7-8 Septiembre “Good evening in a dirty place”

September 7-8, 1937
Robert Merriman’s diary for September 7 and 8, 1937.

Merriman finds out on September 6 that his adjutant Sidney Shostek was shot.   Shostek was walking with a prisoner behind a tank and was killed by a sniper.  Marion Merriman fills in some details:

Only the square admitted enough light for Bob and me to read the Fascist posters still stuck to broken walls, posters depicting the horrors of Marxism rather than the horrors of the war that a small group of Fascists had started.  I noticed there were posted rules for the modesty of young women, rules requiring long skirts and long sleeves, saying sin is woman’s because she tempts man.  There were no posters promising a government for all of the people.

As we walked, the thought of Sidney Shosteck, so young and sincere and intelligent, who should have walked beside us, heightened my sense of tragedy of the ruined city.  Bob told me again how he had sent Sid into Belchite on a mission after most of the fighting was over, not believing his aide to be in any real danger.

Fascist Barracks
The Falangist barracks in Belchite. Near where Sidney Shostek was killed. ALBA PHOTO 11-1227, Tamiment Library, NYU

“Sidney was killed outright,” Bob said.  “I feel his loss more than any other person I’ve known here.”  Bob had kept Sid out of the street fighting as much as possible.  Then, in a crucial moment, he had sent him to direct a tank with a prisoner to show them where the military headquarters of the Fascists were.  The prisoner went to the front of the tank and Sidney behind.  But a second-story sniper shot Sid in the forehead.  He never knew what hit him, Bob, said shaking his head as we walked.   He added, quietly, “Sidney’s loss here is great.  It will be felt by all of us.”

As Bob talked, I held his arm.  I felt I had to support him….  Suddenly we heard piano music.  “Look,” Bob said, quietly, hushing me before I could respond.  There, across a street in half a house, the front walls blown away, the inside looking like a stage, sat a Spanish soldier at a grand piano, playing Beethoven.¹

Merriman is sorry that he cannot find the body but otherwise doesn’t reveal his true feelings.   He says that Wattis was injured as was Bill Wheeler and Sidney was killed “while I sang Russian songs”.  One wonders if Merriman was feeling guilt because he was with Copic instead of his men.   He and Steve Nelson will soon face criticism for having been with the men during the battle.  Merriman works on administrative duties on the 7th and hears the story about the 12th Army Corps (in which the Spanish 153rd Brigade resides) making claims of having taken Belchite on September 3.  This is the story that General Walter documented in his exit document in November 1938.   This story will ripple for days.

Constancia de la Mora, of the Foreign Press Office, and Milly Bennett are in Belchite but Merriman misses them.  They are with a reporter from what appears to be a Russian wire service or newspaper.  From Marion’s memoir, it is likely that she is with them as well.  Merriman was in Azaila on the road to Hijar where there was a field hospital.   Steve Nelson was there and Merriman talks to him and signs him up for more political duties.   Paul Block, who was the Commissar of Company 3, died in the hospital.   It appears that Dr. Irving Busch was the head of the hospital and looked in on Nelson.

North, Merriman and Minor
Joe North, Bob Merriman, Lou Secundy, Earl Browder, Vladimir Copic, Bob Minor, David Doran and Briton David Kamy, Teruel, January 1938. ALBA Photo, 11_1865, Tamiment Library, NYU

The political staff from Albacete arrives:  Joe North of the Daily Worker, Bill Lawrence, Ed Bender, Bob Minor and Bob Kerr (not “Ken”) who was the Canadian responsible.   Merriman returns to the Brigade Headquarters north of Belchite.   He says that Minor and Steve Nelson  discussed things with a person (with an unreadable name) late into the night but Merriman went to sleep.  The order here is jumbled because it would have been impossible for Nelson to move with his injury.

On the morning of the 8th, North and Bender go into Belchite with Merriman.   Merriman sees looting going on and apparently does not try to stop it.   He, himself, picks up two bedspreads for Marion.   While the Americans might think this is the “spoils of war”, the conflict between the Spanish and Internationals over integration of the Brigades into the Spanish Army would be aggravated if the Spanish believed that the Americans were stealing from the people.

Fred Lutz
Abe Harris, two unknown soldiers, and Frederick Lutz at the Brigade Intendencia at Mondejar.   It is possible that one of the two unknown men in this photo is Ernesto Martinez.

Merriman fights with George Kaye and Ernesto Martinez over the operation of the Intendencia.   Ernesto Martinez and Frederick Lutz would lead the Intendencia into April, 1938² .  Food was missing for several days in Belchite and even water was in short supply at the beginning of the assault.   Copic thinks the Intendencia did ok, but Merriman disagrees and had to deal with the risk of rebellion in the ranks because supplies were slow to follow the troops in.  Merriman sends George Kaye back to Perales to get more supplies.   Merriman says that he has a tiff with British Political Commissar Mark Millman.

Merriman sees a copy of “Our Fight”, the newspaper published by the Brigades and talks to Frank Ryan who was the editor of the paper.   Merriman finishes the day noting that snipers are still around and killed two of the Brigade cavalry.


¹ Marion Merriman Wachtel and Warren Lerude, American Commander in Spain, ibid., pp 172-3.

² RGASPI Archives, Fond 545/Opus2/Delo 118/p130, Moscow.