Steck, Robert

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In January 1937, Robert Steck, actor and social activist, sailed to Europe to volunteer for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. He was taken prisoner in April 1938 and held for seventeen months. After serving in World War II, Steck became a history teacher. Throughout his career, Steck also organized many events designed to present the history of the Spanish Civil War.

From the description of Papers, 1917-1998 (bulk 1936-1944, 1977-1993). (New York University). WorldCat record id: 476250187

Robert Steck, actor and social activist, sailed to Europe to volunteer for service in the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in January 1937. In the following months, Steck served in the International Brigades with the First Regiment de Tren, where he was appointed political commissar; worked with British writer Ralph Bates, putting out the magazine Volunteer for Liberty; headed the Tarazona Base Cultural Commission, adapting his theater experience to the political and social realities of the war and creating skits performed off the back of trucks (known as "Buffoons on Trucks"); and was rifleman, runner and battalion scout for the Third Lincoln company. The collection reflects the range of Steck's progressive activities and concerns, including his long association with the communal adult camp, Camp Unity. For further biographical information on Robert Steck, and to review the scope and contents of his manuscript collection see, The Guide to the Robert Steck Papers, ALBA 104. [Note: hotlink]. This collection includes images acquired by Steck in the course of his service as a volunteer in Spain and images of Steck, and others, from before and after the Spanish Civil War.

From the description of Robert Steck photograph collection [graphic]. 1937-1996. (New York University). WorldCat record id: 85222682

Robert Steck, actor and social activist, sailed to Europe to volunteer for service in the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in January 1937. In the following months Steck served in the International Brigades with the First Regiment de Tren, where he was appointed political commissar; worked with British writer Ralph Bates, putting out the magazine Volunteer for Liberty ; headed the Tarazona Base Cultural Commission, adapting his theater experience to the political and social realities of the war and creating skits performed off the back of trucks (known as "Buffoons on Trucks"); and was rifleman, runner and battalion scout for the Third Lincoln Company. The photo collection reflects the range of Steck's progressive activities and concerns, including his long association with the communal adult camp, Camp Unity. This collection includes images acquired by Steck in the course of his service as a volunteer in Spain and images of Steck, and others, from before and after the Spanish Civil War. ( For further biographical information on Robert Steck see the Guide to the Robert Steck Papers, ALBA 104.)

From the guide to the Robert Steck Photographs, 1937-1996, (Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives)

In January 1937, Robert Steck, actor and social activist, sailed to Europe to volunteer for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. In the following months, Steck served in the International Brigades with the First Regiment de Tren, where he was elected political commissar; worked with British writer Ralph Bates, putting out the magazine Volunteer for Liberty; headed the Tarazona Base Cultural Commission, adapting his theater experience to the political and social realities of the war and creating skits performed off the back of trucks (known as "Buffoons on Trucks"); and was rifleman, runner and battalion scout for the Third Lincoln company.On April 9, 1938, during the retreat from Gandesa, Steck was captured by Italian fascists, who would have executed him were it not for Mussolini's order to exchange International Brigaders for captured fascists. Steck was first kept for two days in complete darkness at the bottom of a cistern, then transferred to the prison at San Pedro de Cardena, where he spent the following seventeen months. While in prison Steck organized an "Institute for Higher Learning" and, together with fellow-prisoners Hy Wallach and Sidney Rosenblatt, put out a handwritten newspaper, "Jaily News," illustrated by British prisoner Jimmy Moon. They made only a single copy of each issue, concealing it beneath the floorboards when it wasn't being surreptitiously circulated among the prisoners (Steck later smuggled two issues home under his clothes). It was only after the war had ended that the State Department finally negotiated the release of a group of eleven prisoners that included Steck.

After returning to the States he quickly connected with the recently-formed Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), chairing the Committee for the Release of the International Prisoners in Spain. After serving in World War II, Steck became a history teacher. Steck remained a core member of VALB, serving twice on the Executive Board of the National Council, and chairing the Prisoner Historical Committee. From 1979 through 1986, he worked closely with veteran Carl Geiser on Geiser's book Prisoners of the Good Fight (Lawrence Hill and Co., 1986), organizing fundraising endeavors, conducting research -- including taped interviews, and traveling internationally to locate American ex-prisoners.

From the guide to the Robert Steck Audio Collection, 1970s-1980s, (Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives)

Robert Steck was born in 1912 in Rock Island, Illinois. One of five brothers, he inherited a keen awareness of society's injustices from his father, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler and member of the Freethinking Society, leading Steck to a lifelong commitment to public service and political activism. While attending St. Ambrose College in Iowa, Steck discovered the theater and, after a stint as a truck driver for his father's business, landed in New York City, where he worked on the staff of New Theater Magazine alongside editor Herb Kline (who would later fight with Steck in the Spanish Civil War). Here Steck wed his theater skills to social activism, joining Studio One's Theater of Action, an offshoot of the WPA-sponsored Workers Laboratory Theater. In the summer, Steck worked at Camp Unity, an interracial, socialist adult camp, first as an actor, then as director of activities.

By January 1937, Steck's Camp Unity associates Yale Stuart and Philip Bard had departed for Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War (SCW). Steck, already active in efforts for the Republican cause, soon followed. He sailed on the Ile de France in February 1937, where he joined the first group of U.S. International Brigades volunteers required to walk from France over the Pyrenees to get into Spain (their passports had been stamped "not valid for travel in Spain"). In the following months, Steck served in the International Brigades with the First Regiment de Tren, where he was elected political commissar; worked with British writer Ralph Bates, putting out the magazine Volunteer for Liberty ; headed the Tarazona Base Cultural Commission, adapting his theater experience to the political and social realities of the war and creating skits performed off the back of trucks (known as "Buffoons on Trucks"); and was rifleman, runner and battalion scout for the Third Lincoln company.

On April 9, 1938, during the retreat from Gandesa, Steck was captured by Italian fascists, who would have executed him were it not for Mussolini's order to exchange International Brigaders for captured fascists. Steck was first kept for two days in complete darkness at the bottom of a cistern, then transferred to the prison at San Pedro de Cardena, where he spent the following seventeen months. While in prison Steck organized an "Institute for Higher Learning" and, together with fellow-prisoners Hy Wallach and Sidney Rosenblatt, put out a handwritten newspaper, "Jaily News," illustrated by British prisoner Jimmy Moon. They made only a single copy of each issue, concealing it beneath the floorboards when it wasn't being surreptitiously circulated among the prisoners (Steck later smuggled two issues home under his clothes). Meanwhile, Steck's father joined the Friends of the Prisoners committee in the U.S. to work for his son's release. It was only after the war had ended that the State Department finally negotiated the release of a group of eleven prisoners that included Steck.

Back in the States, Steck married Josephine (Jo) Savage. He also quickly connected with the recently-formed Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), chairing the Committee for the Release of the International Prisoners in Spain. Steck returned to Camp Unity as director of activities in the summer of 1940, finding a welcome refuge for himself and other veterans, and in the autumn and winter continued his social work at community centers in the Bronx and Philadelphia. He worked as well for a short time as a welder at Todd Shipyards. Steck joined the U.S. Army in 1943, serving until 1946 in the Medical Corps at Fort Meade, in the Specialized Training Program at Georgetown University, and in Intelligence training (in Russian) at Camp Ritchie. His deployment overseas was repeatedly put off, however, and Steck became convinced that this was due to discrimination based upon his participation in the SCW.

After an honorable discharge, Steck again returned to Camp Unity as director of activities. He left in 1952 as a result of differences over policy. In 1956, after running a travel agency for a year, Steck formed a communally-oriented children's camp, Camp Calumet, with friend and Camp Unity associate, Sophie Saroff. In 1967, Steck became a full time fifth grade teacher at P.S. 40 in the South Bronx, then taught high school history and social studies in New Jersey, New York and later in Connecticut, where he and Jo settled in Lime Rock. He retired from teaching in 1978, affording him more time to devote his energies to a broad spectrum of social issues, including nuclear disarmament, the Nicaraguan revolution, the struggle in El Salvador, and justice for Palestinians. For years, he spent every Saturday standing in a Vigil for Peace on the Salisbury Green in Connecticut.

Steck remained a core member of VALB, serving twice on the Executive Board of the National Council, and chairing the Prisoner Historical Committee. From 1979 through 1986, he worked closely with veteran Carl Geiser on Geiser's Prisoners of the Good Fight, organizing numerous fundraising endeavors, conducting extensive research, and traveling internationally to locate American ex-prisoners. From his research and interviews, Steck wrote 120 biographical profiles that underlay Geiser's account of the Americans' experience in Spanish prisons. During this period Steck also used his research to write and publish a pamphlet on Walter Fairbanks Grant, a prisoner killed in Spain; and an article for Jewish Currents about Sol Leiserowitz, another prisoner who disappeared. Prisoners of the Good Fight was published in 1986.

From the guide to the Robert Steck Papers, Bulk, 1936-1993, 1917-1998, (Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Steck, Robert. Papers, 1917-1998 (bulk 1936-1944, 1977-1993). Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Carl Geiser Papers, Bulk, 1977-1990, 1937-1990, (Bulk 1977-1990) Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives
creatorOf Robert Steck Photographs, 1937-1996 Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives
creatorOf Robert Steck Audio Collection, 1970s-1980s Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives
creatorOf Robert Steck Papers, Bulk, 1936-1993, 1917-1998 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
referencedIn Gerassi, John. John Gerassi oral history collection, 1980. Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Harriman, Manny. Manny Harriman video oral history collection, 1985-1987. Churchill County Museum
creatorOf Steck, Robert. Robert Steck photograph collection [graphic]. Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Geiser, Carl. Papers, 1937-1990 (bulk 1977-1990). Churchill County Museum
referencedIn John Gerassi Papers, 1979-1983, 2000s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
referencedIn John Gerassi Oral History Collection, 1980 Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives
referencedIn Manny Harriman Video Oral History Collection, Bulk, 1985-1987, 1945-1990 Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives
referencedIn Gerassi, John. Papers, 1979-1983. Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Irving Weissman Papers, Bulk, 1977-1996, 1937-1998, (Bulk 1977-1996) Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives
referencedIn Weissman, Irving, 1913-1998. Papers, 1937-1998 (bulk 1977-1998). Churchill County Museum
referencedIn University of Connecticut, Office of Public Information Records, undated, 1918-2000. Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. corporateBody
associatedWith Bates, Ralph, 1899- person
associatedWith Blair, John person
associatedWith Bois, William person
associatedWith Camp Calumet (Wingdale, N.Y.). corporateBody
associatedWith Carney, William. person
associatedWith Carney, William. person
associatedWith Chase, Homer person
associatedWith Chase, Homer. person
associatedWith Colow, Maury person
associatedWith Colow, Maury. person
associatedWith Committee for the Release of International Prisoners in Spain. corporateBody
associatedWith Doran, Dave, 1910-1938. person
associatedWith English, Robert. person
associatedWith English, Robert. person
associatedWith Fishman, Moses, 1916- person
associatedWith Fishman, Moses (Moe), 1916- person
associatedWith Geiser, Carl. person
associatedWith Gerassi, John. person
associatedWith Goldring, Benjamin. person
associatedWith Grant, Walter Fairbanks. person
associatedWith Grant, Walter Fairbanks. person
associatedWith Harriman, Manny. person
associatedWith Harriman, Manny. person
associatedWith Kline, Herbert person
associatedWith Kline, Herbert. person
associatedWith Leiserowitz, Sol. person
associatedWith Leiserowitz, Sol. person
associatedWith Lending, Edward Isaac, 1912-2003. person
associatedWith Maki, Martin. person
associatedWith Megquier, Henry Ben person
associatedWith Megquier, Henry Ben. person
associatedWith Moon, Jimmy. person
associatedWith Moon, Jimmy. person
associatedWith Nelson, Steve, 1903- person
associatedWith Parker, Max. person
associatedWith Parker, Max, 1912-1983 person
associatedWith Parlour, Ernie. person
associatedWith Parlour, Ernie. person
associatedWith Prago, Albert. person
associatedWith Real Monasterio de San Pedro (Cardeña, Spain) corporateBody
associatedWith Ross, Adolph. person
associatedWith Ross, Adolph (Buster) person
associatedWith San Pedro de Cardena (Monastery : Castrillo del Val, Spain) corporateBody
associatedWith Saroff, Sophie, 1896- person
associatedWith Sennett, William, 1914- person
associatedWith Smith, Randall, 1917-1989. person
associatedWith Spain. Ejército Popular de la República. Abraham Lincoln Battalion. corporateBody
associatedWith Spain. Ejército Popular de la República. Abraham Lincoln Battalion. corporateBody
associatedWith Spain. Ejercito Popular de la Republica. Abraham Lincoln Battalion. corporateBody
associatedWith Spain. Ejército Popular de la República. Brigada Internacional, XV. corporateBody
associatedWith Spain. Ejercito Popular de la Republica. Brigada Internacional, XV. corporateBody
associatedWith Spain. Ejercito Popular de la Republica. Brigada Internacional, XV. corporateBody
associatedWith Torgoff, Leonard Sloan. person
associatedWith Torgoff, Leonard Sloan, 1916-1937 person
associatedWith Unity Camp (Wingdale, N.Y.). corporateBody
associatedWith University of Connecticut. Office of Public Infomation corporateBody
associatedWith Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. corporateBody
associatedWith Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Archives. corporateBody
associatedWith Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Historical Commission. corporateBody
associatedWith Watt, George, 1913-1994. person
associatedWith Weissman, Irving, 1905- person
associatedWith Weissman, Irving, 1913-1998. person
associatedWith Wolff, Milton. person
associatedWith Yates, James, 1906- person
associatedWith Ziegler, Albert. person
associatedWith Ziegler, Albert. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
San Pedro de Cardenas (Spain)
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |x Veterans |z United States |v Correspondence.
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |v Pictorial works.
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |x International brigades.
Jarama River Valley (Spain)
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |x Theater and the war.
Gandesa (Spain) |x History.
Gandesa (Spain)
Spain
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |v Personal narratives.
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |v Personal narratives.
San Pedro de Cardeña (Monastery : Castrillo del Val, Spain)
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |x Participation, American.
Camp Calumet (Wingdale, N.Y.)
United States
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939.
San Pablo de Cardenas (Spain)
Jarama River Valley (Spain)
Unity Camp (Wingdale, N.Y.)
Real Monasterio de San Pedro (Cardeña, Spain)
New York (State)
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |x Prisoners and prisons.
Spain
Massachusetts
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |x Prisoners and prisons.
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |v Drama.
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |x Concentration camps.
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |v Portraits.
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939.
Spain |x History |y Civil War, 1936-1939 |x Participation, American.
Subject
Americans--Spain--History--20th century
Camps--New York (State)--History--20th century
Brunete, Battle of, Brunete, Spain, 1937
Ebro River, Battle of the, Spain, 1938
Camps--Massachusetts--History--20th century
Camps--History--20th century
Occupation
Function

Person

Active 1917

Active 1998

Information

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SNAC ID: 72142899