Probing a family history mystery

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Seventy-five years ago today, June 2, 1937, Louis Stoloff left his home on the Lower East Side to fight fascism overseas.

He never returned.

Decades later, Stoloff's nephew began a quest to solve the mystery of what happened to him. In uncovering the details about the uncle he never met, George Haber opened a new chapter in his own life, becoming, in his mid-60s, a student of the conflict known as the Spanish Civil War.

"He just vanished," Haber said of Stoloff. "What motivated him? What was this all about?"

Because the United States was officially neutral in the civil war that raged from 1936 to 1939, there was no telegram or phone call, no official communication, informing the Stoloff family of what had happened to Louis. For the rest of their lives, his immigrant Russian parents and siblings were left to ponder his disappearance. All that his older sister Rose had to remember him by was a tiny photograph he had sent from Spain. She kept the cherished memento in an album in the back of her bedroom closet. Years later, when her son George was a teenager, he found it.

"I saw this two-inch photo of a group of guys in what looked like a mountainous area," recalled Haber, who is now 68 and lives in Jericho. "I noticed the guy in the lower right hand corner looked just like my Uncle Sol," his mother's other younger brother.

That was Louis.

The photo was taken in April 1938, almost a year after Stoloff had left New York. By that time, he was part of a unit of Americans who had volunteered to help the democratically elected government of Spain in its war against Francisco Franco, the Fascist general backed by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Today, Haber said, he will mark the 75th anniversary of his uncle's departure quietly. "Maybe we'll go out for Spanish food," he says, with a laugh.

But part of it will be spent reading George Orwell's memoir of the Spanish Civil War, "Homage to Catalonia." The book is the latest on a required reading list that Haber has assigned himself about this complex and controversial war that is often viewed as a precursor to World War II.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Haber, who was born years after his Uncle Louis died in the war, takes satisfaction in the fact that, during the past two years, he has been able to answer questions that have haunted his family since the late 1930s.

The spectral figure of Louis Stoloff roamed the margins of Haber's family narrative for years, although Haber's mother and other relatives rarely spoke of him. "Every so often, I would think about Louis leaving his country and his family to fight in this war," said Haber, a public relations consultant.

Some answers about what happened to Stoloff came only when Haber and his wife, Elinor, decided to research their family history to create a video that could someday be shown to their two grandsons. Their project took them to Barcelona in October 2010 to discover what they could about Stoloff.

Experts say that when we reach a certain time in our lives, it's not uncommon to develop an interest in family history, often with a goal of creating a website, scrapbook, video or other permanent record for future generations. "The average age of our reader is 63, because this is the time of life it begins to matter," says Allison Dolan, publisher and editorial director of Family Tree magazine. "There's a greater desire to dig up the family history and preserve it for the next generations."

Technology also has made it easier to dig up the past. With a few strokes of his computer keyboard, Haber found information about his uncle that had eluded his mother and the Stoloff family, all now deceased. On a registry of Americans who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, there was Louis Stoloff, listed as "killed in action" in September 1938, a little more than a year

Get the scoop on events, nightlife, day trips, family fun and things to do on Long Island.

after arriving in Spain.

Haber, whose love of history helped get a Garden City World War I monument refurbished in 2003, also learned that New York University's Tamiment Library is home to this country's foremost collection on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the name tagged to the American volunteers. There, he found another photograph of Stoloff, as well as documents that helped paint a more detailed picture of his uncle.

When Stoloff left New York City, he was 27, the median age of the 2,800 Americans who went to fight. In 1936, when the war broke out, he was a shipping clerk earning $15 a week and living on Avenue B. Records show that in the war, his job was to help lay the wire that enabled field commanders to transmit messages, and he was among the more than 900 American soldiers killed. Estimates for the total number who died is about 500,000, according to International World History Project (history-world.org).

"We get many people coming in looking for information on family members who fought," says Gail Malmgreen, the archivist for the collection at NYU. "But George was very passionate and even more energetic than most. The fact that he went to Spain and retraced the route of his uncle shows his dedication."

When Haber and his wife arrived in Barcelona, he was contacted by a local newspaper reporter who had heard about his mission and offered to drive the couple into the mountainous part of Catalonia near the Ebro River, where Stoloff had fought. They visited Corbera d'Ebre, a village that was shattered by the fighting in 1938 and has been left a ruin as a memorial to the war. This helped Haber to better visualize the circumstances in which his uncle had fought. But alas, they couldn't find his grave; probably because there is none.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The bloody Battle of the Ebro was one of the last significant engagements for the American soldiers in the war. "The Fascists bombed the hills night and day," says historian Peter N. Carroll, author of "The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade." The work Stoloff was doing was dangerous, and it was likely during the bombardments in this final phase of the battle that he was killed. When Franco's men finally forced the surviving Americans and their allies out of the hills, Carroll says, "they probably buried all the bodies in a mass grave."

A few months after the Habers' return from Barcelona, their son, Jeff, a filmmaker, interviewed his parents about their family history. Uncle Louis and his parents' excursion to Spain was a big part of it. The 30-minute film is now in DVD form. The Habers say they'll show it to their grandchildren, Jeff's two sons, as soon as the boys are old enough to appreciate it.

Still, a nagging question remains for Haber. What was his uncle's impetus to fight in a war? After all, he says logically, "he was no militant, he was a shipping clerk!"

Haber learned from the NYU records that Stoloff, like many in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, was a member of the Communist Party, which could explain his family's reticence to discuss him openly in later years. Still, Carroll notes, "being a Communist in the 1930s was not the stigma it would become. This is long before the word 'gulag' was even known."

There may be a fundamental reason behind Stoloff's decision to leave everything behind. "The volunteers knew what Hitler was doing to Jews in Germany," Carroll said. "They felt he had to be stopped in Spain. They really understood the stakes, long before the rest of the country did."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Haber is still searching for letters from Stoloff that would detail why he left home and family for Spain, but Carroll's explanation sits well with Haber.

"My uncle Louis gave his life for his principles," he said. "A noble piece of family history to pass along to our grandsons."


Spanish Civil War in the spotlight

The involvement of Americans in the Spanish Civil War, long a controversial subject in many quarters, is getting a new look. The 75th anniversary of the conflict that raged between 1936 and 1939 has been marked with new books, movies and exhibits. For example, HBO this past week premiered "Hemingway & Gellhorn," a new movie about Ernest Hemingway -- who based his novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls" on his experiences in Spain -- and his romance with war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman star in the title roles.

Many artists and writers were attracted to Spain during the war. Among them were John Dos Passos, whose famous "U.S.A." trilogy was published in 1937; and English writer George Orwell -- later famous for "1984" and "Animal Farm" -- who fought in an international brigade and wrote about his experience in a literary nonfiction book, "Homage to Catalonia."

Pablo Picasso's famous painting "Guernica," about the bombing of that city by Fascists, is another iconic work of art from the war.

For more about the war and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, go to alba-valb.org/history.

Get the scoop on events, nightlife, day trips, family fun and things to do on Long Island.

You also may be interested in: