Faces of ALBA: Eric Levenson

August 26, 2019

Almudena Cros conducting her SCW tour of Madrid. Almudena, Alec, Eve, Tammy (l-r). Photo E. Levenson

This summer, Eric Levenson and his family visited Spain to pass along his father’s memory to the next generations, following on an earlier visit to the country in 2002. Eric’s father, Leonard Levenson (1913-2005), arrived in Spain in June 1937. He fought with the Lincoln Battalion as well as with the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, as a sniper and Company Commander, and was transferred to the Special Machine Gun Battalion of the 15th Army Corps at Ebro. He fought at Fuentes del Ebro, Teruel, the Retreats, and the Ebro Offensive. A prominent member of the VALB, he served on the editorial board of The Volunteer.

How did your father’s experience as a veteran of the International Brigades influence you growing up?

My father was very proud of being a veteran of the International Brigades. He was a communist before and after going to Spain, and was likely one of the last of the Vets to leave the CPUSA. As a consequence of my parents’ politics, we were harassed by the FBI for decades. Although he seldom spoke of personal experiences, Len did write about going to Spain as a communist in the Fall 2000 issue of The Volunteer. He seemed most comfortable talking about his experiences when he was back in Spain, particularly on his trip with Bob Coale in 2002. (Len Levenson with Bob Coale, “A Return to Spain,” The Volunteer, Volume 25, No.1, March 2003, pp. 10-18.)

Were you with your father when he returned to Spain the first time?

I joined my parents in Spain in 1996 when the veterans were given honorary citizenship. Although I attended a number of official events, I didn’t take any battlefield tours at that time.

Your family just visited many of the places where your father fought during the Civil War, following your father’s 2002 trip with Bob Coale. Why?

We considered the trip to be an important part of the process of understanding the history of our family. Currently my daughter-in-law is very active in national Democratic politics and my granddaughter—Len’s great-granddaughter—is active in the national anti-gun movement. It seemed important to share an experience that would give everyone a much more personal sense of the roots of the family’s political activism. (My sister, Joan Levenson Cohen, a member of the ALBA Board, could not make the trip because of a scheduling conflict.)

John Cookson gravesite in Maráa

John Cookson gravesite in Maráa

Your father was taken in by the Masip-Parramón family in the small town of La Vilella Alta while he trained for the Battle of the Ebro in 1938.

Through the diligent efforts of Bob Coale, we were able to have a reunion with the Masip-Parramón family, who greeted us as enthusiastically as they had Len and Bob in 2002. My father and Ben Sills, both part of the Machine Gun Battalion, stayed with them before the Battle of the Ebro. The next generation were thrilled to have us there and to celebrate our mutual link to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. As Catalans they are proud of their anti-Franco history. It is interesting that some of these proud Catalans who were born after the war did not speak of the war until fairly recently.

“It is sobering to see how alive the war experience is in the Spanish psyche—especially in Catalonia.”

How was it to visit the historical sites?

This trip was more meaningful to us than any formal ceremonies. It is sobering to see how alive the war experience is in the Spanish psyche—especially in Catalonia. Ruins of entire villages have been left as monuments to the destruction of the Civil War. Catalan independence flags are flown in front of some of the balconies in the town of La Vilella Alta, and there is a clear sense that many in Catalonia see themselves as a totally different culture than the rest of Spain.

What was your itinerary?

Our trip had begun when I met my son in Barcelona. We traveled south to Benicàssim, the seaside resort that was the site of a hospital for the Republicans during the war. My father had spent time there after being wounded at Teruel in January 1938. We then returned to Barcelona, met up with my daughter-in-law and granddaughter and headed to the Ebro area, where we hired Alan Warren as a tour guide. We toured the museum and the destroyed town of Corbrera d’Ebre with Alan, who also took Alec and me to the secluded site in Marça where Clarence Kailin’s ashes now lie alongside those of his comrade John Cookson, who was killed in 1938.

We spent the last days of our trip around Madrid. Andrés Chamorro, a member of the AABI (Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales – the “Amigos”), took Alec and me to visit the IB Monument at the Ciudad Universitaria, describing war-related events and sites along the way. On our last day, we all took Almudena Cros’ informative Spanish Civil War tour. Almudena is the President of AABI who, among other talents, is a professional and amazingly passionate tour guide. The fees that she or other members of AABI charge for tours are direct support for the work of the AABI.

Almudena, an avowed communist, considers all extreme nationalism in a negative light. This was food for thought after visiting with the Masip-Parramóns deep in the heart of rural Catalonia, the center of major demands for greater autonomy if not outright independence. It gave me a better understanding of how Judge Baltasar Garzón is widely hailed as a left-wing hero for attempting to bring the dictator Augusto Pinochet to justice for human rights violations and for his championing of transitional justice in Spain, but is considered a conservative judge because of past rulings against the Catalonian national resistance organization.

Any final take-away?

In all, we all now have a better sense of my father’s experience in Spain, as well as a much better sense of the history of the Spanish Civil War as a prelude to World War II. And I am sure that this trip has strengthened the foundation of the younger generations of Len’s family from which to continue their struggles today.

Aaron Retish teaches at Wayne State University.