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Guide to the Fredericka Martin Papers ALBA.001

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
10th Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2630
tamiment.wagner@nyu.edu


Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Jessica Weglein and Jennifer Waxman, December 2004; Michael D'Ambrosio and Gail Malmgreen, 2011-2012

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on February 08, 2018
Description is in English.

Historical/Biographical Note

Fredericka (Freddie) Imogene Martin - Spanish Civil War nurse, writer, and historian -- was born in Cooperstown, New York on June 2, 1905. Her father died in an accident before her birth and when she was five her mother remarried. They moved to Oneonta, New York where Martin -- a spirited child by her own account -- grew up in a warm and indulgent family. Following high school, she lived and worked with the St. Margaret Episcopalian Order of Nuns in Jersey City, New Jersey, and in 1925 attended the affiliated nursing school of Christ Hospital. She graduated with honors and as a young woman practiced professionally in hospitals throughout New York City. As supervisor and head nurse she served on the staffs of Bellevue, Fordham, Lying-In Hospital, and Crotona Park Hospital. In 1929, Martin married English-born Alexander Cohen. During the early 1930s Martin became an active member in the nurses union, attended political sciences classes at the Labor Temple in New York City, and began developing her aptitude for foreign languages, learning Russian and Yiddish. In 1935, while visiting her in-laws in England she traveled to Germany and Russia. Her time abroad awakened her to the growing threat of Fascism. When she returned, a nurses' union colleague encouraged Martin to become active in the then nascent Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. Initially organized by a group of doctors and concerned citizens to provide medical supplies, food and clothing to the beleaguered Spanish Republic, by late 1936 the Medical Bureau was recruiting personnel to send to Spain as well.

On January 16, 1937 Martin embarked on the S.S. Parisas part of the first American medical unit to Spain. Under the leadership of surgeon Dr. Edward Barsky, Martin served as chief nurse and administrator of the American Hospital division. The first unit traveled with four ambulances, 12 tons of medical supplies and all the necessary equipment to outfit a 50-bed hospital. During her period of service, Martin supervised the work of fifty-four nurses, aided in the organization of six American hospitals on four fronts, and helped set up a mobile operating unit. She also organized literacy classes and trained Spanish women to assume some of the nursing and hospital administration duties. Her commanding bearing (at nearly 5'9" she was a full head taller than most of her staff), authoritative mien, and maternal attention to both the patients in the ward and the nurses under her management, earned her the affectionate appellation of "Ma."

In February 1938 Martin returned to the United States to conduct a yearlong national speaking tour, recruiting personnel and raising funds to keep the medical volunteers in Spain supplied. During the West Coast stretch of her tour Martin shared the stage with a representative of the Catalan government, and writer Dorothy Parker. Following her tour, Martin enrolled in the Public Administration program at New York University. Her studies were cut short when, in April 1939, she was invited to establish and serve as superintendent of a hospital in Greenbelt, Maryland -- a federally funded housing initiative created under the Resettlement Administration.

Martin's union with Cohen ended in an amicable divorce in the late 1930s and she married her second husband, Dr. Samuel Berenberg in 1940. In 1941 Berenberg took a medical assignment on the Pribilof Islands 300 miles off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Sea. With Martin's assistance, Berenberg managed the Fish and Wildlife Hospital on St. Paul Island. Martin's work brought her into contact with the indigenous Aleut sealing community, non-citizen wards of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Stirred by their struggle for self-determination and freedom from decades of discrimination and exploitation (first under the Russians and later the American government), Martin spent the next ten years of her life advocating on behalf of the community. She came to be regarded as an expert on the Aleut, producing a series of articles and books including The Hunting of the Silver Fleece, and  Sea Bears: the Story of the Fur Seal, editing an Aleut language dictionary, and translating numerous manuscripts and articles.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Martin and Berenberg returned to Greenbelt with their newborn daughter Tobyanne (named for Toby Jensky and Anne Taft, two nursing colleagues who had served with Martin in Spain). They settled in New York City where Berenberg became the chief of the Department of Health's Child Health Services and Martin embarked on her career as a writer. Following the dissolution of their marriage, Martin moved with the 9-year-old Tobyanne in 1950 to Cuernavaca, Mexico. A cultural outpost for Spanish exiles and American expatriates, Cuernavaca proved to be a congenial home for Martin. For the next 40 years she supported herself as translator, a travel book writer, and an instructor at a Spanish language institute, working with her former Medical Bureau colleague and fellow expatiate Lini (Fuhr) de Vries.

When Spanish Civil War combat veteran Arthur Landis published The Abraham Lincoln Brigadein 1967, Martin protested the lack of coverage given to the medical units and resolved to write a separate history on the Medical Bureau volunteers. In a letter to the Rabinowitz Foundation (08/20/1968) requesting funding for this project, Martin wrote:

"To tell the story of [American Medical Bureau] Field Units, their history must begin with the account of the organization and activities of the Medical Bureau in the US, the story of the Field Units at work in Spain, and their relationships and work with different nationalities and Spanish military and civilian organizations, and finally a summary of the contributions of AMB saving the lives of civilians and combatants."

When Spanish Civil War combat veteran Arthur Landis published The Abraham Lincoln Brigadein 1967, Martin protested the lack of coverage given to the medical units and resolved to write a separate history on the Medical Bureau volunteers. In a letter to the Rabinowitz Foundation (08/20/1968) requesting funding for this project, Martin wrote: To tell the story of [American Medical Bureau] Field Units, their history must begin with the account of the organization and activities of the Medical Bureau in the US, the story of the Field Units at work in Spain, and their relationships and work with different nationalities and Spanish military and civilian organizations, and finally a summary of the contributions of AMB saving the lives of civilians and combatants.This ambitious task would occupy her for the remainder of her life. Working chiefly from her home in Cuernavaca, Martin set out to amass the most comprehensive record on the role of the medical units in Spain. She enlisted the aid of former veterans, friends, librarians and archivists to obtain books and articles, locate missing volunteers, conduct research, and contribute primary materials and financial aid. She corresponded with hundreds of medical and combat veterans from around the world, sending questionnaires and accruing personal data. In the early 1970s she traveled through Europe, Israel and the United States meeting with former Medical Bureau colleagues, conducting interviews, visiting research repositories, and collecting memorabilia and materials for her history. She traveled to Spain in 1972 to conduct research and revisited Villa Paz, the lavish estate that during the war had served as a front-line hospital.

Although Martin produced abundant notes and drafted several chapters, struggles with money, poor clerical assistance, and failing health hampered her in her efforts to complete her Medical Bureau history. By 1982 her attention turned from her writing project to finding a suitable repository to administer the materials she had so assiduously collected and maintained in her cramped Cuernavaca cottage. In 1986, in recognition for her contributions to the Aleut, Martin was made honorary lifetime citizen of St. Paul Island, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Alaska. On October 4, 1992 Martin died in Cuernavaca. She was 87 years old.