Three men in their nineties were among the last British veterans of the Spanish civil war honoured by the Spanish Embassy in London on Tuesday.
Sam Lesser, Lou Kenton and Joseph Kahn were part of a group of seven UK and Irish volunteers of the International Brigade awarded Spanish citizenship 70 years after the end of the conflict.
“It was exciting, enjoyable and a huge honour to have my Spanish passport bestowed on me,” said Mr Kahn, 93, of Maida Vale, north west London.
He will be able to use his new passport for the first time in September for the wedding of his granddaughter, Miranda Nathan, in Marbella.
Around a fifth of the 2,300 volunteers with the brigade from the UK, Ireland and the Commonwealth are estimated to have been Jewish. They rallied to the defence of the Republican government in Spain, following a military rebellion in 1936 led by General Franco which was backed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Mr Kahn, who fought in the battle of Jarama in 1937, recalled: “It was utterly terrifying and probably the closest I came to death during the months I spent on the frontline, fighting Franco’s fascists.”
Sam Lesser, 94, from Brixton, south London, had already been radicalised by the depression of the 1930s and the spectacle of Oswald Mosley’s antisemitic Blackshirts on the loose, by the time he got to University College, London, to study Egyptology.
He had been set to go to Egypt for his first archeological dig, but instead volunteered for the International Brigade. “I thought, here’s an opportunity to strike a blow against fascism,” he said.
By October 1936, he was among a unit of 36 British volunteers dispatched to Madrid to help stop a nationalist advance. His life was spared by a library book which stopped a bullet after he had he had used it to fill an over-large rifle-hole in a wall. Only six of his British group emerged alive and unscathed.
But a few weeks later, defending Cordoba, Sam was not so lucky. Hit in the leg and back, he collapsed, unable to move and “in shocking pain.
“A guy called Jock Cunningham I had got friendly with, came looking for me. He dragged me out and saved my life.”
He came home, went back to Spain, but was ruled medically unfit to fight. Then Sam found a different way to aid the Republican cause: he began doing English language broadcasts for Radio Barcelona before working as a foreign war correspondent for the Daily Worker.
“I got out the day before Barcelona fell to the fascists on January 26, 1939.”
Asked if he would have done what he did again, he said, “Yes. I haven’t heard a man who survived the International
Brigade think otherwise.”