By Jack Withington
A monument to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (ALB), a volunteer unit that fought in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, is located near the Vaillancort Fountain on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. It is dedicated, in part, to two young Petaluma men, Leo Nitzberg and Robert “Bobby” Rappaport who were volunteer members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of the International Brigade that went to Spain to assist the duly elected, left wing, Republican government that was over thrown by forces loyal to right wing, Nationalists Party.
Of the two young Petalumans who left their families to fight against forces led by Spanish General “Caudillo” Francisco Franco, Italian Dictator “Duce” Benito Mussolini, and Adolph Hitler the “Fuhrer” of Nazi Germany, only Leo Nitzberg came home. Twenty-four year old Robert “Bobby” Rappaport was killed in action on March 17, 1938 in Caspe, Spain along with 80 percent of his unit. Bobby Rappaport attended Wilson elementary school. His niece, Roberta “Bobbie” Lamport still resides on the family property west of Petaluma. Leo Nitzberg returned home, continuing his fight against the Nazi movement. He steadfastly remained an activist for labor and social causes. His surviving family resides in the Bay Area.
The Spanish Civil War thought by many to as a prelude to World War ll served as a testing ground for the Nazi war machine. An International Brigade, including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade consisted of volunteers from a world wide network of 50 nations were no match for the well equipped and trained Nationalist forces. Germany supplied elements of the vaunted Luftwaffe equipped with modern aircraft, U boats from the Kriegsmarine and scores of state of the art German Tank Corps. Italy contributed over 100,000 troops.
The brave, Abraham Lincoln Brigade Republican, volunteers although passionate for their cause, were undertrained and under equipped came home to the United States and a less than welcoming reception from the government. Over 400 returning Brigade members, including Leo Nitzberg, joined the American military or the Merchant Marine to continue their fight against Nazism during World War ll. The Brigade members were treated with suspicion by the military establishment, some were called communists. As a tribute to Robert “Bobby” Rappaport, many friends and relations named their children in his honor. Comprised of nearly 3,000 men, including 85 African-Americans and 60 women, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade suffered over 600 killed in action or died from wounds received in battle.
It should be noted that Oliver Law, veteran of the Buffalo soldiers and World War l became the first Black American to lead white troops into battle. Law a member of a Brigade, Machine Gun Co, distinguished himself in battle and was promoted on Section Leader, then to Company Commander. Due to the high rate of casualties in his unit, Law became Adjutant Battalion Commander. While leading a machine gun charge up Mosquito Ridge, Captain Oliver Law, now acting Battalion Commander was mortally wounded.
As in conflicts around the word, the Spanish Civil War was covered by some of the leading journalists of the day including but not limited to Ernst Hemingway, Langston Hughes and George Orwell. The late Marin County resident, Alvah Bessie, noted journalist, novelist, and screenwriter served as a member of the Brigade. In his book “Men in Battle” Bessie relates a story about Milt Wolfe, the last commander of the Brigade. After he returned to the states and Word War ll had broken out, Wolfe was called to Washington D.C. to the office of the OSS, precursor to the CIA. There he was to meet Colonel Bill Donovan the head of the OSS. During their meeting Donovan asked Wolfe to join the OSS. Wolfe could not believe what he heard and retorted “Sir, when we came back from Spain we were called &&^% Communists.” Donovan replied, you still are but today we are fighting the Nazis.”