Milton “Milt” Wolff was born on October 8th, 1915, to a Jewish family in Brooklyn. His parents were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Hungary and Lithuania who made their home in the vicinity of Bay Parkway and Kings Highway. While he lived in Brooklyn, he first resided at 1628 West 5th Street, and later at 74 Quentin Road. He was born into the Great Depression, and he dropped out of the (long-defunct and seemingly obscure) New York School of Commercial Art at age 15 after only a single semester. Wolff then joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, where he was transformed from a shiftless urban teen into a forester. He loved the exercise and the sense of camaraderie between his fellow members, and he was trained in first aid. But eventually, his rosy perspective soured as he witnessed institutional bureaucratism and red tape lead to unsafe working conditions which resulted in the death of one of his friends. He began protesting the CCC’s management and conditions, and for this he was expelled. It was during this time that his political consciousness and penchant for organized resistance against oppression began to take shape.
After bouncing around Brooklyn with his friends for a while, he found work at a hat factory in Manhattan’s Garment District. Following many colleagues in his social circle, he joined the Young Communists League in April of 1936. Wolff described his political development at the time as “rudimentary”. Yet by February 20th, 1937, he had set sail for Spain when a YCL organizer asked for volunteers. He told his mother that he was sailing over so he could work in a Spanish factory to free up manpower for the armed workers’ movement. He secured passage on the Ile de France, and sailed from New York to France. By March 7th, 1937, he had crossed the Pyrenees and reached Spain.
Drawing from his earlier CCC experience, Wolff started out as a medic, and his initial work consisted of carrying water and stretchers. He initially considered himself a pacifist. However, he was soon inspired by the African-American commander of a machine gun unit, and he soon petitioned to serve in a machine gun company. As part of the Washington battalion, he first saw action at Brunete where he narrowly avoided death even while he saw men inches away from him brutally gunned down.
After this engagement, Wolff went on leave in Madrid. During this time, his captain pointed him towards the Cafe Chicote where he first met Ernest Hemingway. Wolff first met Hemingway after seducing his mistress. Hemingway supposedly did not mind this, but he was far more offended when he learned that Wolff had no idea who he was. Initially, Wolff wrote to a friend that Hemingway was "childish in many respects" and that he "want[ed] very much to be a martyr". He summed up his first thoughts on Hemingway with a quip: "So much for writers. I'd much rather read their works than be with them." In 1940, when Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, Wolff later resented his depiction of Republican-sympathizing villagers killing fascists as he thought it overly murderous and bloodthirsty.
After returning from leave, he fought on the Aragon front leading a section of the machine gun company. After performing valiantly despite major losses at Belchite and Quinto, he commanded the machine gun company at Fuentes de Ebro. By January 1938, after not even a single full year in action, he achieved the rank of captain. Wolff drew comparisons to Abraham Lincoln himself, due to his tall and gaunt physique as well as his personal gravitas and strong leadership skills. That March, the base HQ was bombed and the leadership slaughtered. It was at this point that Wolff became the commander. He was preceded by 4 commanders KIA and another 4 seriously wounded. He directed what remained of the battalion through a treacherous retreat from deep behind what had become enemy lines, and traveled alone for six days to the Ebro where he swam across. While rebuilding the battalion as its newly minted commander, he was immortalized in Hemingway's 1938 Spanish Portraits journalistic series of press vignettes on fighters for the Republican cause. A famous photo of Wolff and Hemingway, taken by photojournalist Robert Capra, was included in the article. A few weeks later, this photograph found its way into the Yiddish newspapers where his mother was alerted to the true nature of his activity in Spain.
In the summer of 1938, Wolff led the consolidated Lincoln-Washington battalion back across the Ebro where they held the lines at Hill 666 and held off the fall of Valencia until the Republic ordered the withdrawal of foreign troops later that year. In a ceremonial transfer of authority, Wolff ultimately attained the rank of Major in the Republican Army. By December 15th, 1938, Wolff and the last volunteers made it back to New York City, where Wolff laid a wreath to honor the dead outside Madison Square Park.
After returning to America, Wolff continued a life of service and activism in the name of communism and anti-fascism. Wolff was a beloved figure in Spain, where he returned to visit multiple times. He reminded Spaniards that if they got into trouble in the future, to “give me a call”. Even after the war’s official end, he led street protests in New York City urging the government to lift the Spanish embargo and aid Spanish refugees trapped in neighboring France who were held in what amounted to concentration camps. France threatened to deport the refugees back to Francoist Spain, where they would be treated as enemies of the state and likely tortured or executed. Wolff and other veterans protested outside the French consulate in 1940, and Wolff served 15 days in jail for his activities. He never gave up the fight to free Spain. Wolff was an active member of the U.S. Committee for a Democratic Spain for decades, where he lobbied against political recognition of and treaties with the Franco regime, provided aid to political prisoners and their families, and pushed for democratic reforms. During WWII he was turned down for combat duty due to concerns over his leftist politics, so instead he served with the Office of Strategic Services (which would later become the CIA).
Through a friend of a friend from the war, Wolff came into contact with William Donovan who was selected by President Roosevelt to head the OSS. He assisted Donovan with a project to recruit Spanish Civil War veterans into the British intelligence apparatus. This project began in Spring of 1941 and continued until Pearl Harbor. Then, Wolff directly offered Roosevelt the services of the VALB to the American war effort. This was declined, so Wolff continued recruiting veterans for secret projects in Italy, North Africa, and Normandy. Wolff officially enlisted in 1942, but was quickly marginalized and denied the opportunity to participate in a combat role. He was denied the opportunity to attend Officer Candidate School. In order to try and get a transfer, Wolff then traveled to Burma where he helped the war effort in the Pacific Theater. The OSS then sent him back to Italy where he formed an underground communist partisan network with the help of multiple other Lincoln veterans he had previously embedded. Wolff graduated from parachuting school, which he considered to be one his proudest achievements. He was sent by air into southern France on a top secret mission, but while he was there, he discovered an underground network of Spanish resistance members plotting to invade Spain and overthrow Franco. When Wolff petitioned the OSS to aid them, he was prematurely recalled from his assignment and sent back to America.
Through his stature in the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) he remained a prominent advocate for Spanish Civil War veterans and the causes they espoused. During the Cold War he was the public face of the VALB, where he and Moe Fishman presided over the defense of the Lincoln veterans before the Subversive Activities Control Board in 1954. He and many fellow veterans from New York were lifelong Brooklyn Dodgers fans, and they pushed for integration in the MLB by publicly supporting the inclusion of Jackie Robinson and other black players. He led protests against the Vietnam War and even personally offered Ho Chi Minh VALB military support during their conflict against South Vietnam, which was politely declined. He championed removal of the Cuban embargo, and to this end he helped provide medical aid to a children’s hospital in Havana. During the 80s, he and the VALB sent ambulances to the Sandistinas as the Reagan government was funding the anticommunist insurgency.
Milton Wolff passed away on January 14th, 2008 at the age of 92 due to congestive heart failure. He is survived by his two children, Susan and Peter, from his first marriage with Anne Gondos. Additionally, he has at least four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
ALBA-VALB. “Wolff, Milton.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 28 Apr. 2020, alba-valb.org/volunteers/milton-wolff/.
Carroll, Peter N. “In Memory of Milton Wolff, 1915 - 2008.” CounterPunch.org, 1 Mar. 2016, www.counterpunch.org/2008/01/19/in-memory-of-milton-wolff-1915-2008/.
Martin, Douglas. “Milton Wolff, 92, Dies; Anti-Franco Leader.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/01/17/obituaries/17wolff.html.
Stewart, Jocelyn Y. “Leader of U.S. Unit in Spanish Civil War.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 23 Jan. 2008, www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-jan-23-me-wolff23-story.html.