Samuel Levinger

Posted by: on Dec 18, 2005 | 7 Comments

My great uncle, Samuel Levinger, fought and died in the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He was a machine gunner in the Tom Mooney Battalion, and died at the battle of Belchité in late August 1937.

The son of a rabbi and an author, Sam was an adventuresome child. At the age of eight he ran away from his home in Delaware to re-enact the story of Huckleberry Finn, floating south on the Mississippi. He didn’t get very far. His family were active liberals and anti-fascists, not Communists. His parents supported both Franklin Delanor Roosevelt & Norman Thomas, a socialist candidate for president in 1936. They were proud defenders of striking workers. When Sam was fourteen, he ran away to join a coal workers strike in Kentucky. He was the sole person to be arrested for “talking back” to the sheriff.

At a May Day Parade in New York City in 1936, he carried on his shoulders a young child named Staughton Lynd, who grew up to be a prominent social and labor activist, and professor at Yale University. In a 1998 address to the Friends of Kent State University Libraries, Lynd said the following about his memory of Sam:

“When I was five or six years old, a young man named Sam Levinger carried me on his shoulders in a May Day parade in New York City. Later that year Sam Levinger went to Spain as a volunteer for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. As a child I was told that he was wounded in the groin by machine gun fire, and died because medical supplies were inadequate.

Recently I was asked to review a book on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and learned more facts about Sam Levinger. He came from Columbus, and attended Ohio State. His father was a rabbi. For the last sixty years I have assumed that Sam Levinger was a Communist, as were most of the volunteers for the Lincoln Brigade. Now I learn that he was a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League, as I might have been had I been fifteen years older. I learned the date and place that he was fatally wounded: in August 1937, at Belchite. These facts are all new to me, but the inward, essential meaning of Sam Levinger’s life and death became part of me as a child. I do not even actually remember being carried on his shoulders. Like so much of oral history, it was told to me, and I accepted it as true, and it was true. Levinger touched my life, teaching me without words that one should be prepared to give one’s all for an ideal.”

Sam wanted to use his experience in Spain to further his writing. He was collecting material for his future career as a professional writer; the talents for which he certainly had. Here is an article published in The Nation under the pseudonym “RP.” I have been told by my mother that it was actually written by Sam. Reproducing this article is probably in violation of copyright law, but given that the date of publication is 1937, I doubt anyone will care. Sam’s war journal was published posthumously in the now-defunct Columbia Dispatch. Rabbi Mark Samuel Hurvitz, whose middle name comes (partly) from my great-Uncle’s, tracked down a copy and transcribed and posted it.

Sitting down with Mother and searching through her collection of family papers, we found a half finished manuscript of a book my great-grandmother had started to write about her son. Elma Ehrlich Levinger was a well published author of children’s and Jewish stories, and she intended to memorialize Sam by telling his story. Her book was never published, but my mother or I may resume the task in the future.

I wrote a research paper on the Spanish Civil War when I was in high school, for which I received second place in the annual American History Essay Contest. (I was bested by the inimitable Jared Malsin, the kind of person who, had he been born 75 years ago, might also have joined the International Brigades to fight fascism.) Given that I wrote this as a sophomore in high school, it doesn’t comport to my current standards of research or writing, but it’s worth posting for the sake of completeness.

Here is a copy of his last letter home, informing his parents that he was going back to the front from a hospital in Madrid. It is a truly stoic piece of writing, almost to the point of being glib. Without ever having known Sam, I have no reference point to compare it with. But it does compare with the standard Levinger humor: always biting, revealing the truth of a situation, even in the worst of times.

Sam’s idealism and courage were far above that of the average 20 year old, and I am honored by the knowledge that some of the same blood flows in my veins. I am inspired by his sacrifice in the face of evil, and I dedicate myself to the pursuit of social justice in his memory. ¡No Pasaran!

Sam at 18
Samuel Harold Levinger (1917-1937)