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One Gave All

Joe Selligman ’37 was the first American casualty of the Spanish Civil War

The same year Joseph Selligman Jr. ’37 was a senior at Swarthmore, a group of right-wing Spanish army officers rose up against their country’s democratically elected government. Under Francisco Franco, the Spanish Nationalists, as they called themselves, seized control of nearly half the country.

Franco’s ideological allies, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, flooded Spain with hundreds of warplanes and tanks, and tens of thousands of military personnel. Amid the tumult, the first of some 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 countries came to Spain’s aid. The war was a test, they felt, of Europe’s capacity to resist the rise of fascism. 

A continent away in Pennsylvania, Selligman agreed, although at first his friends did not realize how deep the 19-year-old’s feelings ran. (Previously, he had traveled the country with a Quaker-sponsored summer “Peace Caravan,” talking with community groups about America’s need to stay out of the world’s wars.) 

But the military coup in Spain came as a shock to him. A doodle later found among Selligman’s college notes provided a clue: He had drawn a map on which Germany, Italy, Portugal, and part of Spain were blackened, captioned, “Europe: Again Victim of the Black Plague.” 


HAILING FROM LOUISVILLE, KY., Selligman and his two sisters grew up in an unusual home. Their father was a former chairman of Kentucky’s Republican Party as well as a prominent lawyer who’d argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court; their mother voted Socialist.

He took to Swarthmore with great enthusiasm. Editor of the literary magazine the Manuscript and on the business staff of The Phoenix, Selligman won awards for everything from playwriting to public speaking and made many friends, including Charles Crane Jr. ’36, whose home in Montpelier, Vt., he visited for Thanksgiving 1936.

After the holiday, when Mrs. Selligman telephoned Joe’s dorm, she was told, to her shock, that he had disappeared. A week later, the Selligmans received a letter from Joe explaining that he had decamped to Spain. 

“I am really too excited and angry . . . to do anything else,” he wrote. “Besides, a lot of good a diploma would do in a Fascist era—and Spain seems to me to be the crucial test.” (“He expects eventually to return to Swarthmore,” The Phoenix reported at the time.)

Selligman’s worried father sent a telegram to Crane’s father: “Just learned our son Joseph left Swarthmore College December third for Spain—Rumored your son gone with him—Wire any information you have.”

But the rumor was not true, a reply telegram said; Charles Crane Jr. had not gone to Spain, and Joe had confided nothing of his plans—instead, he had been a “very agreeable” guest, memorable for his kindness and courtesy. 


HIS PARENTS WERE FRANTIC. Selligman’s father hired a private detective, who located Joe in Paris. Too young to volunteer, he’d used the name of a would-be soldier who’d changed his mind at the last minute. When the detective caught up with “Frank Neary,” he persuaded him to take a call from Kentucky.

 “I’m sorry I had to lie to you over the phone the other day, but by the time you called, I had already enlisted, and I didn’t want to make a scene in the embassy and run up the already-too-high phone bill,” Selligman wrote his parents soon after. “For God’s sake, quit trying to catch me.”

Eventually, 2,800 American volunteers would go to Spain in units later known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, but Selligman was the first to arrive, so he was assigned to a battalion of British volunteers. 

Working as a driver and interpreter—he knew French, German, and a little Spanish—he assured his family he would be in no danger.

“Quit worrying,” he wrote, promising to send them a picture of himself “in full regalia (including moustache and incipient beard) as soon as I can find a photographer.”


SELLIGMAN PENNED HIS last letter Feb. 7, 1937, explaining to his family why they needed to direct his mail to “Frank Neary.”

Not only was it safer, he wrote, but “an alias rather adds to the adventure-feeling, romance, etc.”

He cautioned them against sending stationery, food, and supplies—“there is plenty”—and told them that although he’d asked his roommate to save his books, he hoped he hadn’t caused too much ado at school.

“I hope you haven’t let all this get out around Swarthmore,” he wrote in closing. “Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a while.”

Less than a week later, the hastily trained British battalion was ordered into action, advancing through rain-soaked olive groves in the hilly country southeast of Madrid. The volunteers had had almost no practice using their rifles and their decrepit machine guns tended to jam quickly. 

Heavy shelling by the Nationalists’ Nazi-supplied 88 mm artillery (the first combat test of a major German weapon of World War II) cut the battalion’s telephone lines, so Selligman was made a message runner.

By the end of the day, most volunteers in the British unit were casualties; Selligman, wounded by a shot to the head by a sniper, was evacuated by mule. When his family heard the news, they sent panic-stricken messages to American officials in Spain and Washington. 

“Urgently request effort be made to remove him farther from fighting zone or into France if possible and his condition permits,” his father telegraphed Secretary of State Cordell Hull. “I will bear all necessary expense.”

But it was no use: Joe Selligman was dead. 


ULTIMATELY, THE EFFORTS of volunteers like Selligman were essential in preventing the Nationalists from capturing Madrid for nearly three years of brutal fighting. Some 750 more American volunteers would be among the hundreds of thousands killed in the war. One who survived was classmate Theodore Veltfort ’37, who, moved by Selligman’s death, drove military ambulances under fire for a year and a half in Spain.

Unable to recover his son’s body, Selligman’s father asked the State Department to return his belongings. But all that could be found were two billfolds containing a Kentucky driver’s license and an ID card from the Swarthmore gym. 

Some letters discovered only recently add a poignant coda to the story. Two months after Joe had left for Spain, young Crane’s father wrote again to Selligman’s. His letter began formally, “Dear Mr. Selligman,” but was handwritten on lined paper. It reported that Charles Crane Jr. had committed suicide. 

“From youth up he had been somewhat of an anxiety to us,” Crane Sr. wrote, “because of his too-serious interest in ‘the purpose of life’ . . . in mockery of this cockeyed world he has quit it—a brilliant, companionable son—leaving us crushed.” A note at the bottom added, “Excuse the paper. Written in bed.” 

Selligman Sr. immediately wrote back a heartfelt letter of sympathy, from one father to another. Of Joe, in Spain, he said, “We shall not write him of Charles’s death. Knowing how devoted they were to each other, we would not want Joseph to have the shock of this news when he is alone so far from home.” 

The letter is dated Feb. 12, 1937—the very day that young Joe Selligman suffered the fatal bullet wound. 

When his father wrote to inform Crane, he ended his letter, “We shall face the years to come with such grim courage as we can summon . . . hoping also that for the betterment of the world such idealism as our two boys cherished may not perish from the Earth.” 


SELLIGMAN WAS NOT forgotten at Swarthmore. That year’s Manuscript was dedicated to him; students, faculty members, and residents of the borough raised $275 to be used for medical aid to Spanish children in Loyalist territory, as that area still controlled by Spain’s elected government was known. (Those who objected to this but still wanted to honor Selligman were encouraged to donate books to the College library in his memory.)

His memory lived on in other ways, too.

“In one of his letters, Joe said, ‘If I don’t come back, use my money to send Lucy to Swarthmore,’ ” said his sister Lucy Selligman Schneider ’42. “The money he referred to was a very modest legacy that our maternal grandfather had left to each of us. I doubt that it would have seen me through college. But that sentence from Joe was a message to me.”

(His niece, Lucy Schneider McDiarmid ’68, not only attended the College, too, but also won the same one-act playwriting contest he’d won some 30 years before.)

 Selligman’s absence was deeply felt, and March 17, 1937, the College held a silent memorial meeting as a tribute.

“Joe Selligman will not be back. We feared as much when he went, but we honored the sincerity of conviction which led him to throw in his lot with the Loyalist forces in Spain,” Harold E. B. Speight, Swarthmore’s dean of men, told The Phoenix. “He felt that life would not be worth living in any civilization that might survive the defeat of the Popular Front and he went to play his part.

“No one of us fully knows his own motives, but all of us who knew Joe were aware that he was acting after careful thought and not out of any passing impulse or desire for adventure; he had counted the cost and was willing to pay it to the full.

“Joe’s going brings home to us all the question of what we are willing to give for the things we believe in,” Speight concluded. “While we remember him we shall feel that his sacrifice continues to put that question to us all.”

Poetry by Joe Selligman ’37 From the Manuscript, May 1935

“Motion and Rest” 


If I should lie upon the grass

Until the evening’s coolness comes,

And let the countless seconds pass

Without a word,


If I should count my fingers there,

And find them ten, and be content,

And feel the wind about my hair,

And ask no more,


Oh, would it not be better far

Than these wild dreams, these frantic plans?

Why hitch my wagon to a star,

When none are fixed?


“Unbalanced Budget” 


Not ours to ask you why, when we are done,

The little time we spent before the sun

Was bought so dearly, with such wealth of grief,

Such wasted hopes, such sad, betrayed belief.

Not ours to ask why you, who had the wealth

To waste a billion stars on empty space,

Could find but one cold world, one dying sun,

For those who might find meaning in your grace.


Not ours to ask why, of the endless time

You spend on tearing galaxies apart,

You gave but one short day, one bitter day,

To those who have your image in their heart.

It is not we shall ask. We shall be dumb,

Back in the nothing that you drew us from.