Biographies/Ruth Davidow

Tags: Nurse Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Jewish Forever Activists (1990) The Good Fight (1984) Ebro Offensive Russian Filmmaker Cordoba Front Brooklyn Jewish Hospital International Ladies Garment Workers Union The Daily Worker Public Health Organization Freedom Riders Occupation of Alcatraz

Researcher: Nicole Itkin, Stuyvesant '22

Ruth Davidow was born in Russia in 1911. Her parents, Joseph Davidow and Maria Hertzman, brought her to the United States when she was three. She lived in Brooklyn for many years.

Born to a socialist Jewish mother, Ruth Davidow grew up surrounded by communist ideology. Her mother Maria, a leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, started taking her to picket rallies at the age of four. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution further encouraged her mother’s political involvement, which in turn encouraged Ruth greatly. The Bolshevik Revolution made many hopeful about a forthcoming end to anti-Semitism. Maria was active in propagating communism by distributing The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper, in the neighborhood. Ruth’s father was essentially uninvolved in politics, but her mother served as an example for Ruth, as well as her brother and sister.

Ruth dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but was forced out of school after her father’s tuberculosis diagnosis. She took numerous odd jobs, prevented from attending law school by her family’s poverty. She found out that there were no tuition fees required for nursing. So, she went on to enroll in nursing school at the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. There, she felt like a cog in the machine with no say in any policy decisions. Still, by the early 1930’s, Ruth was a registered nurse.

In 1936, she began to see many articles about the war in Spain. In 1937, because of debates held by the communist organizations she remained a part of, Ruth began to see the connection between the war in Spain and the fascist rules in Italy and Germany. At the time, FDR was following a policy of appeasement with the fascist nations. Ruth grew fed up with the government’s inaction and enrolled in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Around this time, she was involved in many protests; there are photographs linking her to the Cigarettes for Spain Campaign on Sep 1, 1937 and the Washington, DC: Lift the Embargo Conference on Jan 9, 1939.

In June 1937, she set sail to Spain as part of the medical volunteer force. She endured many harsh conditions– working in caves and abandoned buildings and dealing with constant shortages of necessary supplies. She found that the Republicans were under-equipped and relied, in large, on the courage of their soldiers. She served with the Republican Medical Service; she was a nurse at Pozoblanco on the Cordoba Front and served on a Spanish Surgical Team during the Ebro Offensive. In an audio recording in the Tamiment archives, Davidow recounts seeing soldiers practicing for the Ebro offensive every day and complaining about its futility. In her words, this was when the doctors and nurses started dealing with problems like tonsils and ingrown toenails and hernias because they finally had had the time and the opportunity to do so.

As a nurse, she cared deeply about her patients. In the interview, she recounts a time she found out a doctor was getting special care packages with delicacies like goose liver and chocolate. She got into the packages and handed the food out to her patients to aid with their recovery.

She returned to America on December 1, 1938 on the Queen Mary.

Davidow remained a pivotal figure after the war, becoming a prominent figure of the Veterans of the Brigade. She settled in San Francisco and married Fred Keller. She went on to have one daughter: Joanie Keller Selznick. After the war, she kept fighting, joining numerous activist organizations. She helped with the Public Health Organization, the Freedom Riders, and the Native American occupation of Alcatraz. She worked in Cuba for over a year, helping with the public health system. She helped with the founding of a health clinic in San Francisco to help with drug addiction. She also spoke about her experience in Spain often; she visited Duke University in March 1939 with Evelyn Hutchins Rahman to speak to students about her experience in the war.

Her daughter became a filmmaker. In the 1980’s, with her daughter’s encouragement, Ruth started making documentaries to protest for the causes she believed in. She ended up creating 21 films. She was also filmed in projects such as The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (1984) and Forever Activists: Stories from the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (1990).

In 1997, at the age of 85, Davidow returned to Spain for a reunion of the International Brigade, and was made an honorary citizen by the Spanish government.

She was deeply engaged in political activism her entire life, until her death in 1999 at age 87.


Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. 2 Jun. 2022 .”, June 3, 2022.

“Duke University Libraries.” Accessed June 3, 2022.

“Obituaries.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, July 17, 1999.

“Ruth Davidow.” IMDb. Accessed June 2, 2022.

Ink, Social. “Davidow, Ruth Rebecca.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, January 1,