The Life (and death) of Bernard “Butch” Entin…..

By Alan Entin

English -> Español

English -> Catalan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernard Entin in 1931.

Bernard Entin was a man a few people know only from distant childhood memories, some know from stories, letters and faded photographs. Whatever happened to Bernie, son, brother, cousin and uncle? That question has puzzled, vexed, mystified and frustrated my family for almost 70 years. It was a topic that was not readily talked about or openly addressed. It was a family secret, which, like all secrets, has its own mystique and legacy for future generations. It is the kind of stuff that creates legends and myths. A ready-made fill-in-the-blanks history of what was and what might have been. It is a meditation of memory and loss and of the simultaneous existence of the past and present.

Bernard Entin was born March 1, 1915 to Abraham and Nettie Davidson Entin, the middle child, with an older brother Jacob, 3 years older, and a sister Rosylin, 7 years younger.  Growing up I knew the outline of his life story, but not the details. Uncle Bernie was a union activist and organizer, member of the Young Communist League, implicated in a paternity suit, went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War and was never heard from again. I had family photographs and letters he wrote home from Spain, and a “petition to erect a memorial” in memory of those killed in Spain, which included his name. Yet, my family seemed unwilling to accept, or acknowledge, his death.  My parents never spoke about, and refused to answer any questions, about him.  It was like he never existed, except for the photos and letters I had since childhood.

Bernie attended PS144 and graduated from Alexander Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, NY, in 1931, at age 16. He attended St John’s College for a semester. Bernie joined the Young Communist League and became active as a union organizer in 1933. During the Orbach’s and Klein’s Department Store strikes, the following year, he met Harry Fisher, who refers to him as “Butch.” They became best friends, rode the rails, were arrested many times on picket lines, and spent time in jail together. Fisher describes Butch as ”one of the most militant members of the Department Store Union … a good-looking, husky, curly-haired guy who was tough as nails. Tough yes, but gentle and compassionate as well. He was someone you wanted on your side, and fortunately for us, we had him on ours.”

A poor quality photograph (circa 1937) of Bernie at a Union protest at an Orbach’s store. The woman wearing the donkey’s head is meant to indicate that only an ass would buy items from Orbach’s stores!

My parents got married on January 24, 1937, and three months later, on April 21, Uncle Bernie left for Spain. Norman Berkowitz, who knew him from their Union activities and sailed with him on the Queen Mary, recalls Butch as a “very special guy … one of the best … a great kid … wonderful.” They arrived in Cherbourg, France, April 26.

My cousin Muriel Sholin Miller remembers Bernie came over to say goodbye to her family.  He said he was going to a convention in Russia; her family did not believe that, but he, like most volunteers, did not say he was going to Spain. My grandmother Nettie, his mother, suffered a series of strokes when she received the first letter from Bernie.

In a May 4, 1937 letter Bernie wrote that he was touring France, which may have been a euphemism for travelling through France and over the Pyrenees Mountains to join the Washington Brigade and arrived in Spain on May 18, 1937. The handful of letters he wrote to the family from Spain were virulently antifascist and procommunist, criticizing capitalism and the inability of workers to earn enough money to care for their families, cajoling my grandmother to adopt Spanish orphans and my newly wedded parents to have a son and name him after himself, and to love, accept and be proud of him and the decision he made to go to Spain.  

On June 6, he wrote and said he was a member of the George Washington Battalion and by July 15th fighting on the Guadarrama front.  Around the same time, Harry Fisher writes how he was reunited with some of his union comrades, including my uncle, who had been in the Washington Battalion until it was decimated. The Battle of Brunete had begun.  On July 16th Bernie wrote that “My battalion (G. Washington) merged with the Abe Lincoln yesterday. We are now one. A few hundred Americans. There are many more Americans in training. Hundreds are driving trucks. … We are resting right now after seeing plenty of action. I am a real honest to goodness soldier right now.” This was to be his last letter.

In Comrades (1998), Harry Fisher describes what he remembers of the action in the Brunete offensive, “(W)e moved into a new position, a deep, dry riverbed, with a battle going on directly in front of us. Suddenly I saw Butch Entin walking toward the headquarters staff. He greeted me with a big grin. ‘I got me a blighty. It’s nothing. I’ll be back in a few days.’ A bullet had passed through his shoulder, but he clearly was in no pain. He was on his way to the first-aid station down the road, or maybe to the ambulance waiting nearby. I never saw him again.”

The puzzle surrounding his death lingered, however, because no one actually witnessed his death “with my own eyes”, as several of his comrades put it. A note in the VALB files indicates that Bill Frances reports Butch “was wounded July 25th in the left shoulder and was very weak. Put into ambulance and never seen again. He thinks without a doubt he is dead.”   But Fisher writes in an unpublished article that John Rody was finally able to fill in the missing pieces: “John, a first-aid man, had accompanied Butch and another wounded American to a waiting ambulance a few miles from the front. … After seeing that his wards were safely in the ambulance, John headed back to the battalion. He hadn’t gotten far when three Nazi planes appeared overhead, flying low. John jumped into a ditch and watched as the ambulance took a direct hit. After the bombing, the Nazi planes left in a hurry, and John rushed back to the road. The ambulance had been completely demolished.”

Carl Geiser in Prisoners of the Good Fight (1986) writes that eight Americans were captured in the battle of Brunete and later executed by a firing squad, and Bernie was among them.

Thus, after 70 years of uncertainty, we learned that Bernard Entin was killed in action on July 25, 1937. He died at the age of 22, only 2 months and 2 weeks after arriving in Spain.

We have known Bernie from a child’s vision and memory, from family photographs, and now we add the perspective of his best friend. From the anecdotes we learn that he had the personality traits of an individual who seemed on the outside to be tough as nails, but beneath he was very soft and gentle. An idealist with a deep faith and conviction in doing what was right, he stood up for his friends and believed firmly in the causes of the working class. We now have a pretty clear picture of Bernard “Butch” Entin, son, brother, cousin and uncle. We know some incidents about his life that give us insight into his character, we know what happened to him in Spain and we even know where, when and how he died. From the fond remembrances of his friends and comrades, he was a strong dynamic personality, a leader clearly admired and remembered. Even 70 years after his death, I can only wonder about how he would have lived his life, the impact he would have had on me and the family, and his contributions to society.

This article is edited from a longer article reprinted in the March 2006 edition of The Volunteer.  Interviews with Muriel Sholin Miller, Jack Shafran and Norman Berkowitz and the writings of Harry Fisher provide the information and background for this essay.  All the letters written by Bernard Entin in Spain are now housed in the ALBA archives at the Tamiment Library at NYU.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fisher, Harry. Comrades. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 1998.

Fisher, Harry. Camaradas. Laberinto Ediciones, 2001

Geiser, Carl. Prisoners of the Good Fight. Lawrence Hill & Co., Westport. 1986.

Montero, Severiano. La batalla de Brunete. Editorial Raíces, Madrid. 2009.

Published on October 6, 2010 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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