Jacob (Jack) Shulman was born on July 29, 1914, as the fifth of seven children of Jewish refugees who fled Czarist Russia. Both of his parents arrived in Canada en route to the United States in 1902, where they met each other and eventually moved to Rochester, New York. His father worked as a house painter, and his mother as a washerwoman. From these humble beginnings, Shulman managed to win a scholarship to Cornell University, where he took part in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. However, he was forced to drop out as a result of the economic ramifications of the Great Depression. Despite having come from a rather conservative family, the three years he spent at Cornell exposed him to leftist thinking, and Shulman then became engaged in politics, joining the Young Communist League in 1930.
In February of 1937, at the tender age of 23, he organized a group of 18 fellow communists and took a ship to France, intending to cross into Spain and join the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He chose to fight because he was unemployed at the time, and held the strong conviction that the emergence of fascism would spark another world war. Organized in groups of 6 or 7 people, they posed as students and tourists and reached France by March. However, due to a breakdown in the Spanish railroad system, he spent about 2 weeks sheltered in the attic of a school building in the town of Sete in southern France. Eventually, several taxi cabs arrived, which Shulman and his comrades were marshaled into and hurriedly driven to the Pyrenees overnight by a group of professional Andorran smugglers. He crossed over in Catalonia, and was picked up by trucks from the small nearby town of Figueras.
Once in Spain, he held an edge over his peers in regards to experience, as he had been previously familiar with military chains of command, points of discipline, instruction, and organization, whereas the others had no military training whatsoever. Shulman was assigned to the artillery corps of the George Washington Battalion, stationed just outside of Madrid, and due to his ROTC experience and basic knowledge of artillery, he was considered a seasoned miltiaryman and immediately promoted to sergeant. Ironically enough, his artillery unit of 15-20 people was not in possession of any artillery, and was not even big enough to be considered a unit. Because Italian fascists had torpedoed Russian ships smuggling 76 millimeter artillery guns via the Black Sea, the Republicans were forced to resort to using “very old, obsolete, ancient” cannons left over from the 1890s, although Shulman remarks that they appeared almost as if they were holdovers from the Napoleonic Wars. The guns had large wooden wheels that were about six feet high, and shot seven to eight inch shells. With no horses or pack animals, the ammunition and weapons had to be transported and handled using sheer manpower. The operation of these weapons was also quite dangerous: the Republicans were often less concerned with the fascists than they were with the artillery backfiring or exploding in their faces.
Overall, Shulman was in Spain for about 2 years and 2 months, during which he battled both malaria and the elements. By fall of 1938, he was officially withdrawn from his position, retreating to Albacete. He was meant to be evacuated through Valencia, but the boats never arrived, and the city was soon cut off by the fascists. Eventually, he managed to make his way out to Barcelona with his unit via an old coal freighter, in suffocatingly dusty conditions. During the siege of Barcelona, Shulman bravely volunteered to go out to try to defend the city, despite hardly anyone previously making it out alive. As the volunteer group was only 7 men strong, they were refused by the military leaders. One of these seven was in fact a man named Vincent Lossowski, the son of working-class Polish immigrants who had previously known Shulman in Rochester, and had only reunited with him as they were leaving Spain.
By January 25, 1939, seeing as the situation was hopeless, the surviving volunteers were sent on a rickety train back to the French border, and just in time, as Barcelona soon fell. Both individuals distinctly recall a ragged old woman begging for food by the side of the train tracks, who they felt perfectly represented the situation that they had left behind. Shulman recalls the bitterness and utter helplessness he experienced at the time: “We were very much disappointed in the democratic countries for not helping the Spanish Republic,” he reflects, “We were fighting to prevent World War II. What we did there was a failed effort, but it was an effort that had to be made. By fighting fascism in Spain, we delayed the start of World War II by three years.” However, he also acknowledges that the volunteers knew very well that it wasn’t the end of the matter - rather, they “knew it was just the beginning.”
Shulman and the remaining volunteers were escorted onto a large ocean liner under a military escort in the port town of Le Havre. Unfortunately, many Spanish Republicans, civilians, and refugees who also crossed over from the Pyrenees were placed into internment camps by the French, where they were kept for 3 to 5 years, but the Americans avoided this fate, as they were foreigners. The volunteers eventually arrived in New York City, met by a celebratory, excited crowd. However, the US government was not as thrilled in regards to the matter. “Guys from the FBI kept coming around,” he revealed in an interview, “They terrified my mother and father, asking about me and Spain.” They had confiscated and burned a suitcase full of letters, souvenirs, and memorabilia from Spain that he kept at his parents’ Rochester home, and continued to harass him up to his enlistment in the Second World War.
Shulman made it back to Rochester with Lossowski by February 7, 1939, and was shocked to be greeted by about 400 people at the city’s New York Central train station. Despite having left Rochester covertly, when he came back, “it seemed like everyone knew it.” Once he got back home, he was greeted by his worrysick mother, who remarked “You’ve got your arms, you’ve got your legs - what more could I ask?” as she embraced him.
Upon settling back down, he became a full-time member of the CPUSA. He worked closely with prominent communist leader William Z. Foster as his secretary, and was sent on numerous outreach missions to survey the extent of the spread of ‘Browderism,’ the following of Earl Browder, a former leader of the CPUSA who was widely considered to be a ‘revisionist,’ and unfaithful to Marxist-Leninist ideals. Shulman also volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1944. Although he was considered old, his prior military experience made him a prime candidate for officerial training, and upon informing army officials that he had been in an artillery corps in Spain, they were also “awfully eager” to send him to field artillery schools in order to teach newcomers.
Later on in life in 1959 and 1960, he also travelled to Cuba, serving as Foster’s eyes and ears, and then went to Albania after Foster died on September 1, 1961, while in the Soviet Union. At this point, Shulman was heavily criticized and ostracized by other members of the party, and gradually distanced himself from its leaders. In 1968, he went on to visit China during the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” — Mao Zedong’s purge that lasted from 1966 to 1976. There, he served as an English editor for the Peking Press, but, eventually coming to believe that China was turning revisionist, he returned to Albania, where he started the USA-Albania Friendship Association and published the Albania Report, as well as publicizing and distributing Albanian literature in America and other nations. After the fall of communism in 1989, he supported the International Struggle Marxist-Leninist (ISML), and was also a source of great assistance and encouragement to Indian Marxist-Leninists. Shulman passed away on October 19, 1999, in Brooklyn, although by 2008, his American associates had formed the anti-revisionist, Hoxhaist party, the American Party of Labor. One such associate, a writer for the Red Phoenix, Alfonso Casal, aptly remarks: “Jack was an amazing man, a true comrade, and a dear friend.”
A. Casal, personal communication, April 8, 2021
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Ziegler, M. (1983, April 10). When Americans fought in Spain. Upstate Magazine, Sunday Democrat and Chronicle