Captured By The Fascists by Hy Wallach

April 17, 2020
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Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteer Hy Wallach. Photo courtesy of Nancy Wallach.

The Volunteer, Volume 5, No. 3.

We were surrounded. We were assembled on a hill. It seemed hopeless – except that the Estado Mayor was with us. “They’ve gotten us out of tough spots before.” That was the general comment.

I was particularly aware of Dave Doran (i) who seemed so calm and unperturbed – in complete control of the situation. He told us that a successful escape in the evening now depended upon our discipline.

The fascists launched a wild -rather frightening – cavalry charge with waving swords. We held our fire until they were close and then shot them down.

There were no more cavalry charges but the fascists began to encircle us with tanks.

As soon as it was dark, we moved out.

We soon found that we had to split into small groups. I found myself with another American, Charles Keith (ii), a Canadian, a Frenchman and a Spaniard.

We were working our way towards the Ebro and to the East, avoiding search patrols.

The Spaniard was a knowledgeable farmer and under his direction, we picked some edible plants. We also found some deserted shack wherein we found a place for a fire and we cooked a meal.

We filled our canteens with water from occasional streams, and from time to time we encountered some farmers who gave us bread.

The five of us did not stay together. I don’t recall the details. But first, the Frenchman was lost and then the Spaniard.
The three of us kept on our way until we reached the point where we thought if we could evade the fascist guards, we would reach the Republican forces.

Here, Keith left us, saying he thought that he could make it if he were alone.

Bill – the Canadian – and I went into the hills and succeeded in evading the fascist guards. Just as we were congratulating ourselves, we saw a fascist cavalry force on a hill directly across.

Both of us jumped down to get our of sight. We went in different directions and I never saw Bill again. But he made it. Bill was the last to arrive on the Republican side.

I kept on travelling up in the hills for days until I had to come down for food. Getting down was not that easy. I finally had to make a rather precipitous jump. I made it but my rifle dropped and broke. I then broke it up completely and continued down from the hills.

I went up to a house and told the farmer that I hadn’t eaten for three days. “Posible comida?”

“Si, hombre, si” said the farmer and rushed me into his house. The old man was all alone. He had two sons, who were in the Republican Army.

I still remember that meal. It was the best I ever had! It started with a raw egg and continued with hot soup, bread, sausages and wine. The old man then filled my canteen with wine. I then had to leave immediately for there were fascist patrols all around the place. There were grim reprisals by the fascists for the help that people gave to the International Brigades on the retreat.

I had an aversion toward the hills at this time. I decided to avoid them – at least while it was dark. I used the road and every time I saw the light of a car, I would jump into the brush. I soon found that I could walk beneath the road without being visible from the road.

I walked along, making good time until I found myself walking into an Italian fascist camp. I attempted to get out of sight around a hill but two officers standing near a car spotted me and called to me. I pretended to be deaf, motioned to my ears and tried to go on. However, one of the officers drew his guan and beckoned for me to approach. I did so and I heard one of the officers saying that I was a Spanish peasant and to let me go. I had six weeks growth of beard and I was wrapped in a blanket like a poncho.

Just then, the sun came out and it was hot! One of the officers sympathetically opened my blanket – and there was my uniform. They searched me, found my paybook and though I was described as an officer, I decided this was no time to claim false honors and I pointed out to them that it was the officer’s training school. I had gone to officers school in Tarazona but because of the fascist breakthrough, the school was broken up in a week and went to the Front.

The officers laughed to find that I was no longer deaf. They were pleasant enough and assured me that I would soon be home. This was April 10, 1938.

They drove me to the Front, and for the first time, I saw what we were up against. There was a tremendous amount of military equipment – (from the United State, France, England, Germany and Italy) – far beyond anything I had seen on the Republican side.

The Italian soldiers were quite friendly and seemed to be proud of the Italians in the International Brigades. They stated “Garibaldi y Matteoti bein, eh?” There was a young Spanish soldier captured from the Listers who had a lot of literature with him including the speeches by La Pasionaria and Jose Diaz – general secretary of the Spanish Communist Party. Italian soldiers took the literature away from the young Spaniard and tore it up so that he would not be found with it.

I was taken to the Command Post where I was interviewed b a colonel. At first, there was an interpreter who claimed to know English but all I could make out was “I tella you.” This “interpreter” told the colonel that I was not an American and did not speak English. The colonel did not buy that and sent for another interpreter.

“What mob are you from? I’m wise, see?” “I’m from Chicago,” he added. “This is just like the States when the cops get you. You’ve been caught.”

It seems that this character was fourth offender and was deported to Italy.

The colonel asked what battle I was in. Having noticed from road signs that we were near Tortosa – a considerable distance from Gandesa. I replied “Tortosa.” He gave me a map and asked me to identify our positions. I told him I couldn’t do that. They were a bunch of hills to me.

I was then brought back and the two “English” speaking soldiers began to annoy me. I had an attractive looking watch that I bought in Beziers before entering Spain. The man from Chicago told me to give him the watch because I wouldn’t need it. “Two O’Clock” he said. And the other one said, “He tella you – ‘Two O’Clock’-dead.”

However, the soldier guarding me chased them away. The others continued to be quite friendly.

A distinguished looking Italian captain showed up who spoke English with an Oxford accent. The captain noticed the friendliness of the soldiers and asked me whether I was not surprised. Didn’t I think that Italians were beasts?

“No,” I replied. I never thought that Italians were beasts.

The captain then asked me what Brigade I was with.

I told him American Brigade.

The captain turned around to somebody writing things down and said, “15th Brigade.”

“What battalion were you with?” was his next question.

“American Battalion.”

The captain turned to the writer, “Lincoln-Washington Battalion.”

“What is the name of your commander?”

“We call him Red.”

“Milton Wolff,” he said; and turning to me, “We call him ‘El Lobo’.” (iii)

After spending a night at the Front, I was taken by truck to Alcaniz and after spending a night there, I was taken to Saragossa. In Saragossa, I found three others from the U. S. A.: Charles Keith, Bob Steck (iv), and Claude Pringle (v) . There were also four Englishmen.

The authorities asked me to make a statement on why I went to Spain. I was advised to say that I came to work. That seemed to me to be a betrayal. I stated that I came to Spain to help the Spanish Republic in its fight against fascism.
Early next morning we were handcuffed and put on trucks. We thought that was the end. But at the railroad station our handcuffs were removed and we were put on a train to Burgos.

From Burgos, we were put into a truck and arrived at San Pedro de Cardenas (vi) – April 14, 1938.

I spent more than 16 months in that fascist concentration camp.

David Hyman “Hy” Wallach (1914-1999) was born in Poland and moved to the US with his family. He was working as a shipping clerk in the Ladies Garment Industry when he volunteered for the International Brigades. Wallach arrived in Spain in February 1938. After basic training he was sent to an anti-gas school followed by officer training school. As he notes his class was cancelled and he and other students went to the front to reinforce the XV Brigade at the front. Wallach was with the Brigade when it attempted to break out of the Nationalist encirclement near Gandesa and was eventually captured and taken to San Pedro de Cardenas. Wallach was released on August 25, 1939 and returned to the United States on September 23, 1939. During WW II joined the US Army Air Corps and served in the 15th Airforce and later with the Fifth Army Corps in a signal unit. He served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Hy Wallach is the father of ALBA board member Nancy Wallach.

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i. Dave Doran (1909-1938) was born in Albany, New York. His formal education ended after a year of high school. Doran was a Communist Party organizer and seaman living in Albany, New York when he volunteered to serve in the International Brigades. He crossed into Spain in June 1937 and trained with the newly formed Mackenzie-Papineau battalion as a company Commissar. Doran went to the front as a replacement and was attached to the XV Brigade Headquarters as an Assistant Brigade Commissar. He replaced Steve Nelson as Brigade Commissar after Belchite. Doran was captured and executed on April 2, 1938 during the Retreats.

ii. Charles Lawrence Keith (1911-1978) was born in Rutland, Vermont and after the death of both his parents he and his brothers were placed in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York city. He left the orphanage in 1933 and soon went to sea. Keith was an active member of the National Maritime Union and was also a unit organizer for the Communist Party. He volunteered to serve in the International Brigades and arrived in Spain in September 1937. After a brief period of training he joined the MacKenzie Papineau Battalion where he became a Commissar. Later he transferred to the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. Keith fought at Teruel, Segura de los Baños and the Retreats. During the Retreats he was reported missing in action after being captured near Gandesa. He was exchanged in April 1939 and returned to the US in May. During WW II he served in the Merchant Marine on the deadly Murmansk Run.

iii. Milton Wolff (1915-2008) was born in Brooklyn, New York and attended the New York School of Commercial Art before entering the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was single and a commercial artist and clerk when he volunteered to serve in the International Brigade. Wolff arrived in Spain in March 1937 and joined the Washington Battalion. He quickly rose through the ranks from stretcher bearer and ammunition carrier in a machine gun team during the Brunete Campaign, to Company Commander after Belchite, and Lincoln-Washington Battalion Commander at Teruel. He commanded the unit during the Retreats and Ebro Offensive. Wolff returned to the Unites States in December 1938 and was a leader in the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Recruited into the OSS during WW II he recruited several veterans to work for the service in Nazi occupied Europe. After the US entry into the war he joined the US Army. After retiring he wrote several autobiographical novels including Another Hill.

iv. Robert “Bob” Steck (1912-2007) was born in Rock Island, Illinois. He attended Ambrose College and pursued a career in theater. He arrived in Spain in March 1937 and served with the Anglo-American Squadron of the Regiment de Tren a transport unit. Steck served as the unit’s commissar and transferred into the Lincoln-Washington Battalion during the Retreats. He was listed as missing in action having been captured near Gandesa in April. Steck was freed in August 1939 and returned to the US in 1939. He went on to serve in the US Army in Military Intelligence during WW II. Steck later became a high school teacher. He worked closely with Carl Geiser in the preparation of Prisoners of the Good Fight.

v. Claude Pringle (1894-1959) was born in Halifax County, Virginia. He received a grammar school education before becoming a miner. Pringle enlisted in the US army in WW I. He was living in Bellaire, Ohio when he volunteered to serve in the International Brigades. Pringle arrived in Spain in June 1937 and was initially assigned to the Washington Battalion. He later transferred to the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and was serving with the unit when he was captured on March 10, 1938 in the opening days of the Retreats. Pringle was exchanged on April 22, 1939 and returned to the US in May 1939 aboard the President Harding.

vi. San Pedro de Cardeñas was a monastery that the Nationalists turned into a prison for POWs.

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