In Memory of Milton Wolff, 1915 - 2008
video from world war II oral history archives
By PETER N. CARROLL, from the veterans of abraham lincoln brigade web site
Milton Wolff, the last commander of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion consisting of the North American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War and an iconic leader of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade since the war ended in 1939, died of heart failure in Berkeley, California on January 14. He was 92.
"Nine men commanded the Lincoln and Lincoln-Washington Battalions," wrote Ernest Hemingway at the end of the war; four were dead and four were wounded. The ninth, Milton Wolff, was 23 years old, "tall as Lincoln, gaunt as Lincoln, and as brave andas good a soldier as any that commanded battalions at Gettysburg. He is alive and unhit by the same hazard that leaves one tall palm tree standing where a hurricane has passed."
Born in Brooklyn on October 7, 1915, Wolff stood six feet two in bare feet and a few inches higher in the muddied brown boots he had picked up after swimming across the swollen Ebro River during the great retreats of 1938, just a few months before Hemingway wrote his profile. He had a loud, gravelly voice that was pure Brooklyn. Later, he claimed that was the reason he was picked to lead the Lincoln volunteers at the age of 22, but Wolff knew-he always knew but it embarrassed him-that he possessed a tremendous charisma that won the love of men and women throughout his life. And what all of them also knew was that Milton Wolff was a very intelligent man.
The author Vincent Sheean, who like Hemingway, wrote about the Spanish Civil War for various U.S. newspapers, had witnessed Wolff's unexpected return after being lost six days behind enemy lines and had seen him enter the small hastily- built shelter that served as battalion headquarters after the recent defeat. "You built this thing pretty low," Wolff had deadpanned. "I guess you guys didn't think I was coming back." Then he had taken a plate of garbanzo beans cooked in olive oil, grabbed some long-delayed letters from his girlfriend in New York, and disappeared into a deep silence. "Now he sat doubled up over his beans and his letters," observed Sheean, "his gaunt young face frowning in concentration. I think he knew how glad they all were to see him, and he wanted to ignore it as much as possible."
Wolff described his childhood in an autobiographical work, slightly fictionalized, titled Member of the Working Class (2005). His was an ordinary story, tempered by a curious mind confronting hard times. Coming of age in the Depression, a high school drop-out, Wolff took the opportunity to enroll in the New Deal's experimental Civilian Conservation Corps, a military type operation that brought unemployed city boys to work on forestry projects. He loved the physical activity and camaraderie and developed some skill as a first aid assistant. But he also witnessed a bureaucratic indifference that led to the death of one of his friends. For protesting conditions there-his first political act-Wolff was not permitted to reenlist.
He returned to Brooklyn, hung around with neighborhood kids, and found a job in a millinery factory in Manhattan. As part of their social activity, some had joined the Young Communist League and Wolff followed them into the ranks. As he later explained, his political development was rudimentary, but when the Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and one of the YCL organizers asked if there were any volunteers to join the fight, Wolff raised his hand. He planned to serve as a first- aid man.