AN EPITAPH FOR SIDNEY
by Howard Fast
We thought at first that an epitaph for Sidney should be more than a few words, and I and some of the others who had known him well set out to collate what information we had; but in the end we did not use the material, and it was handed over to me. From what we have, you will be able to see why we were able to write an epitaph for Sidney in a line.
Some of us knew Sidney Greenspan when we were very young. He was born in the year 1915 in Washington Heights, and he grew up there and went to Public School 46, and then he went to De Witt Clinton High School, and then he went to City College--but he didn't finish at City College. He was a thin, spindle-legged little boy, and he never really achieved height or any sort of muscular efficiency, and since he read a lot and studied a good deal afterwards, he came by myopia early, and it remained with him.
He came from a family of very poor Jews, one of five children, with a thin, tired mother and a father who worked at a sewing machine in one sweatshop and then another; actually, he didn't have to work in sweatshops; he could have worked in union shops, as Sidney told him and pleaded with him, but he had been fifteen months out of work in the long strike during the twenties, and that had taken the starch and the heart out of him and turned him into a piece of putty. The result was that he worked ten and twelve hours a day in sweatshops, always thinking that if a strike came, it would leave him alone. Sidney's mother, who was like a shadow moving here and there, cooking and cleaning, but always like a shadow, gave to the children and never asked anything in return, not even love, until she died in 1932. Sidney had just entered college when she died. In a letter to a friend of his, he wrote "... I don't feel pity or sorrow, only anger...." Mr. Greenspan lived on and shriveled up; he went on with his work motions, like an old clock that was winding out, ever more slowly.
Of Sidney's brothers and sisters, only two grew to maturity. One fell under a truck at the age of seven, a little boy named Lester. Celia, the elder sister, died of a mastoid. Adrian and Fannie are still alive; Adrian became a schoolteacher, and the old man, Mr. Greenspan, was most proud of him. Fannie married a fur worker; she was two years younger than Sidney, and when she was a little girl he adored her.
Even in this brief outline, there is enough to indicate that Sidney Greenspan was not of the stuff of which heroes are made, at least in the conception of heroes which is most popular in America today. The tenement district in which he lived and grew was not a slum, but very close to a slum; the fact that he was a small, thin boy gave his life reasonable hazard, in the way of Jew-baiting and the run of fights. He was often afraid, and there was much and subtle variation in the types of fear; he feared death and being beaten up and going hungry and not passing exams, but one fear and another was woven into the fabric of his life and accepted, just as he accepted the fact of work from the age of eleven, first as a delivery boy, then with a newspaper route, then as a canvasser for the local Tammany Club, then as a hack political street-corner speaker at the age of sixteen. His father went around with a bright hope burning in his heart that Sidney would study law, but in the first year at City College, Sidney's jaw was fractured in a student demonstration, and amid reacting to the pain of his son's bruised body, his father realized that the boy was a radical and came to accept the fact that he would not be a lawyer, not an alderman, nor even an assemblyman, not even a schoolteacher.
But fear did not make Sidney a radical. Such cloth is woven of other stuff, and for Sidney there was a world lost that should not have been lost. Some are made or shaped or fashioned to see all the parts of the whole, not one direction or one street or one narrow alley, but all the roads that lead on; and it was for a part of that horizon that Sidney stayed with the class that made him. If he had accepted, his epitaph could have been more easily written, but he didn't accept--he had to understand. In one way, there was a tremendous health and vitality in his small, skinny body, an identification with life that was more than matched chromosomes or cell clinging to cell. Death gives the lie to life, refutes it, and all the misshapen things that Sidney saw were part of that death. And he walked into life with his head up; vitality is a manner of saying other things. The vitality of Sidney made him a prow rather than a rudder.
"I told him," Mr. Greenspan said long afterwards to one of us who knew Sidney, "that it was no good. He would get in trouble he should try to be a good, hard worker and keep out of trouble. "
But Sidney didn't look for trouble. As a boy, he hardly ever won a fight; he wasn't a tough kid, and he stayed away from fights whenever he could. He always had a job after school, and even to go to a free college like C.C.N.Y. he had to work during the summers. Two summers he worked at Lang's Wholesale Grocery Warehouse downtown on Hudson Street, until he became involved with attempts to organize it and was fired. And then he had a job one summer at Coney Island, handling props for a magician's show. But the point is that he never looked for trouble, and you could see that just by looking at him.
He didn't look any different at eighteen than he did at twenty-five, about five feet seven inches in height, a hundred and thirty-two or -three pounds, with sloping shoulders, a prominent nose, and thin brown hair. His brown eyes were reflective and gentle, giving an impression of sympathetic softness; you were surprised to find something hard and absolutely unyielding underneath; no matter how long you knew Sidney you were always surprised at that.
When he was eighteen years old, a freshman at City College, he met Jane Albertson and fell in love with her, in spite of such obvious obstacles as both her parents having a little money and being descended from what they call "old American stock," and her being an inch taller than he was. And the strange part of it was that after the usual initial fumbling and antagonism she fell in love with him, something nobody understood except those of us who knew Sidney. The first time he brought her home with him, to the same, tiny apartment where the Greenspans had always lived, the old man was still grieving over his wife, with a kind of awful, dumb-animal suffering. The apartment was dirty and messy; Fannie tried to keep house, but it was not the kind of thing she was good at, and Adrian was already married. Janie walked in with the air of a person who had spent most of her life in such places, and she kissed the old man. The old man began to cry, and Janie remembers that Sidney was the most embarrassed one there, and when she said she would stay for supper, he put on his jacket and ran down to buy things in the delicatessen. But after that, Janie and the old man were like a daughter and father.
The way they fell in love and the way they went together all the time Sidney was in college was a little curious, for time was something Sidney never had much of. He clerked in a dry goods store after school; he was active in the student movement; and then in 1934 he joined the Young Communist League. But, somehow, he and Janie were closer and closer. She joined the YCL too, and had some terrible fights with her people at home; and then, in 1935, they were quietly married at City Hall, something they kept a secret for almost four years.
Only a few of us, who knew Sidney quite well, also knew about the marriage. It was in 1934 that I first met Sidney, and I was with him when his head was cracked by a nightstick in the big downtown demonstration, and I got him home then and stayed with him while the doctor came and put seven stitches in his scalp. It was then that Mr. Greenspan, almost tearfully, raised the question:
"Why, why should he have to mix up in such trouble?"
Lying there, Sidney said, "Please, Poppa, don't worry about it."
"A good boy, a boy who works as hard as he does."
"Poppa, I don't look for trouble. You think I like to get cracked over the head?"
"I don't know what to think," Mr. Greenspan said.
"Wherever you look, those Communists make trouble. They got nothing else to do except to make trouble."
"This is such a good world, you want me to accept it?" Sidney said.
He changed after that; they say that no scar is skin deep. When you tell it this way, looking back, with all of us a good deal older, and in retrospect, none of us ever having been very young, it doesn't seem that there was so much in Sidney's life; there is no ABC formula to put your finger on to explain Sidney. He said to me once, I think when he was nineteen years old, "Do you know, I'm a professional revolutionary"-- as if it had only occurred to him that moment; but as a matter of fact, it was so, and every other action he engaged in was on the periphery. In those days--it seems a thousand years ago, five histories ago--it seemed that the world we lived in could not go on; and indeed that world is dead today, washed out in the blood of thirty million souls, even if the fight is not over. But someone like Sidney belongs to that world; when there is a perspective, sometime in the future, the long, long future, when the fighting is over, when the guns no longer thunder, when the scars left by the atom bombs have healed, when the gray ships lie peacefully on the ocean bottoms, then there will be a whole understanding of Sidney, of what he was and what went into the making of him. Then, perhaps, they will be able to analyze the trivia as well as the bigger things. They will know what the expression on Sidney's face meant when he heard his father say once, speaking of his not long dead mother. "All she wanted was two weeks in the - mountains, with a little grass and some birds, maybe, but she; never got that."
But Sidney's hatred--and there must have been a fierce, terrible hatred of the things that pervert and destroy human beings--found expression only in what he did; the mildness in this small, sensitive Jew was so entire that even we who knew him well were surprised when he left college to join the International Brigade in Spain. He hated and mistrusted guns; the most complimentary thing we could say was that a person as politically developed as he might make a very good advisor, or commissar, as they were beginning to call them. But as a matter of fact we were wrong, and after the retreat across the Ebro, they made him a captain.
I had the story of the retreat across the Ebro, and the last attack, afterwards, from at least six or seven people who had known Sidney and fought next to him. Also, in his letters to Janie and to old Mr. Greenspan and to Adrian, his brother, and to his sister, Fannie, there were enough details to make some sort of blueprint, but he didn't figure in that blueprint; he wrote of the things all around him, and it was his comrades who filled in the place he occupied.
Remember how it was then, in 1937, when the Lincoln Battalion first raised its banner with the International Brigade! Madrid was to be the tomb of fascism! Boys who had never seen anything more lethal than a cop's revolver signed up for the Battalion; skinny, myopic boys from the city streets marched off alongside the workers to face the Messerschmitts and the Panzers. The final conflict was being fought among the treeless buttes and canyons of Spain, and from the devastation wrought by the first fascist monsters would arise the beginnings of the brave new world. We believed that--and looking back it might have been that way.
It was early in 1937 that Sidney Greenspan arrived with his contingent in Spain. Between then and April of '38, when the retreat across the Ebro took place, he had two slight wounds; he became a lieutenant, he learned how to assemble a machine gun with his eyes closed, and he learned more thoroughly that if you considered in advance what you were going to do and did it, it was better for body and soul than to straddle the horns of a dilemma. But on the outside, he remained the same; he still studied a good deal. In those days he read everything he could have sent to him on the working class in America, and when he talked about the future, it was with the certainty that this phase of the struggle would soon be over, and he thought he would like to be a labor organizer in the South, going there to live and taking Janie with him.
When the big retreat began in '38, he was with the 58th; Lincoln Battalion. But they didn't know that it was a retreat then. It was determined at GHQ that the tide had to be turned, whatever the cost, and Dave Doran, the Brigade Commissar, wrote orders to advance and keep advancing until otherwise instructed. So the 58th Battalion advanced, not knowing that everywhere else the line was breaking and all up and down the long front the battered Republican Army was in retreat. Here is the matter-of-fact way in which Sidney told about that in a letter to Janie:
. . . please don't worry, because I'm all right now. But it was bad a few weeks ago, and we lost most of the Battalion. Maybe you will read about it in the papers, but here is the truth of how it happened. Johnny Gates our Commissar--you remember, you met him at Milty's house--told us about the general orders to go ahead, and we went ahead and we just kept advancing. First we were low and very thirsty, but we captured a fascist water truck, and we felt better. But we were moving fast with just the ammunition we could pack and we had no liaison and we didn't know that everywhere else our people were retreating. I don't know who was to blame for that; I don't want to blame anyone now.
Well, we went on with our crazy, wild advance until about three o'clock in the afternoon, and then we were resting under some olive trees when we realized something was wrong. Bob Merriman--he was from California U., Brigade Operations Officer--came up and told us to get the devil out. There were about three hundred of us then, I mean boys from home, and we hit out cross country. We got to a hill above Gandesa and we looked down, and we could see the fascists attacking in the streets, and some of the houses were burning, but our people still held a good part of the town. Merriman thought the wisest thing to do would be to break through to the defenders, and we sent out a patrol of about twenty-five guys. They were wiped out, all of them. It was like the end of something, the first end. We retreated onto two hills, the Americans on one, the Spaniards and others on the other. They sent cavalry against us then, and we repulsed the charge, cutting them up pretty good. Then the cavalry dismounted and set up lines, and along about dusk, they started in with artillery. Then Vernon Selby--he's that boy from Virginia Military Institute-- found a way out for us, and it seemed that Corbera was still open.
Here's where we lost all our men, including Spaniards. We went Indian file and traveled at night, across country. Men would go to sleep and not wake up, just out of weariness. They would crawl into the bushes and go to sleep, and we'd lose them. We'd think they were there and go on. How can we forgive ourselves for that? Then we ran smack into Corbera, into a German radio station. They started in with grenades and machine guns, and cut us to pieces. Merriman and Doran were killed there, but I didn't know that then. But that broke us up, and I took off with two other guys, Smith and Goldstein. Somehow, we got to the Ebro. They were both wounded, and the next night we had to crawl through a whole sleeping Italian division. But only sixty of our guys got across the Ebro--only sixty....
Sidney didn't tell her, in that letter, that when Smith and Goldstein were wounded, he had cared for them, nursed them and sometimes carried them, that he bore them both across the Ebro. He didn't tell her that the next day he recrossed the Ebro and found Abel Clark, and dressed his wounds and returned with him. How he did it and where his strength came from can't easily be told; he belonged to something new and incredible, that came out of the people. For the moment, it can merely be detailed, as an epitaph or as a requiem. He stopped a tank once with a bottle of petrol and a rag, and once he broke his glasses and fought for two weeks in a shadow world.
He was in the nine days on the Sierra Carbolam after they: had mounted the last offensive back across the Ebro and had won almost to Gandesa. Then he was a captain--he became a captain after the retreat across the Ebro--and his company hung onto the rocky lump of Hill 366 and then was pushed off it under the fire of heavy artillery, with no other cover than some sandbags and the bare rock. In three days, he led twelve attacks to take back the hill. But afterwards, when he spoke about it once, the thing he mentioned was how, coming back to the lines after a short rest, they met the Dimitroff Battalion, the Slav Battalion; all the boys in the Brigade knew that the Slav Battalion was the best, iron and steel, and not to be broken by anything short of hell: and when the men from the Dimitroff outfit, beat as they were, saw the Lincoln Battallion going up to fill the hole for them, they broke down and wept. The big, blond Slavs stood there, crying, and then they joined the Americans and all of them went up together, with some rifle and some pistols, against the heavy artillery, the armor, and the Junkers-filled sky.
After that, Sidney was not afraid; he would say that he only had to remember that and he wouldn't be afraid. And was not long after that he was taken by the Moors. Some of the boys who were there remembered exactly how it he happened. The Battalion thought there was a Spanish outfit on their right flank--good men, not fascists--and a patrol went out. Sidney took the patrol out; Jim Lardner was with him, and that was where Lardner died, and Sidney was taken by the Moors.
About the time in prison, Sidney had least to say. A jail is a jail in any land, and the rats, the mice, the bedbugs, and the soul-destroying monotony are international qualities. But the fascists, wherever they are, develop refinements. The Moors amused themselves by breaking all the fingers in his right hand, and Sidney thought he would never be able to use it again. They found out that he was a Jew and they turned him over to the Nazis. The Nazis, who were more creative even than the Moors, had developed in Spain the standing cells, which they were putting to such good purpose against members of the German underground. A standing cell is two and a half feet wide and a foot and half deep; you stand in it until your legs and your mind go, and then you fall, but there is no place for you to fall. For six weeks they gave Sidney the standing cell for two days a week; they were scientifically curious about how much such a small, frail young man could take, and they had theories about Jewish blood and Jewish powers of resistance, and it was always interesting to test those theories under actual conditions .
How Sidney escaped still cannot be told; Franco still sits like a blood-fatted spider in Spain, and the gentlemen in our Congress still debate. But he escaped, and he made his way to the coast, and a small boat took him to France. He was twenty-four when he came back to America, and his hair was turning gray, and he didn't care to talk much about how it had been in prison. His main interest was to find out whether he could ever use his right hand again, and when the operation turned out successfully, his whole state of mind became better. He and Janie went away for the three months his hand was in a cast; it was the only time Sidney had anything like that, three months in the country, with nothing to do but sit and read and taste the sweetness of life.
He could have gotten a job in a good berth; he had friends, he had people who felt a debt. But he was able to talk Janie around to his old dream of organizing in the South, and she went down there with him.
An epitaph for Sidney should explain as well as tell, but how are you to explain what the movement for freedom means for one human being? The papers, the magazines, the press of the whole nation explain why people like Sidney Greenspan are corrupt, evil, selfish, and enemies of mankind, and to that: they devote countless millions of words; so, in return, what can one say about Sidney except to state that there was no rest for him so long as one man was enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by another. He went to the South and joined in the struggle to organize the sharecroppers. He spent fourteen months down there, and that was in the area where three organizers were killed--where they simply disappeared, vanished from the face of the earth.
And this he did for thirty dollars a week, to live day in and day out with the threat of the Klan hanging over him, to be shot at three times, to win neither glory nor credit nor wealth nor fame. I remember speaking to him when he was back from that, a few months before he managed to enlist. A group of us were in the little place downtown which he and Janie shared, and someone asked why a person like him did what he did.
"It's not so much," Sidney said. "I saw the party people in Spain. They stayed there. I could go home."
"But why do you do it?"
"Why does any man do anything? The factors in him add up. They make a sum total, and he adds to that out of his understanding. Then he does what he has to do."
Then someone said, "Suppose you won and suppose you built your brave new world, do you think anyone would remember?"
"It isn't important," Sidney answered slowly. "But they'll remember."
Once before, many years ago, when we were very young, and Sidney and a good many more of us were brought into court during the unemployment demonstrations, a magistrate asked him the same question, why he did what he did; and it was then that I realized, for the first time I imagine, with what zest and joy a person can taste of life, for Sidney, leaning forward on the rail, told the magistrate, his voice level:
"You don't question what you do. You do it because you have to--and you're paid for it. You want me to make you understand why I do what I do--could I make you hear a million voices? I'm paid in my own coin!" --holding out an empty hand.
Again, not so long ago, I went to call on the old man Greenspan, still alive, more shriveled, more used up, but still working, and after we had spoken about other things, he asked me:
"Why couldn't Sidney be satisfied to live quiet?"
Seeing the old man with his rheumy eyes, his bent back his poor swollen feet, I was brought back to the time when I first knew Sidney, and I realized that what he had always wanted was to live quiet, as the old man said, to step into the old, generous stream of life, and to taste it deeply and comfortingly for the time that is given to any man; I had it for a moment, the full answer, and then I lost it.
After Pearl Harbor, Sidney managed to enlist through a fraud. It doesn't hurt to say that. Young as he was, he was no good physically, but he knew an army doctor down at Monmouth, and he got in. But because of the inescapable condition of his eyes, and because of headaches--they called them migraine, but they were the result of fascist efficiency--he was placed in the medics and shipped to a camp in Georgia. For a year and a half he remained in that Georgia camp, and three times he tried to be transferred to the infantry. There were long periods when none of us but Janie heard from him; we went in all directions as the war spread over the face of the earth. I had one letter from him in that time, in which he said:
...It's not like Spain. Some officers here found out I was in the Brigade--I never could or wanted to keep my mouth shut--and they gave me no peace, day or night. It's you red bastard this, and you red bastard that, and what did they pay you to go to Spain? I'm trying to get into a combat outfit. In a war, the only safe place, from a mental point of view, is at the front....
He went over to England as a combat medic, and from England into North Africa. In North Africa, he ran into Johnny Graham, from the Brigade, who was with the 1st Rangers. Johnny told me about it afterwards; it was one of those crazy coincidences, which happen so often in life. Johnny fell over with a bad splinter in his thigh, and he was lying in the sand and plucking at it, and plucking at it, and swearing because the amount of blood frightened him and unnerved him, when this small medic crawled up and said, "Let me try," and got the splinter out and put the sulfa on, and was bandaging it when Johnny saw his face and recognized him. That calmed Johnny, and I can understand how he was able to relax, and take the cigarette that was offered to him, and say, "Hullo, Sidney. "
"I'm in the medics," Sidney said. "Isn't that a hell of a note. I'm in the medics."
"I'm glad you're in the medics," Johnny said. Just that; then some stretcher-bearers came up, and they took him away. But Johnny afterwards remembered that to be there, Sidney must have come through the Straits, and seen those bare, brown hills that make the southern lip of Spain-because to men like Sidney, there's no end, but always a time when you come back to where you began.
On and off, in the months which followed, someone who knew Sidney would run into him, first in Sicily, and then in Italy; and then, from that and from those who had never known him before, there grew up a legend about him. There had been no legend from the work he did in Spain and in the States, but now in Italy there was emerging a quality of calm and certainty for men who had no certainty, many of whom didn't know where they were going or what they were fighting for, who only knew that in sunny Italy it rained like hell, and when you got over one mountain, there was another behind it, and that the Nazi was not someone who threw away his gun and surrendered after the first round of artillery; and for these men, Sidney Greenspan was something out of another world and another struggle. He had an answer that no one else could give them, and a faith in men compounded from different stuff than the Nash-Kelvinator ads. It would be said, more and more often, and by more people, "I met a guy called Greenspan, a medic who was in Spain--I guess he's a red, but he knows from where--"
One of them, who had looked up Janie when he came back to the States, said, "You'd be afraid, you'd be so goddamn afraid and then you'd talk to Sidney, and it would be all right.
He was killed at the beginning of '44. The United States; Army, considering it above and beyond the call of duty, wrote in its citation:
Near Carano, Italy, January 24, 1944, he crawled sixty yards under enemy machine gun fire to administer first aid to a wounded infantryman and then continued forward another fifty yards to care for two more wounds infantrymen. He administered first aid to one of the men and dragged him into a covered position. He then returned to the other man and treated him. While so doing his right hip was shattered by machine gun fire and a second burst splintered his left forearm. Nevertheless, and in spite of severe bleeding which he could not quench, he finished administering aid to the wounded man and dragged him to a place of cover. He then crawled 60 yards in an effort to regain contact with his unit, but was forced to discontinue from weakness caused by loss of blood. Death resulted from shot and loss of blood.
I guess the best way to tell such a thing is the way the Army tells it, as a routine job by the T-4 who writes citations as the casualties come in. They are not bothered with reasons or subjective factors, and having a war against fascism to win, they could be more objective about a man like Sidney than certain people who write about such things today. Sidney's name was brought up for the Congressional Medal of Honor, but that was a big-time operation, and they went into his past, and the matter was dropped.
And that could be left out of an epitaph for Sidney. There will be other awards some day, other citations, and when that time comes the stones and the fields and the broken cities will give tongue and speak of all the nameless. They buried Sidney Greenspan in Italian soil, good soil; and the soil of Spain is good, too, and the soil of America, and the soil of the Soviet Union, and of China--and if he had his choice, I don't think there is any place he wouldn't have been at home, fully and completely at home.
Some of us who knew him, when we heard of his death, thought that we would write down an epitaph for him. Then, in the personal columns of the paper he read and loved, there were many boxes with heavy black lines to bind them in, and whatever the name, there was a reference to the struggle against fascism. That was how we came to put together what we knew and remembered of Sidney; but nothing we could tell and nothing we could compile and no reasons we could give were enough to explain the fabric of him. So we gathered it into a word and wrote: "To the memory of Sidney Greenspan, anti- fascist, who fell in the people's struggle--from his comrades."
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:42 EDT