a joint statement that none of them would return home until their stateless brothers were allowed to come back with them. The stateless internees wanted to be held in Ellis Island, where they could pursue their individual cases. But the next morning the San Pedro de Cardena POWs were gone. Murra surmised that orders came through from the Communist party headquarters in New York to “stop this shit” immediately, board their ship, and come home.

A month or two later, through the intervention of diplomat Noel Field and friends in Paris, Murra and his stateless comrades were transferred to an internment camp near the port city of Le Havre. Their material well-being improved. They now had cement floors, blankets, showers, and adequate food. But the 160 stateless American volunteers were racing against time to exit France. World War II was imminent.

Some of the internees lacked valid passports because they came to the U.S. as young children. Murra recalled individuals who’d lived 10 years or more in the U.S. Some had entered the country illegally with their parents. Others hadn’t filled out their naturalization paperwork properly, or seen it through to completion and were now trapped.

University of Chicago graduate, multilingual Murra was delegated by his 160 stateless comrades to represent them in negotiations with French authorities and named to a five-member executive committee of the stateless Americans. Murra worked individually with each of the 160, trying to scrape together a dossier to obtain a visa to return to the U.S. He frantically, repeatedly, cabled appeals to Communist Party headquarters in New York. Inexplicably, his cables went unanswered. Letters were written to comrades-in-arms back in the U.S. Murra recalled that Alvah Bessie and Edwin Rolfe championed their cause. But they, too, found the State Department unsympathetic. Many of the men interned with Murra had been active communists.

As the months dragged into 1939, Murra began individually to urge the 160 stateless internees to wrack their minds for the names of elected officials of their home state or hometown who could go to bat for them with the U.S. State Department. If that didn’t work, he pressed them to think of any middle-class citizens in whatever town they came from, who might through political or business connections spring them from internment in France. The countries of birth for many of the men had fascist governments. Deportation there would be a death sentence.

Murra hit upon a way to spring himself. He’d been born Isak Lipschitz in 1916, near Odessa (now part of the Ukraine, but at that time part of Russia). His mother had family there. Murra wired his mother in Romania to come to France with his birth certificate from Odessa. The immigration quota for Romania was filled many years into the future. But the Russian quota was much larger. Through that loophole, Murra got a visa to enter the United States in July 1939. Tragically, many of Murra’s fellow stateless internees were not so lucky. “We had abandoned over 100 men in France.”

Murra returned to the University of Chicago and switched to the study of anthropology. “Dr. Kohl saw me in a corridor, ‘Are you through with your missionary work?’ he asked.” Murra assured him he was. In 1941, Murra sailed to Ecuador to take part in an archaeological field survey. This first taste of Andean studies captured Murra for life. He ultimately earned his Ph.D., taught at Cornell University, and authored a path-breaking study on the Incas. His Spanish language skills, so artfully cultivated in wartime, would shape the remainder of his career.

Joe Doyle teaches history in a public high school in Queens, New York. He participated in ALBA’s first summer Teaching Institute for NYC high School teachers.