Irving Frankel was born in 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire (now Russia). They were part of a generation that fled Eastern Europe around the turn of the last century to escape antisemitism, which had manifested in the form of pogroms throughout the region. However, his parents were not religious, and his father was a well-educated man who, according to Irving Frankel, worked in the "real estate insurance industry" after coming to America.
Frankel had a positive relationship with his family and was afforded a relatively comfortable childhood due to his father’s work, even though they resided in the poor neighborhood of Brownsville. Frankel was known to have lived at 202 Herzl Street in Brownsville, although it is unclear if this was his childhood home. Brownsville was a mostly Jewish and Italian community at the time, and the Frankels were surrounded by impoverished garment workers, peddlers, and the unemployed. The family pressured young Irving Frankel to prioritize his education, and he even became the high school newspaper editor. However, he soon began working at the age of 16, whereupon he dropped out of regular high school and took night school classes in New Lots, Brooklyn, to complete his secondary education. He then went to City College for 2 years but did not complete his degree, citing personal laziness as a factor in his academic shortcomings.
Soon after, Frankel began attending political gatherings in his neighborhood. At the time, Brownsville was a hub for progressive thought. Frankel frequented large public talks given by Abraham “Abe” Osheroff, a communist activist who later fought in Spain, on the corner of Hopkinson Avenue (now Thomas S. Boyland Street) and Pitkin Avenue. Frankel ended up joining the Communist Party of the United States in 1936 and becoming a passionate member. In the summer of the same year, the Spanish Civil War began as nationalist rebels failed to swiftly realize a coup d'état. Frankel stated that as soon as the news came out, he viewed the conflict as a war of “good guys against bad guys.” After reading, seeing, and hearing various reports, he thought, “[I have] got to go to Spain.”
In early 1937, he applied for a passport but was not granted one. The government mentioned his background (political affiliation) as the reason. Frankel recalled being distraught over this, as “everybody [he] knew was going to Spain, and [he] was jealous”. In July 1938, he managed to stow away on the SS Manhattan with the help of longshoreman Edward “Frenchy” Robinson. He had never been on a ship before, and the journey was worsened by the minimal food he received as a stowaway. But after 6 days, Irving Frankel landed in France, along with Frenchy Robinson, a volunteer named Alex Weinerman, and others destined for Spain. After staying at a hotel in Paris for several nights, Frankel traveled by train to the city of Perpignan, on the southern border of France. From here, he and several others spent a night trekking across the Pyrenees Mountains.
Frankel arrived in Spain on July 26, 1938. He took part in a one-week training program, which taught him rudimentary combat skills like using a rifle. The instruction was in Spanish, but he picked up the core ideas, after which he was off to the front. Most of the fighting that Frankel participated in was during the Ebro Offensive, specifically in battles at the Serra de Pàndols and the Serra de Cavalls, which are two mountain ranges along the Ebro River. He crossed the Ebro River by rowboat and later described the volunteer fighters as being woefully inexperienced: “Like idiots, we fired [with rifles] at some planes coming over.” He was exposed to gruesome sights during the Ebro Offensive: two acquaintances from the ship to France were killed in action with Frankel nearby, and Alex Weinerman had his leg blown off by a mortar shell right in front of Frankel. Reflecting on his experiences in Spain, Frankel noted that he only saw the bitter war-torn aspects and not much else of the country. He met very few civilians, but poverty and Catholicism stood out to him. Ultimately, the Spanish Civil War left Frankel feeling cynical, a sentiment that was justified by the failure of the Ebro Offensive and the Republican cause as a whole.
After five months in Spain, he returned to the United States aboard the SS Ausonia on December 20, 1938. In America, he received welfare and was supported by a worker’s alliance. He spent a short time working in the Soviet Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. When America joined WW2 in December 1941, he got licensed to be a seaman and began working as a Merchant Marine sailing transporting materials across the Atlantic Ocean. It was dangerous work, and he was lucky to avoid death after a torpedo hit his ship on a voyage. After WW2, Frankel got a job running the Seaman’s Club for the United Seamen's Service. He lived a quiet life thereafter (working various sea-related jobs), but was subject to occasional U.S. government surveillance because of his political past. He had already become disillusioned with the Communist Party, and quietly cut off his connections with it.
Like many others who served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, Frankel was an everyday man with a left-wing inclination and a strong sense of morality. When asked near the end of his life what he felt about the failed fight against fascism in Spain, he replied clearly that “it had to be done.” Having lived a long and fruitful life, Irving Frankel passed away in 1997.
“Frankel, Irving.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 29 July 2022, https://alba-valb.org/volunteers/irving-frankel/.
Harriman, Manny. “Irving Frankel.” Digital Tamiment, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archive, 10 Mar. 1986, http://digitaltamiment.hosting.nyu.edu/s/albafilms/item/2915.
Sugarman, Martin. “Jews in the Spanish Civil War.” Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jews-who-served-in-the-international-brigade-in-the-spanish-civil-war.