Romanian Internaltional Brigadeers in the Spanish Civil War w/ Mihai [RO]
In which the historian Mihai Burcea talks about the Romanian volunteers in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, based on his doctoral theses research.
- David Iancu, 9 ani medic pe front (2008). ed. Tania Iancu
- Valter Roman, Sub cerul Spaniei (1972). (translated into Spanish as Bajo el cielo de España. Memorias de un brigadista internacional rumano)
- Artwork by Alis Balogg
- Sloth metal riffs by Zomfy
- Intro/Outro song: ¡No pasarán! by Sofia Zadar
ioni: [00:00:11] Tell us about yourself and your studies or your work.
mihai: [00:00:15] My name is Mihai Burcea, I am a scientific researcher at the National Institute for the Study of Totalitarianism.
mihai: [00:00:19] In 2017 I finished a doctoral thesis on Romanian volunteers from the International Brigades in Spain. It is still unpublished. I hope to publish it over the next two or three years. How I arrived at the subject of the thesis... In short in 2009 or 2010 while working on a dictionary of penitentiary officers I discovered some of the officers who fought in the Carpathian partisan group. It was a group of partisans who operated in Romania between June and August 1944 and some of them -- three or four -- were also fighters in the International Brigades in Spain. They had taken refuge in France in the camps on the shores of the Mediterranean and then in North Africa. And from North Africa they were repatriated by the Soviet Union to Soviet territory and from there they were trained by the Red Army to operate behind the Romanian front on Romanian territory. They were sent behind the front and carried out some sabotage activities here. They threw some gas supplies on the railroad tracks. They blew up, mined, some railway lines and so on.
mihai: [00:01:21] And some of them were in Spain and I was intrigued. I had no idea, I didn't even know the word inter-brigadist. I knew that some Romanians fought in Spain, but I had very little knowledge. I started digging in this area. Who are these people? Plus , at that time I was also working at ICCMER, and on the way to work there was an Ion Călin street. And it intrigued me. Who is this Ion Călin. Because it was near Olga Bancic Street. And I started asking myself questions and I accidentally discovered his security file. Of this hero Ion Călin. And so I found out that he had also fought in Spain and then fought in the French Resistance. And he lost his life in 1944-45, I don't remember well, in the Neuengamme camp. He had been captured by the Vichy government and deported to Germany.
mihai: [00:02:06] And that's it about the prehistory of the thesis.
mihai: [00:02:08] I started slowly doing excavations about those who fought in the International Brigades in Spain. At the National Archives and in the CNSAS archive, I easily found out about this whole body, about this Romanian echelon.
ioni: [00:02:21] What was their political affiliation. How did they leave for Spain, whether they left on the basis of their political affiliation or whether they left through the Communist Party or on their own. And once in Spain, with which factions did they fight.
mihai: [00:02:39] So their number, the cohort, is 377 fighters. This is the number I identified in our national archives. Obviously I did not find data and information about everyone. But for the most part I was able to identify a number of data about many of them. Regarding political affiliation, I discovered that 85 of them were affiliated with the Communist Party of Romania and the organizations it oversees, the Labor League, the Democratic Bloc or the Red Aid.
mihai: [00:03:07] There were also volunteers from MADOS, the Hungarians, respectively five volunteers. From the Popovici Socialist Party, who were dissidents from Titel Petrescu's Socialist Party. So there were two from the Popovici Socialist Party. There were also two volunteers from the Social Democratic Party. Even Iulian's Radical Peasants’ Party sent a volunteer.
mihai: [00:03:25] Then from the point of view of their ethnic origin, I found as follows. 92 Jews, 49 Romanians, 91 Hungarians, 3 Bulgarians, two Ukrainians, a Russian, a Roma, a Serbian and one German.
mihai: [00:03:39] The most common profession among them, for example, was that of carpenter.
mihai: [00:03:44] There were 14 carpenters, 14 textile workers, 10 drivers. There were also five women, all nurses. Galia Burcă, Hermina Tismăneanu, Sanda Sobard. That's about it in summary. A cross section in the cohort.
mihai: [00:04:02] By age groups, obviously the largest group is the one given by those aged between 20 and 30 years. Because they were looking for a lot of young people who did military service.
mihai: [00:04:11] There were also two volunteers between the ages of 15 and 20. Respectively, Stelian Mircea a young man born in 1919 and Wolf Reudberg, a young man born in Soroca in 1918.
mihai: [00:04:23] The one who lived the longest is Andrei Nicu, who died in 2011, and who you can find on the internet in an interview he gave to Gheorghe Zbăganu in 2010 or 2009. At first I thought they were adventurers, but with the passage of time and research I discovered that many were ideologically motivated to fight fascism regardless of territory and geographical location. That was their main motivation. Their recruitment was done by the Romanian Communist Party. It was the most important political operation carried out by the Communist Party of Romania in the interwar period.
mihai: [00:05:00] If we analyze a little the context of 1936 is the year in which the trial of Ana Pauker took place, which created a great political effervescence here in Bucharest. It is also the year when on the streets of Bucharest in the summer of 1936. Even on the eve of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, street fights take place here in the place where we are in the area of Cismigiu-Izvor. Fighting between nationalist and communist cadres, fierce fighting between the two factions. Which took place during the conflict that broke out between the democratic newspapers Adevărul and Dimineața, respectively Universul şi Curentul, which were nationalist newspapers.
mihai: [00:05:34] At the same time, in the summer of 1937, book burnings took place here in the center of Bucharest - a lesser known thing. Newspapers and books of Democratic journalists and writers were burned. In the area of the Military Circle and Gheorghe Lazăr High School. So it was a very tense period from a political point of view in Bucharest and against this background there is also this massive departure of Romanian volunteers to Spain. Obviously, the Romanian Volunteer Corps is extremely small compared to other countries that have sent volunteers. France, which sent between 10 and 12 thousand, our contingent of a maximum of 400 volunteers is comparable to that of Estonians or Cypriots.
mihai: [00:06:13] Even the Serbs, our neighbors, sent a contingent of 1,000 volunteers. However, let us not forget that the Communist Party of Romania was a political party that was operating illegally.
mihai: [00:06:22] Let's not forget, the Iron Guard at that time was working perfectly legally and then it was much easier for them to produce finance, to produce material and financial aid for the small contingent of 7 volunteers who went to Spain. Of course, the propaganda made by the far right was much bigger. Also due to the fact that they were a political party, a party that acted legally at the time of the legionnaire contingent, all the nationalist press was invaded by news about the departure of the small contingent led by General Gheorghe Cantacuzino “The Border Guard”. That would be the context.
ioni: [00:06:56] Given that at that time the Communist Party was illegal, how did the volunteers manage to cross the border? Did they leave individually? Did they hide when they crossed the border? Or did they go in several waves?
mihai: [00:07:09] Yes, they went in several waves and went in groups but also individually. The most used route was through Czechoslovakia because the Communist Party was legally active there. It even had representatives in the Czechoslovak Parliament. At one point, in '37, a group of 20 volunteers who had left Romania and crossed the border illegally into Czechoslovakia were detained by the Czechoslovak authorities and held in pre-trial detention for several days. Obviously, the Czechoslovak Communist Party notified itself and started a campaign in the Prague press and in the Czechoslovak parliament, and then immediately the Romanians were released and were able to continue their journey to Paris. Another reason used by Romanian volunteers to get to Paris was the one related to the international exhibition in Paris that took place in the summer of '37, if I remember correctly. In order to obtain the passports from the Capital Police Headquarters, many of the volunteers invoked this reason to go to Paris to visit the International Exhibition in the capital of the Hexagon.
mihai: [00:08:03] Obviously, as soon as they arrived in Paris, they contacted the International Red Cross and were put on buses and sent to the Pyrenees, on the Spanish border. Many of them left individually. But many left with passports. Passports that were many of them obtained by spearhead, by bribe, at a series of police commissioners and quaestors.
mihai: [00:08:27] The communists had two or three lawyers who mediated the obtaining of these passports.
mihai: [00:08:37] Okay, so that's it about the networks. In Spain, once they arrived in Spain, they were stationed in Albacete where the headquarters of the International Brigades was. The Romanian Group was also there, led first by Dr. Iuliu Lunevski and then by Petre Borilă. There they were coordinated and assigned after the completion of the relevant instruction -- after a short frontline training -- they were sent to the units on the front line or in the secondary echelons. Romanian volunteers do not appear in the literature on the subject very often and in the international literature due to the fact that they worked in units and subunits of small importance. They did not work in independent brigades. For example, the largest contingent activated in the Ana Pauker Artillery Regiment, which was an independent unit.
mihai: [00:09:21] Then others worked in the Divisional Battalion or in a machine gun company - the Grivița company - and so on in subunits and small units. They were not all grouped in one place.
robi: [00:09:34] Maybe you could also talk about where they fought and you also told us that you know a few who died and are buried in Madrid.
mihai: [00:09:44] Yes, they fought on most fronts and even in the center of Madrid. In the area of the university citadel, for example, where Vladimir Mazepa fell. On the Madrid front the ones that fought and fell: Iosif Armand Conta, Bernard Jugaru, Severin Kidmaier and so on up to 30. I don't remember everyone's names.
mihai: [00:10:01] Many of them fought also on the Ebro in 1938, at the Battle of the Ebro. For example, Leonte Tismăneanu, Vladimir Tismăneanu's father who lost an arm there. That was one of the biggest battles and in which most Romanians took part. The right-wing press marched a lot on the fact that the Romanian communists that left for Spain were not from the upper echelons of the communist party. On the other hand, there’s the Iron Guard who sent their legionnaire elite to Spain. Which is actually true.
mihai: [00:10:28] Moța and Marin were part of the leadership of the Bucharest organization as well as of the leadership of the central organization of the Iron Guard. But let's not forget that Constantin Doncea, who was the most famous Romanian Communist of the 1930s because he had been the leader of the communists at the CFR Grivița Workshops, was and fought among the Romanian inter-brigades. Doncea had escaped from prison in 1935 together with Gheorghe Vasilidi and Dumitru Petrescu. He had fled to the Soviet Union and from there Doncea was sent to Spain. Also Gheorghe Stoica, who had been the head of the Bucharest organization of the Communist Party.
mihai: [00:10:59] So the thesis that only those on the periphery of the party fought among the inter-brigadiers is not supported at all. Petre Borilă, too. Already when he arrived in Spain he was part of the Comintern. Before joining the Soviet Union, he was the head of the Dobrogea Revolutionary Fighting Organization -- the Bulgarian faction among the members of the Romanian Communist Party. They were the toughest faction in the PCR because they did not respect the party's provisions regarding the use of weapons and ammunition. They carried with them grenades, pistols, rifles and so on.
mihai: [00:11:32] In conclusion, the Communist Party also sent to Spain cadres, reliable cadres of the tiny party.
ioni: [00:11:38] In the episode we insisted more on CNT and POUM. Do you know if the Romanian brigadiers fought side by side or maybe even against the CNT and the POUM or if they were present at the bloody incidents in Barcelona.
mihai: [00:11:54] No, no. I searched, I was also interested in this aspect. But I didn't find any information. So no. From my analysis, nothing came out to highlight this aspect of the participation of some Romanian inter-brigadiers in the internal struggles in Barcelona in 1937.
ioni: [00:12:09] To move to the period that followed the war. Do we know how many of the brigadiers died in the war and how many returned home? And once they got home, what was the reception they got? What happened to them and to what extent were their deeds instrumentalized by the national-communist regime?
mihai: [00:12:33] Yes, there are less than 100 Romanian volunteers who died in Spain. I don't know where they are buried. Most of the information I have is about a Fuencarral cemetery, around Madrid, where they were buried. There are many who later returned to Romania, 110 of them.
mihai: [00:12:53] Most of them were integrated into the party and state apparatus and received leadership positions in the new regime. For example, a week ago I went to the Giurgiului Cemetery in Bucharest and I found the grave of Ernster Bela, a fighter from the international brigades and it surprised me. Because very little is known about the places where they are buried and even of those who repatriated to Romania and died here on Romanian territory.
mihai: [00:13:18] Another example is the two Burcă brothers, both of whom are buried at the Ghencea Military Cemetery. But now I don't know if the tomb of Constantin Burcă, who died in 1937, is a cenotaph tomb, so if it is empty. But Mihai Burcă is buried, I know for sure here because he died in Romania in 1990 or '91. He was a general throughout his life here after 1950.
mihai: [00:13:39] So we know very little about the burial places here in Romania.
mihai: [00:13:44] So the vast majority of them left with La Granda Retirada in February '39 when 500,000 Spanish civilians and soldiers withdrew to the south of France. They were immediately interned in those makeshift camps, organized by the French Government on the shores of the Mediterranean.
mihai: [00:14:00] They stayed there until '40 -'41. Some cadres, Constantin Doncea, Aurel Stancu Leonte Tismăneanu, so the most important of them were extracted by the Soviets and transferred to the USSR, in the summer of 1939. But the vast majority of them remained on French soil.
mihai: [00:14:17] Some of them joined the French army when World War II broke out as volunteers. Others remained in the camps and after the occupation of France by the Nazis, they then escaped from the camps. And others remained until 1943 when, say, they were moved to North Africa, to the Gelfa camp, and from there, with the liberation of North Africa by the United Nations, they were then repatriated to the Soviet Union.
mihai: [00:14:43] Some of them, as I said, were sent in partisan groups. Others remained until after August 23 and came with the entry of the Red Army on Romanian soil and later of course were integrated into various structures of the new regime.
robi: [00:14:56] It would be more interesting to talk a bit more about your process, how you found the information. In the archives of which institutions are they, if they are correspondences, reports. What kind of documents.
mihai: [00:15:09] For example, two lines of attack for my investigation aimed at the Security archive that had monitored them. Monitored their movements. Respectively, the correspondence they sent here to the country, and Security intercepted their letters. And automatically their families were targeted by the Security and were persecuted and pursued by the police.
mihai: [00:15:28] And the second pillar, let's say, was represented by the documents that come from the archives of the former Central Committee, respectively their personnel files. Because once they were integrated into the structures, staff files were immediately opened for them. Either professional files or party files.
mihai: [00:15:42] These files contain some information about their biography. Autobiographical references, personal files prepared by them over time, informative notes given by other fighters. Because in the period '49 -'50 when the madness of the Stalinist persecutions started in the whole socialist camp against those who fought in Spain and France.
mihai: [00:16:01] Stalin suddenly perceived them as agents of Titoism and of imperialism sneaking behind the Iron Curtain. These two contingents of maquisards and brigadists suddenly became the regular suspects of the regime. And then they were all called to the Central Committee at the Party Control Commission to investigate their past. Under the cover of the party membership check, endless investigations took place between November 1949-1950. They had a very high intensity during this period, but they continued throughout the entire decade, the entire sixth decade. And then all this material, all these party investigations, were grouped in a series of archives. Special Tasks Verification Commission, Party Control Commission, Central Committee Staff Section and so on.
mihai: [00:16:44] And then these are goldmines. They were important funds for my research from which I extracted most of my information. So the Security archive and the Central Committee archive. These are the two nuggets. And of course these documents and files can be found at the National Archives.
ioni: [00:17:02] Maybe you can tell us if there's an anecdote or a more comical incident or something that jumps to mind.
mihai: [00:17:11] The youngest of them, Stelian Mircea, for example, was the one who suffered the most from his return to the country.
mihai: [00:17:17] He had come up with an ideational impetus and to put the bone to the construction of the new regime, but after two years -- he came in 1946-'47 -- he was integrated into the SIS, in the Special Intelligence Service and was sent for espionage in the West. Instead, a year later, in '48 or '49, I don't remember, he was arrested because he came into contact with the Social Democrats in France. And then those from the Central from Bucharest considered that he was collaborating with the Mensheviks. With the Mensheviks from the Romanian diaspora in the West.
mihai: [00:17:48] And he was arrested, he was held in pretrial detention for a year . After that, he was interned in a work unit, on the Canal or on Bicaz, where he arrived. And they kept him there for about two years, three years through administrative internment. He didn't even have a conviction. Actually, they forgot about him for about two or three years. Because he was released in '54 following an extensive investigation by the Military Prosecutor's Office, which found that there were several thousand people in the work units who had no legal basis for detention. And of course when they got to his case and then he was released. Later he was given an insignificant position and a kind of reparation was made after he made countless complaints for the injustice that was done to him.
mihai: [00:18:28] But otherwise they were not punished with death sentences or heavy years of detention as happened in Bulgaria or Hungary or Poland, no. So we did not have Stalinist trials in Romania against former inter-brigadiers. As was László Rájk, the most famous Hungarian convicted in '49 and where all the madness with Stalin’s witch hunt against those who fought in the brigades started. Or Traicho Kostov from Bulgaria.
mihai: [00:18:53] So no, because Ana Pauker and Gheorghiu-Dej considered that it is not the case to start a series of lawsuits of this type. Yes they were on the edge. That is, the very high pressure from the Soviet advisers from the Ministry of Interior to start in Romania as well. To find enemies sneaking into the party. But they seem to have withstood this pressure from Soviet advisers.
mihai: [00:19:16] Everyone was on the party line, acted in accordance with the directives and integrated very well into the structures. They have been active in all spheres of activity both of the repressive apparatus and of the economic field, so to speak. For example Mihail Florescu. Mihai Florescu was the minister of the chemical industry until the 1970s. For 15-20 years he was the minister of the chemical industry. After fighting in Spain, he fought also in the French Resistance.
ioni: [00:19:42] What do we know about the five women volunteers, the five nurses?
mihai: [00:19:47] They worked as nurses in two or three hospitals. They then returned to the country and held marginal positions in the structure of the Central Committee. Instructor, translator, interpreter and so on. Or inspector, for example, Hermina Tismăneanu who was the head of Sanepid in Bucharest. So they were not promoted in the front lines of the Central Committee.
ioni: [00:20:12] And what about the Roma brigadier? Did he survive the war?
mihai: [00:20:17] Very little information. He doesn't have a file. I know he was a fiddler, if I remember correctly. I couldn't find any files. Only the year of birth and information on the profession and ethnic origin.
mihai: [00:20:28] No other details about his biography were found. I found him in a table drawn up in the 1950s at the Party History Institute. A summary table with very brief data on their profession, ethnicity, year of birth and place of birth.
ioni: [00:20:44] And did any of these inter-brigadiers write their memoirs or was a volume published with the correspondence of one of them? If so, what can you recommend or what other secondary literature can you suggest?
mihai: [00:20:59] Yes. There’s the doctor David Iancu. Who after retreating from Spain to France, after being interned in the camps -- at Saint-Cyprien -- then went to China to fight against the Japanese. He went to China as a volunteer. Doctors who were in French camps were appealed to. An appeal was made by the Comintern to recruit doctors. The Chinese Communist Party was in dire need of doctors in the fight with the Japanese. And a few dozen doctors were selected and transported by ship to China.
mihai: [00:21:29] David Iancu then fought in China. After that, he returned to the country. And then in the '70s he wrote his memoirs. I have now forgotten the title of the book but it appeared after 1990. It was published by his daughter. He died in '77 -'78, but his daughter later published them after 1989.
mihai: [00:21:46] There is also the volume of memoirs of Valter Roman, the father of Petre Roman. Who fought as a rank of Major in Spain. He was the commander of the Ana Pauker Motorized Artillery Regiment and he published a volume of memoirs Under the Sky of Spain. And he has a second volume that also contains some memories of his front comrades. I forgot what the second volume was called. So Valter Roman and David Iancu. These would be to say the two authors who wrote their memoirs, memories, from the Spanish land.
mihai: [00:24:36] You can ask me, because it’s hard to talk on my own, but if you ask me it's like a jukebox. Put a coin in and the answer comes.