A short account of the fate of the Lithuanian anarchist Samuel Kaplan, who fought with the Durruti Column in Spain.
Samuel Kaplan Milgram was an anarchist of Lithuanian Jewish origin. He appears to have spent some time in France as he spoke and wrote fluent French. He was imprisoned in the Soviet Union because of his anarchist ideas but managed to get to Germany. When the Nazis came to power he was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp but managed to escape from there. He then appears to have gone to live in Spain and according to his correspondence become a Spanish citizen a year later. However the circumstances of his life reveal that he was regarded as a stateless person.
He had been active in the CNT for several years and volunteered for the Durrruti Column in July 1936. Seventeen months later the International Group of the Column was dissolved. Samuel Kaplan was desirous to continue in combat and he volunteered to join the International Brigade at Albacete. The recruiting officers refused to give him the post of truck driver that he had occupied in the International Group. Instead they proposed that he fight on the frontline as an infantryman. He immediately began to have doubts. He became aware that anarchists and other revolutionaries in units controlled by the Stalinists were often used as cannon fodder, put in vulnerable positions, or perhaps shot in the back (this appears to have been the fate of American Wobblies like Ivan Silverman and Harry F. Owens, among others). He refused the post and left the recruiting bureau with the intention of joining a CNT unit. However he was immediately arrested by the SIM (the secret police units controlled by the Stalinists).
His arrest took place in February 1938. On 12th April he wrote a letter from a prison-wagon on the track at a Barcelona railway station. He and other CNT prisoners were mingled there with Francoist POWs in appalling conditions. On the 21st April he was able to send a letter from the prison at Castelldefells (the French Stalinist and International Brigade commander Andre Marty had set this prison up for Brigade dissidents and deserters and others in March 1938, with appalling conditions, many beating-ups and tortures as well as summary executions).
On the 29th April he was transferred to the prison-ship the Uruguay. He was able to get a note out on 21st June where he wrote : “ Here they have lost all human sense, and if in addition you protest they treat you so much worse. It is a thousand times worse than in Germany in the concentration camps. Since the 29th April I have not seen the sun and I lack food and soap to wash my clothes and face. We sleep on the ground in the greatest misery. I am despairing of being shut up with no news of the organisation or of my partner”.
He enclosed this note in a bottle and threw it overboard, adding these lines to the note: “I beg the fishermen comrades who will find this letter of an anarchist imprisoned and treated in a fashion worse than at the time of the dictatorship to take it to the National Committee of the CNT, 30 Avenida Durruti, the French section of Barcelona. Salud Y Anarquia”.
Amazingly enough this letter in a bottle was found by a sailor and taken to the CNT address. There the French anarchist Fernand Fortin read it. The note still exists in the files of the International Institute of Social History at Amsterdam. The National Committee of the CNT compiled a list of 70 detainees of the SIM who they regarded as genuine anti-fascists, and Kaplan featured on this, although incorrectly designated as Czech.
In the following months Kaplan passed from prison to prison. In September 1938 he was at the camp of Pueblo Español on the Montjuich hill. On the 15th of that month he was shot in the back during an attempted escape. After a spell in hospital he was sent back to the Uruguay. On the 1st October he dispatched a letter from a SIM prison known as the Seminary on Rue Muntaner. “I am still ill, with my face and legs swollen because of lack of food”.
On the 11th October he was transferred to the State prison in the Rua Deu I Mata. There finally he was able to receive aid, which included food parcels, tobacco and writing paper. We can read of two letters that he received from his partner Libertad, stuck in Valencia with no resources and pregnant.
In October and November he complained in his letters of still not having seen a judge, and had not even been notified as to why he had been arrested and imprisoned.
His expulsion posed a problem because he was classified as stateless. In subsequent letters he complained about the lack of effectiveness of the CNT in having his case reviewed. He also complained about the cold. The SIM had confiscated his shoes so that during daily exercise, he suffered from cold feet. He began to recover his morale and said that if ever the CNT needed him he was ready to return secretly.
As the weeks passed however the food rations were curtailed. He wrote to Fortin on the 20th December that he and other foreign volunteers were about to start a hunger strike. If they died of hunger they would convert this into one last political act.
The tone of Kaplan’s letters became more bitter. “Even if the Organisation (term used by its adherents to describe the CNT) does not show the least interest in my liberation, I am always at its disposition…. In the case that I receive no response from the Minister neither from…. the Director of Security after a delay of 96 hours, which ends Saturday at two o’clock, I see myself obliged to declare a hunger strike to protest against the injustice of which I have been a victim for nine months and the way republican Spain pays its combatants. I am thinking of taking it up to the end, that is to say, liberty or the cemetery. Because I prefer to end with a good gesture rather than a slow death….Now I am going to say a few words that give me pain to pronounce. Yes, it is sad that one must say these words to an organisation that one has given their all during eight years. Yes, Fortin, the Organisation the organization was worth something only at the time when they were pursued by a Primo Rivera and Gil Robles. But now that they have comfortable armchairs, it takes something for them to move for fear that the comfortable armchairs get cold. My companion asked the [Committee] National for me and the answer was that when I am charged, they would be responsible for legal costs and I'll be set free. It suggests how the [Committee]National deals with prisoners, that I, after nine months locked up, they do not even know I'm just a poor victim of a political sector which is called red fascism, and I'm in administrative detention and I have no charge, and I have no judgement .“
On 5th January 1939, Samuel Kaplan was transferred to the military prison at the castle of Montjuich. The director of the state prison decided to break the hunger strike, after four of those involved had died. Samuel continued his hunger strike, and was put in a death row cell. On January 21st, Franco's troops entered Barcelona. The prisoners who were unable to escape were shot. Samuel Kaplan was not among their number.
Had he already died? Was he killed later? Or had he somehow escaped? As there appears to be no further trace of him, we must suspect the worst.
Article by Francois Godicheau at:
Article at the Gimenologues site: