Finding My Grandfather, and Myself, on the Battlefields of the Spanish Civil War
He joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 1936, as a Jewish teenager from Brooklyn. This year, I retraced his steps.
No place is holy by itself, I realized. Battlefields like Gettysburg only feel like hallowed ground because we’ve given them markers and names. Near the river Jarama, there was nothing but what I’d brought and learned.
Before I left I took leaves from the olive trees, for a keepsake. During our drive back we stopped at a huge metal sculpture of clasped hands, strapped with wilted flowers and circled beneath by wartime tunnels. A monument to the international brigades, it reminded me of the goodbye Dolores Ibarruri, the Republican Pasionaria, gave to the foreigners as the republic crumbled in 1938: “You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend.” (Others didn’t remember the Internationals so kindly, and some websites to this day claim that the Internationals were murderous revolutionaries.)
Our tour ended in a museum back in the tiny town. The proprietor welcomed us in the front hall, next to a huge sculpture of a man smelted from battlefield scrap. Photos lined the walls, bullets in dusty glass cases, guns and bayonets, all collected by this old man, grinning and posing for a photo with his metal soldier. Like the others I met, he was a keeper of memories.
I ended my time in Madrid with Almudena and her boyfriend. We toured the University district, where spiders live in scores of machine-gun bullet holes. We saw spray-painted hammer-and-sickles, and they showed me the secret markings of the fascists, the engraved honorifics for Franco, and a monument to the International Brigades that may be torn down. We parted ways near the edge of the city center, at a small plaza overlooking Franco’s faux-Roman victory arch. Everything was gray, the sky especially.
Almudena told me there were old fascist bunkers in the park just beyond the arch. One more stop for a tourist, I thought. The two of them made closed-fist salutes as they walked away. “Don’t forget your grandfather,” Almudena told me.
Alone again, I felt like I’d just washed ashore. I scribbled as fast as I could in my journal. I wondered what my grandfather would have thought of all this, the political currents that picked him up still circulating around. He was only in Spain for six months, while, I’m told, most of the Lincolns stayed through the conflict or died in Spain. Our family story says that David’s mother somehow convinced the communists to bring him home once the first fighting was done. Still, even after my grandfather’s death, his friend for years would bring my father—David’s son—to the Lincoln veterans’ meetings. The Lincolns themselves would remain a politically active organization for decades, at times blacklisted and at times honored.
My mother found a picture of my grandfather just before I went to Spain. He poses in perfect focus, tall in a baggy suit, tie clipped and tucked into his shirt. There are hundreds of people milling around in the plaza that drops out behind him, and a man in profile just to his right. He’s the only person whose face isn’t blurred or obscured. His hair’s combed straight up, and he has his children’s eyes. Far behind him, there’s a dominating statue of a man and woman lifting their hands together.
It was the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, I later learned. He was standing before the Soviet pavilion, just across an avenue from the Nazis’ huge, symbolic gate. He would have stopped there on his way home from Spain that June, before he took the steamer from Le Havre back to New York. His face in the image doesn’t say much to me—he’s proud, maybe hardened, maybe cynical, standing in the city the Nazis would take three years later, at the seam where the world was coming apart. It may have been the first clear image I ever saw of him.
A few years later David Dombroff would change his name to Richard Kenney. We don’t know why. Doesn’t that speak to the confusion in our line? Our identity itself shifted, perhaps to escape the communist witch hunt that began even before WWII. Although they celebrated Jewish holidays, he and my grandmother didn’t take my father to regular services, nor did they make him a bar mitzvah—though anti-Semitism in a rough neighborhood may have discouraged them.
From what I know, my grandfather was an impassioned young man, or zealous. He came from a different time, when the stakes were higher and perhaps the dividing lines were bolder. He’d go on to serve on a WWII bomber in the Pacific, the sole survivor of a terrible crash. As he recovered, he complained in a letter about others’ passive stance toward the war, and he boasted of the Japanese Zeros his plane shot down. Grandma, though, says he cooled after the wars. He collected coins and fathered three boys in his last decade, before he died late in the 1950s.
Unless we uncover some trove of letters, I’ll never understand exactly why David Dombroff volunteered for another people’s war. I won’t know what role his religion played, and I won’t draw any conclusions about what parts of his spirit may have passed down the line. But I at least felt more rooted as I wandered the Spanish coast at the end of my trip, hoping that for a day I had seen what he saw.
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