The Arty Semite

Sygmunt Stein: A Spaniard in the Works

By Benjamin Ivry

Sygmunt Stein, a humble Paris button-maker of Polish-Jewish origin, left a compelling account of his volunteer service fighting Fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Stein (1899-1968) first published his recollections in 1950s articles in the Yiddish “Forverts,” as prepared for publication by the paper’s then-Paris correspondent, Avrom (Abraham) Shulman, better known by the pen name “Avromtshe.”

In 1961, publication in book form followed, as “der Birger-ḳrig in Shpanye.” One reader, author and bund worker Nahum Khanin (1885-1965) lauded Stein’s story as a “terrifying human document.” This text has finally been translated into French in an edition supervised by Stein’s daughter Odette. “My Spanish War: Ending the Myth of the International Brigades” was published by Les éditions du Seuil. Translated by Marina Alexeeva-Antipov, “My Spanish War” recounts in a tartly ironic prose style Stein’s political disillusionment with Stalinism.

At first, although repelled by Soviet purges and show trials, Stein believed, as did other Jewish volunteers, that by personally combatting Fascism in Spain, he would hasten the establishment of a Jewish state. Much aware of The Spanish Expulsion and the Inquisition, Stein experienced “mystical trembling” at the thought that “450 years before, Spanish reactionaries hounded Jewish dwellers from this land. Now, centuries later, a small group of great-grandchildren of these Jews returned to settle a score with their former torturers.” Asked to produce a Yiddish newsletter for Jewish troops, Stein soon discovered that since the Inquisition, no printing press with Hebrew characters could be found in all of Spain.

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This Week in Forward Arts and Culture

By Ezra Glinter

Yuri Dojc
  • Leigh Kamping-Carder tells the story of the Mexican Suitcase, a collection of photographs from the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour that got lost in Mexico for almost 70 years.

  • Ilan Stavans wonders why we can’t escape from Harry Houdini.

  • Shoshana Olidort reviews Avi Steinberg’s “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.”

  • Marla Brown Fogelman reviews “The Jews of San Nicandro,” a book about a remote Italian town whose 80-odd inhabitants all converted to Judaism after World War II.

  • Philologos is on the make.

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