Communist Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteer Paul Wendorf’s letters published in Spain
Members of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. | Public Domain

The letters of Paul Wendorf, a member of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, have been translated and published in Spain by Salamanca University Press as Vida y lucha de otro norteamericano en las trincheras de España.

[At the site where Wendorf’s letters are posted—see below—Nancy Phillips writes: “Paul Wendorf was my mother’s first cousin and my father’s best friend. His photo, in the sexy beret of the International Brigades, stood on the bookcase in our home for the first ten years of my life. I’ve thought about him, on and off, all of my life, and it was to learn about him that I sought out his letters from Spain.]

Paul Wendorf

Paul Wendorf was born November 11, 1911, in New York City into a Russian Jewish immigrant family that became prosperous. He studied history and economics at Columbia, graduating with honors in 1932. After joining the Communist Party a year later, he worked as an organizer for a white-collar municipal workers’ union and as a coordinator of welfare and relief for the unemployed. He married Leona Grossman in February 1937, the same month he enlisted in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He arrived in Spain on February 14, 1937.

During the nineteen months he was in Spain, Paul wrote about 80 letters, most of them to his wife Leona. The letters have been part of the ALBA Collection at Tamiment Library for many years. In all of them, the love between Paul and his wife is evident, even in those that involve mundane concerns about cigarettes, lost letters, lost packages, and the whereabouts of friends.

But these were more than love letters. They were also historic documents, a soldier’s account of his life as a volunteer in Spain during the period of the Jarama, Brunete, and Ebro Battles. Two themes emerge: Paul’s growing despair about the Republic’s capacity to prevail militarily; and his deep commitment to the Republic. The excerpts below reflect this tension. An extensive excerpt from his last letter, with its vivid account of the historic crossing of the Ebro River and the early days of the Offensive, shows how Paul put aside his doubts. His account is full of energy, terror, and hope against hope that the Republic would prevail.

Paul arrived at the Jarama Battlefield on February 27th just in time for an attack that resulted in a horrific number of Battalion casualties. He carried food and ammunition and worked as a stretcher carrier. The next months, he spent in the water-logged trenches at the Jarama front, until in May he transferred to a machine-gun company as a private.

In July 1937, the XV Brigade was in almost continuous action in the Battle of Brunete. Afterwards, in August, Paul wrote: “Dearest… Because I want to tell you a truth—the war will not be over very soon. The fascist counter-offensive has been stopped, and we will still hold most of our gains. But the fascists are struggling like raging beasts, and although defeat is now clearly seen for them, they have the technical means of prolonging the defeat.”

In June 1938, Paul wrote to the wife of a fellow brigadista: “What I am trying to say, is that we, whether Internationals or Spaniards, can’t be expected to keep carrying this burden forever. In a few days, we will be going up to the lines again…Whatever it is, we know it will be a similar story, an attempt to make up for equipment by daring, quickness, and the capacity of men to face superior odds.”

In July 1938, Paul learned that his widowed mother had found out that he was in Spain, and that she was under a doctor’s care. To Leona he wrote: “Dearest… In the letter I wrote [Mother] I said that I had come to Spain because, if I had not, I would have had no peace of my own, in my own mind; that I had to be true to the things I believed in, the things which have made my life worthwhile. Leona, you must explain to her that life could be worth living to me only if I came to Spain—to stay behind would have been to deny myself the life I wanted. You must tell her these things, dearest, and much more; you must tell her why you let me go, all the things that make me precious to you.”

On August 8, 1938, having crossed the Ebro into fascist territory, Paul wrote:

“Dearest One… Toward evening of July 24th, a battalion meeting—the Army of the Ebro (under command of Modesto, Communist carpenter, formerly of the 5th Regiment of Madrid) is to cross the Ebro at a number of points, push on as far as it can, relieve the pressure on Valencia by forcing the fascists to transfer their forces, strike a blow at fascism on the international scale. We will cross in rowboats; after the crossing, pontoon bridges will be built and we will try to get our tanks and artillery over. We have found out that the fascists have a very thin line defending the river and expect to break through without much trouble. Our Brigade will be the reserve for the Division in crossing, the 11th and 13th Brigades (Germans, East-Europeans, and Slavs) will be in front. (Some smiled in relief, I smiled at their smiling because I knew from Brunete that the ‘reserve’ does more fighting and marching in the toughest places than many of the ‘first-line’ units.)

“Anyway, Viva La Republica, Viva La Ejercito Popular, Viva La 15th Brigada, Viva La Victoria. The Catalans give their peculiar cheer: tricky, treeky, treek–Rah! Rah! Rah!, a song is sung, and we go back to rest, you can’t sleep, till 12, when we move out on the road, off to the front. Long single files, each file a different Battalion or different company, hurry, hurry, shh, be quiet, while huge trucks and artillery pieces rumble along, keep quiet while the trucks pick their way among the marching files in second gear, men cursing truck drivers for breaking their lines and making them lose contact in the pitch black night, drivers cursing the men for holding them up. We get near the river. That first line should be crossing by now. What the hell’s the matter, there’s not a sound, not a shot to be heard. Turn off the road, sleep here. No, no time to drink coffee, line up, we’re marching. I grab a piece of bread, chew it while lining up. “Wendorf, Mail.” Two letters from you, each containing cigarettes. We have no tobacco. Your cigarettes give a smoke to the whole machine-gun company of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, one cigarette to each squad. There was enough left over for another cigarette to each squad later in the day.

“We still had about a kilometer to travel to the river. Fascist artillery from across the river pounding on us on the way—march, everyone drop at the swish of a shell, march and drop, march and drop. Brigade Commissar Gates comes back from the river, eyes heavy with sleep, face hot with excitement, field glasses dangling from his neck. ‘What did you see Johnny?’ ‘A lot of water and nothing else. The Mac-Paps and 24th are over.’ Two Battalions of our Brigade have already crossed. Looks good. Labor battalion carrying wooden planks for the platoon bridge.

“Near the river, a huge swift fascist bomber comes down low, drops its load, misses us. More fascist bombers. In between bombers, we move. Suddenly on the shore, bedlam–the seamen from the British and American Battalions who are superintending embarkation are going nuts. A couple of rowboats were hit by machine gun bullets from the airplanes, full of water.

“We get into a boat. I grab the oars which are tied to the gunwales by rope. A rope comes untied and we drift in the river for a quarter of a minute while it is being re-tied and we wonder if the next bomber will find us in the center of the river. One hundred yards of river and we are on the other bank, forming up, nervous, happy and not a fascist in sight.

“Then starts the long hike of that first day up the hills, up the mountains, following the country lanes, keeping off main roads that the fascist aviation will be watching. It’s about 15 kilometers that day, and up 3000 or 4000 feet. We march into fascist territory, with no tanks, no artillery, with an aviation busy at Valencia, men with mules who crossed the river (the mules swam), with what they could carry, rifles, machine guns, ammunition, hand grenades, not knowing when the pontoon bridges would be built, or how many times the bombers would blow them up…

“From the next day on, we met the fascists in combat, fighting for positions, getting bombed and shelled. Our artillery finally came over and did some shelling of its own, although the fascist aviation still dominated the sky. We ate canned food, had diarrhea, the smell of the dead everywhere; no sleep for a week; my hands blistered and raw from picking through solid rock to dig machine gun pits; pants ripped to shreds by crawling around in the brush; (a Spanish comrade from another Brigade saw me walking along with my trousers flapping about my bare legs like skirts, and miraculously pulled out of his pack one of the 3 or 4 pairs of pants in Spain long enough to fit me—a beautiful pair of corduroy and gave them to me, which gave the sores on my knees a chance to heal. Some day, some Ouija Board will tell how that five foot six Spaniard came to have in that pack that pair of pants for my six feet, just when I needed them.) Strange how men’s personalities changed under the stress of this life on the verge of death. Do you know what happened to mine? Ha! Ha! I become extremely talkative!…”

Paul was killed on August 18, 1938, in the Sierra Pandols. An article from the Daily Worker on August 24 included Paul’s name among those who received awards for good work in the last action.

Deepest thanks to Paulette Nusser Dubetz and Helen Nusser Fogarty who helped with the collecting, copying, and transcribing of these letters over the many years that we worked on this project. The letters in English in their entirety are available in digital format here.

Reposted by permission from The Volunteer, Nov. 18, 2023.


Nancy Phillips
Nancy Phillips

Nancy Phillips writes for The Volunteer, news from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), almost forty thousand men and women from fifty-two countries, including 2,800 Americans volunteered to travel to Spain and join the International Brigades to help fight fascism. The U.S. volunteers served in various units and came to be known collectively as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.