Robert Steck Papers
Language of Materials
In January 1937, Robert Steck, actor and social activist, sailed to Europe to volunteer for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. He was taken prisoner in April 1938 and held for seventeen months. After serving in World War II, Steck became a history teacher. Throughout his career, Steck also organized many events designed to present the history of the Spanish Civil War. The collection reflects the range of Steck's progressive activities and concerns, including his long association with the communal adult camp, Camp Unity, correspondence with members of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and biographical profiles and research associated with his collaboration on Carl Geiser's book Prisoners of the Good Fight.
Robert Steck was born in 1912 in Rock Island, Illinois. One of five brothers, he inherited a keen awareness of society's injustices from his father, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler and member of the Freethinking Society, leading Steck to a lifelong commitment to public service and political activism. While attending St. Ambrose College in Iowa, Steck discovered the theater and, after a stint as a truck driver for his father's business, landed in New York City, where he worked on the staff of New Theater Magazine alongside editor Herb Kline (who would later fight with Steck in the Spanish Civil War). Here Steck wed his theater skills to social activism, joining Studio One's Theater of Action, an offshoot of the WPA-sponsored Workers Laboratory Theater. In the summer, Steck worked at Camp Unity, an interracial, socialist adult camp, first as an actor, then as director of activities.
By January 1937, Steck's Camp Unity associates Yale Stuart and Philip Bard had departed for Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War (SCW). Steck, already active in efforts for the Republican cause, soon followed. He sailed on the Ile de Francein February 1937, where he joined the first group of U.S. International Brigades volunteers required to walk from France over the Pyrenees to get into Spain (their passports had been stamped "not valid for travel in Spain"). In the following months, Steck served in the International Brigades with the First Regiment de Tren, where he was elected political commissar; worked with British writer Ralph Bates, putting out the magazine Volunteer for Liberty; headed the Tarazona Base Cultural Commission, adapting his theater experience to the political and social realities of the war and creating skits performed off the back of trucks (known as "Buffoons on Trucks"); and was rifleman, runner and battalion scout for the Third Lincoln company.
On April 9, 1938, during the retreat from Gandesa, Steck was captured by Italian fascists, who would have executed him were it not for Mussolini's order to exchange International Brigaders for captured fascists. Steck was first kept for two days in complete darkness at the bottom of a cistern, then transferred to the prison at San Pedro de Cardena, where he spent the following seventeen months. While in prison Steck organized an "Institute for Higher Learning" and, together with fellow-prisoners Hy Wallach and Sidney Rosenblatt, put out a handwritten newspaper, "Jaily News," illustrated by British prisoner Jimmy Moon. They made only a single copy of each issue, concealing it beneath the floorboards when it wasn't being surreptitiously circulated among the prisoners (Steck later smuggled two issues home under his clothes). Meanwhile, Steck's father joined the Friends of the Prisoners committee in the U.S. to work for his son's release. It was only after the war had ended that the State Department finally negotiated the release of a group of eleven prisoners that included Steck.
Back in the States, Steck married Josephine (Jo) Savage. He also quickly connected with the recently-formed Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), chairing the Committee for the Release of the International Prisoners in Spain. Steck returned to Camp Unity as director of activities in the summer of 1940, finding a welcome refuge for himself and other veterans, and in the autumn and winter continued his social work at community centers in the Bronx and Philadelphia. He worked as well for a short time as a welder at Todd Shipyards. Steck joined the U.S. Army in 1943, serving until 1946 in the Medical Corps at Fort Meade, in the Specialized Training Program at Georgetown University, and in Intelligence training (in Russian) at Camp Ritchie. His deployment overseas was repeatedly put off, however, and Steck became convinced that this was due to discrimination based upon his participation in the SCW.
After an honorable discharge, Steck again returned to Camp Unity as director of activities. He left in 1952 as a result of differences over policy. In 1956, after running a travel agency for a year, Steck formed a communally-oriented children's camp, Camp Calumet, with friend and Camp Unity associate, Sophie Saroff. In 1967, Steck became a full time fifth grade teacher at P.S. 40 in the South Bronx, then taught high school history and social studies in New Jersey, New York and later in Connecticut, where he and Jo settled in Lime Rock. He retired from teaching in 1978, affording him more time to devote his energies to a broad spectrum of social issues, including nuclear disarmament, the Nicaraguan revolution, the struggle in El Salvador, and justice for Palestinians. For years, he spent every Saturday standing in a Vigil for Peace on the Salisbury Green in Connecticut.
Steck remained a core member of VALB, serving twice on the Executive Board of the National Council, and chairing the Prisoner Historical Committee. From 1979 through 1986, he worked closely with veteran Carl Geiser on Geiser's Prisoners of the Good Fight, organizing numerous fundraising endeavors, conducting extensive research, and traveling internationally to locate American ex-prisoners. From his research and interviews, Steck wrote 120 biographical profiles that underlay Geiser's account of the Americans' experience in Spanish prisons. During this period Steck also used his research to write and publish a pamphlet on Walter Fairbanks Grant, a prisoner killed in Spain; and an article for Jewish Currentsabout Sol Leiserowitz, another prisoner who disappeared. Prisoners of the Good Fightwas published in 1986.
Series I arranged alphabetically. Series II arranged alphabetically within each subseries.
Organized into 2 series:
- I. General Files
- II. Prisoners of the Good Fight: Project Files
Scope and Content Note
Series I, General Files, 1937-1998 (bulk 1975-1996).
This series, comprised of correspondence, notes, employment documentation, and writings, reflects the sweep of Steck's interests and activities, and reveals how tightly interlaced were the activist and personal strands that ran through his life. This is especially apparent in his correspondence with other Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans, many of whom were good friends, where debates about politics, issues and current events, planning for conferences and activities frequently occur in the same letters that share personal news. Notable here is correspondence with SCW veterans Homer Chase, Maury Colow, Moe Fishman, Benjamin Goldring, Herbert Kline, Ed Lending, Steve Nelson, Adolph (Buster) Ross, Randall Pete Smith, Irving Weissman, Milton Wolff and James Yates; a letter to Albert Prago on Jewish identity, Zionism, and the Middle East; and an exchange with George Watt about POUM, Orwell, and the Nazi-Soviet pact. There is ample documentation of Steck's involvement with the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), generated by the range of roles he assumed at the organization over the years. Materials include official correspondence, minutes and notes, and anniversary programs. Of note is an exchange between the Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive, VALB, and the SCW Historical Society about stewardship of the veterans' archives.
Steck's writings not only demonstrate the breadth of his activities as a public figure, creating political theater and hosting scores of events and commemorative gatherings; they also convey his aspirations as a novelist, poet and screenwriter. His writings frequently demonstrate his commitment to presenting the history and lessons of the SCW; many writings appear only as fragments and drafts, with handwritten notes for speeches, scripts, lectures, and presentations.
Steck's association with Camp Unity and his directorship of Camp Calumet are evidenced here by oral histories by former Unity campers and staff, as well as original flyers, brochures, and retrospective publications. The file for Sophie Saroff's 80th birthday celebration contains a wealth of information about Saroff's life. An annual report of the House Un-American Activities Committee indicates its surveillance of Unity.
Original items from the SCW period include a program for a concert held by American Battalion members on board the R.M.S. Ausonia; an Agence Espagne statement (in French) calling for the U.S. to lift its embargo on Spain, titled "How Fascism Menaces the Americas"; a pamphlet, "Crime of Guernica"; two hand-compiled booklets; a League of American Writers and American Students Union flyer; and a poem by Muriel Rukeyser.
The series also offers a selection of Steck's official papers from World War II, as well as documents from his teaching career.
Series II. Prisoners of the Good Fight: Project Files (bulk 1936-1942; 1978-1986).
Steck's work with Carl Geiser on Prisoners of the Good Fightresulted in extensive research and correspondence, reflected in Series II. Copious handwritten notes and partial drafts describe prisoners and document communication with ex-prisoners and relatives. Also included are the original papers of former prisoners, as well as news articles from the SCW period, including those by New York Timesreporter William Carney. Foreign Service communications update relatives regarding missing men and securing prisoners' release, while the U.S. Embassy reports on prison conditions. A number of transcripts record the recollections of ex-prisoners.
Of note in the biographical files (Subseries A) are letters documenting Walter Fairbanks Grant's father's attempts to find his son after he disappeared in Spain; Albert Ziegler's letters from Spain, including one explaining to his mother why he hadn't told her that he was going to fight; a manuscript by Henry Ben Megquier; a letter from the president of the New York State Economic Council reporting on his visit to Geiser in prison; a flattened bullet engraved by Steck; a deck of miniature playing cards; and an announcement for a "Three B's" party to Bring Bob [Steck] Back from prison. Sol Leiserowitz's file includes a letter he wrote to his sister from the battlefield and a letter from the State Department reporting that Leiserowitz could not be located. Other materials include a declassified FBI report (circa 1943) detailing Charles Keith's Communist affiliations; a hand-illustrated postcard from Leo Torgoff; a 1938 booklet, "Life & Death of an American Hero: The Story of Dave Doran," published by the Young Communist League; a letter from ex-prisoner Jimmy Moon listing prisoners smuggled out by Greek International Brigaders; and a Folkways pamphlet describing veteran Max Parker's recording of SCW songs.
Subseries B contains extensive correspondence between Steck and Carl Geiser, reflecting their close working relationship, with a daily exchange of letters during the height of the book's preparation. The relationship of VALB's Prisoner Historical Committee to the book project can be discerned. Also of note are Steck's research materials, evidence of fundraising efforts, and letters regarding publication. Other items include a 1937 pamphlet, "Italian Prisoners in Spain" (in Italian); and correspondence from the U.S. Embassy, Red Cross, and the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade documenting attempts to deliver money and essentials to prisoners. One issue of "Jaily News," represented here in photocopy, also exists in the original (please consult staff for access).
Materials are open to researchers. Please contact the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives for more information and to schedule an appointment, firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-998-2630.
Any rights (including copyright and related rights to publicity and privacy) held by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), were transferred to New York University in November 2000 by the ALBA Board of Governors. Permission to publish or reproduce materials in this collection must be secured from the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. For more information, contact email@example.com or 212-998-2630.
Published citations should take the following form:
Identification of item, date; Collection name; Collection number; box number; folder number;
Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.
The bulk of material regarding Camp Unity, Camp Calumet, and Sophie Saroff was donated to Tamiment Library by Robert Steck in 1979. The remaining Robert Steck Papers were donated to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives by Robert Steck between 1979 and 1998. This portion of the collection came to New York University in January 2001 as part of the original acquisition of ALBA collections, formerly housed at Brandeis University.
Photographs, audio tapes, maps and other non-print materials from the Robert Steck Collection have been transferred to the non-print section of the ALBA collection in the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.