Leon Rosenthal was a New Yorker of Jewish descent who enlisted to fight in Spain when he was 26 years old. Little is known about Rosenthal’s early life, although he was a registered member of the United Electrical Workers Union, as well as an amateur astronomer. When he left for Spain, he was planning on becoming a scientist upon his return. At the time of his departure, he lived at 380 3rd Ave in Brooklyn, in what is now Park Slope. Funnily enough, where he once lived is now down the block from Battalion Studios, a local recording studio.
As was common among union members at the time, Rosenthal was most likely a socialist, and certainly a virulent antifascist. However, before he could travel to Spain to fight for what he saw to be a most necessary cause, he had one bureaucratic obstacle to overcome - obtaining a passport. Rosenthal got his passport in late April 1937 and set sail for Spain aboard the Aquitania on May 12th, 1937. Once he arrived, it was not long before he would be put into action on the front.
Most of what is known about Rosenthal can be gleaned from letters he wrote to his wife, Lee, which detail his day-to-day activities, as well as his hopes of defeating fascism and returning home again to “start a brand new romance together” with his wife, who also volunteered to help the Republic from her home in Brooklyn. These letters have additional historical significance as Rosenthal’s descriptions of his experiences working in a Republican propaganda sound truck are thought to be the first of their kind.
Rosenthal’s work in the propaganda truck involved printing and distributing leaflets, as well as driving right up to the front and going through a full propaganda campaign with speakers to attract fascist deserters. Him and two others ran the truck, but they were assisted by former deserters and other Spaniards who made speeches throughout the night. The nightly broadcast would start with a playing of the Spanish national anthem, Himno de Riego, followed by a speech by a poet or some other young intellectual updating the whole front on the latest news and speaking of the politics behind the war. After that, the microphone would be handed to a fascist deserter, who would try to convince his comrades to follow him by talking about how much better he was treated on the Republican side. The broadcast would finish with a playing of the Internationale. This tactic was extremely effective, with Rosenthal noting that his team was able to attract 20 fascist deserters in one particularly strong night of work.
Rosenthal’s unique line of work made him different from most of his fellow American volunteers, and in fact he was rarely (if ever) actually with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. His truck was itself an independent unit under the 45th Battalion. In August and September of 1937, Rosenthal spent time on the Zaragoza front with the Polish Dombrowski Battalion as well as briefly spending some time with the Italian Garibaldi Brigade.
After working on the Zaragoza front, Rosenthal and his truck moved to the Extremadura Front. It was there, on February 27th, 1938, that Rosenthal’s truck was unfortunately hit with a bomb from a fascist plane. Only one picture of Rosenthal survives today. Interestingly enough, this picture has also been attributed to another Leon Rosenthal, a American volunteer from Los Angeles who served in the Canadian Mackenzie Papineau Battalion under the name Carl Nitzberg. However, per the official archives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, the photograph in question is of the Rosenthal described above.
Leon Rosenthal never did achieve his dream of becoming a scientist. Like so many others of his time, the evils of fascism cut his life tragically short. However, he sacrificed his life for a cause that he truly believed in, and that is an honor that very few can claim.
Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. Tamiment Library, New York University, guides.nyu.edu/ld.php?content_id=37975670.
“Against Fascism – Jews Who Served in The International Brigade in The Spanish Civil War.” Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/spanjews.pdf.
Brooks, Chris. “Jarama Series: Garibaldis.” The Volunteer, 10 June 2016, albavolunteer.org/2016/04/jarama-series-2/.
Google Maps.” Google Maps, http://maps.google.com
“Leon Carl Rosenthal.” Canadian Cultural History About The Spanish Civil War, 28 Oct. 1919, spanishcivilwar.ca/volunteers/leon-carl-rosenthal.
“Leon Rosenthal.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, alba-valb.org/volunteers/leon-rosenthal/.
Madrid 1937: Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War. Routledge, 2013.