Marjorie Polon Papers
Language of Materials
The Marjorie Polon Papers consist chiefly of letters from six American Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers (Bill "Mike" Bailey, Nathan Gross, Harry Hakam, George Kaye, Sydney Levine and William Van Felix) who fought together in the Spanish Civil War. Although Polon's correspondents were strangers to her, the letters she wrote were clearly important to the men who received them and several of them responded in detail to her. The bulk of the letters were written in 1938 and provide descriptions of battles, bombardments, and the relationship between the international volunteers and the Spanish citizenry as well as commentary on the political situation in the United States.
Marjorie Polon (1924-1977), a native of New York City, was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. Polon's father died when she was an infant and her mother became a schoolteacher to support her and her older brother. Polon attended the Walden School in New York City, and in 1944 graduated from Vassar College. The topics of her senior thesis were Marx and Freud. In November of 1944 Polon married Leon Taunbenhaus with whom she had two daughters. Polon was a writer by profession and, according to her daughter Jair Kessler, "life-long leftist" who remained committed to progressive politics throughout her life.
In 1938, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, then fourteen-year-old Polon began to correspond with six American Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers (Bill "Mike" Bailey, Nathan Gross, Harry Hakam, George Kaye, Sydney Levine and William Van Felix) who had gone to Spain to defend the embattled Republic. Although Marjorie Polon did not know any of these men until she began exchanging letters with them, her letters were clearly important to the men who received them. Her letters appear to have been passed around among the soldiers; the cigarettes and photos Polon included with her letters were especially popular. Although Polon's friends and classmates may have been sympathetic to the fight against fascism in Spain, apparently none of them joined her in corresponding with the volunteers. All of the volunteers with whom Polon corresponded survived the Spanish Civil War.
Bill Bailey (1910-1995), described by Harry Hakam "as the biggest guy in the battalion," was renowned before his involvement in the Spanish Civil War for removing the Nazi flag, in 1935, from the S.S. Bremen while it was in port in New York City. Bailey, the son of Irish immigrants, lived in Hoboken and New York City until he ran off to sea at the age of fourteen. In 1930 he joined the Marine Workers' Industrial Union and shortly thereafter became a member of the Communist Party. By the time he began his correspondence with Polon he had been in Spain nearly a year as a member of the seamen's machine-gun company. Bailey met Polon, and continued to correspond with her, after his return from Spain.
Nathan Gross (b. 1914), a New York City native and high school graduate, served as a machine gunner during the Spanish Civil War. Before fighting in Spain, he was an office worker and a union organizer. Although his parents were Democrats, he and his sister, Gertrude Richman, a teacher, were Communists.
Harry Hakam (1913-1996) served in a communications unit with William Van Felix and "introduced" Van Felix to Polon. Hakam, a native of Brooklyn and a member of the Young Communist League, had two years of college and three years of union courses in electrical engineering. He worked as an electrician before volunteering to fight in Spain.
George Kaye (1918?-1990), who joined the Young Communist League in 1933, was one of the youngest American volunteers in Spain. Bill Bailey "adopted" young Kaye into the seamen's machine-gun company, and Kaye, who had two years of college, served as editor for Bailey's dispatches from the war. Prior to embarking for Spain, Kaye, a native New Yorker, worked as a truck driver for a furniture company in Hollywood, California and was a member of the Teamsters union. Kaye's parents, Anna and Morris, were communist sympathizers.
Sydney Levine (b. 1911), a machine gunner during the Spanish Civil War, had been a member of the Communist Party since 1933. Levine, who had only a junior high school education supplemented by one year of trade school, was a machinist by trade. Levine was born in Connecticut but was raised in New York City. His mother, a Russian immigrant, died when he was twelve. The other members of Levine's family, a devoutly religious sister, a criminal brother sentenced to Sing-Sing, and his father, a Russian immigrant, did not share Levine's appreciation of the Communist Party.
William Van Felix (1916-2002) was a native New Yorker and a radio technician. An Italian submarine torpedoed the ship that carried Van Felix and other volunteers from Marseilles to Barcelona in 1937. Many casualties ensued; however Spanish fishermen rescued Van Felix as he swam for shore. Van Felix was assigned to a communications unit in Spain. When standard communication systems broke down, he served as a runner to deliver messages.
Folders are arranged alphabetically.
The files are grouped into one series:
- I, Correspondence and Periodical
Scope and Content Note
The collection consists chiefly of correspondence to Marjorie Polon from six American Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers (Bill "Mike" Bailey, Nathan Gross, Harry Hakam, George Kaye, Sydney Levine and William Van Felix) who fought together in the Spanish Civil War. The majority of the letters in the collection were written by Bill Bailey. Bailey's letters from Spain describe the training of Spanish recruits; relationships between the international volunteers and the Spanish citizenry; air raids; battle scenes and conditions in Barcelona, Ebro, Fatarella, and Gandesa; and provide commentary on the political situation in the United States. Bailey's later letters include descriptions of his work as a seaman in the South Pacific and as editor of the Black Gang News; Voice of the Rank and File of the Marine Firemen for Democratic Unionism.
Nathan Gross's letter, written after a bombardment, highlights the value the volunteers placed on the cigarettes Polon sent to the volunteers. The letters from Harry Hakam indicate that he helped Polon expand her group of "pen pals." He also encouraged Polon to send more letters and cigarettes, and to write to the Spanish soldiers as well as to the Americans. Sydney Levine disabused Polon of any "romantic" notions she held of Spain, and included descriptions of aerial bombings and life in the field. William Van Felix also described life in the field, and wrote of the importance of letters to the volunteers. This collection also includes one letter in Spanish from a soldier identified only as "Ernesto" and one copy of The Volunteer for Liberty annotated by William Van Felix.
Of special interest, beyond the content of the letters in the collection, are the two postcards included as part of a 1938 letter by Bailey, and the graphics on the Black Gang News; Voice of the Rank and File of the Marine Firemen for Democratic Unionism letterhead on which the 1952 letter from Bailey is written.
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Copyright (or related rights to publicity and privacy) for materials in this collection was not transferred to New York University. Permission to use materials must be secured from the copyright holder. For more information, please contact the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-998-2630.
Identification of item, date; Marjorie Polon Papers; ALBA 159; box number; folder number; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
The Marjorie Polon Papers were donated to Tamiment Library by her daughter, Jair Kessler, in 2001. The accession number associated with this gift is 2001.016.