Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1

Frank - picture - 1I 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:

Continue reading Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1

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Puigcerdà

Excitingly, this document means that I can pinpoint where my grandparents were for at least part of their time in Spain – Puigcerdà in the Catalonian province of Girona – and now know that they were there roughly between 1937 and 1938. I previously knew that my grandmother had been looking after evacuated children somewhere in the Pyrenees, fairly close to Barcelona, and that my grandfather had come there at some point. My grandmother met Frank and others off a train;  he commented on her “funny hat” – love at first jibe apparently.

1938 - Puigcerda
Las Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas al pueblo de Puigcerdà y en particular a las demás organizaciones juveniles (1938)

I had had trouble working out exactly where they were before finding this document, partly due to my grandmother’s handwriting/spelling of the town’s name (as on the back of this 1937 photo of Frank, with what must be some of the evacuated children).

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“She liked you, oddly enough”: Christopher Hill, Czechoslovakia and Communist refugees

There is a family story (myth?) that Christopher Hill proposed to my grandmother, and that she turned him down because he was too short (she was quite tall). I am not sure if this is true, but certainly they were great friends at Oxford – and I do remember her telling me that she went back to visit him in Oxford after she had been in Spain (and after she had met Frank). She took Frank’s brother, Harry, who was then an undergraduate at Oxford, to visit Christopher and arrived with wet feet, having been caught in the rain. Christopher mortified her by suggesting that she change her stockings in front of he and Harry; she was worried that this would give the impression that she and Christopher were romantically involved, and this would get back to Frank. I don’t think that they remained such good friends after the Second World War (I would imagine that life – spouses, children, geography, careers – got in the way), but she always took a great interest in his work: I used to be given his books for Christmas, and one of my uncles recently reminded me that she wrote to the Guardian after his death to protest against the suggestion that he had been a Soviet agent. Like my grandfather, Christopher suffered from dementia at the end of his life and I remember Elizabeth telling me that they had both had such brilliant minds that they must have burned out in some way.

The first box has quite a number of letters and postcards from him to Elizabeth (such as these Catalan postcards, sent in March and February 1939 – and including some from the mid-thirties, at which point they do seem to have been more than just friends). A lot of these are about bringing refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain. I wasn’t really going to include much of this at the moment (a whole other story – complete with really wretched letters: brief biographies of potential Jewish refugees, photographs, lots and lots of paperwork. I assume that some ended up in Britain, perhaps even living in Perthshire c/o Elizabeth, but some presumably didn’t – all kinds of formalities had to be gone through to bring people here). This series of letters is interesting though, and I find it intriguing that Elizabeth declares herself a Socialist (rather than a Communist, presumably), and therefore asks that any Communist refugees “keep their politics strictly to themselves” (image below). At roughly the same time Frank was also writing to her asking her opinion on Communist Party plans and statements…

Elizabeth had, out of the blue, inherited a Perthshire estate and castle in the late thirties; she tried to sell it in order to give money to Spain (possibly the Republicans somehow? possibly the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief?), but this was blocked by her family and by the family lawyers (the case ended up in court – another story that I hope to find more information about in these boxes). Instead, as a second best, she ended up housing refugees there before and during the war. These letters between Christopher and Elizabeth are largely about the bringing of Communist refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain. I will look out for more correspondence between the two of them about this, as it appears that Elizabeth was at first slightly reluctant (possibly due to the Moscow show trials, and the beginnings of Stalin’s purges?), and I wonder how she squared this with the pressing humanitarian side of things.

This is the first letter from Christopher to Elizabeth about this, asking for urgent help, probably from the autumn of 1938, (transcript below): Continue reading “She liked you, oddly enough”: Christopher Hill, Czechoslovakia and Communist refugees

Red Thirties

Hammer and Sickle Club - Oxford
Invitation to a meeting of The Hammer and Sickle Club, 15th May [1935?], Brasenose College, Oxford

The first box that I decided to look in for items relating to my grandparents’ time in Spain made me realise how much possible material I have – and also the extent to which this is probably going to be as much about their 1930s activities and politics as about the Spanish Civil War itself. The box contains stacks of letters, postcards, leaflets, magazines, etc. Some of these I have put aside for another time: Frank’s wartime letters to Elizabeth, for instance – there are probably hundreds of these, mostly from India, and a glance at a few first lines reveals that they are fairly steamy, something I am not really ready for – and stacks of alternately heart-breaking and business-like correspondence about bringing various Communist and Jewish refugees to Britain. Perhaps I will come back to these, but at the moment I have decided to try to focus on Spain, and what took my grandparents there, so from this box I will probably take some of the items about Elizabeth’s political activities at Oxford in the mid-thirties, as well as various letters that refer directly to Spain. There are also some wonderful propaganda posters from Spain, various political pamphlets, some literary magazines and a few photographs.

Continue reading Red Thirties