Sam Lesser was among the first group of British volunteers that joined the International Brigade, the world force against the fascist leader Franco. “We did what we had to do,” he said. At the age of 91 his voice sounds steady and his memories remain intact.
Born to a family of Polish immigrants, Sam became involved in the Communist Party while studying at university. He had also joined the Officers Training Corps and participated in demonstrations in London against the fascist blackshirts before heading for Spain.
He crossed the Pyrenees by bus, pretending he was Raimundo Casado, a Spaniard returning from a holiday in France, even though he couldn’t speak a word of Castilian.
He went to Albacete, where the International Brigade’s headquarters was located. He recalls, “We saw Spain as it was then - primitive. I knew the country was a bit backward but the conditions in which people lived in small villages around Albacete were unbelievable. The only building of any size was the church.”
He spent the first few weeks training. He said, “The weapons were very few and the ones that were first distributed were a bad joke - the rifles came from the Austrian army of 1870.”
Sam recalls mingling with locals during the heat of the afternoon, “In that part of La Mancha there was a lot of saffron grown. We helped the local population, particularly the girls, to remove the stamens of the flowers. We soon discovered that each Spanish girl had a mother with her, so there was no funny business at all.”
His first experience of war took place in the University City area of Madrid. The fighting was very fierce and they had to retreat but not without having stopped the fascist advance in Madrid.
The number of casualties was considerable - from one unit of about 30 only six survived. Recounting this episode reminded Sam of the speech he gave a few months ago in Catalonia on behalf of British volunteers killed in the war and he started reciting it in faultless Spanish.
Several months after his first battle, Lesser was hit by two bullets - one in his foot and the second one in his back. He said, “I discovered that the wound in my back came from my own machine gun company.”
He is still moved by the “Spanish hospitality” he experienced while recovering in hospital: “You are lying there with the clothes you had on and these people came in with everything - soup, toothpaste, toothbrushes, a drink which I first discovered then, zumo de uvas (grape juice). I thought the only zumo de uvas that existed was vino tinto (red wine).”
One of the nurses taught him the language and introduced him to the adventures of Don Quixote but couldn’t do much for his worsening injuries.
Lesser was finally sent back home, taking the list of those who had been killed. After recovering, he travelled to Paris where he helped to organise the crossing of volunteers who were arriving from all over the world.
He said, “It was a job that had to be done, but I wanted to get back to Spain.” The opportunity arose when he was put in charge of an international group of women volunteers.
They couldn’t hike across the Pyrenees, but managed to get to Catalonia in a fisherman’s boat. But Sam wasn’t able to take up arms for the Republicans.
“When I went to have a medical examination in Barcelona they told me that I was unfit for human consumption,” mocked Sam. That was the end of his involvement in the fighting and the beginning of a long career in journalism. In July 1937 he started broadcasting in English for the Republican cause.
Lesser said, “The first part of the programme was the military communique and then from time to time we would get British volunteers who came on leave to Barcelona to try to get them to prepare something.” During this time Sam met Margaret, the woman who would become his wife. Margaret was a nurse working in the Spanish refugee camp of Argeles, France.
She was recovering in Barcelona from a broken leg. Lesser covered the end of the war as correspondent of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker newspaper. Sam said, “I covered our retreat. The border town of Figueras was packed with people on their way to France. The fascist planes started bombing.
“I went to the square and there was complete pandemonium. At the other side of the square I saw Pasionaria, the Communist leader, coming out of a small balcony window. Her words restored some sort of order.”
He was then sent to Paris, where he reported on the “abominable” treatment of the Spanish refugees by the French government. The outbreak of the Second World War brought him back to England to work as an inspector in an aeroplane factory through the conflict.
After the war, he resumed working for the Daily Worker as a correspondent in China, Russia, Cuba and several countries of Eastern Europe until he decided to retire in 1984 at the age of 69.
Lesser said, “Spain has remained always in our minds and in our hearts. If the Republican government had been given its rights by international law to buy arms on the market we wouldn’t have lost the war.
“The experience in Spain didn’t change me politically. The change came for me when I was in the Soviet Union, with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and Hungary.”
The conversation continued through other chapters of recent history that Sam has witnessed and that would make the memoirs that he regrets not having written.