Biographies/Benjamin Kotler

Tags: Brooklyn College Teacher Plaza Mayor Ebro Offensive Jewish Third Company New York Guard United Electrical Workers Union National Guard Congress of Industrial Organizations Member Of Communist Party

Researcher: Zareen Islam, Stuyvesant '24

Barnett Steve Kutler, more commonly known as Benjamin (“Ben”) Kotler, was born on June 12, 1915 in Brooklyn, New York. He was Jewish, and was a member of the Communist Party. Not much is known of his life in New York City prior to joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, but it is known that he lived at 210 Madison St in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (his family likely having moved there after the opening of the elevated railway and the Brooklyn bridge in 1883 and 1885 respectively), and that he had a brother named Louis Kotler. He was studious, having graduated from Brooklyn College with an unknown degree summa cum laude, and he worked as a teacher after that. In March of 1938, only two months before his arrival in Spain, Kotler became a member of the Communist Party.

After signing to serve for the brigade, Kotler arrived in Spain on May 15, 1938 via the Massanet, and started serving as a soldier in the third company, the Machine Gun Company, in June. This company, unlike the two infantry companies, held an unknown number of people, but there were an approximate 75 people in similar formations, so it can be estimated that there were a similar number of soldiers here. Sections of this company were almost always at full strength due to the stronger weapons they had such as larger machine guns, unlike those of the other two, which mainly equipped their soldiers with rifles. Members of this company at this time, likely including Kotler, served mostly in the Battle of the Ebro, the longest and bloodiest battle in the Spanish Civil War, around the Ebro River. He would have been part of the large offensive fighting against Republican troops, with initial success that eventually was undone by a successful counterattack from Franco. In September of that same year, Franco managed to capture several members of the Third Company in the town of Corbera, and this was around the time that Kotler ended his service in the company. He then served at the Plaza Mayor, at the time known as the Plaza de la República (of the Republic, referring to the first Republic), a major historical landmark constantly renamed for different reigns. It’s unlikely that any battle happened here; Kotler likely aided in non-bloody areas of the Republican cause such as unloading materials. In December of 1938, he returned to New York on the R.M.S Ausonia, which brought about 50 total veterans from the war.

Upon returning to New York City, Kotler married his wife, Ida, and had a daughter, Judith. He lived on 78 Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Valley. On September 13, 1943, he enlisted in the New York Guard, and after two years he reenlisted on September 24, 1945 to serve two more years. However, based on the blank separation date after Kotler’s second term, he did not fulfill the full two years of service. Shortly before the time that the two years would have been completed, in 1946, the state guard saw a reorganization of the National Guard involving the National Guard units taking New York Guard units. During this transition, Kotler likely became a member of the State War Disaster Military Corp, which aimed to aid the National Guard, but was shortly deactivated. In late 1946, the New York Guard slowly phased out of existence.

Finally, a few years after his time serving for the New York Guard, Kotler joined the United Electrical Workers Union (UE). He joined the union in 1951, only two years after the withdrawal of the UE from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1949, which corresponded with the painting of the UE by the media as “communist-dominated”. In the early 1950s, exactly when he joined, the large presence of anti-communist agenda caused the union to be branded as a “subversive organization” and for the leader of the union to be deported, and it lost over half of its members. The fact that Kotler joined in the midst of such chaos in the union proves his dedication to the Communist Party.

After this incident, the union rose up once again with reorganization in the 1960s to 1970s. However, in the early 1980s, many plants were closed by corporate giants in hopes of profiting from exploitation of others abroad. The UE led resistance movements against these closings, but still, many members, including Kotler, were forced out of the union due to layoffs. Working here from 1951 to 1984, Kotler spent thirty-three years of his life at the union.

Ten years after leaving the union, Kotler passed away in New York, New York on December 25, 1994. He was buried in the Mount Ararat Cemetery in Suffolk County.


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