MADRID — Milton Wolff was 21 years old when he decided to pay his own way to Spain to fight Fascism during the Spanish Civil War. A Jew from New York, he was one of 800 Americans who defied their government in the late 1930s to fight General Francisco Franco, who was leading a right-wing rebellion supported by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini against Spain's newly elected government. "I was high as a kite," Mr. Wolff recalls.
Wolff quickly rose to battalion commander, befriending the literati along the way, and writing letters to his mother about his work in a factory, the story he had used to get around her opposition.
But at one battle, he was photographed with Ernest Hemingway - and his cover was blown.
"The photo appeared in one newspaper in New York, the Jewish Forward, the one newspaper my mother read," he says in a thick Brooklyn accent. "My mother found out what her dear son was up to."
The last surviving commanding officer of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, Wolff returned this month to Madrid to partake in a weeklong conference, which included films such as the 1984 documentary "The Good Fight," and lectures by American and Spanish historians and archaeologists. The highlight, aimed at American college students studying abroad, was a trip to the mountainous region outside Madrid, where, 64 years ago, Wolff fought his last battle as a young man their age.
"Many American students didn't know the International Brigades existed before this week," says Justin Byrne, a history professor at both a New York University in Madrid program and one administered by Vassar, Wesleyan, and Colgate colleges. "And yet this movement of international solidarity is still unique in my mind. There was no precedent and no subsequent movement quite like it. Today, there is something to be learned from their commitment."
For Wolff, discussing the role of the Brigades is a way to teach students about political dedication. Wolff has been a role model for student activists and organizers all his life, often receiving letters asking for advice about ways to elicit change. He says questions that students ask about his past - what Fascism meant to him, or why he left his home and risked his life for a foreign war - can help them make their own decisions about the causes they care about.
Wolff hopes Americans will use lessons learned about the Spanish Civil War to make decisions about their role in the current conflict between the United States and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
"This situation is radically different, but one thing is the same," he says. "If you want to do something, you can't just be against something. You have to be for something as well. And whatever you believe in, get as much information as you can and be prepared to sacrifice."
When civil war erupted in Spain, only the Soviet Union and Mexico intervened. But nearly 40,000 leftists from all over the world came to Spain to fight with the International Brigades. Those from the United States, often affiliated with the Communist Party, left jobs as teachers, nurses, artists, and factory workers, and paid their own way to cross the Atlantic. Their passports were marked, "Not Valid For Travel in Spain," so they sneaked over the Pyrenees from France. Once there, the volunteers formed the first racially-integrated military unit in US history. One-third of them died before the end of the war in 1939.
Wolff's participation in some ways had its roots in the Great Depression. At its height, Wolff joined President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps. He was the only participant who could read a label, and became a first-aid man. While he learned to treat diverse illnesses, the injustices within the program, especially the large economic gap between the workers and their bosses, impacted him the most.
"I was disillusioned, and abused, and enlightened," he says. He organized his first hunger strike, and later returned to Brooklyn to join the Young Communist League. At one meeting in 1936, organizers asked if anyone wanted to fight Fascism in Spain. Wolff was the only one who raised his hand.
Before he left for Spain, Wolff was a pacifist. "I had no intention of killing anyone or being killed," he says. But with a growing number of casualties among the International Brigades, he segued into the front lines as a machine-gunner.
Wolff came to embody the "good fight," the version of the war that portrays leftist foreigners sacrificing all for their ideology, and in their time off, mingling with the literati in cafes in Madrid. In fact, Hemingway's "For Whom The Bell Tolls" was inspired in part by Wolff and the Lincoln Brigade.
The civil war, and the role of the International Brigades, is still a contentious issue among Spaniards, especially those who lived through it. Though this month's conference was aimed at educating Americans abroad, many older Spaniards from both sides of the war attended the discussions. It also drew younger Spaniards, who say the Spanish education system only scratches the surface of the subject because it is still such a divisive topic.
"We never learned about the war in history class," says Juan Antonio Nogales, a project manager at a high-tech company in Madrid, who attended Wolff's lecture. "The professors act like it doesn't exist."
The traditional view of the dedicated, innocent brigades has also been questioned. When George Orwell published his "Homage to Catalonia," and account of fighting with the brigades, he was criticized for depicting the volunteers as a deeply divided and unorganized group. With recent confessions and the discovery of papers in Soviet archives, charges of corruption among the brigades are beginning to be accepted as fact.
But for Wolff, it is only the dedication that matters. "War is always a dirty, bitter thing," he says. "I'm not a sentimental old soldier. Some of you love me, and some of you hate me. I've been fighting my whole life. I continue to fight."