The Spanish Civil War was the opening act of World War II. From 1936 to 1939, Spain's democratically elected leftist Republican government fought fascist rebels, known as Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco (still dead) and backed by Adolf Hitler, of Nazi Germany, who saw the conflict as an opportunity to test his weapons of war. Volunteers from many countries joined the XV International Brigade to fight alongside the Republicans. British writer George Orwell was perhaps the best known volunteer, and he documented his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. American volunteers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and one of them was my great-uncle Robert Rubin Weber.
I knew little about my mother's uncle when I was growing up, other than that he was an "adventurer" declared missing in action in the Spanish Civil War and presumed dead and that I was named after him in the Jewish tradition of naming babies after deceased family members. Sixty-five years later, as I was writing A Brooklyn Memoir, I asked my mother if she could tell me anything more about her uncle. The only thing she remembered is that after a trip to the South Seas, he brought her back a coconut carved into the shape of a woman. He'd disappeared when she was 11. I'd never even seen a picture of him; nobody in the family had one.
As A Brooklyn Memoir was going to press, in 2019, I continued searching for additional information about Robert Weber and stumbled upon a page devoted to him in NYU's Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). I'd been spelling his name wrong. My mother finally told me that my grandfather had inserted an extra "b" into Weber to make it sound "less German." My grandfather and his wife and children were Webber.
I was 67 years old before I saw a photo of the person I was named after.
My great-uncle Robert Weber's passport photo. He was killed in action at the Battle of Gandesa, in Spain.
Robert Rubin Weber was born September 12, 1903, in Lomya, Russia, now part of Poland. He arrived in the US a month before his eighth birthday and became a naturalized citizen. His father, my great-grandfather, was Jacob Weber, who was born in Russia and died in 1935. Robert was a grocer like his older brother, my grandfather. The address listed on his passport, 442 West 23rd Street, in New York City, was most likely a rooming house at the time. He sailed for Europe aboard the Aquitania on January 12, 1938, landed in Spain on January 23, and served with the XV International Brigade, Lincoln-Washington Battalion (known as the Lincoln Brigade), rank soldado. Reported missing in action in March 1938, near Gandesa, as the International Brigade retreated from a fascist onslaught, he's now listed as killed in action.
I bring all this up because I was walking on LaGuardia Place a few weeks ago and was surprised to see an artistically striking selection of Spanish Civil War posters displayed in the NYU Kimmel Windows, a block south of Washington Square Park. The exhibition, which will remain on display until September 15, was co-curated by Miriam Basilio Gaztambide, an associate professor of art history and museum studies; Danielle Nista, an assistant university archivist; and several students. The posters got me thinking about my great-uncle again, and how I'd so recently come to learn anything about him, and how amazing it now seems that 85 years ago a member of my family, who'd probably never picked up a rifle, volunteered to go to war against fascism for a country that was not his own.
Tomorrow is my birthday, and, on this blog, I'm celebrating today and in weeks to come by remembering the man I was named after and the righteous cause he fought and died for.
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