Edna Drabkin Romer was a young, Jewish member of the Socialist party when she enlisted to serve as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War. She and her husband, both self-acclaimed working people, made the journey from New York City to Spain on July 18th, 1937. Upon arrival, her husband immediately headed to the front lines. With credentials and training from the Metropolitan Hospital of New York, Edna worked as a nurse for the American Medical Bureau. She aided the injured and saved lives in the American Hospital, situated in the Palace of Villa Paz in Saelices, Cuenca, as well as with the Auto-Chir on the Aragon Front, the 35th Division on the Teruel Front, and in field hospitals along the Ebro River.
She described her duties as meaningful, but less than glamorous in letters to her friends in the States. The weather was harsh, often calling for layers of sweaters and sheepskin jackets to ward off the cold. She and her friends used their breaks – on the rare occasion they could get one – to search for a water bottle they could heat, but even then they had no fuel to keep a fire. Through it all, even with ten to fifteen hour shifts and constant stress, she found value in the work.
The hospital held what she called “fiestas,” inviting in Spanish peasant farmers, or campesinos, to drink, dance, eat, and listen to political speeches. There were posters for the cause on every wall, games like chess and checkers if they could find the time, and a library with not nearly enough intellectual books to be read.
Romer especially loved the people and the culture. She treated mostly French and Spanish soldiers, who she thought were short-tempered, but always showed mettle. French, Spanish, and the occasional German became required communication skills, and she relished the moments she found to speak English to a fellow nurse or a soldier seeking medical attention.
When interactions with soldiers and the Medical Bureau’s subpar library failed to satisfy her intellectually, she would wait for a visit from someone who could. Ralph Bates, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gelhorn, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell all visited field hospitals where she served, touring the grounds and offering news about the world outside Spain. Romer even spoke to US Congressmen John Bernard of the Farmer-Labor Party and Jerry Joseph O’Connell of the Democratic Party. They gave speeches about FDR’s Neutrality Act, calling for it to be overturned as the beginning of an effort to establish a classless society in Spain. Romer thought they were sincere and revolutionary.
In 1937, right in the thick of the war, she wrote a letter home asking for news about the New York elections. The Nationalists had gained most of the Basque region and were pushing Republican forces further towards the Ebro, and Romer wanted to know about Socialist Harry W. Laidler’s progress in his run for Governor of New York. She asked whether the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was still going strong, and whether the Socialist party had gained any traction nationally in the United States. This was her cause.
Her husband, Samuel Romer, served with her, though he was captured by nationalists and spent seven months in a prison camp before being released in exchange for Italian soldiers. After he returned from Spain, he wrote about his experience in a 1938 edition of The Socialist Review, where he described himself and Edna as genuine socialists, whose hearts demanded that they fight in Spain. He said they had no regrets.
Despite the grueling work she performed during the war and her dedication to the Socialist cause, Romer was repatriated to the States fourteen months after arriving. Her superiors thought her insufficiently devoted to the cause of the Popular Front government. They worried she would be vulnerable to enemy subversion because she lacked passion and resolve.
She returned to the U.S. aboard the Normandie on September 26th, 1938. One of her deepest regrets was not chronicling her time in Spain. After her husband’s sudden heart attack in 1965, she held memories of their efforts in Spain close to her heart. Romer passed away at the age of 66 in 1979 and was buried in Florida.
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“Romer, Edna (Drabkin),” undated; Robert Steck Papers; ALBA 131; Box: 3; Folder 16; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University, http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/tamwag/alba_104/dscaspace_ref289.html#aspace_ref419.
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“Personal Notes From Spain. Romer, Sam;” Cameron Stewart Collection on the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War; Document Box 14; Folder 2; University Archives and Special Collections, California State University, Fullerton, http://archives.fullerton.edu/repositories/5/archival_objects/12061