OAKLAND, Calif. – The life of the longest-surviving member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – the 2,800 Americans who helped fight the emerging fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s – was celebrated May 21 by friends and family from around northern California.
Esley Delmer Daniel Berg – known to all as Del – was over 100 years old at the time of his death on Feb. 28, 2016.
A lifelong political activist and leader, Del grew up in a poor farm worker family. In his early 20s, alarmed by the rise of fascist forces in Europe, he joined the Americans who traveled to Spain as part of the 40,000-strong International Brigades, to help Spanish anti-fascist fighters in their struggle against soon-to-be dictator Francisco Franco and his German and Italian fascist backers.
Though their mission ultimately failed, the “Lincolns” – sometimes called “premature anti-fascists” – have been celebrated ever since for their courage and dedication. Some 800 of the Lincolns died in Spain, and many of the survivors became among the most distinguished fighters in the U.S. military in World War II.
Returning to California in 1939, Berg later served with the U.S. Army in the Pacific before returning to life as a farm worker.
Del Berg’s multifaceted life – always fully engaged in people’s struggles for economic and social justice – inspired the speakers at his memorial celebration.
Among the many organizations he joined or supported was the Communist Party USA, which he joined in 1943, after returning from Army service. Northern California Communist Party chair Juan Lόpez said Berg “served with distinction” for years, as a member of the leadership collective, making the grueling trip to the Bay Area from his home in the Sierra foothills despite his age.
“At meetings, he would listen intently to anything that was being discussed,” Lόpez said. “When it came his turn to speak, he would tell you exactly what he thought – but his insightful views were founded on solid, often personal, experience in the struggles of the day.”
Nadya Williams, who MC’d the program, also cited Berg’s active membership in a broad spectrum of peace and social justice organizations, including Veterans for Peace, the United Farm Workers, the Mexican American Political Association, the California Democratic Party, the California Alliance of Retired Americans, and the NAACP, where he was elected vice president of his local chapter. Berg was also active in the anti-Vietnam War and anti-nuclear weapons movements, and women’s rights struggles as well.
John Veen, who traveled with his wife, Vickie, from their home in Fresno, Calif., told how Berg reached out from his Sierra foothills home to people in different parts of the Central Valley. “He was always talking about the need to bring together the Mexican American community, the African American community and the labor movement in general,” Veen said.
Though Berg participated in events organized by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, his mind was always focused in the present. “He wanted to talk about, what are we going to do now, John? What little, or not so little, thing can we do right now, to move forward? He was always giving me names and phone numbers of people in my area, and he wanted me to contact them.”
Nor were all of Berg’s activities political. Veen told of visiting Berg’s beautiful home up in the foothills, which he had built himself decades earlier, after retiring. Berg described how he blasted the foundation, including the time he accidently launched a big boulder into a neighboring area – fortunately with no known ill effects. Another time, a boulder that refused to move became an integral part of Berg’s study, known to family and friends as “the cave.”
“Another thing about Del – he danced!” Veen told the crowd. “Raise your hand if you’d be surprised to know there was a dance club, and Del was elected president!” No hands were raised.
When the mic was opened to friends in attendance, several told how Del Berg would always maintain that he wasn’t a “learned” person, and was very modest about his knowledge. But they emphasized the depth and clarity of his thinking, and his broad and thoughtful approach to every issue.
Berg also maintained an extensive correspondence with activists in the U.S. and internationally – all handwritten in an extremely neat script since he didn’t use a typewriter.
After listening intently to the remembrances by his father’s friends and comrades, son Ernst Berg added his own memories. “As it is with fathers and sons, sometimes you don’t have good communications. Unfortunately, that was the case for us. But seeing how much you all care, I can talk about my father’s personal life. He lived a long time because of a healthy environment and a dedication to the betterment of the human race.”
Ernst Berg called his father’s home in Columbia “an amazing achievement” – telling how his father had poured cement for the road, and brought up a giant crane to move boulders. “I don’t know where he got a crane, but he did. A crane and a dump truck.”
A full afternoon of tributes and memories included a video of Del Berg’s life, put together by People’s World social media editor Chauncey Robinson, and remarks by friends including PW writer Henry Millstein, who interviewed Berg in 2014, University of California at Chico Professor Char Prieto, who read the poem she wrote for Berg’s 100th birthday, and others.
The celebration of Del Berg’s life was held at the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library, and was co-sponsored by the library, peoplesworld.org, the Northern California Communist Party, and Veterans for Peace.