My Dad’s Spanish Civil War Secret Tore Our Family Apart

Eunice Lipton grew up fascinated by her charismatic Uncle Dave, who died in the Spanish Civil War. That fascination turned to fury when she found out how her father had wronged him.

03.27.16 4:01 AM ET

When I was 12, I fell in love with a man I never met. He was dead. His name was Dave. I stumbled upon a cache of photographs, letters, and a harmonica in a drawer slammed tightly shut.

The man in the pictures was not dashing, he was tender and steady, his body wiry and lean, a lot like mine really. We could have been partners.

It’s why I fell in love with him, and what made me defy my father, his brother, to bring him back from the dead in my book A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and a Family’s Secrets.

It turned out that this boy had been killed by a sniper in Spain in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

His parents didn’t know a thing about it; they thought he was in the Catskills working as a waiter. That’s what he told them when he left.

Opinions about this boy varied. His oldest brother, Phil, said, “Of the three of us, Dave is the only one that mattered. The rest of us are nobodies. He died for something. He was something.”

The second brother, my father Louis, said, “He was sweet. I loved him dearly. Ach, he died for nothing, and he threw his life away.”

Occasionally though my father, rummaging in his closet, lifted out an old shoebox, stared at it for a while, and put it away. Once, he said to me, “Someday, maybe I’ll tell you about my brother Dave.”

Well, his telling came and went on a rollercoaster typical of my father’s emotional orbit. I asked him about a letter Dave wrote to him from the battlefield that referred to friction between them: “In spite of the fact that your letter was cold and brutally hard, I managed to find sparks of brotherly interest, concern, and ah—a bit of love.”

In response to my query my father hissed into the phone, “I don’t wish to unravel my intimate, cherished feelings to an individual like yourself.” And the line goes dead.

family photos

courtesy Eunice Lipton

But another time he said, “Listen, it’s difficult for you to understand. I had my mind set on going to Spain, and then I found out that he left. You should have seen me as a kid. I was wild. My mother sent me out during the war to sell cigarettes and soap to German soldiers. I wasn’t afraid. She was proud of me.”

I asked him to describe Dave to me. He answered with how much his parents favored him.

“There was nothing remarkable about Dave, nothing special about him? I thought you loved him?” I said.

“David? He had a nice nature. Everybody loved him. I know I impressed him very much too.”

I wondered if he had admired Dave, such a brave, idealistic person.

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“No. What did I care?”

My father was the tummler, the boxer, the lady-killer. He was the tough guy, the man. Dave was impractical and generous, the sweetheart, the marshmallow.

Women spoke of Dave fondly but they weren’t attracted to him. “It wasn’t like that,” one told me. “I never knew a man like him, so soft and kind and good.”

They say Dave never had a girlfriend.

Truly my father must have thought, What the hell is going on here? I’m the man, not him. What’s he doing fighting in Spain?

I met Bill Wheeler, whose people were farmers in upstate New York. My uncle died at his feet. He and Dave lingered over beers on the ship going to Europe. It would be Bill’s second tour in Spain. They spent an evening together in Paris.

“Dave was quiet and introspective, always measuring himself,” Bill, four years older than Dave, told me.

One day on the battlefield, Dave handed Bill a letter written in Yiddish asking him to mail it to his brother if anything should happen to him.

“I remember telling him,” Bill said, “‘you will make it OK. Just keep your head and fanny down.’ The next morning he asked for the letter back and tore it to bits. In war one becomes used to death but Dave’s has haunted me ever since.” Bill worried over the unsent letter. And more.

Again and again, Dave wrote from Spain to his family, “Write often, every week and send packages.” In his last letter he said, “I have not heard from you.”

family photos

courtesy Eunice Lipton

My father, I discovered, concocted a baroque plan for Dave’s letters. He convinced him to mail them to an uncle instead of to their parents telling him that he would deliver the letters at the right moment.

But that moment never came.

Louis never gave the letters to his mother and father. Letters that beg for forgiveness for lying; that shyly request birthday greetings—“the best present I can get from you is a letter of your forgiveness and love”; that plea to his mother, “Mama, don’t cry.” 

The parents never received mail from their son and Dave never from them.

What was Louis doing?

I think he simply couldn’t believe his eyes, and longed to be watching another movie. How had this boy leapt the bonds of family, skipped off into the adventure of his life, while Louis straggled behind in a marriage he hated, pounded the sidewalks for lousy jobs, cracked the same stupid jokes around the poker table?

He was supposed to be the one bound for glory. Had it been Dave all the time?

Off he went to his uncle’s house to make arrangements about the letters. I’m sure he never thought twice about what not hearing from his family could do to a young man’s morale. How distracted it could make him. How that distraction could be fatal.

Late in his life I asked him point blank why he hadn’t given his parents the letters. He gave me an appraising, nasty look and spit out, “I was protecting them. I thought he’d be home soon. Why did they have to know?” A millisecond later, he added, “Dave and I agreed to hide them from the parents and stick with the Catskills story.”

“But surely he wrote telling you to correct that misunderstanding. Otherwise why was he expecting mail? And why was he writing to your parents from Spain and repeatedly saying to them that he hasn’t heard from them. Dad, why didn’t you give your parents the letters?”

Finally, looking at me as bleakly and nakedly as he ever would, my father said, “Believe me, darling, I meant to give them the letters. It just didn’t work out. I didn’t know what to do. I carried them around with me every day for months, all of them in my pocket. And then he was dead, and it was over. You’ll never know how sorry I am. How much I miss him. Every day, I miss him. Every day.”

Early in December 1938—four months after Louis last heard from his brother—he received mail from Dave’s friend Ben Katine, who had also been fighting in Spain, announcing Dave’s death.

Louis said nothing to his parents. Late in December when Katine’s ship docked in New York, Louis ran down to meet it. He elbowed his way through the crowd to Katine, tears streaming, and called out hysterically, “Ben, he isn’t with you? Where is my brother?”

At the memorial for Dave in the Bronx on Jan. 18, 1939, Bill Wheeler and two other veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade spoke. So did Dave’s brother Phil. Louis just sat there and wept.

Sadly, my father ended up the loser, Dave gone forever and his daughter, the writer, in love with his dead brother more than him. Now, there’s a story to tell.

Eunice Lipton’s A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and a Family’s Secrets is published by University of New Mexico Press. For more information, read here.

Eunice Lipton will be in discussion with The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman at Strand Books, New York, Monday, April 11, 7-8pm.