Joseph Thomas Kaplan (nicknamed Joe) was born on February 23rd, 1905, and grew up in New York City. Kaplan graduated with a Bachelor in Arts and was married.
He lived at 248 West 17th Street, NYC, which is located in the neighborhood of Chelsea today. He lived three streets away from the neighborhood of Little Spain (Pequeña España), which was home to many working-class Spanish immigrants, especially in the 1930s. Most residents of Little Spain eagerly supported the Republic, although there were a few pro-Franco supporters. Places such as the Spanish Benevolent Society and Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe were located in Little Spain and served as crucial cultural centers for the community. Famous artists, such as the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, were said to also frequent Little Spain quite often.
The New School was also located half a mile away from his residence. In 1933, they established the University in Exile and the École libre des hautes études graduate divisions for scholars that escaped Nazi Germany and other dictatorships at the time. The motto of the school is “To the Living Spirit.” At the time, Nazis had taken down a plaque with the words “be the Living Spirit” at the University of Heidelberg. Thomas Mann suggested that the New School use this as their motto, as the “living spirit” in Europe was being threatened, so it would have a home in the United States.
He worked as a teacher and journalist and was part of the Communist Party in 1934. As a unit education director, he was in charge of assigning Marxist readings to his allies.
Kaplan was also Jewish. Jewish volunteers were among the first to fight in Spain and thousands went to fight in the war, in order to fight back against fascism and antisemitism. It is estimated that over a third of those from the USA participating in the Spanish Civil War were Jewish.
He received passport #426926 on May 27th, 1937. Kaplan arrived in Spain through the town of Setcases in Catalonia on June 19, 1937, after sailing for 17 days aboard the Aquitania. However, Canadian records state he sailed on September 21, 1937. He served as a soldier in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (Mac-Paps), a battalion originating from Canada and part of the Abraham Lincoln brigade. The battalion was named after William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau, two Canadians that led the Canadian Rebellion of 1837-1838.
Kaplan was killed in action between March 9th to 10th, 1938 in Belchite during a retreat through Aragon. The Aragon Offensive was an important military campaign led by Franco on March 7th, 1938, and it was a very well-prepared attack on the Republican forces in Aragon. By this time, the Republican forces already had their resources drained in the Battle of Teruel, leaving them with not much to work with. The Republican forces quickly collapsed and were forced to make a fighting retreat through Belchite, Lecera, Vinaceite, and Caspe (which was eventually surrendered on March 15th).
The Republicans were able to fight back when they reached Batea; however, this only gave them a short amount of time before the Nationalists led another offensive in the south of Aragon on March 30th. A battalion of the Republican forces mistook Italian forces for those of General Lister’s Communist 5th Regiment, which ultimately led to their downfall and only eighty volunteers of the entire battalion made it out to Gandesa. They eventually retreated to the River Ebro; however, many Republicans were captured or killed while trying to swim across the dangerous river in an attempt to make it to the other side.
“Kaplan, Joseph Thomas.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, August 7, 2020. https://alba-valb.org/volunteers/joseph-thomas-kaplan/.
“Joseph Thomas Kaplan.” Canadian Cultural History About The Spanish Civil War, n.d. https://spanishcivilwar.ca/volunteers/joseph-thomas-kaplan.
“New York's Chelsea: A Chapter in the History of Spanish Migration.” www.efe.com. EFE, March 20, 2015. https://www.efe.com/efe/english/life/new-york-s-chelsea-a-chapter-in-the-history-of-spanish-migration/50000263-2567038.
“The Rise and Fall of Chelsea's Little Spain History of Chelsea.” www.nypress.com. STRAUS NEWS, December 8, 2015. https://www.nypress.com/news/local-news/the-rise-and-fall-of-chelseas-little-spain-history-of-chelsea-JBNP1020151210151219987.
Fernández, James D. “A New Home for Alba in New York, and a Homecoming—of Sorts.” The Volunteer, February 27, 2018. https://albavolunteer.org/2018/02/a-new-home-for-alba-in-new-york-and-a-homecoming-of-sorts/.
Katznelson, Ira. “Reflections on the New School’s Founding Moments, 1919 and 1933.” Essay. In Social Research 76, No.2 ed., 76:395–410. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Sugarman, Martin. “Jews in the Spanish Civil War.” Jewish Virtual Library, n.d. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jews-who-served-in-the-international-brigade-in-the-spanish-civil-war#canada.
“Jewish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, January 17, 2020. https://alba-valb.org/resource/jewish-volunteers-in-the-spanish-civil-war/.
“The Retreat through Aragon.” International Brigade Memorial Trust, n.d. http://www.international-brigades.org.uk/content/retreat-through-aragon.