Biographies/Nathan David Kapilner

Tags: KIA Member of Communist Party Borough Park Brooklyn Jewish American Importer International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) Ebro Offensive Fuentes de Ebro

Researcher: Allison Lee, Stuyvesant '23

On November 18, 1903, Nathan David Kapilner was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Kapilner was a Jewish-American in the XV International Brigade of the 35th Division who volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic. According to The Jewish Virtual Library (A Project of AICE), Kapilner was recorded to have resided in a small apartment in an area called Borough Park (also known as Boro Park) in southwest Brooklyn, specifically, 964 49th Street, Brooklyn NY. Borough Park was known to be one of the most predominantly Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities in the United States, and it still remains to be so today.

Not much else is known about Kapilner’s early life, but it is recorded that he participated in a Jewish-centered education program while attending high school in New York. Yeshivas Etz Chaim/Etz Hayim, or the Hebrew Institute of Boro Park was the school that Kapilner is speculated to have attended, as it was the first Jewish day school in Borough Park founded in the very early 1900s. There is no information on whether he attended college or not. However, it is known that Kapilner held a job in the textile and leather workers area. During this time in the early to mid-1900s, Jewish immigrants held a tight grip on the garment factory business in New York. Up to three quarters of the garment manufacturing factories and buildings/businesses were known to be made up of Jewish immigrant workers, even as unemployment levels fluctuated from the aftermath of the Great Depression. Similarly, Kapilner worked as a ladies coat manufacturer in a garment and textile/leather factory after high school to support himself. He is speculated to have been a part of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) before joining the CPUSA, that had been influencing the flow of the ILGWU with frictional divisions between international leaders of each party.

After the news of the coup d'etat that was carried out against the Spanish Republic in 1936, Kapliner found himself taking responsibility as a volunteer and a fighter in the Lincoln Battalion as a part of the XV International Brigade. Kapilner’s strong Jewish identification as well as his overall involvement in the Jewish community in Borough Park ever since he was young inspired him and many others to be among the many Jewish volunteers who entered the Spanish War to help resist antisemitism along with the fascist and nazist values that the Nationalists carried. Out of the approximate three thousand volunteers from the United States Lincoln Brigade, Kapilner was one of the thousand Jewish volunteers who felt a European bond to fight against the anti fascist cause despite his American education. Furthermore, the Lincoln Battalion was decently integrated with members who fought for various reasons, consisting of both African Americans and Jewish members, where most participants were brought together by similar viewpoints on anti-facist activism and communist perspectives.

The International Brigades is known to have been created by the Communist International. Kapilner himself was a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). The Communist Party in Paris led the recruitments of the International Brigades, where Kapilner and his fellow volunteers first went to Paris before going to Spain. Although joining the International Brigades was not required as a part of the Communist Party, Kapilner’s participation and ties to the CPUSA, as well as his willingness to be a volunteer for the cause, landed him in the Lincoln Battalion. On May 8, 1937, a year after the war started, Kapilner set sail on the American Importer to reach Spain. He was also one of the many members who were taken to the Albacete headquarters of the International Brigade and separated as different Battalion members and sent to different warzones. Furthermore, this was during the period where communists and the POUM faced abrasions against each other with the communist propaganda surging through the effects of the ongoing war.

Kapilner actually passed away before the infamous Ebro Offensive (Battle of Ebro) in 1938, often confused with Fuentes de Ebro and the smaller battles and sieges against the Nationalists in their attempt to seize the Basque County area. October marks the month when the Nationalists finally completed their seize of power in the Basque County and the Northern parts of Spain with the fall of Gijón late October. On October 10th, 1937, the Republican Army along with the International Brigades, including Kapilner’s group, desperately started to launch new attacks South Ebro to try to open the way for the attack on Zaragoza.

Kapilner and the other volunteers fought at Fuentes de Ebro on October 13, 1937, where Russian tanks were used during the attack plan but fell apart when the inexperienced battalions failed to coordinate their attacks with the tanks. Kapilner was killed in action at the age of 34 in this battle, where the casualties for the Republican and the XVth Brigade were especially high. Soon after the fall of Gijón in Northern Spain, the Republican government relocated to Barcelona from Valencia to regroup again. But Kapilner’s bravery remains on the battlefield of Fuentes de Ebro as a sacrifice, along with many other men who gave their lives and deserve to be remembered for this honorable cause.


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