Thursday, July 23, 2009

Memorial to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

Designed by Ann Chamberlain and Walter Hood, the memorial to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is almost hidden on the far side of the more flamboyant Villancourt Fountain. Only 40 feet long and 8 feet high, it is located at the far end of the Justin Herman Plaza; the slender steel grid is a quiet presence amidst the busy commercial bustle. The wall is made of steel pillars, three tiers high with onyx panels inset within its frame. Located at ground level, it is set at a slight diagonal to the curve of the sidewalk and surrounded at one side by a wall of palm trees and a thin strip of grass.

Spanish and English quotes are etched into the panels which face Market Street. They speak of the idealism and political beliefs, which motivated the volunteers. There is poetry from Pablo Neruda and Langston Hughes and a fiery quote from Deloris Dolores Ibárruri, known more famously as "La Pasionaria" (passion flower).* “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” The words speak of freedom and the fight for liberty while the olive tree, placed at distance from the memorial, acts as a living symbol of the timeless Mediterranean landscape.

The panels facing the Villancourt Fountain show images from the participants in that war. The faces and scenes from the struggle are taken from newspapers, blown up and transferred onto the steel plates. The memorial cost $400,000, donated by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives and Veterans and Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Sadly, there is some evidence of recent vandalism, showing that the politics are still controversial, sixty years later.

When the memorial was dedicated in 2008, it was the first US memorial to the still-controversial group that marched to Spain to fight against against Franco and his ultimately successful right wing coup d'état against the elected leftist government. About 2800 American volunteers fought in that war. As of 2008, there were only eleven still alive. Of the more than 3,000 who fought in the battalion during the conflict, over one-third were killed

In the 1930’s, Spain seemed a microcosm of all the world’s political conflicts. The Spanish Civil War was a fight between right and left but, unlike the ending in romantic stories, the progressive side did not win. Instead of a republic, Spain became just another dictatorship until Franco’s death in 1975. Now, it is a democracy, which allows free elections, open political dissent, freedom of the press and civil liberties.

The memorial wall honors the idealism and the integrity of those who had the courage – two years before Pearl Harbor – to stand up and fight in a war where the West indifferent. During this conflict, the dictatorships of Italy and Germany used the Spanish soil as a training ground for the wider war they planned. This was the first time that civilian populations were bombed, a horror which inspired Picasso’s Guernica and was a gristly forerunner of the nightmare that was to come.

A week before he died, Abe Osheroff, one of the surviving veterans of the ABL was able to attend the dedication and gave a powerful and emotional speech:

"Many people consider going to Spain as simply a sacrifice. I’m not one of those. To me, being an activist has always been a special privilege. And it’s a wonderful job. You never run out of work. You meet some of the nicest people. The pay is very high. Yes, it is! IF you value the love and respect of the people you work with and know more than you do money and physical things, then the pay IS very high. And that’s why I’m able to say, at the ripe old age of pushing-93, that I’ve had a glorious life, in many ways. Now, let’s see what we are dealing with. At this moment, there are, what, as of last week 39 people who remain out of the Struggle which is on the surface a rather small percentage. And yet, there is this incredible feeling that the stuff we are made of never goes away. With or without monuments. Because the bastards will never cease their evil, and the decent human beings will never stop their struggle. This has been a very difficult thing for me to do, not only because I’m getting a little frail (finally!).

But because I approached it with very mixed emotions. Going down to the very basics: what the hell are monuments all about, beside places for birds to deliver bird shit. And I’ll share that feeling with you. I’ll tell you what it’s all about for me. Some day in the not too distant future, some guy will be walking through here with a couple of his adolescent kids, and one of the kids will say, “Dad, what’s that?” And this Dad may know the answer. And giving that answer is like putting another spark plug into the vehicle of progress that we’re all engaged in. I’m very happy to see you guys here. And one more moment– I’m not a San Franciscan. I’m a New Yorker! But our record is not that great- no truthfully! I can’t imagine any other place where this would have taken place first except San Francisco! Because in many ways, San Francisco is one of the crossroads of growing culture, of advanced ideas that has appeared on the map. So I salute you, all you San Franciscans, and I thank you on behalf of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade for making us immortal."

He was wrong about the immortal part. San Francisco and the memorial didn't make him and his fellow volunteers immortal. Their actions - then and later in the larger stage of WW II and the battle for civil rights, worker's rights and women's rights - that's what makes them immortal to all who care about the ongoing struggle for a more just world.
*She was a Spanish Republican leader of the Spanish Civil War and communist politician of Basque origin, perhaps best known for her defense of the Republic with the famous slogan ¡No Pasarán! ("They Shall Not Pass"), during the Battle of Madrid.
Documentary: Into the Fire (2002)
Further Reading: Paul Preston: A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War
Hugh Thomas: The Spanish Civil War


Zoomie said...

Next time I'm turning my eyes away from that gawdawful fountain, I'll look for this monument instead. Thanks for alerting me to its presence.

namastenancy said...

It was sad to be down there, taking photos and making notes for the article. People were hurrying by, the skateboarders were busy destroying another section of the area and there was a lot of activity around the tourist booths lining the walk to the Ferry Building. People photographed the Robert Arneson heads which were nearby; they are grotesque and cartoon like so they grab attention. But nobody stopped to look, much less read the text on what was an important part of modern history. I overheard a couple, probably tourists, sauntering by, and casually remarking that "it" was probably about something or other. But they didn't stop either.