Biographies/Steve Topolianos

Tags: Belchite First Aid Man Aragon Front First-Generation Immigrant Madrid Hospital Greek Medic Sergeant SS Washington MV Brittanic SS Normandie National Guard WWII Veteran Sanitary Jarama Repatriated Criminal Benissa Hospital Machine Gun Company Member Of Communist Party International Fur and Leather Workers Union

Researcher: Justin David Ha, Stuyvesant '24

Stelios Topolianos (also known as Stellos Topolinakis, Stelios Arlenius, Steilias Topolionas, Toplianos) was born in Crete, a Greek island in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, on January 1, 1900 (although some sources claim it to be 1899 or as far back as January 17, 1887). Topolianos was a first-generation immigrant and part of the Greek Diaspora during early 20th century. Due to an increase in economic opportunities in the U.S. and the unrest caused by Ottoman rule and the Balkan Wars, Topolianos moved to the United States. Coming to New York, he passed through Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and adopted the name Steve Topolianos.

Many Greeks, like Topolianos, moved to New York City and involved themselves in industrial jobs, especially the garment industry. To improve their economic standings and start anew, Topolianos lived at 266 West 41st Street (269 West 26th Street) in the Garment District, where fur workers were among the highest-paid industrial workers in the city. Topolianos dropped out of school early, only completing the 6th grade, most likely because he needed to work for his family considering his father was widowed. Topolianos never attended high school or college to further his education. On November 5, 1924, Topolianos enlisted in the National Guard as part of the 104th Ambulance Company of the 102nd Medical Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division at their divisional headquarters, 56 West 66th Street. The records may have erroneously listed him as Steilias Topolionas. He served in the National Guard for 3 years, under the “first modern field hospital unit” in the country.

After the military, Topolianos worked in the needle trade. He arrived at a time when the Garment District became the fastest-growing site of construction in the entire city. Despite this, Topolianos was not satisfied with his working conditions nor was he satisfied with the American Dream. In 1929, the Great Depression severely hit the garment industry, and Topolianos’s wages dropped. Dissatisfied, Topolianos joined a needle trades worker’s union in 1930 and later, the Communist Party in 1932. The union was part of the Fur Workers Industrial Union, which was subject to a lot of communist influence during this time, radicalizing Topolianos. On February 3, 1933, Topolianos attacked Milton Silverman, who was the owner of a dress company. Topolianos wanted to convince Silverman's workers to join his union. Topolianos was charged under “class action” and stayed in prison for 18 months. Eventually, the Communist Party dissolved the union and left many members alone or forced to join moderate unions. Seeing the betrayal of the Communist party unfold right before his eyes, Topolianos probably became even more motivated to protect his Communist ideals. He believed that if his fellow workers would not help him here, he would have to seek another way to protect the ideology.

On December 22, 1936, Topolianos received his passport (#358485) and boarded the SS Normandie on December 26, disguised as a tourist. He was part of the first contingent of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in Spain. The SS Normandie made a secret trip directly to France. Topolianos took a train to the base of the Pyrenees Mountains and trekked through them into Catalonia. Since the French border guard prohibited anyone from coming into Spain, the volunteers had to trek through the Pyrenees at night. Many volunteers along the way got lost or fell. Topolianos arrived in Spain on January 6, 1937, in the nick of time, as 5 days later, the United States would invalidate all passports to Spain and ban all shipments of weapons to Spain. He was repatriated that same month and the U.S. government demanded he return, but Topolianos refused to comply. For Topolianos, training mostly consisted of screening checks to determine whether the volunteers were committed to the fight against fascism via interviews. Communist indoctrinations were often done in French, which Topolianos did not understand a single word of. Topolianos's training was mostly marching. Fortunately, his prior experience in the National Guard would give him a chance at survival. Because he served as a medic in the National Guard, Topolianos was attached to the XV International Brigade’s Lincoln Batallion’s Machine Gun Company as its “Sanitari”, or its first-aid man. He served under the MG Company’s commanding officer, Douglas Seacord, who had enrolled in West Point. Seacord had 7 years of prior military experience and gave valuable training to Topolianos and his men on how to fight and operate a machine gun.

On February 6, 1937, the battle of Jarama began. Topolianos was involved in the battle of Pingarrón, most commonly known as Suicide Hill. The attack commenced with a charge over the top at 3 PM on February 23. The 1st Company Commander, Captain John Scott, was shot and wounded during the charge. Topolianos and another soldier, Joe M. Gordon, carried Scott on a stretcher to the first-aid station. Despite being under heavy fire from the Nationalists, Topolianos was left unscathed. Topolianos and Gordon went out again and carried another wounded ally, David Shappiro, back to the first-aid station. Topolianos’ bravery would earn him the nickname “Dare-devil First Aid man of the Lincolns”. Despite Topolianos and the volunteers’ best efforts, Scott died from his wounds later that day. A week later, Shappiro would also succumb to his wounds on March 4. While Topolianos worked tirelessly in the first-aid station to keep soldiers alive, the attack was called off at 10 PM and the company retreated to their original positions. On February 27, Jarama Valley turned into a stalemate, ending the battle.

After the battle, he was described to be dependable, highly disciplined, a hard worker, and extremely courageous by his superiors. He became popular with the battalion and a “very good Greek comrade”, especially with his performance as a lookout for the battalion. Despite this, many agreed that he needed more “political education”. Topolianos became a hero and part of Dr. Pike’s First Aid Men. They eased conditions on the battlefield by providing latrines, kitchens, water supply, trenches, and dug-outs for the soldiers. Topolianos, who received the nickname, “Tops”, attended Dr. Pike’s classes on hygiene and First Aid and furthered his knowledge of medicine to help more people in the future. On March 31, 1937, Topolianos was wounded in the arm while fighting at Aragon.

On July 6, 1937, the Battle of Brunete began and Topolianos served as part of the V Army Corps. At Mosquito Ridge, Topolianos played a crucial role as First Aid Man, putting his life on the line multiple times. He ran to the wounded in the most exposed positions, and quickly bandaged them up, before carrying them as much as five kilometers back to the medical stations. July 15, the offensive was stopped from mounting Nationalist reinforcements. During the battle, Topolianos, like many other soldiers, suffered from extreme heat and a lack of water. Fortunately, many of the villagers welcomed the international brigades and provided hospitality. Topolianos, along with the other medics, helped the villagers with whatever problems they had. Most of the cases were towards treating children’s ailments. Topolianos sometimes cared for Nationalist soldiers, most of them being young Moorish soldiers.

Although some sources point out that this marked the end of Topolianos’ service in Spain, with him leaving in July 1937, he remained in Spain, although not on the front. On January 18, 1938, he was repatriated to Alicante and like most other repatriated soldiers, underwent political indoctrination. At Alicante, he worked at the Belissa military hospital. Topolianos returned home on April 1, 1938, aboard the SS Washington via the New-York Hamburg Line. He may have been forced to return because of his lack of zeal for the cause.

On August 14, 1938, Topolianos arrived in London and came back to Spain to restart his fight. This was unluckily timed though. On September 21, 1938, Republican prime minister, Juan Negrin announced the withdrawal of all international brigades to try to appease Britain and France. By expelling communist volunteers, he hoped to gain support from other nations. With Negrin’s announcement, Topolianos went to Le Havre to board the MV Brittanic, a British passenger line using the New-York Hamburg Line. He disguised himself as an immigrant coming to the U.S. for the first time. Topolianos arrived at Cobh, Ireland and New York on September 17 and September 25 respectively.

During his overall time in Spain, Topolianos was promoted to sergeant and served at various military hospitals, such as the aforementioned Benissa and Madrid military hospitals. He became his company’s political delegate of the Sanitary Service and traveled with the Brigade to give first aid at the drop of a hat.

Upon returning to New York, he rented a different place at 325 West 25th Street in Manhattan. He worked as an operator for the Kessen Bros, a shoe manufacturer, on 115 West 30th Street. With the Great Depression still on, he struggled to find a long-term job. In 1939, he only worked 10 weeks. Topolianos was later drafted for World War II on February 15, 1942, three months after the Pearl Harbor attack. Topolianos may have filled out the date wrong since the Third Draft started on February 16. With his experience, it is likely he served as a combat medic for the army. Had he been assigned to his old unit, the 27th Infantry Division, Topolianos would have fought in the battle of Makin, Saipan, Einwetok, and Okinawa. After WWII, Topolianos found love with Asimina Contogiannis, a Greek-American born in New Jersey in 1923. They married on April 20, 1949. In 1950, they moved to 354 East 5th Street in Manhattan and Topolianos worked sewing coats.

Steve Topolianos died in March of 1980.


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