Spanish Civil War vets remember the good fight


September 24, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The gray-haired men and women gather once agai at the memorial in the East Berlin People's Park to remember a war lost nearly 60 years ago.

They come bearing red roses and nostalgia, and the conviction they fought the good fight.

They are the few surviving German veterans of the Spanish Civil War, the great anti-fascist cause of the 1930s, a war that began with great idealism and ended in deep cynicism.

They have survived wars and concentration camps. They've seen their dream of a socialist utopia in the former East Germany corrupted and finally dissolved.

They went in their youth to fight Nazism in Spain, and they've lived long enough to see the monument to their war dynamited by neo-Nazis.

The war in Spain began as the first international fight against the fascism of Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. It became a power struggle between Hitlerism and Stalinism. It ended in despair, betrayal and disillusion.

At the base of the now-restored monument, Martin Jaeger holds aloft the red, gold and purple flag of the XIth International Brigade of the Spanish Loyalist Army.

Mr. Jaeger went to Spain when he was 20. He's 76 now, white-haired, handsome, stiffly erect. He holds the flag as if he were 50 years younger.

About 5,000 Germans and Austrians went to Spain. Three

thousand died there. Most fought with the XIth Brigade -- against the side their country was supporting.

Of the 1,200 Germans who survived till the end in 1939, only 81 are still alive in Germany.

The remounted bronze sculpture hovers menacingly over Martin Jaeger and his flag, a huge crouching figure, balanced on two pillars, apparently ready to lunge forward, grim-faced, one fist clenched, the other holding aloft a sword.

The veterans concede that they've been wrong about many things, and that many things were done wrong in Communist East Germany. But they still believe in what they went to Spain to fight for.

"The Spanish war was a very good thing," Mr. Jaeger says. "If the anti-fascist world would have fought against Hitler and Mussolini, it would have been possible to defeat them and prevent the Second World War."

In one of those incongruities that abound in Berlin, the burgomasterwho has come to the ceremony was born in Madrid during the civil war.

"Both my parents were Spanish," Helios Mundiburu says. "My father was an officer in the army of the Spanish Republic and my mother a telephone operator."

He is burgomaster -- mayor -- of Frederickshain, the district of Berlin where the People's Park and the memorial are located.

After the fall of the Spanish Republic, his father joined the anti-Nazi resistance in France. He was killed by a Gestapo firing squad. Mr. Mundiburu's mother later married a "brigadista," and the family made its way to East Germany.

And in one more irony in a history full of ironies, Mr. Mundiburu spent 2 1/2 years in East German jails because of his resistance to the old Communist regime here.

Alex Katzenstein was no Communist when he joined the XIth RTC Brigade in 1937: "As a matter of fact I was a Zionist."

In the tangled skein of stories these veterans tell, his has some of the more amazing twists.

He's 77 and a clinical psychologist who earned his bachelor's degree at New York University, his doctorate at the University of Kansas and a diploma from the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kan.

He survived the Spanish war and went on to serve with the U.S. Army during World War II.

"I've got a Bronze Star for meritorious service," he says. He also earned four combat ribbons with Patton's 3rd Army. "The whole thing was very satisfying."

This time he was on the winning side against the Nazis.

He became a U.S. citizen. But in 1952 he and his wife decided to return to help build socialism in the German Democratic Republic, which didn't particularly want their help.

"First, they said, you are Jewish and too cosmopolitan. Second, there is nothing for you to do."

But the Katzensteins preservered.

"We have some regrets," he says. "So many things went wrong. We did our best. But not so much as we might have. We still want to change the world."

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