Skip to main content

In 1861, during a similar time of bitter and bloody conflict, a great American poet named Abraham Lincoln said, "This is a struggle to give everyone a fair and equal start in the race of life."

About 50 years later, in the America of 1915, a child whose father had died in Palestine and whose immigrant mother was away working in a nearby sweatshop was carried gasping and near to death from a burning tenement in New York's East Side slums. Neighbors pumped the smoke and fumes from the child's lungs and wrapped him in a blanket while they waited for their tenement home to burn down.

"Rheumatic Heart," the doctors called it throughout the years they waited for Sol to die. And the boy lived to hear a bitter slum doctor call it "Poverty Heart." That was the birth of a poet whose will to live managed to stand up to years of struggle to help in his small way to make Lincoln's words come true.

Sol grew up tenement-thin and hungry-looking among the Jews Without Money of New York's East Side. In his 32 years of life, he never escaped the lot of that one-third of a nation that the greatest President since Lincoln has described as "ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed."

And I, who grew up in a bright and sunlit home in the Midwest, became his friend. Together, in that cold and miserable winter of 1933 when we first met, we searched for work that would sustain us while we tried to carry out our dreams of making good in our respective fields of poetry and the allied arts of theatre and film.

Sol "made good" as a poet. But his writings were not of the kind that lead to success in financial terms, or even to the adequate kind of living standard one enjoys at the times while making documentary films of wars and revolutions.

Sol spent most of his life searching for employment. He never managed to rise far above the tenement type of abode. On returning from Spain in 1938, I found him with an apartment of his own for the first time. At last, he said, he had a place of his own in which to write. He was then making $28 a week on the W.P.A. Writers' Project, his first steady job after years of part-time employment since his graduation from high school.

"Ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed." That was Sol Funaroff’s life. He was in love with a girl who loved him dearly, and was loyal to him for many years. But knowing he was destined for an early death, and that any child they might have would probably grow up in the same poverty he had known, he denied his love, and lived to see the girl marry someone else.

Yes, his life was as sad as his poems. But he was never a man who believed in crying out about his lot. He was too busy crying out against injustice to feel sorry for himself, or to allow anyone else to do so.

It's hard to tell what a friend is like to people who will never have a chance to know him. But perhaps one little story about a letter Sol wrote to Spain in that terrible spring of 1937 when Madrid seemed about to fall will tell more what he was like than the usual biographical eulogy.

I was working on a film about the Loyalist wounded. Sol was working for the W.P.A. and giving all of his meager earnings that he could spare to the cause of Spain. And he did more--straining his failing heart working to help win others over to understanding of what Spain meant to the future of the world.

But serious as he was, he realized that the American volunteers who were fighting on the Jarama front in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion were probably the most homesick group of heroes in the world. So he addressed a long letter to me to read to my closest friends in the Battalion.

It was not the serious type of news summary so many people back home sent to Spain with the sincere zeal and respect of stayathomes for the men at the front. It was a letter for homesick kids who ached for the sight of America and a few laughs and the kind of talk they would hear from their buddies over a game of pool or a few beers.

It was a letter full of fun and rough jokes and the latest gossip and wisecracks. As I finished reading Sol’s ten-page collection of laughs from home, the group of friends (who had been 110 consecutive days in the trenches helping hold the Madrid-Valencia road) broke out into applause.

One of them said, "Now there's the kind of guy I’d like to pal out with." His name was John Dyck, and he asked for Sol's name and address so he could write to him and look him up someday.

Some months later in New York I told Sol how my friends had applauded his letter, and what John Dyck had said just before he went to his death throwing a Molotov cocktail at a tank that crushed him into the Spanish earth he had volunteered to defend. And it made Sol happy to hear that he had given a moment's ease to the men who were fighting for what he believed on the front against fascism.

Like John Dyck, Sol's readers will never have a chance to pal out with him, or know the quick warm smile and hearty laughter that often broke the sadness of his face and life. But perhaps his words will lead them to help realize his dream and Lincoln’s of a world that will give "everyone a fair and equal start in the race of life."