Helen Feinberg, 84; Nurse, Social Activist


Helen Freeman Feinberg, nurse and human rights advocate who aided victims of the Spanish Civil War and Ecuador border war as well as garment workers and Latino immigrants at home, has died. She was 84.

Feinberg died Monday of cancer in Newport Beach, said her daughter, Margo Feinberg.

A New Yorker trained in nursing at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, the 22-year-old Helen Freeman had barely begun her nursing career in 1937 when a meeting on Spain’s strife convinced her to sail abroad as a member of the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy.

One of only 50 American women involved, she worked in makeshift front-line hospitals to aid soldiers of loyalist Spain and international volunteer fighters including Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The young nurse was severely wounded when the American front-line hospital was bombed during the battle of Pueblo de Hijar at Caspe.


“We were so idealistic at the time. And we wanted everything for a better world,” she recalled in 1990 after a speech to Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in New York. Feinberg served as commander of the brigade’s Los Angeles post in the 1980s and 1990s.

Her injuries in Spain prevented her from serving as a military nurse in World War II. But she spent that time in Ecuador, following its border war with Peru, with the U.S. Government Emergency Rehabilitation Committee organizing clinics and hospitals and training nurses in mountain and jungle communities.

After the war, she returned to Europe with the American Joint Distribution Committee to develop clinics, organize health education programs and treat chronically ill victims of Hitler’s concentration camps.

The dedicated nurse also went to Oregon with the Agricultural Workers Health Assn. as a circuit-riding public health nurse for migrant labor camps, and worked with the New York City Health Department setting up community health care clinics.

Working for the Union Health Care Center of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1952, she met and married Charles Feinberg, union organizer, professor and public health administrator. After her marriage, she went into school nursing in New York and, after the Feinbergs moved to Orange County in the 1970s, with the Newport Mesa Unified School District. In Orange County, Feinberg concentrated on working with children and families of migrant workers and other immigrants. She retired only last year, at 83.

In 1985, the school district named a new facility at Whittier Elementary School in Costa Mesa Feinberg Hall in honor of both the nurse and her husband.

Feinberg is survived by a son and daughter, union labor lawyers Michael and Margo Feinberg, and two grandsons.

A memorial service is scheduled at 2 p.m. March 6 at Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar.

The family has suggested that memorial contributions be made either to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 799 Broadway, Suite 227, New York, NY 10003, or to Whittier Elementary School, 1800 N. Whittier Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92627, for its library.