Davidow, Ruth (1911—)

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Davidow, Ruth (1911—)

Russian-born American nurse and political activist who was one of the nurses with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Born in Volkavisk, Russia, on September 11, 1911; grew up in New York City; married Fred Keller; children: one daughter.

Born in 1911 into a poor Jewish family in Tsarist Russia, Ruth Davidow immigrated with her mother and brother to the United States in 1914. Her father, an artist, had arrived in New York City several years earlier. Living in Brooklyn, the struggling family was dealt a severe blow when Ruth's father contracted tuberculosis. Her mother, never complaining, kept the family from destitution by working as a seamstress. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 inspired Ruth's mother to ever greater political involvement, believing as she did that the "world needed to be changed." Memories of pogroms in Tsarist Russia made many Russian-Jewish immigrants in New York believe that the Bolsheviks would not only create a better, Socialist society, but end the scourge of anti-Semitism. Ruth Davidow grew up in a militantly Marxist home, with her mother not only passionately discussing politics but actively proselytizing the revolutionary message in her neighborhood by selling the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. Although Ruth loved her father, who had little interest in politics, it was obvious that her mother served as a role model both for herself and her siblings, a brother and a sister.

After dropping out of school to help support her family because of her father's lingering illness, Ruth found work as a waitress and also took odd jobs. At first, Davidow wanted to study law, but her family's poverty precluded this. Told that there would be no tuition fees if she studied nursing, she embarked on this career path despite her father's disapproval. By the early 1930s, Ruth Davidow received her diploma as a registered nurse.

In a time of economic depression and immense human suffering, Davidow regarded her increasing political involvement during those years as being no more than normal and appropriate to the challenges of the times. Only the Communist Party and its revolutionary agenda, she felt, would be able to change the world sufficiently to prevent another catastrophe like the world economic depression. Working as a visiting nurse, she took advantage of the travel opportunities her profession opened up, including work in California in the mid-1930s. Politically, Davidow was determined to do all she could to halt the spread of Fascism, which had captured Germany in 1933. Being Jewish, she was particularly outraged by the overt anti-Semitism displayed by Hitler's Third Reich. Her daily work as a nurse served to heighten her political consciousness during these years of struggle and achievement, which she analyzed many decades later: "I felt part of a long chain of what happens every day. One needs this background, this feeling of being connected to somebody.… I always considered it more important to work with people than with institutions."

Ruth Davidow's opportunity to play a role in the world struggle against Fascism came in 1936, with the start of the civil war in Spain. Supported by "volunteer" forces from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Francisco Franco's Fascist rebel army attacked the legally elected leftist government of the Spanish Republic in July 1936. Within weeks, an International Brigade was formed by anti-Fascist volunteers from many countries, including those who had escaped from prisons and concentration camps in Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Although she had hated Fascism for years, until 1936 Davidow did not believe that the United States could do much to halt its spread. Now, however, a concrete opportunity presented itself. Sixty years later, she explained her rationale for volunteering to go to Spain as a nurse: "When [the Fascists and Nazis] got to Spain, I realized, we're next. So I turned overnight. I was always an anti-fascist and I figured, 'This is my fight, and there's no such thing as a piecemeal fight'." Although the U.S. government warned against going to Spain to fight for the Republic, hundreds of men and women went there illegally, endangering not only their lives and health, but their citizenship as well. In time, 2,800 Americans would fight and nurse in Spain.

Working with the medical staff of the American volunteer unit, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Davidow found that medical conditions in Spain ranged from difficult to tragically inadequate. Medical supplies were rarely available due to the blockade imposed by the Western powers. But medical volunteers like Davidow and the physician she assisted, Dr. Irving Busch, performed hundreds of operations and saved the lives of many gravely wounded Americans and other International Brigade soldiers. Working at an improvised medical facility in the small town of Bella Casa, situated about 20 miles behind the front lines, Davidow and other American volunteer nurses worked long hours, week after week, to treat the wounded. She had to fight not only her exhaustion, but a debilitating case of malaria as well, Bella Casa being situated in a malarial region. But Davidow and her fellow nurses usually ignored their own exhaustion and illnesses.

After working at Bella Casa for about six months, Davidow was transferred to front-line duty. Medical conditions at the front were often shockingly primitive, and the wounded men had to be treated under constant danger of enemy attack from the air. The emergency hospital she worked in was little more than a hastily excavated cave in the side of a mountain, its entrance camouflaged from observation from the air by a tarpaulin. Many gravely wounded soldiers died of shock, loss of blood and infection, but the heroic efforts of Davidow and others often saved lives. Because of her leadership skills, she was transferred from the front to the hospital at Castellejo, where she was able to raise staff and patient morale dramatically. In the last, tragic phase of the war, she worked at a front-line hospital during the Ebro offensive of 1938.

In the two years that she spent as a nurse in Spain, Davidow witnessed much heroism but also learned that idealism alone was not enough to save the Spanish Republic. The Republicans were under-equipped and relied on soldiers who displayed courage but often carried only antiquated weapons. She also came to realize that human beings were complex creatures who did not always behave rationally. And she sometimes encountered treachery, as when one of the hospital cooks was found to be watering down the precious milk allotted for patients in order to sabotage their recovery. Regarding him as a Fascist sympathizer and Fifth Columnist, Davidow warned him with a kitchen knife, letting him know that one more incident would justify her cutting his throat (the milk supply was never again tampered with).

In the summer of 1938, Davidow worked in a front-line hospital close to the Ebro river where the Republican forces made a desperate gamble to change the tide of war. Constant Fascist bombing raids on her hospital convinced her that she would never return to the United States alive. Though she started to leave the front lines, she returned within the hour, greeted by her staff with tears in their eyes. But the war was lost, and in the fall of 1938 Davidow returned to the United States. The Spanish Republic was defeated in the spring of 1939, and, in September of that same year, Nazi Germany triggered World War II. One of the 49 American nurses who served with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, Davidow's political odyssey did not end with her return to the United States.

Refusing to be demoralized by the defeat of the Left in Spain, Davidow remained active in radical politics and emerged as a leading personality in the West Coast sections of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the organization representing the survivors' interests after 1939. Unapologetic about her political and social militancy, Davidow settled in San Francisco where she soon became a personality to be reckoned with on the activist scene. She married Fred Keller, an official of the Electricians' Union, whose radical brand of trade unionism caused him to be persecuted during the McCarthy era for "un-American" attitudes. Davidow too refused to be intimidated by the FBI agents who often visited her home and spread negative stories about her to the neighbors. Raising her daughter to be socially conscious, Ruth was extremely proud when at age seven that daughter accompanied a black friend to what had been until then a segregated public swimming pool. She reminded her daughter that more than a decade before integration began in the U.S. armed forces, a black man named Oliver Law had been commander of a fully integrated American fighting unit in Spain. Leading his men into battle, Oliver Law died at the battle of Brunete in July 1937.

As the placid 1950s changed into the more rebellious mood of the 1960s, Davidow was active in San Francisco in organizing public protests against racism, sexism, the Vietnam War, and the old nemesis of Spanish Civil war veterans, the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the 1960s, she went to Mississippi to render assistance to blacks fighting for their civil rights in that state. She also worked in Cuba for a period of 18 months to upgrade the public-health delivery system of Havana. In Cuba, the tensions between Washington and Havana made her believe that a U.S. invasion might once again transform her into a combat nurse, but in the end she returned home safely.

Despite her advancing years, in the 1980s Davidow was actively engaged with groups demanding American initiatives on a nuclear weapons freeze. She also found time to agitate for abortion rights, and used every opportunity to sharply criticize the Central American policies of the Reagan administration. Ever the champion of the underdog, she was the only volunteer to look after the medical needs of the militant Native Americans who occupied Alcatraz as a dramatic protest. Back in San Francisco, she launched a health clinic in the Haight-Ashbury district to minister to the stricken youth of a drug culture gone out of control. In early 1991, almost 80, Davidow marched to protest American military involvement in the Gulf War.

In November 1996, Ruth Davidow and about 700 other aging and often frail International Brigade veterans of the Spanish Civil War gathered in Madrid to receive the homage of a now-democratic Spain, which granted them all honorary Spanish citizenship. Several years earlier, Ruth Davidow had reflected: "I knit and someone rips. You make progress slowly. It's a long historical process. And nothing is won forever unless you fight for it."


Guthmann, Edward. "They Fought for Ideals in the Spanish Civil War," in San Francisco Chronicle, May 12, 1991, p. 28.

King, Brett Allan. "Camaradas in Arms: Spain Thanks Those Who Sacrificed to Help the Republic Against Franco," in Chicago Tribune. January 5, 1997, Womanews section, p. 1.

Lataster-Czisch, Petra. Eigentlich rede ich nicht gern über mich: Lebenserinnerungen von Frauen aus dem Spanischen Bürgerkrieg 1936–1939. Leipzig and Weimar: Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag, 1990.

Patai, Frances. "Heroines of the Good Fight: Testimonies of U.S. Volunteer Nurses in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939," in Nursing History Review. Vol. 3, 1995, pp. 79–104.

Walker, Martin. "The Old Glory of America's Left," in The Guardian [London]. October 8, 1994, p. 31.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Davidow, Ruth (1911—)

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