Edward K. Barsky Papers
Language of Materials
Edward K. Barsky (1897-1975) was a prominent physician who led a group of American medical volunteers in Spain during the Civil War. After the war, he served as Chairman of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC), an organization dedicated to aiding Spanish refugees and lobbying the U.S. leadership on behalf of the deposed Republican government. Barsky and the entire board of JAFRC were charged with contempt of Congress and convicted in June 1947 for refusing to turn over the group's records. Barsky was sentenced to six months in prison. Following his release the New York Board of Regents moved to suspend his medical license, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1954. These papers reflect Barsky's humanitarian work on behalf of Spain and document the court cases that stemmed from these progressive activities.
Edward K. Barsky was born in New York on June 6, 1895, the son of Dr. Joseph Barsky, a promiment New York physician and a founder of Beth Israel Hospital. One of a family of six children, he attended public elementary school, graduated from Townsend Harris High School and received his college degree from City College of New York. Following the example of his father and two of his brothers, Barsky pursued a career in medicine receiving his formal education at Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons and subsequently conducting post-graduate study abroad in Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Beginning in 1919 he served a two-year internship at Beth Israel Hospital where he subsequently advanced through the positions of Visiting Staff, Assistant Adjunct Surgeon, and Adjunct Surgeon before assuming the position of Associate Surgeon in 1934. In November 1935, Barsky became a member of the Communist Party.
With the outbreak civil war in Spain in 1936, Barsky joined with a group of concerned New York physicians to establish the American Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy (AMB) -- an adjunct organization to the North America Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, later known as the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. The AMB arranged for the shipment of ambulances and other medical equipment and supplies, and in January 1937 sent a fully outfitted medical team of doctors, nurses, and technicians to Spain with Barsky at the helm. Additional medical personnel soon followed and under Barsky's command, base hospitals and convalescent homes were set up in schools and monasteries. Emergency units were established on the front lines in ambulances, makeshift tents, and a mobile medical hospital outfitted with a battery-powered operating room. By the following year 117 American doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers had volunteered to serve in Spain. Barsky returned briefly to the United States in 1937 to conduct a national speaking tour, securing additional funds and supplies for the AMB. With his returned to Spain, he assumed charge of the Sanitary Services of the International Brigade, overseeing hundreds of international medical volunteers -- a position he held until the withdrawal of the foreign forces in January 1939.
Back in the United States Barsky resumed his work at Beth Israel Hospital. He married Vita Lauter, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and the couple had one child -- a daughter named Angela. In the wake of the war in Spain, Barsky turned his attention to securing relief for Spanish exiles who were living in deplorable conditions in French refugee camps, and Republican prisoners in Spain. In 1941 Barsky played a key role in the formation of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC), an organization dedicated to aiding Spanish refugees and lobbying the U.S. leadership on behalf of the deposed Republican government. With Barsky as chairman, the organization raised closed to $400,000 in its first two years of operation. By 1945, however, the JAFRC's progressive agenda attracted the hostile attention of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Barksy, Executive Secretary Helen R. Bryan, and Executive Board members of JAFRC were subpoenaed to appear before the committee, surrender financial records, and turn over the names of contributors and recipients of aid. After refusing to comply with HUAC demands, Barsky and entire board of JAFRC were charged with contempt of Congress and convicted in June 1947.
Three years of appeals that challenged the constitutionality of the HUAC hearings ended in 1950 when the Supreme Court refused to review the convictions. The board members, including novelist Howard Fast, were sentenced to three months in prison, and Barsky, as the JAFRC's chairman, was sentenced to six months in the Federal Penitentiary in Petersburg, Virginia and fined $500. Following his release, the New York State Board of Regents moved to censure Barsky and -- citing his conviction and subsequent imprisonment -- suspended his medical license. Although he received the unstinting support of his medical colleagues who filed an Amici Curiae on his behalf, in 1954, after four years of appeals, the Supreme Court upheld a six-month suspension of his license. Writing in a dissenting opinion, Judge William O. Douglas asserted, "When a doctor cannot save lives in America because he is opposed to Franco in Spain, it is time to call a halt and look critically at the neurosis that has possessed us."
Barsky remained committed to progressive causes throughout his life. In 1952 he worked on behalf of the American Labor Party and its candidate, Vincent Hallihan, who was chief counsel for Harry Bridges and at the time of the election was serving a six months sentence for contempt of congress. During the 1960s, Barsky was active with the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which provided emergency medical services for civil rights and peace movement workers in the South. He was also affiliated with the New York labor movement, working for many years as a security plan panel physician for District Council 65. In 1967, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade marked their 30th anniversary with a tribute honoring Barsky's achievements on behalf the Spanish Republic. Barsky continued his professional relationship with Beth Israel Hospital throughout the remainder of his life, serving as consulting surgeon in his later years. On February 11, 1975, Edward Barsky died at the age of 78.
Series I and II are arranged alphabetically. Series III consists of two sections: the legal proceedings are arranged chronologically, followed by subject files, which are arranged alphabetically. Series IV is arranged alphabetically by author.
Organized into three series:
- I. Aid to Spain, 1937-1957.
- II. Subject Files, 1950-1973.
- III. Trials & Hearings, 1946-1960.
- IV. Writings, Undated, 1937-1958.
Scope and Content Note
Series I, Aid to Spain, 1937-1957, documents Barsky's work in Spain and his subsequent efforts on behalf of the Spanish refugees who were force into exile after the fall of the Republic. Materials that date from the Spanish Civil War include medical reports issued by the International Brigades; commendations from the Spanish Republic; clippings pertaining to Barsky's activities in Spain; AMB pamphlets; and a license granting Barsky permission to use a camera.
The bulk of these materials cover Barsky's work with the JAFRC, from its inception in 1941 to its dissolution in 1955. Included here is correspondence, reports, press releases, pamphlets, newsletters, materials related to fundraising events, the organization's constitution, and copies of addresses delivered by Barsky in his capacity as chairman. Notable materials include records and correspondence dealing with HUAC's investigation of the organization; and signed letters from Sean O'Casey, Dorothy Parker, and Paul Robeson promoting the cause of the JAFRC.
Also notable is the text of a Henry Wallace speech decrying the U.S. government's pro-Franco policy; pamphlets, articles, and correspondence relating to the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) including materials protesting VALB's inclusion on the Attorney General's list of subversive organizations; a transcript of a meeting between Milton Wolff and the U.S. State Department on Spanish prisoners condemned to death; and clippings related to the Spanish refugee crisis.
Series II, Subject Files, 1950-1973. These files offer a glimpse into some of Barsky's political and professional preoccupations. Included here are materials related to his activities with the America Labor Party; a speech Barsky delivered paying tribute to editor of the Soviet Russia Today (later named New World Review) and Communist Party organizer Jessica Smith; and a proposal for the establishment of a private hospital in New York City.
Series III Trials & Hearings, 1946-1960, consist of legal records pertaining to the JAFRC's contempt trials, the Board of Regent's action against Barsky's, and the court cases that ensued. In addition to briefs and legal proceedings, are copies of an Amici Curiae brief -- filed by Barsky's medical colleagues --, and a petition of support signed by 621 physicians. This series also contains incoming and outgoing correspondence, with letters of support written to Barsky while he was imprisoned, and character references written to the parole board on his behalf prior to his release. There is also a separate file of correspondence related to the Board of Regents hearings and trials. Notable is a signed letter from journalist Vincent Sheean offering a first-hand account of Barsky's work in Spain and a review of Sheean efforts to defend Barsky and other members of the JAFRC during their contempt trials. There are also several documents that record his incarceration including a receipt of property noting the garments and other personal effects he surrendered when he entered the federal penitentiary to serve his term.
Series IV, Writings, Undated, 1937-1958, includes Barsky's unpublished memoir, "A Surgeon Goes to War," which gives an account of his time organizing medical units and operating on the frontlines in Spain; and a signed typescript of Sandor Voros' work on the American hospitals and international medical services during the Spanish Civil War. This series also includes a copy of Bulgarian physician Tsvetan Angelov Kristanov's account of his term as medical director of the International Brigades in Spain. The book, which is in Russian, includes a personal inscription to Barsky from the author, and a partial translation of the introduction. There is also an essay by an unidentified physician (perhaps Barsky) describing setting up emergency surgery units at the front. Two essays without attribution on academic freedom and co-education may be the work of Vita Lauter Barsky.
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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
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New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.
The The Edward K. Barsky Papers were donated to Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives by Vita Barsky in the late 1970s. The collection came to New York University in January 2001 as part of the original acquisition of Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives collections, formerly housed at Brandeis University.
Photographs were separated from Barsky's manuscript materials in the course of processing. For further information related to the scope and contents of his photograph collection see, The Guide to the Edward K. Barsky Photograph Collection.