By Ben Joravsky

At 84, Charles Hall walks with a stoop, wears a hearing aid, and finds it hard to talk for more than an hour or so without getting tired.

But in the last few months, Hall and his wife, Yolanda, have been keeping a busy schedule, speaking at colleges about a time long before their listeners were born.

The Halls, who live in Edgewater, are lifelong radicals whose convictions and causes–fights against fascism, Franco, and McCarthyism–resonate surprisingly with the kids in their audiences. “There’s a growing fascination with the times we went through,” says Charles Hall. “People want to know why we did what we did. Maybe they’re wondering what they would have done in a similar situation.”

The World War II generation is hot these days, the stuff of best-sellers and blockbuster movies. But what’s generally left out of the tales by the Spielbergs and the Brokaws–apparently being too controversial for mainstream consumption–are the leftist roots of that generation’s great struggles. “We don’t want history to be revised,” says Charles Hall. “We want the real story told.”

Charles Hall’s political passions were born from desperation. “My family came to Chicago from South Dakota in 1929 because it was the Great Depression and we needed to find work,” he says. “I went to the University of Chicago but had to drop out for lack of funds. The tuition was $100 a quarter and I still couldn’t afford it.”

By 1935 he had joined the Young Communist League, having been moved by their fiery speakers in Bughouse Square who denounced evictions and lynchings and called for a unified labor movement. “Fascism was on the rise in Europe and I was idealistic enough to want to fight it,” he says. In particular, Hall and his comrades were inspired by what was happening in Spain, where a democratically elected government came under siege by a military led by General Francisco Franco. By the fall of 1936 Franco’s troops, with arms from Hitler, stood on the edge of Madrid. An international army of volunteers formed to join the anti-Franco fight. Charles Hall joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which came from America. “I went to Spain to fight fascism,” he says. “There was an underground organization, probably run by the Communist Party, that was signing people up. We wanted to make a stand against Hitler.”

In retrospect, the cause was hopeless. “Franco was well armed–he had planes and tanks and heavy artillery. What did we have? A few rifles,” says Hall. “When we got to Spain they sent us right to the front. There was no time for training. There was no equipment for us to train with.”

In March of 1938, only two months after reaching Spain, he was captured by Franco’s forces. “The fascists’ bombers kept coming over our lines,” he says. “We were under fire from heavy artillery. When their tanks came at our position we had no way to fight. It was rifles against tanks. We had to retreat. Four of us took refuge in a gully. We were discovered. We were fortunate not to be executed on the front. By then Franco was collecting foreign prisoners for prisoner exchanges.”

Hall was held for 13 months in a POW camp, a converted monastery, with about 400 other prisoners. “On April 22 we were exchanged–they marched us across a bridge into France,” he says. “I came back by boat to America and was greeted by the FBI. Isn’t that something? We had fought the fascists and they were worried if we were communists.”

He took a summer job as a bartender at Camp Lincoln, a camp in Michigan run by the labor movement; that’s where he met a 17-year-old waitress named Yolanda Farkas. Within a year they were married. “I was a radical,” says Yolanda Hall. “My family came to Chicago from New York in 1929, also out of desperation, looking for work. By 1938 I was caught up in the antifascism movement. At my first mass meeting I heard Paul Robeson–he was raising funds for medical aid to the Spanish republic.”

The couple moved into an apartment at Roscoe and Broadway. After Pearl Harbor, Charles Hall enlisted. “I had no hesitation about enlisting,” he says. “We were convinced that there was an evil in the world and it had to be exterminated. I saw it as a continuation of the fight that began in Spain.”

Yolanda Hall went to work in a munitions plant at Cicero and Armitage. “I helped organize the plant,” she says. “I became president of the local.”

After the war, they moved to a flat at Lawrence and Sacramento. Charles Hall went to work for International Harvester and attended IIT at night to earn a degree in engineering. Yolanda Hall tried to continue her trade-union work. “I remember the winter of ’47-’48–it was bitter cold and I was pregnant with our second child and I was working at a plant in LaGrange,” she says. “Chuck used to get up at three in the morning to warm up the car so I could drive to work. I was determined to keep that job. But I had a reputation as a radical–a militant union person. On my 89th day, a day before my probationary period ended, they fired me. All those days when I fought nausea and the cold were for naught. I tried to find work under my maiden name but it was no use. It was clear I was on a blacklist.”

Eventually she went back to college and became a nutritionist. The Halls bought a house in Austin on the far west side, raised their family, and joined just about every civil rights and antiwar march of their time. In 1965 Yolanda Hall found herself at the forefront of a fight against the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I was working for the Department of Health, and HUAC subpoenaed me and Dr. Jeremiah Stamler, who was director of heart disease control, to testify,” she says. “Why did they call us? You ask them. They called all kinds of people. They didn’t have to have any reasons. Subpoenaing people employed by the city always made for good front-page publicity. I didn’t make any secret of my convictions. We were against the cold war. In Austin there was a guy who was fighting our movement for open housing. He wrote HUAC and named a number of people in the community, including me. He said we were communists, or something like that. I guess he didn’t like me. I didn’t care. I said we were fighting racism. He said we were radicals. He publicly boasted that he turned my name in.”

Instead of naming names or pleading the Fifth, Hall, Stamler, and their allies fought back. They put together a legal team featuring constitutional lawyer Arthur Kinoy and corporate lawyers Albert Jenner and Thomas Sullivan. “We filed a civil suit challenging the constitutionality of HUAC forcing us to testify,” she says. “Jenner advised us that we didn’t have to answer HUAC’s questions while we were challenging their constitutionality. So we walked out of their hearing and they cited us for contempt.”

The matter bounced around the courts for eight years. Rallies and fund-raisers supported Hall and Stamler, while HUAC–which in 1969 became the more benign-sounding House Internal Security Committee–tried to get their civil suit dismissed. In 1973 the Supreme Court finally ruled that the suit should be heard. The Internal Security Committee backed off, and in 1975 the House abolished the committee.

“It was a tremendous victory for which a lot of people from incredibly diverse backgrounds deserve credit,” says Yolanda Hall. “But it was rough. We knew what we were up against. We had seen what they had done to other people. I think we showed that you can fight back. You shouldn’t just go along. You know, the other day Chuck and I saw this wonderful quote from Einstein. He said, ‘Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify.’ He said, ‘If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.’ And he’s right. There have to be enough people to stand up or they’ll never back down.”

In the early 1990s both Halls retired. Yolanda Hall helped found the Women and Labor History Project, which puts on plays and performances in schools and at union meetings about women in the labor movement. And Charles Hall began speaking more about his days fighting Franco, particularly after a triumphant return to Spain in 1996 with other veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. “Everywhere we went we were greeted with open arms,” he says. “The entire country knew about us being there. We were invited to the parliament, where we were made honorary citizens. We were celebrated in Madrid with a huge mass meeting. We walked in and there were thousands of people cheering. I couldn’t believe it. I cried a few tears. Every time I think of it I feel a great emotion. I’d been back before, but there was never such an outpouring of appreciation. Probably it was the passage of time. Maybe it was part of their feeling for reconciliation and to understand a history that was suppressed.”

A story of the reunion ran on the front page of the New York Times. Soon interest in the surviving veterans (there are only six in Chicago) of the brigade began to grow. In the last few weeks Charles Hall has been invited to speak at Northeastern, Roosevelt, and Northwestern, which will sponsor a symposium on April 18 at 1 PM. (Call 847-491-7282.)

“I think the story of the Lincoln vets has great meaning for young people,” says Yolanda Hall. “The vets of the Spanish Civil War weren’t fighting for money–they were fighting for democracy. They kept on fighting long after that war was over for all the causes of our time.

“When I look at our lives I know we don’t have all the answers. But I remain an optimist even after all these years. We never stopped fighting for the principles we believed in. I don’t think we had a choice. It’s either fight or, like Einstein said, we get the fate that we deserve.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marc PoKempner.