29-30 Mayo Marion Merriman goes on a mission

May 29-30
Robert Merriman’s diary for May 29 and 30, 1937

Merriman’s hand gets denser and denser.  He has a lot to remember from these days.  Merriman repeats the comment made at the meeting on 27 May  “Political commissars are civilians and not soldiers and representatives of the popular front government”.  This message is being beaten into the heads of the Brigade staff and the commissars.  Steve Nelson would become one of these commissars and that is not the message he heard:

The idea of political commissars has been around as far back as the Paris Commune, but when I was assigned to serve as one, I didn’t have a good conception of what that meant.  I asked around and got nebulous answers.  I was told a commissar must be one who is trusted by his men, that he must be able to explain every situation, to see that military decisions and objectives are understood and that the mens’ needs, physical and personal are taken care of.  The fellow who had been the Lincoln’s commissar at Jarama {George Brodsky} had been removed.  He didn’t do anything wrong — he just didn’t measure up to the situation.  I asked if I could meet someone who had served as a commissar and was taken to a hospital to talk to a man who had been the commissar for a French battalion until he was wounded at Jarama.  His head was completely bandaged, leaving only slits for the eyes, mouth, and nostrils.  Through my translator, he to me what the others had said: the commissar must be the most devoted and respected man in the unit.  I had come to Spain with the recommendations of the American Party but I knew that I still had to prove myself to the men with whom I would serve.¹

Many books on Spain leave the impression that the Commissars were completely political, Communist party hacks.  In fact, perhaps a quarter of the men who made Commissar in the Lincoln Brigade were not members of the Party and several were totally apolitical according to their exit papers.  The statement made by Merriman reiterated that the Commissars worked for the Popular Front Government, not for the Army.  This would have put many Commissars in a difficult conflict of interest.

Steve Nelson, Horowitz and Morrison stayed the  night at Pozorubio and Morrison would return to Albacete on the 29th. Lectures were given by Nelson and Merriman, Nelson’s was political education from his commissar’s role and Merriman’s was on tactics versus strategy.

Merriman's hat
Robert Merriman’s new hat (taken from Burt Overton). ALBA Photo 11 – 1278, Tamiment Library, NYU

After the training, Merriman returned to Albacete with Nelson and tried to locate Marion.  Instead he had an interview with Bert Overton and detailed the charges against him.  Overton apparently was never entitled to wear the stripes he wore at Jarama.  Overton must have known he was in serious trouble and was drinking heavily at this point.  Overton would be court martialled and convicted.  This was convenient for Merriman since he needed to trick out his garb and now that he had his new uniform, he needed the hat.   Merriman raised a ruckus (or in his terms, a “scandal”) and got his uniform at 6 pm sharp.  He will be talking about this uniform for days.

The order comes through to arrest Overton and Lamotte says he thinks Overton is in jail for drinking.  Merriman and Lamotte go to the jail and do not find Overton.  In fact, they find an empty jail with all the drunks broken out through a hole in the wall.   Merriman raises hell with the guards.  Likely they were drinking as well as Merriman has found French guards on duty drunk twice in the last few weeks.

Mutiny on the Bounty Video cover.

Merriman says that he ate with “Marcy”.   It is unlikely that he would misspell Marty and he was not fond enough of Marcovics to have a nickname for him.  It is not clear who that soldier is (it could easily be Leo Markowitz, shown on the diary description for May 25-26)  although he was political and Merriman talked with him about the European political situation.   Merriman finds Marion and they go to the movies seeing “The Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935) and a Spanish film “El ciento trece”.  The 113 was made in 1935 and released in the US in 1938.

Marion gets news from Arturo Fein that she is to go to Murcia to check out the two British women who are asking questions and are under suspicion.  Arturo Fine shows up in the records of Frederika Martin, a nurse there.  This episode should be told but only in Marion’s own words:

The other incident, which I did not share with Bob, nor with anyone else, was much worse.  …. Bob stayed in town with me that night because I was to be off on the special business the next day.  At eight o’clock in the morning on May 30, I left for Murcia with two pleasant Slav officers.  As we drove through the barren lands, I caught up on my diary, writing entries as we motored along.  We reached Murcia about noon, went on to Orihuela for lunch  then went for a swim, my first in the Mediterranean.  Later I jotted in my diary: “A sandy beach, warm caressing water.  Hold life, hold life so close”.

We had dinner the two officers and I, on a terrace overlooking a sleepy village caught on the arm of a cove.  We marveled at the rosy gray of the sea dotted with slow-moving fishing boats.  And, during dinner, I noted that the atmosphere, the swim, the moonlight, the pure beauty of where we were, seemed to give one of my companions romantic ideas.  In woman-less war, I’d seen the look before.  I dismissed it. 

That evening we checked into the hospital at Socorro Rojo.  Weary from the long, if enjoyable, day.  I fell quickly to sleep.  But, suddenly and sharply, I was wide awake.  The man whose “look” I’d noted at dinner was holding me down, one hand clamped over my mouth.  I fought him, clawing, kicking.  I couldn’t scream.  He raped me.  I kicked him away.  He fled the room.

I was stunned.  I sobbed, terrified.  I climbed from the bed, slowly, and pulled the blankets around me.  I ran down the hall to the bathroom.  There was no warm water.  I filled the bathtub with icy water.  I scrubbed and scrubbed, shivering from the cold and the fright.  Crying, shivering, I scrubbed for hours.  I couldn’t cleanse myself, however hard I tried.  I felt filthy, thoroughly filthy.  I washed and washed, and I cried into the cold, early morning darkness.

The next morning I didn’t know what to do.  What could I do?  Should I try to find a way back to Albacete?  Should I somehow get hold of Bob?  Should I try to reach Ed Bender?  What should I do? I had to calm myself.  This is war, I told myself.  Men are dying and maimed.  This is my burden.  As horrible as the rape was, the worst that could happen would be a pregnancy.  If that happened, I steeled myself, I would go to the hospital’s doctors or to Paris and have an abortion.

But should I tell Bob?  I asked myself, over and over.  I searched and searched for the answer and finally concluded: I must not hurt Bob with this.  If I tell him, I reasoned, Bob might kill the man.  Or one of the other Americans would, for sure.  There would be great trouble.  No this must be my secret burden.  I cannot tell anyone –ever.  What has been done cannot be undone.

I went down to the commissary where the two officers were eating breakfast.  One was, as always, cheerful and friendly.  He seemed confused when I didn’t sit with them.  The rapist was brazen, arrogant.  We continued the mission.  I ignored the rapist, but I could not get the rape off my mind.  But I went on with my work.  I interviewed the Englishwomen.  I memorized impressions and wrote notes.  When we returned to Albacete three days later, I reported to Bob about the Englishwomen’s efforts to distract the Americans.  I said nothing about the rape.  The war filled Bob’s mind.  I could not trouble him further, and I did not.

Nor was I pregnant.²

The man’s name has never been published.

Merriman wanted Marion at the celebration and says “Love in Bloom”  How I wanted you so!   One is left to imagine that this song might have been part of the “stunt” that the officers gave at the Celebration.

Winkler and Becker
Possibly Winkler (left) and Vidal (right) posing in front of a truck. ALBA Photo 177_175028, Tamiment Library, NYU

On the 30th, Merriman woke early and dressed for his “coming out” at Pozorubio and Tarazona in his new uniform and cap.  He showed them off at the 10 o’clock barrack inspection and at 10:30 parade where the Brigade said goodbye to Platone as he would go off to lead the Garabaldi battalion.  It must have been an impressive send off since a Communist Deputy from France came and all the Albacete commissars were mustered up.  Barthel, Winkler, Vidal and Carlos were there.   The photo on the right may be Winkler and Vidal.  Vidal informs Merriman that there will be a reorganization of the XVth Brigade and that he will be moving up.  For now, he will stay with the school until the “end of term” and then move to a command position.    Their entertainment must have gone well.

Merriman says that Steve Nelson, Walter Garland and Marion Greenspan (aka George Marion) came and in the session with “Marcy” or “Morry” they discussed the split between the PSOC and the Anarchists which occurred in the early part of May.  There are several possible Morry’s in the Brigades and this could be one of them.

We will find in the diary entry for May 31 that the Ciudad de Barcelona was sunk off the Catalan coast by a torpedo on May 30, 1937.  More on this in the next exciting installment.


¹  Steve Nelson James R. Barrett and Rob Ruck, An American Radical, University of Pittsburg Press, Pittsburgh, PA., 1981, pp 203-204.

² Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid, pp 147-149.

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