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Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives - vol 23 4 dec 2001 (Page 14)

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Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives - vol 23 4 dec 2001
14 THE VOLUNTEER, December 2001
the fascist invaders out of Spain.
It is amusing to imagine this 14-year-
old in civics class, day-dreaming about
her soldier friends, or in her bedroom in
Apartment 6A at 110 West 96th St.,
preparing packages to send to strangers
in Spain, and trying to guess what enclo-
sures to send to whom. She must have
learned quickly enough that she couldn't
go wrong with cigarettes and pho-
tographs of herself; but sending poetry to
Harry Hakam was a bust, and the base-
ball box scores didn't go over very well
with Bill van Felix. The dried gardenia
leaf enclosed in the letter to Syd Levine,
as we have seen, almost starts a war
within the war. Why a gardenia?
We'll never know the answer to
that question and to so many other
questions about Marjorie. It's possi-
ble, though unlikely, that some of her
own letters might turn up in the vast
collection of papers in the Abraham
Lincoln Brigade Archives--that could
provide answers to some immediate
But this handful of letters raises
so many other broader issues: What
kind of political, sentimental and liter-
ary education produced men like
those American volunteers that risked
their lives to fight fascism in Spain
and that wrote such letters to Marjorie
Polon? What kind of political, senti-
mental and literary education
produced a girl like Marjorie Polon--
a 14-year-old in 1938 with a stunning
degree of political and human
Today, I will make my way
through the crowds of returning and
newly arrived students milling
around Washington Square, in order
to hand the manila envelope over to
the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
Archives. It pleases me to know that
there is now a place on campus where
I may begin to look for answers to
some of these questions.
James D. Fernández is Director of NYU's
King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center and a
member of the Board of Governors of
the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.
Swell Guys
Continued from page 12
Brigade Archives a few years ago
seeking information about him, the
archival records provided only one
item: his name, period. Except for that
isolated entry, there is no evidence
that he existed in Spain. Perhaps he
entered with a false passport and used
someone else's name? Perhaps, as was
the case with many others, he fled
during the Great Retreats of 1938
across the French border, as family
testimony implied? Or perhaps he
was recaptured by the Soviet secret
police, taken to a dark and dirty dun-
geon, interrogated, shot, and his files
effaced from the records? The
Moscow archives do not say.
Another type of document fre-
quently used by Spinners and Squirts
is the end-of-the-war evaluation form,
in which military and political leaders
(the latter usually, but not always,
commissars in the army) graded the
rank and file from "excellent" to "muy
malo." These subjective accountings
apparently tried to assess the value of
individual volunteers to the
Communist Party after their return
home. The evaluations often said
nasty things about individuals, but
despite the rhetoric they do not fore-
shadow how people were treated in
Spain or afterward. Praise did not nec-
essarily lead to a party position;
criticism did not always affect a per-
son's postwar standing. And for the
one-third of the volunteers who were
not party members, the grading sys-
tem appeared even less meaningful.
So when the aforementioned
Squirt e-mailed me a list of 10 names
without any indication of where his
list had come from (shades of
Tailgunner Joe, another keeper of
lists) and asked if I knew their fate, I
noticed one who had come home, one
who I thought had died in Spain, and
decided that Squirt could do his own
research to ascertain the whereabouts
of the others. Of course, not really
being interested in the question,
Squirt dropped his inquiry, but in
print he audaciously postulated that
these men, in disappearing from the
records, had joined a line of those who
faced "potential death sentences."
Which brings me back to the mys-
terious Edward Carter. Thanks to
another, more tenacious, researcher,
Carter's daughter-in-law Allene
Carter, who conducted her search not
in Moscow but in Washington, D.C.,
among other places in the USA, the
man with only a single two-word
entry in the Moscow archives served
in the U.S. Army during World War
II, killed a bunch of Germans in a fan-
tastic one-man exploit in 1945,
subsequently returned to his home
town in Los Angeles and attended a
social event featuring Paul Robeson in
1946, and ultimately became one of
the six African Americans who
posthumously received the
Congressional Medal of Honor from
President Bill Clinton in 1996. Last
June, in a ceremony near Norfolk,
Virginia, the U.S. Navy proudly chris-
tened a ship after Sgt. Edward A.
Carter, Jr.
That's the difference between
"death" and "potential," between his-
tory and speculation, authenticity and
So while the Moscow archives can
provide an immense amount of raw
data, the records do not necessarily
make anyone more knowledgeable.
Facts are easily bent; fictions easily
reified into history. The specious alle-
gation that the African-American
battalion commander Oliver Law was
a victim of fragging by his own men is
a particularly blatant example of
deceit, especially after all the counter
research that has been offered. But the
more such false stories are repeated,
the more the value of any historical
scholarship is deflated and the pur-
poses of inquiry reduced to arrogant
Myth of Moscow Archives
Continued from page 13
Peter Carroll, chair of ALBA, is the author
of The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln

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