In the spring of 1937, the hottest topic at Brooklyn College was the Spanish Civil War. Twenty Brooklyn College students volunteered to go to Spain and fight, despite the fact that traveling to Spain was a violation of American law. Today, an exhibit at the school, curated by Prof. Alejandro Alonso, will explore the college’s reaction to the conflict.
The interest in the Spanish Civil War was not just limited to college students. More than 250 men and women from around Brooklyn decided to leave home for Spain to join the fight, many never to return home. One of those Brooklynites who went off to fight in Spain was a 23-year-old from Oakland Street (now McGuinness Boulevard) in Greenpoint named Johnny Kozar.
The last veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Delmar Berg, died recently at 100. He and Kozar were part of a group of almost 5,000 Americans who fought in Spain called “The Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” One thousand Americans, by many estimates, died fighting fascism in Spain.
Our information about Johnny Kozar raises more questions than answers. He was a single man and a sailor in the Merchant Marine. Many of the sailors in the Merchant Marine were Communists or leftists, and Kozar was a member of the American Communist Party. It was the party that paid his fare to sail across the Atlantic and join the fight to protect the Spanish Republic. He almost did not make it. The ship that he was sailing on, “The City of Barcelona,” was torpedoed, but Johnny made it off the ship—this time. He arrived in France and was smuggled over the Pyrenees into Spain, where he served as an ambulance driver. His job, though seemingly safe, was actually quite dangerous.
Captured ambulance drivers would have been shot on sight, and many were killed in the fighting. What did he experience there? We have no answers.
After a year and a half away, he returned to the United States. Many veterans kept a low profile for good reason. They were often black-balled and could even be prosecuted. One thing is for sure—Kosar wanted to stay in the fight against fascism.
When World War II broke out, he served in the United States Merchant Marine, a dangerous part of serving the country that few people recall. In 1942, a Nazi submarine again torpedoed his merchant ship, the Ausonia, but this time he was not so lucky. He died brutally, perishing from hypothermia in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
What impelled him to risk his life in Spain? Sadly, we will never know for sure, but he did care enough about the fate of the Spanish people to risk his life to help them, as did hundreds of other Brooklynites.
Brooklyn at War: Spain, 1936-1939 opened at the Brooklyn College Library on April 14th.