My grandmother taught me to love Madison for its cosmopolitanism and its internationalism. She knew all the city’s imperfections, but she celebrated its better angels — and its better instincts. Her understanding of the city where my ancestors began settling in the 1830s has remained my own. Unfortunately, we now live in times when the best ideals of Madisonians are challenged by a president whose aides decry cosmopolitanism and internationalism, and whose most extreme supporters march with symbols of the Confederates and the fascists who Wisconsinites gave their lives to stop.
That’s jarring. But not so jarring that we fail in our duty to defend the ideals that must define this city as truly and as fully as its lakes and buildings.
Last week, a monument honoring the first Wisconsinites to take up arms against fascism was defaced with Nazi swastikas and graffiti announcing that “Trump rules.” The monument bears the names of many Wisconsin Jews who volunteered to fight on the eve of World War II against Spanish fascists who were aided by Hitler and Mussolini. It stands in James Madison Park — just a few feet from the historic Gates of Heaven synagogue. The incident was discovered on Rosh Hashanah.
Madison responded with the historic anti-fascist cry of "¡No pasarán!" — "They shall not pass!"
A city crew quickly removed the graffiti and restored the monument. Red roses appeared, along with messages in Hebrew and English. Rowers on nearby Lake Mendota issued a “No hate in our park” call for solidarity. Members of the Klezmer band Yid Vicious played in a circle near the monument. Mayor Paul Soglin and local activists arrived to declare: “Swastikas have no place in Madison — or anywhere.”
“Given the enabling rhetoric from Donald Trump, particularly since Charlottesville, we know that vicious racist and Nazi attacks have increased,” explained the mayor. “While we know that over 99 percent of the people of Madison abhor and reject this terrible act, let it stand as a reminder that there are always a few ignorant people who would destroy our liberty and rights.”
State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, denounced “the hateful defacing of an important monument outside one of our nation’s oldest synagogues, commemorating those brave Americans who joined the fight against fascism.”
Members of the family of Clarence Kailin, the anti-fascist vet who arranged for the erection of the monument in 1999, joined a protest that became a celebration of his anti-racist legacy. One of 2,800 American volunteers who fought from 1936 to 1939 as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in defense of the elected Spanish government, which was attacked by the fascist forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Clarence wanted future generations to remember "the good fight” of what W.H. Auden dubbed “a people's army.”
That fight made a scrawny kid from Madison’s multi-ethnic, multi-racial Greenbush neighborhood part of an essential chapter of 20th century history.
"There wasn't any choice. If you were against totalitarianism, if you were against injustice, you had to care about what happened in Spain. Spain was where the fight against fascism was focused in 1936,” he explained before his death in 2009 at age 95. “So Spain was where I knew I needed to be.”
Clarence joined the anti-fascist struggle with roughly two dozen Wisconsinites, many of them Jewish, all of them leftists, who made their transit with passports stamped "not valid for travel in Spain" across the Atlantic, through France and ultimately over the mountains into the embattled country. There, they joined the international brigades that fought side-by-side with loyalist Spanish forces in brutal battles against fascists who were armed by the Germans and Italians.
Though they were outgunned and outnumbered on the battlefield, Clarence and his comrades relished the fight. "I was a member of the Communist party here (in Wisconsin), as many were. We understood the implications of the war in Spain," he explained. "We knew who Hitler was, we knew what fascism was. We knew what anti-Semitism was; I'm Jewish. Here was a chance to go over there and fight back."
Clarence was badly wounded in battle but made it home alive. Amid all the activism that defined the rest of his long life — on behalf of civil rights, labor rights and peace — he dedicated himself to recalling the comrades with whom he fought. It was a lonely struggle at first, but over time historians began to recognize the story of the courageous "Lincolns" and their “premature anti-fascism.”
In 1999, when hundreds of friends cheered the dedication of the monument, Clarence was lavished with praise. The mayor issued a proclamation. Citations came from the state Legislature. A statement was entered in the Congressional Record. It would have been easy for Kailin to rest on his laurels on that sunny Sunday. Instead, he reminded everyone that “they shouldn't see this as a memorial to old soldiers. They should see it as a reminder that the struggle we joined in Spain, the struggle for economic and social justice, goes on. We're still a part of it."
That was how Clarence Kailin saw himself: as a part of a struggle that began before his birth and that would extend beyond his death. None of the Madisonians who have carried that struggle forward expected to gather at the monument on a Rosh Hashanah eight years after Clarence’s death. But Madisonians came because it is never enough to wash away the symbols of fascism. It is necessary to resist the xenophobia and the racism and the anti-Semitism those symbols represent.
The great Spanish radical Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria, told the international brigades as they started withdrawing from Spain in 1938: "You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy."
Those words, uttered when Clarence Kailin was a young idealist from Madison fighting fascism in Spain, were the ones he chose to emblazon on the monument to the Lincoln Brigade. They were read once more last week, as a cosmopolitan and internationalist Madison rejected hatred and embraced the heroic example of the solidarity and the universality of democracy.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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