Edwin Rolfe

Edwin Rolfe

Edwin Rolfe, the son of Russian immigrants, was born in Philadelphia in 1909. His father, a shoemaker, was an active trade unionist and a member of the Socialist Party of America. His mother, a friend of Margaret Sanger, was an advocate of women's rights.

His name was originally Solomon Fishman but he later changed it to Edwin Rolfe. As a teenager Rolfe joined the American Communist Party and was soon contributing cartoons, poems and book reviews to the party newspaper, the Daily Worker. He also reported on the case of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco for the newspaper.

In 1929 Rolfe became a student at the University of Wisconsin. He then moved the New York and once again became active in politics. During this period he became friendly with Michael Gold and Langston Hughes. He also published his first book of poems, To My Contemporaries (1936).

In 1937 Rolfe joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a unit that volunteered to fight for the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War. While in Spain he met the writer Alvah Bessie: "He (Rolfe) was frail; he resembled a bird; he had a fine, delicate bone structure and he did not look as though he should be in an army... I do not think I have ever met a gentler guy, a less pugnacious guy, less of a soldier. But he had the iron of conviction in him just the same. He had a tiny automatic pistol some one had given him, and it became him, though I could not imagine him ever using it."

After failing to take Madrid by frontal assault General Francisco Franco gave orders for the road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A Nationalist force of 40,000 men, including men from the Army of Africa, crossed the Jarama River on 11th February, 1937.

General José Miaja sent the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to the Jarama Valley to block the advance. Led by Robert Merriman, the 373 members of the brigade moved into the trenches on 23rd February. When the were ordered over the top they were backed by a pair of tanks from the Soviet Union. On the first day 20 men were killed and nearly 60 were wounded.

On 27th February 1937, Colonel Vladimir Copic, the Yugoslav commander of the Fifteenth Brigade, ordered Merriman and his men to attack the Nationalist forces at Jarama. As soon as he left the trenches Merrimen was shot in the shoulder, cracking the bone in five places. Of the 263 men who went into action that day, only 150 survived. One soldier remarked afterwards: "The battalion was named after Abraham Lincoln because he, too, was assassinated."

Rolfe survived but wrote: "When we were pulled out of the lines I felt very tired and lonely and guilty. Lonely because half of the battalion had been badly shot up. And guilty because I felt I didn't deserve to be alive now, with Arnold and Nick and Paul dead."

Despite his protests, Rolfe was removed from combat assignments and became editor of the brigade newspaper Volunteer for Liberty. In April 1938 the Nationalist Army broke through the Republican defences and reached the sea. General Francisco Franco now moved his troops towards Valencia with the objective of encircling Madrid and the central front.

Juan Negrin, in an attempt to relieve the pressure on the Spanish capital, ordered an attack across the fast-flowing Ebro River. General Juan Modesto, a member of the Communist Party (PCE), was placed in charge of the offensive. Over 80,000 Republican troops, including the 15th International Brigade and the British Battalion, began crossing the river in boats on 25th July. The men then moved forward towards Corbera and Gandesa.

On 26th July the Republican Army attempted to capture Hill 481, a key position at Gandesa. Hill 481 was well protected with barbed wire, trenches and bunkers. The Republicans suffered heavy casualties and after six days was forced to retreat to Hill 666 on the Sierra Pandols. It successfully defended the hill from a Nationalist offensive on 23rd September but once again large numbers were killed.

The following day, Juan Negrin, head of the Republican government, announced that the International Brigades would be unilaterally withdrawn from Spain. That night the 15th Brigade and the British Battalion moved back across the River Ebro and began their journey out of the country.

Rolfe arrived back in the United States in January 1939. Later that year he published a history of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion: The Lincoln Battalion (1939). He also worked for TASS, the Soviet news agency and as a film scriptwriter.

In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. The HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named nineteen people who they accused of holding left-wing views.

One of those named, Bertolt Brecht, an emigrant playwright, gave evidence and then left for East Germany. Ten others: Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz,, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie refused to answer any questions.

Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of congress and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.

A blacklist was now drawn up of writers, directors and performers who had been members of the American Communist Party. This included Rolfe as well as Larry Adler, Stella Adler, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Joseph Bromberg, Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copland, Hanns Eisler, Carl Foreman, John Garfield, Howard Da Silva, Dashiell Hammett, E. Y. Harburg, Lillian Hellman, Burl Ives, Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, Philip Loeb, Joseph Losey, Anne Revere, Pete Seeger, Gale Sondergaard, Louis Untermeyer, Josh White, Clifford Odets, Michael Wilson, Paul Jarrico, Jeff Corey, John Randolph, Canada Lee, Orson Welles, Paul Green, Sidney Kingsley, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright and Abraham Polonsky.

Rolfe became active in the struggle against McCarthyism and wrote a series of anti-McCarthy poems. Edwin Rolfe died of a heart attack on 25th May, 1954. His friend, Alvah Bessie, commented: "Edwin Rolfe, poet and author of the first history of the Lincoln Battalion, whose eloquent volume of poems, First Love, expressed what all of us have always felt about Spain, was in Hollywood, blacklisted and unemployable when he was taken by a heart attack on 25 May 1954. Two wars were too much for so physically frail a man and unemployability added final insult to the injury."

Primary Sources

(1) Edwin Rolfe, The Lincoln Battalion (1939)

Jarama was a complete success, in a way which none of the Americans who took part in it could then foresee. For the attack on February 27th impressed the insurgents with one inescapable fact: that the Jarama front was too heavily, too perfectly defended. From that day until the very end of the war, the rebels never succeeded in advancing another meter along the line which, they had hoped, would cut the Madrid-Valencia highway, effect the encirclement and the capture of Madrid.

(2) Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle (1939)

We issued rifles, ammo, hand-grenades; I checked on these details and met a new recruit. He said his name was Rolfe; I looked at him. "Edwin Rolfe ?" I said, and he said, "Yes." "The Edwin Rolfe ? The poet?" "The same," he said. "Christ!" I said, "You know Carnovsky of the Group Theater, and Phoebe Brand." "Sure," he said. "Christ!" I said, "they told me you were here in Spain; that I should look you up and say hello." We laughed. "Hello," he said. He had been editing the Volunteer for Liberty, our publication, first edited by Ralph Bates. He was frail; he resembled a bird; he had a fine, delicate bone structure and he did not look as though he should be in an army. I asked him what he was doing here and how he liked it, and he said it was pretty tough at first, but that he liked it fine. He had volunteered to quit the desk job when the call came after the Fascists reached the sea. I do not think I have ever met a gentler guy, a less pugnacious guy, less of a soldier. But he had the iron of conviction in him just the same. He had a tiny automatic pistol some one had given him, and it became him, though I could not imagine him ever using it. I felt better to have another writer on the spot. Writers will understand just what I mean.

(3) Edwin Rolfe, New Masses (13th September, 1938)

The war has ripped all illusions from even the youngest of the volunteers, leaving only the reality. That reality is harder than anyone who has never been under machine-gun fire and bombs and artillery fire can ever know. Yet the men of the Lincoln brigade, knowing it well, chose and continue to choose to fight for Spain's free existence. To be true to themselves and their innermost convictions.