In May 1938, 22-year-old David Lipton said goodbye to his family and friends in the Bronx, and — in violation of the provisions of the Neutrality Act inscribed in his American passport — he shipped off to Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigades fighting for the Spanish Republic against General Francisco Franco.
But David’s parents weren’t worried; he had told them he was working as a waiter in the Catskills.
The trenches of the Spanish Republic were not a strange place for a young Jewish man just then. Jews made up an estimated third of the 3,000 American volunteers fighting alongside leftist Spaniards against the German-backed Nationalists.
David Lipton never came home. He was shot and killed in August of that year.
Eunice Lipton was born three years later. Her father, Louis, was David’s older brother. Growing up, her uncle was a sore spot in her family. Her father’s relationship to his dead brother clearly was painful, though he named Eunice’s brother, David, after him.
“My father had such an ambivalent feeling about what happened to his brother,” she said. “He loved his brother, and at the same time said that he died for nothing, that he threw his life away.”
The roots of this painful ambivalence is one of the threads of Dr. Lipton’s new book, “A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and a Family’s Secrets.” Dr. Lipton will speak about her book, and her uncle’s story, on Friday, June 24, at the Puffin Foundation in Teaneck.
The familial ambivalence did not stem from a problem with David’s politics.
“My father’s family were communists,” Dr. Lipton said. “His mother and uncles were communists in Europe.”
Dr. Lipton’s grandfather, Max Lifshitz, came to America from Latvia with his two oldest children — one of them Louis — in 1926. Her grandmother, Anna, and David followed them two years later.
Given his family, it wasn’t surprising that David became a communist. It was communists who joined the Soviet Union-backed Spanish communists in fighting against the German-backed Spanish fascists
It was, perhaps, surprising, though, that it was David, of all those in his leftist circle in New York, who took up arms.
But it wasn’t just David’s death that distressed Louis. “My father did a terrible thing to his brother when he was in Spain,” Dr. Lipton said.
Her father intercepted David’s letters to their parents, and they did not learn that their son was in Spain until they were notified of his death.
Meanwhile, in Spain, David repeatedly asked his parents to write to him. “The story really ripped the family apart,” Dr. Lipton said.
Could she imagine herself making the choice her uncle made at 22 — to go off to fight a foreign war?
“No. I can’t,” she said. “In part, because when I was 21, I was just a girl. It was before the women’s movement,” Dr. Lipton said. She was born in 1941.
“Also, my father inculcated in me a fear of risks,” she said. That is why “I wasn’t involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement.” Not until the women’s movement came around did she become politically active.
Yet Dr. Lipton had a desire for adventure, even if it was not as strong as her uncle’s had been, and she was fascinated with Europe. She first traveled to France when she was 19. Now she and her husband, Ken Aptekar, live there half of each year.
“My father had a fantasy about France,” she said. “He came from Latvia, an urban setting where it was more or less comfortable for Jews. For him, culture was French. Literature was Zola and Balzac. Politics was French. He valued the French Revolution, and that France was the first country to make Jews citizens.”
In her first career — she was an art historian and university professor before she quit to write full time — Dr. Lipton explored French culture and art. This led to a book, “Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire” about Victorine Meurent, the model for Edouard Manet’s most famous paintings.
“She interested me because she had a very direct gaze,” Dr. Lipton said. “She looked out at you as if she had autonomy. As a young teacher, I talked about her a lot. I decided to research her life.”
The book ended up being less a work of straight art history than a memoir of Dr. Lipton’s search for her; it was as much about Dr. Lipton as about Victorine Meurent. “My mother made one appearance” in the first draft,” Dr. Lipton said.
“When I sold my book to Scribner, my editor said, ‘I think you wrote this because you were looking for something about your mother. I want you to write her in.’
“My editor was brilliant,” Dr. Lipton said. “People were most fascinated by the relationship between me and my mother.”
“What I learned about my mother as I wrote ‘Alias Olympia’ was that she was a woman with desire — in the largest sense: to meet new people, see new places, to eat, to laugh, to schmooze. Being a mother didn’t really suit her. She was born in the wrong generation,” Dr. Lipton said.
Her next book, “French Seduction: An American’s Encounter with France, Her Father, and the Holocaust”, looked at her father — and French history. “I had a lot of bad feelings about French collaboration with the Nazis,” she said.
Dr. Lipton’s work on “A Distant Heartbeat” began 20 years ago. She started her research with the archives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and it proved to be unexpectedly fruitful.
At the New York Public Library, a friend discovered a picture of David Lipton, standing in a trench in Spain with a gun on his shoulders.
Her uncle was real. Traces of his life could be recovered. Dr. Lipton searched for them.
“I met the man who was with him when he was shot,” Dr. Lipton said. “They had met on the ship to Spain and hung out together in France for a day.
“I met people he was active with in the Young Communist League in the Bronx,” she said. “Everybody was really happy to talk and give me their names. With one exception — a woman who probably had been in the communist underground in the 50s. She told me a lot about my uncle, how kind he was. I got guys reminiscing about their pasts. Many had shed their political interests long ago. He was the only one of their group who went to Spain.”
In her Puffin talk, Dr. Lipton will describe her uncle “as a Jew and an activist. And I think I’m also going to talk about the part of him that was American and wanted to be American. I’m going to try to create a portrait of him as somebody who loved New York but also carried in his heart and his soul a need to be useful.
“I think I have that too.”
Who: Author Eunice Lipton’s
What: Presentation about her new family history, “A Distant Heartbeat”
Where: Puffin Cultural Forum, 20 Puffin Way, Teaneck
When: Friday, June 24, 7 p.m.
Suggested donation: $10