Discovering a Local Lincoln Brigade Hero

June 9, 2016

While attending an ALBA institute, a veteran Brooklyn teacher discovers that a Lincoln volunteer lived just around the corner. He decides to find out more and unearths a touching story.

John Kozar

John Kozar

I teach a course in New York City history and my passion is Brooklyn, particularly the area known as Greenpoint. After attending one of ALBA’s education institutes, I came across this entry: John “Topsy” Kozar, 631 Oakland Street. Wow, I thought, he lived just around the corner from me and I decided to learn more.

At first, I only found basic information about Kozar. Of mixed Czech and Lakota Native American heritage, he’d been born into a mining family in 1913 in western Pennsylvania. He worked as a miner for a while, becoming a rank and file member of the United Mine workers. Then he left mining and made his way to New York where he became a merchant seaman. He took part in the strikes that helped Joseph Curran organize the National Maritime Union. He also became a member of the Communist party and an avowed foe of Fascism. He went to Spain to fight for the Republic in 1937.

At this point I had more questions than answers. I even wondered if Kozar had actually lived in the area. Many Lincoln fighters gave fictitious addresses and I wondered why a merchant seaman would live in our area and not along the docks. I decided to go to the Tamiment Collection to research Kozar.

Kozar got into a lifeboat and was never seen again.

Reading the Kozar file, I quickly learned that I was not the only one who had tried to piece together his life story, but first I need to digress and finish the story of Kozar’s tragic death. During World War II, Kozar, like many leftist seamen was eager to help the Soviets fight fascism. He signed on board a ship doing the dangerous run to Murmansk, but he never made it. His ship was torpedoed in January 1942. Kozar got into a lifeboat and was never seen again.

A week after his death, Kozar’s wife gave birth to a son: Thomas Kozar, and like me, Thomas was curious about his father. In the late 1970s he began to inquire of the living veterans about his father. Thanks to these efforts, it was easy for me to learn about his father’s life.

Kozar, a beloved veteran, must have been intelligent because he spoke fluent Spanish, Czech, Polish and Russian. Topsy had been imprisoned twice. Once the Gestapo placed him for five months in a concentration camp in 1935 for disseminating anti-Nazi propaganda. He also got locked up in the United Kingdom when he knocked out a scab seaman in the middle of Trafalgar Square!

Life behind the lines as driver was not safe either; a fascist shell killed one of his closest friends, a driver in his unit.

In one of Thomas Kozar’s letters he stated how proud he was of the father he never knew and with good reason. “Topsy” went to Spain to fight and he was frustrated with being a mechanic/driver behind the lines. A few times they caught him “deserting to the front,” once being dragged out of a British machine gun nest. Life behind the lines as driver was not safe either; a fascist shell killed one of his closest friends, a driver in his unit.

Thomas Kozar also wrote to Lincoln vet Alvah Bessie, the author of the great book Men in Battle who directed him to a profile within of his father, drawing a picture of a man always in good humor and always grinning. He also learned that his father had survived the torpedoing of the ship he was sailing on to Spain by swimming a mile to shore with a pound of Maxwell House Coffee between his teeth.

Going through the documents, I answered my own question about whether Kozar had really lived in Greenpoint. He not only lived there, but he was also an organizer in a famous local strike. In 1940, Greenpointers, mostly women, struck the Leviton plant for higher wages. Kozar’s brother was one of the workers on strike. The strike went on for months. When Eleanor Roosevelt heard about their job action, she came to address them. It was the first time in American history the First Lady had addressed striking workers. Thanks in large part to Mrs. Roosevelt, the Leviton workers won the strike with their demands met.

I also learned that Kozar was on a ship that was in Pearl Harbor three days before the Japanese attack. He was angry that he had not been there. He had only a few weeks more to live. Kozar didn’t live to see his 30th birthday.

Oakland Street where Kozar lived is right near the old Leviton plant, which shut its doors, but the building is still there. Oakland Street has now become McGuinness Boulevard, but Johnny’s apartment house is still there. Now whenever I walk by I think of “Topsy,” the brave volunteer of the Lincoln Brigade.

Geoffrey Cobb is a 21-year veteran teacher of the New York City public schools. He currently teaches history, Spanish and English at the High School for Service and Learning on the historic Erasmus Campus. He is also the author of Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past, the first history of his area of North Brooklyn written in a century.