John V. Murra – by Saul Friedberg

April 21, 2017
John Murra, Lincoln-Washington, May 1938. The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection; ALBA Photo 11; ALBA Photo number 11-0221. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.

John Murra, Lincoln-Washington, May 1938. The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection; ALBA Photo 11; ALBA Photo number 11-0221. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.

Notes from the Biographical Dictionary Project.  Saul Freidberg provided several short biographical sketches on fellow veterans.  The sketches provide insight into Friedberg as well.

Murra is mentioned several time in Rolfe’s book The Lincoln Battalion and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the references. I would however like to supplement what is there said out of my personal memories.

I knew and was close to Murra in Chicago in 1936-37 before we left for Spain. He was a Rumanian national in the US on a student visa and he was attending the U of Chicago as a graduate student – Rolfe says in the field of archeology and I am not sure about this – it may have been in anthropology.  He told me then or later that he had been sentenced to death in Rumania while still a high school student for Communist revolutionary activities and had been forced to flee to Paris a step before the firing squad, and from Paris he had gone to the US to pursue his studies. While in the US he had married a US citizen with whom he was living before he left for Spain.

Rumania in the years after WWI except for brief periods was a murderous, anti-Soviet fascist dictatorship. It had been set up by the victorious allies in WWI with German imperial and later Social Democratic cooperation as one of the ring of anti-Soviet states with which the revolutionary country had been surrounded. By the time Murra was a high school student Rumania was ruled by King Carol, a member of the Hohenzollern family, and by the extreme-fascist Iron Guard Party. Carol was to make a celebrated pilgrimage to Berchtesgarden where he allied Rumania with Nazi Germany in its coming war against the Soviet Union; Rumanian divisions were among those fated to be annihilated by the Soviet Union at Stalingrad. In any event it was this government of Carol and the Iron Guard with which my friend Murra had his falling out.

As Rolfe says, Murra spoke six languages fluently; I would have said he spoke more than six. I never ceased to be amazed at his ability to switch from one to another – from Rumanian to French to English to Swedish (?) for example in mid-sentence.

This language fluency resulted in Murra’s being culled out of the crowd at Albacete and permanently assigned to the Brigade headquarters there; what else could have happened to a brilliant linguist who was also a loyal and militant Communist in the International Brigades, which united 60 nationalities and that many languages.

As a result of this assignment, Murra and I were separated for much of the time I was in Spain. However, after the Aragon retreats, the fascists reached the Mediterranean at the mouth of the Ebro at Tortosa, and thus they cut the Republican territory in half, the Madrid sector, including Albacete, in the south, and Catalonia in the north.  We 15th Brigaders who had just retreated across the Ebro to the north side were thus in Catalonia, separated by the fascist salient from our comrades in Madrid; and we there prepared on the left, north bank of the Ebro, for the offensive back across the river which was to take place in July.

I remember lying on a slope chewing the fat with a bunch of comrades when I suddenly realized that Murra was among us.  He told me that before the escape route was closed the IB headquarters in Albacete was disbanded and the IB’ers who were there were sent north to Catalonia before the gap was closed. Murra apparently told Rolfe that he had “deserted” from Albacete, which Rolfe repeats; he could only have said this humorously.

Murra then trained with us on the north bank of the Ebro until that morning when we walked to the woods bordering the Ebro beach, seized the row boats which we found there, dragged them across the sand and into the water, and rowed across the river, thus opening our Ebro Offensive. I was wounded before Gandesa on the third or fourth day, about July 28 or 29 I believe, receiving a machine gun bullet through the right ankle from the famous high hill defending Gandesa, and was evacuated to the hospital at Mataro after walking with a comrade whose head and eyes were bandaged (I leaned on him and he used my eyes) several kilometers from the first aid station we were in to the ambulance on the road – the availability of stretcher bearers were hopelessly short, and the fascist artillery was exploding all around us. At Mataro I was reunited with Murra – he also was wounded before Gandesa. Rolfe says he was shot through the lung; to my best memory that is a little over-dramatic a description of Murra’s condition since I remember his getting around pretty well at Mataro.

Sometime while we were in the hospital Murra gave me to read a letter which he said he had just received. It was from his wife in Chicago; “Dear John,” it started, and it went on to say that she had divorced him for desertion and married someone else. John’s despair die not result from rejected love; since he was no longer married to a US citizen, and could no longer claim the protection of his student visa, he could no longer hope to be readmitted into the US by its friendly fascist INS, and faced possible repatriation to the Rumanian firing squad. Hence, when the League of Nations commission counted us, and we were cleared and ready for repatriation Murra was not among those sent off to Ripoll on the first leg of the trip home. He was left behind at Mataro with others falling in his category.

I then did not see Murra again until about March 1939.

At that time, two months or so back from Spain and preparing to take the Bar exams, I was trying to earn a dollar selling fluorescent lights, the big technological advance of the time, and had for that purpose rented desk space in one of the many public office facilities in the area of Broadway and 26th street in Manhattan; and I was walking north on Broadway at about 25th street going to or from my “office.”  I suddenly found myself facing John Murra walking on Broadway in the opposite direction. We fell into each other’s arms and before long were sitting in a coffee shop for a long talk session, during which John told me what had happened to him since we parted from each other in the hospital at Mataro toward the end of October of the previous year. I will tell what I learned, as best I can in John’s words as I now remember them – in any event with the flavor of John’s words.

“You will remember that a short time after you and the others being repatriated left Mataro, it became evident that the Republican forces could not resist the tidal wave of fascist armies pushing north into Catalonia, which before very long would reach the French border; and hundreds of thousands of the supporters of the Republic, abandoned by  US, France, England and the whole capitalist “democratic” world, fearing Franco’s bloody vengeance, started to flee north along the coast roads toward France.

“A short while after you left, Andre Marty appeared at Mataro. (Andre Marty was a legendary French Communist. “He had been a leader of the mutinies in the French Navy during WWI and one of the founders of the French Communist Party. He was an official of the Comintern and had played a leading role in the organization of the International Brigades. He had been in Spain doing the IB and Communist work during much of the war. He was known as extremely bold and militant.)

“Marty, fully armed with hand guns, belts of cartridges, and hand grenades, called together all of those who like me had no claim to go anywhere but to some fascist country of birth where we would face fascist vengeance and he addressed us.  ‘Comrades,’ he said, ‘we are all fighters for the proletarian revolution and against fascism and that fight is the whole purpose of our lives. None of you has now any safe haven to go to. So here is what I propose to you. We will organize ourselves into a disciplined armed force under my command and we will undertake the job of delaying and holding back the advance of the fascist armies in order that the hundreds of thousands of our comrades who are trying to flee form Franco into France can do so without interference from the fascist forces. Who’s with me?”

“Naturally, all present immediately stepped forward, all volunteered.”

“Marty organized us as was needed and provided us with the necessary arms. We went up the coast road to a position north of Mataro, where we formed a defensive line across the road for as great a distance as our forces permitted, and there we awaited the fascist advance. As we waited, the refugees streamed to the north through our lines, women, children, old folks, former soldiers – all who feared to or did not want to live under fascism.”

“Finally the fascist forces were heard rumbling in the distance and then came into sight advancing in a column up the road. On command we started to fire at them.”

“Receiving our fire, the fascist column had to stop and spread out in a skirmish line across the road, until, with their vast numbers, they encircled our flanks and were ready to surrounded and destroy us. To secure the greatest delay, which of course exposed us to the greatest danger, we held our positions until the last possible moment before the fascist ring closed behind us, and then we were ordered to retreat, which we rapidly did, falling back to the north five or ten miles and there reforming our defensive line across the road.”

“Upon our retreating, the fascist forces had to reassemble and form again into a column on the road, and follow after us.”

“This whole maneuver could have taken several days, giving the refugees that much additional time to make good their escape into France.’

“When the fascist column reached our new defensive line, the whole maneuver was repeated, with the same outcome, with the same outcome, giving the refugees that much additional time.”

“In this way we fought and retreated, and fought and retreated all the way to the French border. I am sure that through Marty’s and our efforts hundreds of thousands of good Spanish people were able to reach the relative security of France, hostile though the French rulers were to the democratic Spanish people.”

“When we reached the French border, Marty, still breathing fire, still bearing his side arms, cartridge belts, and grenades, again called us together. ‘Comrades,’ he said, ‘you have done nobly, and  can be proud of yourselves. Now I have this to say. None of you has any safe place to go; none of you has anything better to do with your life than to give it in the fight against fascism and for socialism. I propose that we all now turn around, and go south, and that we attack the fascist forces and kill as many of them as we can, taking the consequences.’

“There may have been some who accepted Marty’s suggestion; I don’t think so. I and all those I was with in effect took one step backward across the border into France where we were interned by the French ‘democratic’ government.”

“I would still be there in French concentration camps on the Mediterranean beaches were it not for Eleanor Roosevelt. She responded to the campaign which was started on our behalf, and through her efforts all IB’ers who had left for Spain from the US and had some claim to go back there, frustrated by some technicality, such as me, were repatriated to the United States.”

That is the story Murra told me that day in the coffee shop. I don’t remember his mentioning it, but he and his comrades in that retreat from Mataro to France had to have suffered substantial casualties; the opposing forces did not just maneuver, but they inflicted each other with the most fire power they could command. The fascist forces were greatly larger, and their fire power was much greater.

After Murra and I parted that day in March 1939 we each went our separate ways, and I did not see him again until, I think 1963, and then under the circumstances I will describe. However, I did get word of him sometime at the end of the fifties, at a party I attended at a friend’s house where I found myself sitting next to a woman who taught at Vasser. Somehow the name John Murra came up, and she told me he was a very highly regarded professor – of anthropology/archeology – at Vassar, and was also celebrated there for the number of his marriages – three or four as I recall. Murra had evidently rebounded well from the abandonment he had suffered when he was hospitalized at Mataro, form his ordeal with Marty, and form his brief incarceration in a French concentration camp; and had doubtless obtained US citizenship.

In May of 1963 (I believe) I went to New Haven to help my son, a Yale junior, pack and come home for the summer, and was leaning on my car parked on the street outside my son’s Yale dormitory. I looked up and there, walking toward me, I saw, of course, John Murra. Of course we again fell into each other’s arms and went to a coffee shop to talk. This time, however, the most I learned was that Murra was in New Haven as a visiting professor at Yale. We again parted, this time not to meet again for perhaps another 14 years.

About 1977 I finished a day in court at Foley Square, Manhattan, and got into the Lexington Avenue subway to go back up town. There were no seats, so I grabbed a strap and stood. When I looked down, I saw, what else, John Murra seated on the seat below me, and of course he saw me. This time we did not go to a coffee shop, but communicated as best we could in the subway car. I learned that John was about to go off on a field trip – his last field trip because of his age, which at that time must have bee in the mid-sixties – in his area of interest, the Andean natives. However, the start of the trip was delayed for two reasons: one, he had to learn the language spoken by the peoples whom he would live among, something which, naturally, considering Murra’s capacities in this area, he calculated would take a short few weeks; and the other, he had to undergo surgery for the removal of his gall bladder, a matter which he did not control as well. When the train reached 42nd Street, my destination, I got off, leaving Murra to continue his ride alone.

I saw Murra one other time – at a Lincoln Vets dinner in Manhattan, which could have been before or after 1977, at which time we spoke but briefly.

I learned somehow that Murra upon retirement was appointed to a position at the Institute for Advance Study [was not certain of the name] at Princeton. I do not know if he is still living[i], but Murra’s vital statistics must be a matter of public record, and in the records of VALB.

Saul Friedberg, 5/7/1996
[i] Murra died on October 16, 2006.