I can’t quite get over how young and dreamy a c. twenty-year-old Frank looks in this photograph. It is the main image of him from his International Brigade personnel file held in the Comintern archives (now in Moscow). I was sitting in the library a few days ago when an e-mail arrived (from Fraser Raeburn – an Edinburgh PhD student working on Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War) with copies of the various documents held in this file. I hadn’t seen this photo – or any of the other material – before and my heart actually skipped a beat.
The file isn’t huge – but all of the information it contains is new to me (including an intriguing document that looks like a security report on Frank, in German, simply signed “Kurt” – more on this once translated). Most exciting is this, an account of how Frank ended up in Spain, including his involvement in politics before going there. It contains so much interesting (to me) new information that I don’t know where to begin… Here he is in his own words, with my thoughts below:
I hadn’t realised that he had been in London (Croydon) in 1935-6 – Elizabeth was also working in London at around this time – nor that he had worked as a labourer in “Shropshire and Southampton”. I had always known that he had been at some kind of camp in Switzerland before going to Spain – but I hadn’t known that he had “walked through France” to get there (though anyone who knew Frank will agree that this is absolutely typical), nor that he had come across it “by accident”. It is also interesting that Elizabeth is given as a kind of referee (“known to Cox and Pollitt“), and that she is described as “running a castle in Scotland as a workers home” (slightly stretching the truth). I don’t know the exact context of this self-penned biography (was it intended as a professional or a political self-endorsement?) but – as well as being a rich source of information about Frank’s politics and involvement with Spain – I find it fascinating as a piece of evidence from the beginning of their lives together: trying to work out what to do next, and where – and giving one another as “personal”, and perhaps political, “guarantees”.
From a less personal point of view, there are a few really interesting nuggets about Frank’s activities in Spain. He mentions the camp in Puigcerdà that he and Elizabeth both worked at: I hadn’t ever heard before that either of them thought it “badly run”, or that they deliberately “contributed to its failure” in early 1938. I wonder if this is something that either of them refer to elsewhere? I had known that Frank worked as some kind of translator in Barcelona (and think that he was involved in radio broadcasting in some way), but again hadn’t realised that he became disillusioned with this, and with the Esquerra Republicana (the Republican Left of Catalonia), and that this is why he left Spain. I am really hoping to find more material about his time in Barcelona – perhaps even about the reasons for his disillusionment, and the process of his disentanglement from the Generalitat. From other documents in the same file it looks like this was written sometime in the late summer of 1938 (and he gives his age as 21, meaning it must at least have been written after 21st June): what was he doing from January to (c.) July 1938? where exactly was he? – and was Elizabeth with him for any of this time? – lots of wonderful answers from the International Brigade/Comintern file, but lots of wonderful questions too.