Saul Wellman is a man who’s entire life has been dedicated to revolution. From day one he fought for a better world and in his own words he wanted “...things to change, where the playing field is leveled, where equality emerges as a reality...where the horrible things about inequality are eliminated.”
Wellman’s story begins on August 18, 1913, Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was born to a Jewish mother who emigrated from the Russian Empire. His mother was an avid socialist and as Wellman himself put it, “I suckled the ideas of socialism at my mother’s breast.” Shortly after his birth, he and his mother moved to 136 Pulaski Street in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn where Wellman attended Boys High School in Brooklyn. His rapidly developing political consciousness was put into high gear when his mother took him to see Eugene Debs speak when he was 14. From that point on, Saul Wellman’s identity as an avid socialist and revolutionary was solidified. However, this was dangerous to be at the time since he grew up in the context of the Palmer raids and the first Red Scare during the 1920’s. Wellman saw many of his mother’s associates rooted out and arrested by DOJ spies and he himself was arrested when he attended a demonstration of 100,000 workers at Union Square in New York City. This earned him an expulsion from his school and he spent the next few years in limbo. His life found purpose again upon the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Hearing about the abuses of Jews in fascist Germany and the plight of the Popular Front government in Spain, he could not allow himself to stand by. He felt duty bound as a lifelong socialist to prevent the world from falling to fascist tyranny and so on April 28, 1937 he set sail aboard the Normandie, arriving in Spain on May 28, 1937. Being a politically active and knowledgeable individual, he was assigned as adjutant commissar to the Candadian MacKenzie-Papineau Brigade despite being an American himself. Unlike the portrayals of commissars in popular media as detached political bureaucrats who execute dissidents at a whim, the goal of the Republican Commiserate was to be Mother Hens.
The Republican army was enthusiastic and patriotic but completely untrained in the ways of war. The commissar was supposed to make up for this and thus had several roles:
-Create the spirit of discipline and loyalty to the Republican cause and establish comradery between officers and rank and file
-Be an educator, clarifying all political issues
-Act as a commanding officer during combat and ensure orders were being followed
Wellman fulfilled this role trying to help the material well-being and comfort of his men. He worried about everything from food to sanitation, nagging his superiors to give his men whatever supplies they could give.
Wellman found himself in the thick of five major battles.
He barely survived being used as a meat shield during Fuentes de Ebro where his brigade was thrown head first into the fascist advance in order to slow it down, muddying the ground with their own blood. Afterwards he took on the role of battalion commissar upon the death of his predecessor.
He led his men through the meat grinder of Mas de Las Matas. After this he spent two week chasing down American cigarettes for his men, only to not be given them by the battalion’s own inspector general.
Wellman strove through the bitter snows of Teruel as it changed hands several times. During the final Republican holdout on El Muleton , he found himself pushed to the limit. Republican forces were on their last legs; they were outgunned, surrounded, stuck on an exposed hill with soil unusable for fortifications. The city below them filled with masses of fascists as Nationalist bombs and artillery blotted out the sun. Wellman ran from position to position as his ears rang from explosions, dust clawed at his throat and every step he took landed in a pool of his comrades’s blood. Wherever he could, he led hold out actions, restored machine gun positions and tended to the wounded. Despite Republican valor, the fascist won the battle. This left Wellman to deal with a depleted and demoralized brigade suffering from a lack of supplies. Most notably, the skin of the soldiers started to crack due to a lack of oil so on his own initiative he arranged for several men to take a truck to Andorra and buy some oil. Four days later the men returned. As Wellman himself put it, “No words were exchanged except a wink and a red front salute as [they] passed me a handful of nuts to replenish our depleted bodies.”
As Wellman chowed down on nuts with his men, he never expected that in just a few days he would find himself fighting in the Retreats. Always running under a hail of fire, never looking back for fear of seeing a Moorish cavalryman behind him.
Wellman was critically wounded during the failed river crossing of the Ebro river which sealed the fate of the Republic. As fascist victory became inevitable, Wellman found himself on a ship going back to the USA. He arrived on December 20, 1938 aboard the Ausonia.
Despite the failure in Spain, Wellman never gave up. As WWII broke out he signed up for the Army knowing that he must, for a fascist victory now meant fascist victory forever. He joined the ranks of the exalted 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division as an automatic rifleman and fought in Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge where he was critically wounded again.
Upon returning back to home as a war hero, he got married and moved to Detroit. Here he resumed his political activities. Wellman joined the Communist Party, quickly rising to the top ranks, and took a job as a truck driver where he quickly began unionizing the workers.
In 1949, he learned the hard way that history repeats itself as he was caught up in the Second Red Scare. Wellman was one of the Michigan Six that were tried under the Smith Act. He served six months in prison and broke with the Communist Party after he left as information about Stalin’s atrocities reached the rest of the world.
Despite this he remained active as the de facto leader of the New-Left movement, having weekly breakfasts with movement figures and protesting wars from Vietnam to Iraq until his death on December 11, 2003.
Saul Wellman, Political Commissar of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion, February 1938. The 15th International Brigade Photographic Unit Photograph Collection; ALBA Photo 11; ALBA Photo number 11-0952.
Carroll, Peter N. The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War. Stanford University Press, 1994.
Guyette, Curt. “Big Brother Comes Home.” Detroit Metro Times, Detroit Metro Times, 29 Oct. 2019, www.metrotimes.com/detroit/big-brother-comes-home/Content?oid=2174011.
Howard, Victor. The Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion: the Canadian Contingent in the Spanish Civil War. Carleton Univ. Pr., 1986.
Ink, Social. “Wellman, Saul.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 28 Apr. 2020, alba-valb.org/volunteers/saul-wellman/.
Metro Times. “Fare Thee Wellman.” Detroit Metro Times, Detroit Metro Times, 1 Mar. 2019, www.metrotimes.com/detroit/fare-thee-wellman/Content?oid=2177685.
“Professional Revolutionary: The Life of Saul Wellman.” Jewish Film Festival, jfi.org/watch-online/jfi-on-demand/professional-revolutionary-the-life-of-saul-wellman.
“The Commissar and The Good Fight - by Saul Wellman.” The Volunteer, 16 Sept. 2018, albavolunteer.org/2015/12/blast-from-the-past-revisited/.
“Trial of the Michigan Six.” Walter P. Reuther Library, 11 June 2013, reuther.wayne.edu/node/10490.