Reuben Barr: A Fighting Mensch –by Rob Waters

November 2, 2017
Reuben Barr and Alf Anderson on their return from Spain, Sunday Worker, April 7, 1940.

Reuben Barr and Alf Anderson on their return from Spain, Sunday Worker, April 7, 1940.

Rob Waters kindly allowed The Volunteer blog to reprint his interview with Reuben Barr, originally published in The Tenderloin Times, June 1984, v. 8, no. 5, pp. 4 and 8.

When Reuben Barr was, as he says, “pinched” last summer blockading outside the Lawrence Livermore Lab, it was not his first brush with the law. Arrest number one came some 60 years earlier when a teenaged Barr was a fledgling member of the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World.

His crime then was opening up the IWW hall in Wichita, Kansas, violating the so-called criminal syndicalism laws which had been passed in many states and were aimed at the Wobblies.

Some fifteen years later found Barr in stir again; only this time the stakes were a great deal higher. Barr’s jail was the solitary cell at Saragoza Prison in Spain. His captors: the fascist armed forces of General Francisco Franco. His crime: fighting with the American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in defense of the Spanish democracy against Franco’s military revolt.

After a year in Saragoza, several months of it spent in solitary, Barr had lost sixty pounds and all of his teeth. But he walked away with his life, freed by diplomatic pressure on the by-then victorious Franco dictatorship.

For Barr, journeying to Livermore nearly 50 years later at the age of 80 to join an anti-nuclear blockade was a logical extension of a long life dedicated to working for a better world. Pinned to his shirt at the blockade was a picture of his four-year old grandson, Paul.

Reuben Barr was born and grew up in the Jewish ghetto of New York’s lower East Side. His father, a night watchman and his mother, who ran a small hand laundry, struggled to support Reuben and his seven younger siblings. Reuben was working selling newspapers and penny candy when he was eight; by 13 he had left school, and gone to work in a factory.

Within a couple of years, the U.S. had entered World War I and a teenage Reuben Barr was entering the world of politics. One of his earliest recollections was throwing mimeographed leaflets down from rooftops: “Don’t allow yourself to be conscripted and fight in J. P. Morgan’s war!”

Young Barr was drawn to the Industrial Workers of the World – the Wobblies as they were best known – because of their gutsy direct action style.

At the age of 15, Barr ran away from home, jumped a freight, and went West, where he worked in the wheat fields of Kansas and the Dakotas, fought fires in Idaho and Washington and distributed literature and went to jail for the “Wobs.”

One famous IWW activity was “soapboxing.” Mounting a soapbox in the city square, Wobbly speakers would exhort their “fellow workers” to join together in “one big union” to fight back against the greedy bosses. But the greedy bosses, controlling as they did most western towns, outlawed such public speaking and had the orators arrested.

“There were a lot of free speech fights, especially in the west,” recounted Barr. “The word would go out that they didn’t allow free speech so people would come and get up and make their demands known to the town. So they’d put these fellows in jail and the word would go around. Pretty soon, footloose rebels of every kind would come to town and after a while the jail was flooded. There’s many a free speech fight was won throughout the west that way.”

With the end of the decade, the active life of the Wobblies came to an end, falling victim to internal political splits and to the intense repression of America’s first Red Scare. Led by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and a youthful J. Edgar Hoover, federal agents and local Red Squads rounded up thousands of Reds and fellow travelers.

“Because there was no work for me and because the IWW was practically out of business by then, I went East.” Unable to find work, Barr tried his hand at self-employment. Having learned the laundry business from his parents, Barr launched a career as a laundry commission driver, picking up people’s laundry and delivering it to the cleaners for a cut of their take.

He eked out a “half-assed living” during the 20’s and the Depression 30’s in this way and with occasional other jobs. Once in the early 30’s he was among 10,000 people who applied for some openings at the Post Office. He finished in the top five and got one of the coveted jobs. But after a year, “they looked up my record, found out I was in the IWW and I got the sack.”

Those were years of extreme poverty and desperation for millions of people, although Barr himself managed to stay just above water. “Things were really rough. There was no Social Security in those days, no food stamps. A lot of people were homeless and they kept beating their way from one end of the country to the other trying to find work. They became the migratory workers, hobos.”

In the late 30’s, Barr began to be very concerned about the developments in Spain where Generalissimo Francisco Franco had launched a military revolt against the Spanish Republic.

“I saw where if Franco and Hitler and Mussolini became victorious it would be bad for the rest of the world. As a Jew, I felt that if we didn’t fight in Spain and come out victorious, that the fascists would be greatly strengthened and it could mean the end of all different races.”

While Hitler and Mussolini supplied troops, tanks and fighter planes to Franco, the U. S. in the name of “neutralism,” placed an embargo on all weapons sales to the Spanish Republic. So thousands of young men and women from around the world journeyed to Spain to risk their lives fighting with the International Brigades.

After sneaking into Spain across the mountains from France, they were stationed in a small border town for three weeks where they were given training. “We were given six bullets and a rifle and I had never used a rifle before in my life.”

Barr fought at the front seeing frequent heavy combat and coming under intense bombardment from German planes. Once on leave in Madrid, he and several other Americans were taken to dinner by Ernest Hemingway. “He did most of the talking,” Barr recalls.

For the volunteers, romantic adventure quickly became a desperate reality that they shared with the Spanish people. “We were up against an enemy that was well-armed, well-equipped, disciplined, had Army experience and had German as well as Italian assistance and supplies. We had almost nothing.

After two or three months, Barr left the hell of war and entered another kind of hell. Captured one night by Franco’s troops he was taken to prison at Saragoza. Thrown before a “kangaroo court,” he was found guilty and sentenced to be executed.

For several months of the nearly one year that Barr was imprisoned, he was held in solitary confinement. “I never knew what day of the week it was, whether it was day or night or anything else. There were rats and vermin in the cell and there was a slop bucket there to take care of toilet needs.

“I suppose what really kept me from going to the dogs was that I exercised constantly. I made up games for myself. I’d walk up and down in the confines of this tiny cell. I’d do tricks with myself and I told myself stories.

After a couple of months, he was moved to a larger cell where 35 men – all condemned to die – crowded together and formed tight bonds that helped them through their ordeal. “The people I was imprisoned with were almost like brothers to me. They shared their food, some of them shared their blankets with me, some of them gave me massages, tried to teach me Spanish, loaned me their books. We were all friends, good friends, and we talked to each other, we communicated, we took care of each other.

“It was the saddest thing when some people were called out each day, and then later in the afternoon they’d be replaced by other people. So there was always a cell full of people and each one had stories and pictures of their dear ones. It was a real family group and I hope that never leaves me. When people were taken out, we all felt sad and depressed but nobody cried. That was it. We all lived with the hope that we wouldn’t be called the next day, that it would be the other guy. But you never knew.”

Making life at the prison somewhat easier was the friendliness of the guards. They mostly disliked Franco and had enough influence or money to get guard jobs and stay away from the front. One in particular took a liking to Reuben and encouraged him to write letters, bringing him paper and pen with which to do it. So Reuben wrote. And wrote. And Wrote. And in a fashion veiled enough to get past the censors, he described his situation.

“I wrote and said that I was suffering from the same sickness that Nathan Hale succumbed to. You know what happened to Nathan Hale, he was hung as a spy. So these Spaniards didn’t know about it and one of the letters got out and finally I imagine it reached the government of the U. S. which instructed the Consul in Barcelona to come and visit.”

The intervention of the Consul led to immediate improvements in conditions for Barr. He was allowed to take a bath and the Consul brought him clean clothes, fruit and cigarettes. After the war ended in Franco’s victory, the Consul gained Barr’s release and he and a Swedish prisoner were the last two members of the International Brigades to leave Spain.

Returning to America, Barr settled down, got married to a school teacher and raised two kids in the Catskills in upstate New York. “I couldn’t find a job so I started working as a travelling salesman, that was the only way I could make a living. I had my hands full making a living and travelling and I kept away from the radical movement for a good many years.

About 10 years ago, Reuben and his wife divorced after 27 years of marriage. Reuben retired, journeyed to Miami Beach and New Mexico before resettling in San Francisco.

Retirement for Reuben is no armchair affair. Three years ago, at the age of 79, Reuben became a high school graduate, studying in a class of twenty-year olds and passing his GED. He is now taking classes at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong learning at USF.

He’s a prolific writer of letters to the editor, walks an excellent picket line and is a pretty fair nuclear weapons lab blockader. He goes to a lot of meetings as well and is active in the Nuclear Freeze movement, the Gray Panthers and right now, the Jess Jackson campaign.

Somehow in the midst of all of this, he also finds time to write poetry (some of which has been seen in the poetry pages of the Tenderloin Times) and to work on a novel which is now up to 20 chapters.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: If anyone out there would like to donate their services as a typist to help Reuben finish his novel, call the Time.)

Reuben Barr is what you might call a mensch. A fighting mensch. His good fight began when he was the youngest Wobbly. Seven decades later, he was the oldest arrested Livermore blockader.

Reuben has used a lot of different tools in his good fight – from picket signs to rifles. Now he largely fights with his words.

“Writing is an extension of fighting,” he says. If you believe in something, you try to get your ideas out in front of people, you talk to people. You write about the peace movement, you write about unemployment, you write about the homeless, about the women who are discriminated against. You write about all that. You want a better world and you love people and you want people to have a better world. That’s what makes you write.”

A writing, fighting mensch.