Publicado en El Agitador el 16-11-2013
On a sultry July morning, Ofer Livne, an Israeli Jew from Haifa, leaves behind the bus of the ‘Hife’ Company that had taken him 100 km from Saragossa and brought him into the City of Compromise (the epithet given to the city of Caspe as the site of the historical decision to crown Fernando I in 1412). A few steps away from the bus station, his little knowledge of Spanish does not prevent him from identifying the place where he could find help, the Culture House. There he explains why he came to Caspe. The people who receive him are interested in his story although they do not know how to assist him. They give him a name and instructions where he might possibly find someone who could do so.
It was nearly one o’clock in the afternoon when a total stranger opened the door of my shop. After the formal “buenos días” he reads the name written on the crumpled piece of paper he was carrying. It is my name, and he introduces himself with difficulty, in a mixture of Spanish, English and Italian. A few minutes later I discover that the person in front of me with the face of a ‘good fellow’ and a bag over his shoulder is a professor in the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Haifa.(1) During the past few months in Spain he has been enjoying a sabbatical year which allowed him to visit various cities in Andalusia, Castilia, Galicia, Asturias … and Aragon. Today he is in Caspe, not by chance but because for him and for those dear to him, this is a special place. He is tracing the footsteps of someone who died seven decades ago, with whom he does not actually have any direct blood connection.(2) But he had heard about him innumerable times and decided to find out something more about this far off place in Spain where Lipsman had disappeared.
Lipsman was a member of the Communist Party in Palestine during a difficult period (he was arrested a number of times and forbidden to leave Nahalal, where he was then living with his family, as a condition for not being expelled from the country). He enlisted in the International Brigades and after fighting in various places in Spain, was killed in the battle for Caspe in March 1938. There is no need to mention that by that stage I am completely captured by the story that is just beginning.
Between one buyer and another, Ofer continues with his story. Joseph came from Nahalal although he was born in Bessarabia, Moldavia.(3) He immigrated in 1925 together with his sister Haya to the place in which his parents and other sisters, Malka, Ita and Sima, were already living. Nahalal at that time was a new village founded in 1921 in which a handful of Jews from Eastern Europe, following the tenets of Zionism, had returned to the land of their fathers and settled down and worked mainly in agriculture. (While listening, I quickly make a note of this and in the following days I will be going deeper into whay he is telling me). Ofer confirms that many of the settlers who arrived in Nahalal were of a socialist outlook, that it naturally remained affiliated
with the Labor movement, and was almost non-religious, even though it was located only 19 km from Nazareth.
The Jews who settled in British Palestine were known as the Yishuv – the word in the original Hebrew means settlement – and until today this word is used to clarify that they had arrived before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Besides Hebrew they also spoke Yiddish, the language of the Jews in Central Europe, which is a mixture of
Hebrew, German and Slavic languages that they carried with them to the Spanish War and even migrated with them to the United States. The Lipsmans had arrived just at the height of the aliya – the migration to the Land of Israel – of thousands of Zionists, mostly from Europe, many of whom gathered in agricultural communes known in Hebrew as kibbutzim.
Joseph Lipsman earned his living in agricultural work in Hadera and Kfar Saba in the center of the country. A little later he found work as a construction worker in Haifa. By that time he had reached maturity and let himself be doubly seduced: firstly by Aviva Keren from Bratislava (Slovakia), his girlfriend, with whom he settled in a modest house in Nahalal, and secondly by the Communist world, under the influence of his sister, Haya. So much so, that in 1937 he decided to pack up once again and to endanger his life in the war against Fascism. Although in his country the Yishuv was fighting against the Arabs and the British, as a Communist he believed that the real war was the one that had broken out in Spain. Lipsman was one of the 200 exiles that found no support among the Zionist majority – even though many of the Zionists were members of left-wing parties – when they decided to exchange Palestine for Spain, Nahalal for Caspe, and Hanita for Madrid.
‘Hanita is preferable to Madrid’ was the slogan of Yaakov Hazan, the prominent leader of Communist socialism, which became well known later on. Hanita was a special kibbutz in the north that symbolized everything for those Jews who fought in Palestine such as the British conquest, the feuds against the Arabs, and most important of all, their identity as a nation. Thousands of men and women throughout the centuries have searched for a place where they could provide a political framework for their people, and ever since the end of the 19th century the Zionist Movement had decided that there was no better place than the Land of Israel. When the war in Spain began, most of the Jewish settlers in the Holy Land showed support for the republic by raising contributions of money, food and medicines. But to allow the youth to go out to war in Spain was another story. Hazan coined the phrase that expressed the thoughts of many: Do not go to Spain, we have our own war!
In spite of everything, Lipsman did not listen to these pronouncements and one day in 1937 he departed from the Promised Land for ever. His nephew, a young boy called Barak Notkin, accompanied him to the bus. Seven decades have since passed, but Barak still remembers that day very clearly.
His first stop was Paris. There stayed his girlfriend, Aviva Keren, who was also active in the Communist party. She would later on notify his family that Lipsman was killed. Since then she disappeared without a trace, and Barak believes that she must have died in one of the German extermination camps.
Lipsman reached Spainand was registered in the multinational ranks of the International Brigades. There was an especially large number of Jewish volunteers who arrived from various countries. Among them were socialists, communists, and even anarchists. According to the Jewish Spanish researcher, Raanan Rhein, between 4000 and 8000 Jews fought in our war.
Nothing further was known about him, not even the places where he fought, but only the fact that he was killed. Months, years, and decades passed until a long while later a book revealed that Joseph was killed in a place that at first could not be identified in Hebrew. This place was Caspe.(4)
We leave the shop behind us, and have three hours ahead of us to follow an impossible trail. On the way to the population registry of Caspe, I tell him that we are going thereto see whether Lipsman was recorded in the book of the deceased, because if he had died on the battlefield no one would have taken the trouble to register him. He may have been captured, and in that case was almost certainly shot instantly on the spot, just as had occurred with a group of Finns near the ‘El Vado’ gun powder reservoir. There was no mercy shown towards the Brigade fighters. Silvia, the person in charge of the population registry, is astounded at the journey undertaken by Ofer and treats him accordingly. Going through the pages we find only the details about Spanish people. Actually, many of those registered during the final days of March 1938 were listed only as ‘anonymous’, that was all.
During the course of our meal, Ofer explains to me that it was not him alone who was especially interested in tracing what happened to Lipsman. His mother and also Barak, Joseph’s nephew, remember him very clearly. Ofer promised them that he would not return to Israel with empty hands and that he would tell them something of that distant place in Spain. They believed, knowing him, that nothing would stop him. Ofer had already performed a similar task in connection with his father who had been cruelly killed during a battle in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when he was only three months old. Later on, his mother married a sculptor called Mordechai Kafri.(5)
The meal ended, and we prepared ourselves for a short stroll through the center of Caspe. The sun beats fiercely upon us, although Ofer admits that it does not bother him. It is hotter in Haifa. We walk through the square, reviewing briefly the history of Caspe, speaking about kings and anarchists at the foot of the Casa Barberán. We also visit the Green Area, the ancient Jewish Quarter of Caspe. For a few minutes Ofer treads
upon the land from which Jews were expelled in the 15th century: “Sefarad”.
A work colleague at “El-Agitador”, David Bonastre, joins our route that now continues towards the battle trenches of the Plana del Pilon. We tell him that the battle of March 1938 was divided into two parts. The first one was the conquest of Caspe and the battles that preceded it on the 16th and 17th of March, and the second was at the end of the month on the Guadalupe River. Walking along the trenches we explain to him that the advance of the Francoists was achieved by circumventing the Republican positions and that the bitterest fighting occurred near the area of the antenna, in cabezo Mancebo, in the Santo Domingo Hospital, and on the other side of the railway station which we had passed by.
We are now walking towards the local cemetery. We do not know how many of those who fell in the battle are buried here because no record exists of those times. Thanks to oral sources we know that the war dead were not only buried in a mass grave but also in a number of rock niches and makeshift trenches in the extended area in the lower part of the cemetery. It is not probable that the remains of Lipsman were brought here, but who knows? Ofer collects a number stones from the mass grave compound to take to Israel.
In El Vado we stand near the irrigation dam.On either side of the river and above it we see the remains of the Republican positions. It is much more probable that Joseph fought here, perhaps in the Naftali Botwin Unit? (6) since we know that this unit comprised many Jews in the International Brigades, and that in March 1938 it was part of the 35th International Division. But we do not know if this division participated in the battles in Caspe.
In March 1938, the International Brigades were represented in Caspe by Belgian, Finnish, Polish and Italian (Garibaldian), North American, English … and French fighters. It is reasonable to suppose that Lipsman was among those who came from France since as we remember, he arrived in Spain through France. This means that he could have been part of the Marseillaise Battalion, the unit that defended the Maella highway in the south which extends from the top of the gun powder reservoirup to the bridgehead that stood on the left bank of the Guadalupe River.(7)
We move forward in the direction of the gun powder reservoir where we tell him in general terms how the Guadalupe battle was conducted. This was the only place where the Republican forces could have halted the sweeping advance of the Nationalists that began on March 9 and where the Brigade fighters were stationed.
We explain that for years people have found in this area the remains of soldiers at any point on the other side of the river, and that until today we know where the remains of bodies can be found waiting for someone to honor their memory. Perhaps Lipsman is one of these. We have no certain information, we can only play with theories. What we do know for sure is that Joseph Lipsman was one of those Jews from Palestine who were killed in the Spanish War and that history had not recorded their bravery for decades. Theirfellow countrymen did not understand why they fought and even less so why they died. They ignored their acts of courage and did not give them suitable recognition until a few years ago. Only now does a forest in their memory flourish in the hills of Jerusalem.
Time is running out. We are in the city again. We draw out the day a little with words and agree to exchange photographs of that day, some of Lipsman and his family, some supplementary information on the biography of the hero of this story. Ofer promises me he will do this when he arrives in Israel at the beginning of September. He departs with endless thanks, his face expresses this better than words.
A few weeks later the ‘epilogue’ of the article arrives. By mail Ofer tells me that he went to visit his mother and also Barak. He told them about all he had seen, what he experienced and felt in Caspe. Barak, who called his son Joseph in memory of Joseph Lipsman, could not contain his emotions. Seventy-five years after his saying goodbye to his Uncle Joseph he could touch the same earth on which his uncle had died. He will soon meet his daughter Iris and the rest of his family in a special family gathering. She would be responsible for reading there, 5000 km to the southeast, the lines that we are publishing today.
Joseph Lipsman from Bessarabia, from Palestine, gave his life in a distant place called Caspe while fighting against Fascism. He was killed in 1938, but from now on his memory would remain alive amongst us all.
Last year, 2012, an exhibition was held in Tel Aviv in memory of the Jews of Palestine who participated in the Spanish Civil War. A picture from the exhibition can be seen in the interesting
article that Felix Bornstein published recently in “Hakoah Harevi’I” (The Fourth Force) from which some bits of information were derived for this article: http://www.cuatropoder.es/luzdecruce/brigadistas-de-palestina-en-la-guerra-civil-espanola/6843
In order to expand on the subject of Jews in the Civil War, you can consult the works of the Spanish Jewish researcher, Raanan Rhein.
(2) The relationship of Ofer to Joseph Lipsman: Barak, Joseph’s nephew, married Yonka, the cousin of Ofer’s mother.
(3) Bessarabia in Central Europe belonged for many years to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and until the fall of the Berlin Wall was part of the Soviet Union. Today it is part of the Republic of Moldovia. Olga Bancic, who also came from Bessarabia, was
a prominent member of the French Resistance. She was arrested and decapitated
in 1944 (the heroine of a French film in 2009). In addition there is an assumption that HeribertoQuiñones, leader of the Spanish Communist Party, also came from Bessarabia. He was shot while sitting on a chair in Madrid in 1942 because the blows he received prevented him from dying while standing erect.
(4) The book in which the death of Joseph Lipsman is mentioned was by Moshe Bahar, Hanita is Better than Madrid (1998) –the reaction of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine to the Spanish Civil War (p. 339). Manuel Garcia succeeded in confirming that Joseph ‘Lipman’ died in Caspe, according to what had been written in the book by Arno Lusiger, Hello Freedom! Jews in the Spanish Civil War, published by Flor de Viento, 2001.
(5) In the following link you can see the list of his works: http://www.mkafri.co.il/menupeselspics.asp
(6) This was named in memory of the Polish Jewish Communist who was executed in the 1920s, not for purely military motives but for propaganda purposes.
(7) Information received thanks to the expert Manuel García