No, not "supposedly," not anymore. I was named after my mother's uncle Robert Weber, who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. And he's no longer "presumed dead." He's been dead for 81 years.
As I was writing Bobby in Naziland, I still classified the above facts about my great-uncle as rumors, part of the multitude of vague and incomplete family stories that had been swirling around for as long as I could remember, but that I could never pin down—because like so many things having to do with my family's history, especially death, nobody wanted to talk about them.
I'd never even seen a picture of the person I was named after, because, my mother told me when I asked her about it the other week, there weren't any. She barely remembers her uncle Robert. He disappeared when she was 11. Though she does remember that after a trip to the South Seas, he brought her back a coconut carved into the shape of a woman.
But my mother liked the name Robert, and in the Jewish tradition babies are named after a dead person. Her uncle was, in short, a convenient and presumably dead person whose name was available when I was born.
I also didn't know that my grandfather had changed the family name to "Webber," adding an additional "b" because he thought "Weber" sounded too German. Because I was spelling my mother's maiden name with two "b"s, I couldn't find anything on the Internet about her uncle, who hadn't changed his name.
It was only recently that I found a site called Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, or ¡ALBA! A posting on the site confirmed that my great-uncle was, indeed, killed in action—KIA—in the Spanish Civil War.
Here's everything that's posted on ¡ALBA! about Robert R. Weber:
b. September 12, 1903, Russia, Russian American, Jewish, received passport# 491405 on January 5, 1938 which listed his address as 442 West 23rd Street, NYC. Sailed January 12, 1938 aboard the Aquitania. Served with the XV BDE, Lincoln-Washington BN, rank Soldado, reported MIA March 1938 near Gandesa; later determined KIA between March 30 and April 3, 1938 during the Retreats.
A few months ago, in New York, not long after I'd found the information on ¡ALBA!, my wife and I were having dinner with Susana Aikin, a historical novelist whom we'd met in Madrid last year. She told us that she was in the midst of researching a book about the Spanish Civil War.
"I was named after somebody who was killed in the Spanish Civil War," I said. "He'd joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade."
"What's his name?"
I told her.
She said she recognized it. "Very few New Yorkers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Do you know where he was killed?"
"I don't remember. I think it starts with a 'G.'"
"Yeah, I think that's it."
"Have you been there?"
"No, it's never occurred to me to go there."
"You should go there."
It is an intriguing idea, and maybe I will. In the meantime, I did go to 442 West 23rd Street, my great-uncle Robert R. Weber's last known address. That's where the above picture was taken. The building, 119 years old, is now an attractive five-story row house with apartments selling for an average of $1,754,000. In 1938, it was probably a rooming house. I'd have liked to see Robert's room, too, but that just wasn't possible.
Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.
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