ARGANDA, Spain – Most have white hair and some walk with canes, but the international veterans of the Spanish Civil War remain as feisty and idealistic as when they volunteered for battle 60 years ago.
“We fought to defend democracy and defeat fascism,” boomed Brooklyn-born Milton Wolff, 81, last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, in which about 3,000 Americans participated.
Gathered on a grassy plain along the Jarama River south of Madrid, 370 former members of the International Brigades that fought Gen. Francisco Franco gathered yester day to commemorate their arrival in Spain and pay homage to those killed in the 1936-39 war.
Accompanied by wives, children and friends, the men carried pins and photographs documenting the International Brigades, which often carried the name of a patriot from their homeland.
Volunteers came from most European countries, Canada, the United States, Russia, and Mexico. As a tribute, the Spanish parliament will honor the International Brigades today with a letter allowing them to become Spanish citizens.
Under a sunny sky, Danes, Yugoslavs, Argentines and British embraced. Some wept. As in the war itself, the language barrier was largely overcome by enthusiasm.
During the war, more than 45,000 brigadistas, many without military training, answered the call to defend the liberal government of the Republic against Franco’s military uprising. About 16,000 of them died in the fighting.
“We always felt as if we were internationalists,” said Romanian Mihail Florescu, 85, in Spain for the first time since the war. “Now, we will be as Spanish as we always felt we were.”
Because of an unwritten agreement between political parties in the years following Franco’s 1975 death, the war is a subject put aside for fear of opening deep wounds.
But two elderly Spanish couples attended yesterday’s commemoration, explaining that that they wanted to thank the international volunteers.
“It was so moving then, and it is so moving now,” said Eugenio Celis, 84, his eyes welling with tears. “It really was a worldwide struggle.”
In the mid-1930s, the great threat to to Western democracies was the expansion of fascism, already on display in Germany and Italy.
Fearing the same fate for Spain, volunteers from more than 50 countries came to fight. The International Brigades were disbanded and allowed to leave Spain when Franco’s forces, supported heavily by Germany and Italy, were on the verge of victory.
“That was a very sad and bitter moment,” said Clare Forester, 81, who left Minneapolis at age 22 to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. “But we know now that what we did was right. People wanted democracy, not fascism. We can be proud to have fought.”