Harry Perlman was born on August 11, 1908, in New York city. The son of Jewish immigrants, Yetta and Joseph Perelman (which would later be shortened to Perlman), from Russia. A native New Yorker, Perlman was raised in the Bronx, and stayed in the city as an office worker as grew up. In 1932, radicalized by the ongoing Great Depression, Perlman joined the Communist Party. In 1935, Perlman married Celia Dembrofsky.
The Communist Party of 1930s New York was a powerful force. In part, this was a result of its large immigrant population (four-fifths of the Communists in New York were foreign born), though like Perlman, many native-born children of immigrants also joined the party. From the 1930s to 1950s, NYC would remain the capital of communism in America, where the ideology thrived more than anywhere else. By 1938, New York State comprised about half of the Communist Party’s national membership.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, open Communists even held several seats of the New York City Council, and won hundreds of thousands of votes for the presidency of the board of aldermen.
The Great Depression – which lasted from 1929 until the outbreak of World War II in 1941 – helped radicalize many to socialist politics. The “workers’ state” of the Soviet Union appeared to be thriving at a time when the capitalist world seemed to falter. To many who suffered immensely at the time, Communism seemed as though it held the answers to their plight.
In 1937, following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Perlman joined many other communists in New York in traveling to Spain, to join the “good fight.” Departing on May 8, 1937, aboard the American Importer, he arrived in Spain on June 1 of the same year, via the town of Llansa on the coast. Once in Spain, as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Perlman fought primarily in Belchite.
Belchite was a town in Aragon on the frontlines where, in mid-1937, the Republican forces launched an offensive attempting to capture the Nationalist town of Zaragoza - the capital of Aragon. While the Republicans managed to find minor success, their gains were limited at best, and soon the advance came to a standstill. The brutal fighting led to the utter destruction of Belchite. As Cecil D. Eby put it, “Belchite was less a town than a nasty smell” following the fighting in the town. This destruction is even preserved to the modern day, as Franco did not allow the town to be rebuilt, becoming a monument to the brutality of the nationalists, and a warning to those who opposed them.
In the early spring of 1938, the Rebels began a counteroffensive in Aragon. As the Nationalists managed to break through the Republican lines in multiple places, the XV Battalion (the unit which contained the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) was forced into a brutal fighting retreat to avoid encirclement. When the battalion ended its retreat with the crossing of the Ebro River later that spring, it was a shadow of its former self. Perlman was far from alone among his comrades in death during this spring. Indeed, the British brigade would escape the spring with only 80 soldiers remaining, and 42 fit for service. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, though it suffered less, was hardly in better shape.
Ultimately, Harry Perlman gave his life away for a cause he believed in. It was thanks to him, and his fellow comrades who fell during those retreats, that the Lincoln Brigade, and the whole of the XV Battalion, was able to avoid total destruction at the hands of the nationalists. His actions saved lives and, for a short period until the end of the war in 1939, kept the hope alive that a republican Spain might triumph. It is for that, which he should be remembered.
Ciaccio, Nichali. “The Ruins of Belchite.” Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura, February 14, 2014. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-ruins-of-belchite-belchite-spain.
Isserman, Maurice. “When New York City Was the Capital of American Communism.” New York Times, October 20, 2017.
“Perlman, Harry.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, July 12, 2020. https://alba-valb.org/volunteers/harry-perlman/.
"New York, New York City Marriage Records, 1829-1940," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:24D1-NGQ : 10 February 2018), Harry Perlman and Celia Dembrofsky, 16 Apr 1935; citing Marriage, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York City Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,685,085.
“The Retreat through Aragon.” The retreat through Aragon | International Brigade Memorial Trust. International Brigade Memorial Trust. Accessed June 3, 2022. http://www.international-brigades.org.uk/content/retreat-through-aragon.