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Requiem for a Fascist Hunter

Their romantic campaign against Franco is far in the past, but their hearts are still in the fight.



There are only a few Spanish civil war veterans left in America. Three thousand young romantics joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight the fascists in Spain in the 1930s. Inside the spare chapel of Forest Park's Forest Home Cemetery, one of the hundred still living stood up to say a few words about a comrade who hadn't made it as far.

Chuck Hall looked small and pale between the huge potted plants that flanked the lectern. On the lapel of his jacket was a button with the three-pointed star of his old unit. In a thin voice he told the few dozen people in the pews, "We're here to dedicate a memorial to Eddie Balchowsky. Eddie is buried among many labor and radical heroes. Just outside this chapel you will see the Haymarket martyrs' memorial, which commemorates the labor movement that led to the founding of May Day."

Speaking as loud as he could, Hall told a story about Balchowsky. They met in basic training in 1937. When the singer Paul Robeson arrived in Spain to entertain the troops, he needed a pianist to accompany him. Balchowsky had studied the classics. "Eddie jumped up and volunteered. He still had both his arms. He gave a concert I wouldn't forget."

Balchowsky joined the fight against oppression because he'd known it himself, as the only Jewish kid in a small town. He lost his right forearm in battle on the Ebro River. When he came home to Chicago he wasn't received as a hero; none of the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were. Their side had lost the war. When World War II came along the army rejected most of them. They were "premature antifascists," men who'd fought too soon against Europe's tyrants. In the 1950s they were suspected of being communists. Balchowsky became one of Chicago's great bohemians, a long-bearded poet, painter, and junkie who played one-handed piano at the Quiet Knight, a Lakeview club. He was killed by an el train in 1989. He'd been married three times and had two daughters.

But the only relative here was a young man named Jeff Balch, a cousin twice removed. Balch discovered Balchowsky a decade ago while researching his family history. The family hadn't spoken much about its black sheep cousin, but the more Balch learned about him--especially his leftist politics--the stronger the kinship he felt. Balch raised money for a memorial, and now he stood before Balchowsky's admirers and whipped a shroud from a matte board replica of the stone. It read: "In Memory of Edward Ross Balchowsky 1916-1989 Artist, Poet, Raconteur, One-Armed Pianist, Veteran of the Spanish Civil War as a Volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Your Friends, Family and Fellow 'Premature Anti-Fascists' Salute You."

The real stone hadn't arrived yet because the cutters have been slow in their work. It will stand just behind the martyrs' memorial. Balchowsky's ashes are buried a few hundred feet away, beneath a patch of spiky grass and clover. The family doesn't want the ashes moved beneath the new marker. The veterans' group could not agree on a design with Balchowsky's daughters, who live in California, so there will be one spot for his children to honor him, another for his comrades.

"Utah Phillips helped us raise much of the funding for the stone," Balch said, thanking a folksinger who had given a benefit concert in Chicago. "We hoped to get him here. His quote is in the memorial book. We hoped also to bring Studs Terkel. He's busy celebrating his 90th birthday. His quote is in the book too."

A few friends made it. Jamie O'Reilly sang an old Spanish civil war ballad while a guitarist strummed its four simple chords: "There's a valley in Spain called Jarama / It's a place that we all know so well / It was there that we gave up our manhood / So many of our brave comrades fell." She sang the verses alone once, and the second time through the whole chapel sang, as though the song were a hymn.

Cary Nelson, a University of Illinois professor who maintains the Abraham Lincoln Brigade archives, declared that in this cemetery, where Emma Goldman is buried, where "the ashes of Joe Hill once swirled to the ground," Balchowsky is among his peers.

"This ground is not only sacred ground for the American left, it's sacred ground for the international left," Nelson went on, reading from his handwritten text, "and that couldn't be underlined more dramatically than by Eddie Balchowsky's monument, because he gave an arm for Spanish democracy."

Then Balchowsky's Old Town friends got up and reminisced about taking him to parties at the Hard Rock Cafe, about seeing him stroll up Clark Street with a bottle of whiskey in the crook of his truncated arm, about his vigorous piano playing, his talent as a painter, his pursuit of redheaded women, his camaraderie with young people.

Sam Grossner, a piano tuner, shared an anecdote about walking with Balchowsky to pick up a piano. During the walk, Grossner remarked that Balchowsky had a vigorous stride for a man in his 60s. Balchowsky invited Grossner to feel his leg muscles. Grossner demurred. Balchowsky insisted. Grossner finally gave in. Balchowsky then tested Grossner's leg muscles. A boy pedaling by was so startled by the scene of two men squeezing each other's legs that he fell off his bike. Balchowsky picked him up, as if to make amends for his uninhibited behavior.

"Eddie had no hang-ups about that," Grossner said. "Viva Eddie."

Balchowsky himself had the last word. Balch clicked on a tape machine and everyone heard Balchowsky's warm baritone singing "Freiheit," a Spanish civil war anthem. He banged the piano and roared in German. In the second pew, an old man in a green beret hung his head. The woman sitting next to him stroked his back until the song was over.

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