Joseph Kahn, who has died aged 94, was a magistrate, Labour councillor, Hackney mayor and one of the last surviving British volunteers for the International Brigades.In July 1936 a junta of generals launched a military coup against the democratically elected Republican government of Spain. When the coup was thwarted by loyalist forces, backed up by workers’ militias, the rebel generals turned to fascist Italy and nazi Germany for help. Hitler and Mussolini sent men and materials to the rebels and, with the western democracies refusing to provide help, the Spanish government turned to Stalin’s Russia which, in addition to providing substantial military assistance, began organising an international volunteer army for the beleaguered republic. One of those volunteers was Joe.
Angered by the British government’s policy of non-intervention, he joined almost 2,500 men and women from Britain and Ireland as part of the International Brigades. In December that year, he joined the recently formed British battalion. Following a brief period of training, rendered virtually useless by the desperate shortages of arms and ammunition, he went into battle on 12 February 1937 at the Jarama valley, just to the south of Madrid.
The inexperienced volunteers were pitched against Franco’s elite Army of Africa and suffered appalling casualties. Joe was wounded on the second day of the battle, suffering concussion and a serious wound to an eye. Of the 500 who went into action on 12 February, only a third remained in the line two days later. Joe took no further part in the fighting, spending the next six months in and out of hospitals before being repatriated in August 1937.
Joe was born in London to Russian-Jewish immigrants. He left school at 15 and worked in a number of jobs before becoming a warehouseman. He joined the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks in 1935 and was instrumental in persuading colleagues to strike for better conditions.
An active anti-fascist, Joe joined the Communist party, then at the centre of the battles with Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. He was arrested at a demonstration in Dalston, east London, but was bailed out by his mother. He was among the thousands of protesters at Cable Street on 4 October 1936, who prevented Mosley from leading his Blackshirts in a march through the Jewish areas of London’s East End.
Joe was dismayed by the rise of fascism across Europe, later saying: “The early reports from Germany filled us with horror, detestation and a determination that this evil had to be fought.”
On his return from Spain, he was horrified by descriptions of Stalin’s purges, left the Communist party and joined the Labour party. When the second world war broke out, he wanted to join up but, plagued by eye problems and recurring jaundice from his time in Spain, he was unfit for service. Instead, he became a fireman in London. During the war he met Sarah – known as Sally – and they were married in 1941.
After the war Joe and his wife established a business selling office furniture. He became a Labour councillor and was later elected mayor of Hackney. His personal cause was social housing, though he was also involved in cultural activities, allocating a grant to the leftwing Theatre Workshop in neighbouring Stratford.
Joe was, for a time, a magistrate, though his seeming unwillingness to convict anyone ensured that his time on the bench was brief. More at ease championing the downtrodden, he made two visits to the Soviet Union during the 1970s, providing help and support to Jewish dissidents. He finally retired in 1990, very reluctantly, following a stroke. In June 2009 he was one of seven volunteers to attend the Spanish embassy in London for a ceremony to present the former International Brigaders with Spanish nationality and passports.
Joe was a natural and articulate public speaker and had strong interests in bridge, crosswords, classical music and literature. He ordered 10 books from a mobile library every fortnight, even in his 90s. He particularly loved the work of Jack London, whom his nephew quoted when summarising his uncle’s character. Joe, he said, was someone “who reached out for human knowledge, dreamed his dreams and struck valiantly for the cause … a lover of human freedom and a fighter unafraid”.
Sally died in 1986. Joe is survived by his children, Penny and Rochelle, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
• Joseph Kahn, International Brigader, born 24 February 1916; died 17 July 2010
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