By Nicole Watier
One of the more complex questions that our Genealogy desk receives is “Where do I begin to find the service records of my relative who served in the Spanish Civil War?”
Canadians might know a little about the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) through Pablo Picasso’s painting of the destruction of the town of Guernica or from reading Ernest Hemingway’s popular novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Or perhaps through watching one of the films about Dr. Norman Bethune showing his mobile blood transfusion unit and the Instituto Hispano Canadiense de Transfusión de Sangre.
The Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, and Canada, like many other countries, did not officially intervene. Although the Canadian government made it illegal for Canadians to serve by passing the Foreign Enlistment Act, more than 1,400 Canadians volunteered to defend the Spanish government. Along with more than 40,000 volunteer combatants worldwide, they fought for the democratic Republican government (supported by the Soviet Union and Mexico) against the Spanish Army officers led by General Francisco Franco (supported by Germany and Italy). The Communist Party of Canada organized the recruitment campaign in Canada.
A variety of reasons make it difficult to determine the exact number of Canadian volunteers and to find trace of them after the war ended.
As more and more Canadian volunteers arrived in Spain, the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion was formed and named after Louis-Joseph Papineau and William Lyon Mackenzie, leaders of the Rebellions of 1837-1838. The battalion was also known as the “Mac-Paps.” Canadians also served amongst the other battalions of the International Brigades, such as the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and the Washington Battalion.
Many of those who wished to serve in Spain used various means to leave Canada. Many travelled to New York or other countries to board ships destined for Spain. Some used aliases. There is the usual issue of variations of the spelling of names in records, which always makes research more complicated. Since many of the Canadian volunteers originally came from Europe, some had changed or simplified their names. The lack of detailed recordkeeping on both sides in itself presents a huge research challenge.
To help you with your research, here are a few hints from Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) unique collection. You may be interested in looking at the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion collection (MG30-E-173), which contains material collected by the Friends of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, its veterans’ organization, and other individuals who worked to compile records. The collection contains a variety of records of Canadians who served in the International Brigades, correspondence with veterans, articles, backgrounders, reminiscences, lists of names, and photographs. This includes some individual photographs of the volunteers, such as Elias Aviezer, a Canadian in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion during the Spanish Civil War, 1936 to 1938, killed at Jarama. Some of these photos are digitized in Collection Search.
LAC also holds the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion fonds (MG10-K2). This fonds consists of copies of selected records on microfilm reels of the International Brigades from the Communist International, or Comintern. This was the Soviet-sponsored agency founded in 1919 to coordinate the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism worldwide. When the Republican forces were defeated and Soviet officials, the commissars, left Spain in 1939, they took their records, including the records of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. These records include a variety of administrative records, statistics, daily orders, various lists (nominal rolls, wounded, killed, deserted and repatriated), correspondence, and biographies. The original records and more are held by the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Records of Contemporary History, in Moscow, whose permission is required to copy any record.
Other archival records held at LAC that make mention of the Canadian volunteers can be found in a large variety of archival fonds, such as the repatriation of the volunteers starting in February 1939 and the Canadian prisoners of war that followed in the Department of External Affairs (RG25) and the Immigration Branch (RG76). Over 700 returned to Canada, many stayed in Europe, over 200 were killed in action, and some are missing in action.
Some of the volunteers had previously served in the First World War or subsequently served in the Second World War. For Elias Aviezer, killed in action in 1937, we can find his name in the Personnel Records of the First World War database, under the name Elias Achiezer, having previous service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Published sources available at Library and Archives Canada to trace the volunteers include The Daily Clarion, the Communist Party of Canada’s newspaper. It includes stories from foreign correspondent Jean Watts, one of the few women in the field. Newspapers all across Canada wrote about the volunteers, and some local newspapers wrote of their departure and their subsequent return to their communities.
In the September 5, 1938, issue of the The Montreal Gazette, page 9, the following article announces the return of James Wilson to Edmonton, and includes his future-telling comments.
For further reading, you can search the Aurora catalogue to find books that list volunteers and provide context to events, including
- Canadian Volunteers: Spain 1936-1939 by William C. Beaching (OCLC 19517663)
- The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: Canadian Participation in the Spanish Civil War by Victor Howard (OCLC 79017)
- “Ukrainian Volunteers from Canada in the International Brigades, Spain, 1936-39: A Profile” by Myron Momryk in the Journal of Ukrainian Studies, volume 16, nos. 1-2 Summer-Winter, 1991 (OCLC 6744531)
- Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War by Michael Petrou (OCLC 185078047 [Translation in French available at OCLC 1007098925])
Online indexes of Canadian volunteers and other information can be found at
- The Friends and Veterans of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion
- Virtual Research Environment on Canadian Cultural History about the Spanish Civil War includes a database created from the research of Myron Momryk, scholar and former archivist at Library and Archives Canada, and Michael Petrou, historian and journalist.
For help on this subject, or other genealogical questions, feel free to contact the Genealogy team by completing the “Ask us a genealogy question” online form.
Nicole Watier is a genealogy consultant with the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.
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Thanks for this, Nicole.
I might mention two other links:
https://spanishcivilwar.ca from Dalhousie University (a project led by Emily Sharpe, Kaarina Mikelson and Kevin Levangie)
http://sidbrint.ub.edu/ the SIDBRINT project of the University of Barcelona led by Lourdes Prados.
Both have incorporated the biographical dictionary started by Myron Momryk of LAC and Jules Paavio (Mac-Pap) and continued with work from Michael Petrou, Christopher Brooks and myself.
You fail to mention my work on the Jewish members of the Mackenzie-Papineau Batllion in the sources section – see my paper “Jews in the Spanish Civil War” on the Jewish Virtual Library web site and on several web sites around the word. Yank Levy was one of the most famous Canadians who fought and later became an SOE/Commando trainer in the UK and USA in WW2. Do e mail me for more firstname.lastname@example.org – Archvist of AJEX, Jewish War Vets of the UK
Illia Elias Aviezora aka Aviezer/Aviezner aka Albert Levson – 1st Canadian KIA in Spain – 22.2.37 at Jarama aged 38 years – from Montreal and NYC and served WW1 CEF. You fail to mention he was Jewish; the ethnicty of the ‘non Christian’ members of the IB is celebrated by most people and should always be pointed out; 25% of the 40,000 IB volunteers were Jews and the largest group by % of population came from – yes, Israel!!!
Thanks for the additional information on the soldier.