Herman (or Hy, as he was called by his friends, which was short for Hyman) Hollander was born on the 14th of May, 1914 in the city of Lemberg (modern day Lwów), Poland. While he was ethnically Polish, the brief years that he spent in that city did not define him. Even during the sunset of his life—spent in Sunrise, Florida—he identified as a proud and true New Yorker, specifically from his beloved Lower East Side. It was in this neighborhood that he began his political journey, met his lifelong friends and comrades, and found the fire and determination to be a fighter for his beliefs regardless of age.
Hy's early childhood was marked by an intrusive and disruptive disparity between the different spheres of his life. During his time in Poland, he can remember his grandmother telling him that, "the revolutionaries are in town," in reference to the Bolsheviks. These loaded words, and the bodies hanging from the gallows that accompanied them flew over Hy's 6 year old head, but left him asking questions. These sights of tragedy followed Hy and his father even after their move to the States in 1920 after the death of Hy's mother. They were driven by this tragedy, the prevalent discrminiation towards Jews in Poland, and the promise of a better life. While Hy and his father did move into an ethnically diverse Williamsburg that accepted them, they could not escape poverty's grasp. One of the defining images from Hy's childhood that would go on to influence him for the rest of his life was of people in his neighborhood scrounging through barrels and garbage pails for food during the early 30s. Before those teenage years, Hy had always asked why things like war and hunger had to exist, but after his maturation, he was suddenly driven by the horrific images of his past to act. To help. To do his part.
Hy was an excellent student, but often found the schoolroom itself lacking for mental stimulation. This would lead him to the Brooklyn Public Library, where he would spend hours reading about his passions—history and geography—and the world's great revolutions. After his visits to the library, he would hear a monthly speaker that would appear on the corner of Varet Street and Graham Avenue near his neighborhood. This man discussed Soviet Russia and its tenets: peace, bread, employment, and equality. Through this speaker, Hy joined the Youth Branch of the Downtown Workers' Club, which finally led him to the Youth Communist League, or YCL. Herman eventually rose to become the President of the Youth Section, and provided food and shelter to the homeless and disadvantaged youths, regardless of the police's frequent attempts to disrupt him and his friends. He participated in demonstrations for unemployment insurance and for food aid. This ragtag group of YCL boys were beaten by the police, but none of them cared. For them, the League wasn't as much about a political ideology as it was about helping people, and doing the right thing.
It was out of this burning conviction that Herman found the need to go to Spain. He hated what Hitler was saying, and was also able to sympathize with the victims of Pogroms and Concentration Camps. He feared that if Hitler wasn't stopped in Europe, "then instead of Normandy, there would be fighting in Coney Island and Brighton Beach." Hy felt that he was bound to his duty because he was a member of the human race, and because he believed in a government without oppression that was controlled by the people.
After an 11-day voyage aboard the German ocean-liner Berengaria, during which he had his 23rd birthday, Hy disembarked at the Hague and made his way to Paris. After a series of train rides and nighttime walks through villages, he crossed the Pyreenees. After their descent, and arrival in Spain, he and his troupe were greeted by the locals with hospitality and—more importantly—wine.
Hy's tour in Spain lasted for 14 months, during which he served in the Jarama Valley, Bruneti, Teruel, Albacete, and others. He said himself that being in battle felt like, "the world was coming to an end." The noise was beyond anything that he had ever experienced, and the sight of what he called the "Lower East Side Boys" being felled beside him was often too much to bear. Two major anecdotes stand out when it comes to his time on the battlefield.
The first reflects the closeness of the Lincolns, both on the field and off. A man named Jack Weiss, who was Herman's cousin, served with Herman during the Bruneti campaign. He was injured in the field and was being dragged back behind the lines on a litter, bleeding profusely. He happened to pass by Herman, and when he saw him, Jack shook his fist at Hy as best he could and said, "if you tell my sister that I was wounded then I'll get even with you." Herman responded by calling the man crazy, and told him to get some rest while chuckling. Jack fortunately made a recovery from his injury, albeit with a bad leg.
The second was tragically all too commonplace. A friend of Hy's, named Sauly Bernbaum, was a Captain in the John Brown Battery. Sauly was greatly admired by Hy, particularly his sense of duty and responsibility as a leader, and the extent to which he acted on these convictions. Sauly never ran away, and never put himself first. The two men served together during the Belchite campaign, which was characterized by the vicious covering fire of Nationalist snipers to slow the Lincolns' advance. During one such push, the group had to run through open ground, and one of their comrades was shot. He was still alive, but could no longer run with the company. Sauly, out of a sense of compassion or duty or both, turned and tried to help the fallen man. In vain he pulled at the near-deadweight, hoping against hope that this man, his friend, would not be left in no-man's land under withering fire. His fellows, Hy among them, looked on in pain for a moment, before one broke the silence and simply said, "you have to go on." This is a phrase that Herman would never forget.
It would stay burned in his mind for years to come, and after once again serving the US in the Second World War as a member of Signal Radio Intelligence, it would shape his career choices. Herman became a leader in movements for various unions in New York City, chief among them being a union for Taxi drivers, which began in 1949. He worked with notables such as Harry Van Arsdale, and got Lincoln Veterans jobs by collaborating with Moe Fishman, the General Secretary of the Brigade's Veterans' Association. After moving to Florida because of his wife's health, he joined the National Council of Senior Citizens, and continued to do good work for the community into his own seniority.
Herman Hollander lived an amazing, full life. He rose out of a poor, first-generation immigrant family of Polish Jews to become somebody who made a great difference. He didn't die a wealthy or famous man, but Herman possessed something that few do. He was proud of his life's work, and had truly done his part. When asked what he thought about the Spanish Civil War and its effect on his life, he said, "There's no doubt about it in my mind, and in my heart, what I did 50 years ago is the most beautiful thing that any human being could do. It was a just cause, it was the right thing to do." He put his life on the line for what he believed in, and helped a cause that would, finally in 1975, bear fruit.
Herman was able to see a democratic Spain, and made a trip there in 1986. Amidst all the talks he attended and the gifts he was given, one moment stood out to him as perhaps the best moment of his life. One day during the trip, he and some other veterans saw a protest of mostly young Spanish people moving past the outside of their hotel. The elderly men raised their arms in the Republican Salute, and to their surprise and satisfaction (in Herman's words) "got it right back."
Herman Hollander Papers ALBA.051, dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/tamwag/alba_051/.
RMS Berengaria, rmhh.co.uk/ships/pages/berengaria.html.
“IP Blocked.” Ecosia, www.ecosia.org/images?q=pratt institute logo#id=AB49620D9E3283AA0FC9CB673A47CCD83CB72305.
Ink, Social. “Hollander, Herman.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 6 Sept. 2020, alba-valb.org/volunteers/herman-hollander/.
Johnson, Timothy V. “Herman Hollander.” Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives Oral History Collection, 8 Dec. 2017, wp.nyu.edu/albaoh/herman-hollander/.
Notes on the Interview, which includes additional information to be found here: (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fMc6Q2qEIPaI9zU3Ezw78Rt6VUW8WKzlYmuwXzq9mTg/edit?usp=sharing)