Seven American Volunteers Refused Permission to Land in France

July 9, 2017
Postcard showing the President Roosevelt

Postcard showing the President Roosevelt.

The flow of American volunteers to Spain during the first months of 1937, prompted the United States State Department (State Department) to request the assistance of the French government in dissuading American volunteers from crossing France and entering Spain.  French efforts were somewhat half-hearted with officials often turning a blind eye to American travelers whose luggage contained military boots and uniforms.[i] After the Non-Intervention treaty was signed, French officials enforced a policy requiring suspected volunteers among arriving passengers to reveal how much money they possessed.  The volunteers would have to be demonstrate that they could provide for themselves. This was a convenient excuse for a policy nod to the State Department.[ii]

On April 2. 1937, Samuel Hamilton Wiley, the American Consul at Havre, sent a telegram to the State Department in Washington, DC, informing them that seven Americans  were being sent back to the United States.  The seven American volunteers for the International Brigades were part of a contingent who sailed aboard the President Roosevelt on March 17, 1937.  Upon arriving in France, they were “refused permission to land by French authorities because [of] lack of funds. . .” The seven volunteers each had “four dollars or less. . .” on their persons.[iii]

The seven were listed as:

 Meyor Aronovitch, passport# 374274 issued March 12, 1937; 23 years old; Address 2890 W. 21st St. Brooklyn, New York

Abraham Bernard, passport# San Francisco series 25026 issued February 26, 1937; 23 years old; Address Ferry Hotel, San Francisco

Herbert Frank Hoffman, [Hofmann] passport# San Francisco series 24937 issued February 24, 1937, 23 years old; Address 2228 Eurinat [Encinal] Ave, Alameda, CA c/o Marg Loefler [Lafler]

Albert Clarence Hoffman, [Hofmann] passport# San Francisco series 24936 issued February 24, 1937; 25 years old; Address same as above[iv]

William Lux, passport# 367608 issued February 16, 1937; 39 years old; Address 8385 Thaddeus Street, Detroit, Michigan

Oscar O’Neil, passport# 371970 issued March 5, 1937; 45 years old; Address 1345 S. 71st Street, Wallis, Wisconsin

Victor Samulis, passport# 368849 issued February 23, 1937; 24 years old; Address 928 Stevenson Road, Cleveland, Ohio[v]

The State Department forwarded Wiley’s cable to Mr. R. C. Bannerman, an attorney acting on behalf of the State Department, requesting that Bannerman meet the President Roosevelt when it docked in NYC on April 9, 1937.

The seven men aboard the President Roosevelt requested to be allowed to disembark and remain in detention in Havre because the next stop was in Germany.   The men were concerned that German authorities would take them off the ship and arrest them as they had “Simpson” a communist seaman who was recently released.[vi]  The men further stated that they expected that funds would be wired to them and upon they would then request permission from the French authorities to admit them into France. Wiley relayed the men’s request to the Special Commissaire of Police in Havre.  The Commissaire refused permission to allow them to land because he feared if he did so he would have to deal with a Communist demonstration.  The men remained aboard the ship and it proceeded to Hamburg.[vii]

An eighth American volunteer, Bertram Arthur Breslow, was also aboard the President Roosevelt. Breslow travelled to France aboard the Manhattan which sailed from New York City on March 24 and arrived in France on March 31, 1937.[viii]  Breslow’s father suspected that he was on his way to Spain and requested the State Department detain and send him back to the United States. Breslow was sent back to the United States aboard the President Roosevelt.  Mr. Bannerman, was instructed to “take up the passports of the eight persons mentioned” and notify the US Attorney “in order that he may, if he so desires, have them questioned. . .”[ix]

On March 30, 1937, the President Roosevelt docked in Hamburg and a consular representative met with the men who were refused permission to land in France. The seven maintained that they had not intended to go to Spain.  The men stated they had “played poker” on the way over and lost their money to a “deportee” who left the ship in Plymouth, England.  Two of the volunteers stated they still expected to have funds sent to them when the ship returned to France enabling them to disembark.[x]

When the ship returned to France on April 1, 1937, Wiley made an inquiry with the American Express office to determine if any funds were wired for the men.  Because no funds had been received, the men were not allowed to disembark and the President Roosevelt sailed for the United States that evening.[xi]

After the vessel departed, the Special Commissaire of Police contacted Wiley to inform him that an American named Vaughn Love had visited him earlier in the day.  Love told the Commissaire that he had funds for Arnovitch.  Love requested that he be allowed to give Arnovitch the money and that he be allowed to disembark.  The Special Commissaire refused.[xii]

When the President Roosevelt docked in New York on April 10, 1937, State Department Special Agents Tubbs and Shipley met the ship.  They took the eight volunteers’ passports and interviewed each of them.  As a group they maintained that they were not planning on going to Spain.

Special Agent Kinsey interviewed Arnovitch, Breslow, Bernard, and Herbert [Hofmann] regarding the “circumstances under which they were recruited and obtained their passports.”  Kinsey noted:

“Breslow stated that he proceeded with the consent of his father Noah Breslow, who had also assisted him in obtaining his passport, but that much consent had been withdrawn by his father, who was waiting for him on the pier of the SS Roosevelt here today.”

Except in the instance of Arnovitch, the other two boys, Bernard and Hofmann (Herbert), applied for and obtained their passports in the routine way at the Department’s agency in San Francisco, without the aid of any person or organization interested in their movements.

Arnovitch explained that he had had the assistance of the World Tourist Steamship Agency of 175 5th Ave., New York City, in executing his passport application and in obtaining the passport, It was from them that he also had purchased his steamship ticket and railroad ticket form Havre to Paris, France.[xiii]

Kinsey ended his report by observing that “Some of these boys appeared to be rather hard-boiled characters, and it was my impression that the representations of all as to the true purpose of this trip are incredible.”[xiv]

Special Agent Tubbs report provides greater detail on the remaining volunteers.

Albert Clarence Hoffman [Hofmann] stated he was born at Oakland, California on August 15, 1914, lived with a sister Margaret Lafler at 2228 Encinal Avenue, Alameda, California, and hadn’t worked for several months although previously a clerk. He applied for his passport at San Francisco, had planned on about a year or so vacation trip to Paris and Germany, had saved about $130.00, bought his own ticket for something over $90.00, but admitted he had no more than $35.00 when he left the United States and didn’t know where any more was coming from. Names of relatives he proposed to visit in Germany were refused. His parents (father George) live at 1105 Oak Street, Alameda. . . .

William Lux stated he was born in Hungary on August 22, 1898, had roomed about six months at 8365 Thaddeus Street, Detroit, Michigan, had worked as [a] meat cutter for the Atlantic and Pacific stores at Detroit, but worked for Cadillac Motors there about three months until last February. He is unmarried, his parents are dead, he had planned on going to Hungary for about a year to help two brothers take care of family property there, purchased his ticket at World Tourist, New York City for $92.74, and admitted that he had only $20.00 on hand when he left the United States. . ..

Oscar O’Neil stated he was born in Armenia on January 1, 1892, was unmarried, his parents dead, that he lived at 1345 South 71st Street, West Ellis, Wisconsin, and would probably go back there. He had planned on visiting relatives about a year in Armenia, particularly an uncle whose name he was unable to pronounce or spell, bought his own ticket for something over $92.00 and had only $49.00 when he left the United States. He claimed some friends in Milwaukee had promised to send him money, but could not name that friend. . . .

Victor Samulis stated he was born at Cleveland, Ohio on January 15, 1913, was unmarried, lived at 928 Stevenson Road, Cleveland, with an uncle, Joe Samoly. His parents (father Casimir) live and have a farm at “Entre Rios, Urdinanun, Republica Argentina”. He applied for his passport at Cleveland, paid $92.70 for his ticket, had planned on a month or so vacation in France, had only $26.00 when he left the United States, but planned on wiring his uncle to send him more, and admitted he only had $5.00 left at the present time . . .[xv]

Tubbs concluded that while each man indicated that he had not received any assistance, it was obvious to him that their financial condition precluded them from being “a legitimate traveler.”  Further, he noted that while all indicated that they planned to travel to various European countries the only visa attached to their passport was for France.  Three “stated identically that they planned on getting further necessary visas in Paris.” [xvi]

The French police’s attempt to turn back volunteers by verifying that a traveler had sufficient funds to maintain themselves in France was effective in this instance. The seven volunteers were forced to return to the United States. Only one of the seven appears to have ever made it to Spain:  Lux, a seaman, arrived in Spain on October 15, 1937.  He went on to serve with an armored unit and returned to the United States on August 13, 1938. These seven are the only volunteers for which evidence has supported that they were refused landing due to a lack of funds. Word was apparently passed back to the United States regarding the verification of funds.[xvii] As a result, on subsequent sailings each volunteer was given enough money to ensure that they would pass the inspection point.

[i] Most early volunteers arrived in France with a surplus shop military uniform.  After the border was closed in February 1937 volunteers were more discreet. Arthur Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, (New York: Citadel Press, 1967), p. 21.

[ii] Telegram from Samuel Hamilton Wiley to Secretary of State, United States State Department Archives (hereafter USSDA) 852.221/351, April 2, 1937, p. 1; and Wiley to the Secretary of State, USSDA 852.2221/352 April 3, 1937, p. 2.

[iii] Wiley to Secretary of State, USSDA, 852.221/321, April 2, 1937; and Wiley to the Secretary of State, USSDA 852.221/351 April 2, 1937.

[iv] Both volunteers, twins, were 23 years old at the time they sailed, the date  on Albert Hofmann’s entry appears to be a clerical error. The correct spelling of their last name is Hoffman, due to a clerical error on their birth certificate they were forced to use the incorrect spelling on their passport application.  (Corrected thanks to the son of Albert Hofmann). Adolph Ross was aware of the brothers but it is unlikely that he read the State Department reports.  Ross listed them under Names not to be used with the entry “Twins; on SACB and Sail lists. Unknown before, during and after Spain. Conclusion: to Europe but not to Spain.”  Adolph Ross, American Volunteers in Spain 1936-1939, (Seattle, WA: Self-published, 1993), p. 149.

[v] Wiley to the Secretary of State, USSDA 852.221/351, April 2, 1937, p. 2.

[vi] American seaman Lawrence B. Simpson was freed after 16 ½ months imprisonment on December 22, 1936. Simpson was arrested and convicted of attempting to circulate communist literature.  “Nazis Free American Seaman Held 16 ½ Mos. For Red Activities,” Chicago Tribune, December 23, 1936.

[vii] Wiley to the Secretary of State, USSDA 852.2221/351 April 2, 1937, pp. 2-4.

[viii] Letter to Mr. Bannerman, USSDA/321, undated; and Wiley to the Secretary of State, USSDA 852.2221/352, Breslow travelled on Passport # 376417.

[ix] Letter to Mr. Bannerman, USSDA 852.2221/321, undated.

[x] Enclosure Douglas Jenkins, American Consul General, Berlin to Mr. Jenkins, USSDA 852.221/351 April 2, 1927, pp. 2-3.

[xi] Wiley to the Secretary of State, USSDA 852.2221/351 April 2, 1937, pp. 3-4.

[xii] Wiley to the Secretary of State, USSDA 852.2221/351 April 2, 1937, p. 4.

[xiii] Special Agent Kinsey to T. F. Fitch, USSDA 852.221/359 April 12, 1937 [Kinsey’s full signature is illegible].

[xiv] IBID.

[xv] Special Agent Tubbs to T. F. Fitch, USSDA 852.221/359 April 12, 1937 [Tubbs full signature is illegible].

[xvi] IBID.

[xvii] The Police also checked funds when they interviewed suspected volunteers arriving in France on March 31, 1937 aboard the SS Manhattan. Wiley to the Secretary of State, USSDA 852.2221/352 April 3, 1937, p. 1-2.