The Oliver Family Reports
Interview someone who has experienced war.
Transcript of Nigel Oliver's Interview with Abe Osheroff, veteran of the Spanish Civil War and World War II and fighter against the evils of fascism for over 75 years. Recorded at the Seattle Federal Building on 7/10/2007 at the weekly anti-war vigil.
My name is Abe Osheroff: O-s-h-e-r-o-f-f, and where I'm from? I was born and raised in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, mainly Jewish immigrants - working class, and uh not at all religious, very secular. So very early in my life I was in a community where people were used to politics, including politics of war. I also was into, this sounds weird, I had a love of pumping iron, and classical music. So I formed a club called the Brownsville Cultural and Athletic Club. Average age was 17, I was 16 and I was the President. I was President because anybody else that wanted to run, I severely discouraged him.
One day a bunch of young people came down, they were young communists and they said "Abe, you can be very helpful to the people of this community." And I said "What can I do?" They said "Well, they're putting people out in the streets for not paying their rent." It was during the Great Depression. "And you can form a squad of people that will take the furniture and put it right back into the apartments. Right after they got dumped. And keep doing it until the landlord gets sick and tired of it." And I said "Okay, sounds okay." So we began to do that. And on one of those ventures a cop came and barred our way. He was a pretty nasty son-of-a-bitch. This guy, it turned out later he was also a member of the Nazi Bund. He was a fascist, you know. He blocked our way so we couldn't take the furniture, take it right up and we insisted on going ahead with it so he pulled his gun on us - it was like 4 feet from my chest. Scary, scary shit - it was scary. And then he said something that proved to be his undoing. He said "You God-damned dirty communist Jew bastard." And it was all true except the last part; the bastard part. The Jew part was true, very true. I'm not sure about the bastard part but I think that was not true.
NIGEL: What was the motivation for you going over to Spain to fight Fascism? I mean, did you have friends doing it, or did you just feel called upon?
Well you have to understand that...I'd say that the whole atmosphere where I grew up was an atmosphere of social activism. It wasn't just a couple of people; it was part of who we were. The fact is we never tolerated homelessness. It was a very poor neighborhood but you never saw people homeless, sleeping on the street. We wouldn't put up with it. Everybody in my neighborhood belonged to some kind of union. I remember my Dad saying "I won't talk to him, the son-of-a-bitch, he won't even join the union!" So I grew up in that kind of atmosphere. So you can say I didn't have the words for it, but I grew up as a radical humanist. A humanist is a person who wants to do things for the benefit of other people besides himself. And radical means I was willing to do anything to achieve that - I really was.
So, that's who I was when I was 16 years old when we had this confrontation with the cop, right? No, what happened was, okay, he pulled a gun - it was two feet from my chest. And there was two buddies I had with me, two of the toughest kids in the neighborhood. One of them says to the cop, "You better fire your first shot very fast, because then I'm going to grab your gun, shove it up your ass, and fire the other five." You know what happens when we tell the cop that? Nobody'd ever done that to a cop. He was in a state of shock temporarily. So we beat the shit out of him and proceeded to take the furniture up. By that time the red squad arrived and I was in charge and I decided I wanted to keep arrests to a minimum. So I told everybody to go up the stairs with furniture, block the doorway, go up over the rooftops... it was a tenement building. The neighborhood was all very friendly. And me and Charlie Silverman would block the hallway and give them time to get away. And I said "It's stupid for both of us to get arrested." So by that time I knew a little bit about football. I said "Look Charlie, we're going to charge down that hallway. When I hit that line of cops I want you to run up my back and run down and dive under the truck." And he did, he did and got away. Well I told ya - they gave me quite a torturing that night. I mean organized torture - under medical supervision. With a doctor checking to be sure that they didn't carry it too far. But they broke ribs, they cracked one of my kidneys, they busted one of my balls, they fucked the shit out of me - they really did.
It took me about a year to recover so in the time between when this happened and the Spanish Civil War I did a small gig helping to organize a new trade union which was coming up at that point. It was the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and I got deeper and deeper involved. What was interesting to me was that by that time I was very sympathetic to the young communists because they at least answered some questions that nobody else wanted to answer.
When I was young I came upon a man eating out of a garbage can. And I rushed up into my house - I was about fourteen years old - and I said "Mama, Papa, there's a man eating out of a garbage can." My mother just disappeared into the kitchen and started to put together some food and I said to my father, "Explain this to me - why does anybody have to eat out of a garbage can?" And he said to me "You're young and when you grow up you'll understand." I said "Well, I don't want to wait until I grow up, I want to know now." And along came these young communists and they explained it to me, and they were right. Whether they were right about their overall philosophy is a matter of opinion, but on this issue they were right. They were right about the immorality of a man having to eat out of a garbage can.
So when the Spanish Civil War came along I already was an activist. The strange thing about it was when I first heard about the Spanish Civil War my first reaction was "Fuck the Spanish." Because those bastards, they were barbequing people like me, Jews, in the public squares of Spain in 1492. But that passed very quickly because I realized what the civil war was about was two different Spains. There were the barbequers - the guys who used torture and all kinds of horrible methods to get their political missions carried out. And a new Spain was emerging, they were fighting for what's right, a new Spanish Republic, and so you know volunteers were going from all over the world so I signed up.
NIGEL: How long were you in Spain for?
I was in Spain for a little under a year and a half and I came home before the end of the war because I was pretty severely wounded. My left knee was shattered. And I didn't go home right away; I spent time training new troops to get their bones shattered.
NIGEL: So you served in the Abe Lincoln brigade? That was made up of Americans only or people from all over?
Yeah, almost 90% American. You see, one of the problems in forming the International Brigade was language. There were 40,000 guys, they spoke about 60 languages. So they organized five brigades; English speaking, Germanic speaking, French, Italian, and Slavic. Now take the English speaking: The English speaking were American, English, Irish, Scotch, and Canadians. Well some interesting things evolved right away. The Irish didn't want to fight along side the British - they still had that old hostility.
NIGEL: So it was hard getting all the different units to work together?
Eventually it got easier and easier, because the main problem was what we were dealing with. I mean fascism had a certain unifying quality - it wasn't particular about its victims. So anyway I was there for a year and a half. It was a rough experience anyways. If you ask me what was the outstanding thing - hunger! In that year and a half I never saw an egg, milk, fish I saw once, meat, the daily ration was a hunk of bread and whatever else you could get a hold of. And we ate a little better than the civilian population. They had it even worse. So hunger was a big thing. And you're young and you learn that this (points to his stomach) is more demanding than this (pointing to his crotch). When I first came home the first thing I did was not to hop into bed and screw my girlfriend. It was to go to the best hot dog stand in Brooklyn.
NIGEL: How many hot dogs did you buy?
Well you won't believe it. I'm a big eater to start with. I ate like a madman. I ate until I got sick and then went back and ate some more.
NIGEL: A question about Spain. Would you say the civilian population there was happy to see you guys? Like International Brigades coming in to fight?
Not all of them were. Remember that the Republic was voted in by a small majority. I would say that 45 percent of the Spanish people voted against the Republic, 55 percent voted for it.
NIGEL: So those 45 percent became supporters of fascism then?
Not only did they become supporters of fascism and they would not have been able to defeat the Republic, but they had enormous help from Hitler and Mussolini. So Mussolini sends 100,000 troops and all the equipment that goes with them and the Nazis send a smaller number of troops and they would use it as a training ground. They would train 6-8000, pull them out, 6-8000 more, pull them out, so that's where they got their first training in flying planes and tanks, shit like that. They used us as a training ground. And they had plenty of weapons and we did not. American policy... you've never seen my film?
NIGEL: No, I never have. I've seen a few films of bombings of Guernica. Were you there at all?
No, I was not at Guernica. It was a small sleepy town, really a village. Might be a good idea for you to see it. I did a film about being a young man, going to Spain, and what the experience was like and what the aftermath of defeat meant for him. I was not a filmmaker when I made it.
NIGEL: You made the film yourself or with some help?
A lot of help; it's not a home movie. It's certainly not a home movie but it was voted the best documentary seen in Europe in 1975 by the international film critics.
NIGEL: Can you tell me that name of this film so I can get it?
Dreams and Nightmares.
NIGEL: So when did you sign up (for WWII) and what was your motivation for signing up? Was it the same - you just wanted to continue to fight fascism?
Okay, I'll put it as briefly as I can. The American Army in WWII, it was a totally fucked up army. It was racist. They were racist to the point that at training, at the Army bases where we trained, black were here, white troops were there. There was a movie house for white troops - the black soldiers could not go into it. There was one for blacks - white soldiers could not go into it. And I could go on and on with the horror - a fucking nightmare. There was much about that army that I had problems with, but the other side of it was - even with a certain reluctance it was beginning to put up resistance to what I considered the major danger of the world then. Which is Hitler! So I volunteered to serve in the American Army. That's a whole separate story - we're taking too much time.
NIGEL: Was this before or after Pearl Harbor - when did you sign up?
Before Pearl Harbor the only people that signed up for the Army were career soldiers. What the fuck would I want with the army then? I'd be out of my head. It was, you know pushing well into '42.
NIGEL: Which theater did you serve in?
Some day I'll have to explain that to you. I was by that time considered a subversive, because I made no bones about my politics. When I joined the army and they asked me what my politics were I said "I'm a Communist."
NIGEL: and they got all scared.
By that time they would give me a job as a sergeant and they let me keep it. I had trouble getting overseas because there was a big discrimination against veterans of the Lincoln Brigade...until a few of us managed to get over and establish a credible record. When that happened then the doors opened up and commanders even wanted some of us in their units. For example the first people to land in France in the invasion were two members of the Lincoln Brigade and they landed the day before the invasion. They were dropped behind German lines with parachutes. And they were blowing up bridges and stuff so that when we hit the beaches the Germans could not get reinforcements. They both survived it, I don't know how but they did.
And there were many other such exploits, those guys on D-Day. The guys in the Brigade were a special bunch. They were fucked up in many ways. The one thing they didn't lack was guts. Guts, like we're trying to get the senator [Maria Cantwell] up here to have; GUTS! They're so full of shit I can't believe it. I asked her a direct question, this cute little aide to the senator.
NIGEL: Maria Cantwell's aide, yeah.
And I said "It is almost a certainty that you will not have the power to overcome a veto by this president, no matter what you do. If that's the case, what are you doing now to prepare yourself for that situation? You're dragging your ass! You've been dragging your ass around a couple of years." I told her frankly I can't vote for a Democrat, it's immoral.
NIGEL: I completely agree with you, man. I didn't vote for Democrats in the last election either, I voted third party.
In the long run, it's going to take maybe 15 years. We will have to have a radical change in the so-called two party system. Because it is not a two party system. One party with two wings.
NIGEL: Yeah, the Capitalist Party.
(Puts on thick Yiddish accent) Yes, a toirkey vith two vings. (Laughter)
NIGEL: So where in Europe were you deployed to? Like all the different places you were at?
It was after Normandy. Before I got to Europe was after Normandy. I wasn't unhappy about it. I knew a lot about soldiering. And I knew that people like me probably would have gotten killed in Normandy. After that beating the Germans was no problem. They were a defeated army. They had a few divisions that they put together and they beat the shit out of us in the Battle of the Bulge, but that was it. They had no strength to do anything beyond that, the Russians had ground them down.
NIGEL: So were you at the Battle of the Bulge?
I was just a fucking infantry policeman!
NIGEL: Oh, you were an MP?
No, but that's all we had to do. The Germans were defeated. When we landed... Once we got ashore in Normandy the war was over. It was just a matter of cleaning up. It was over. The only time they put up a serious resistance was once...the Battle of the Bulge. They marshaled six top-flight divisions, collected them. They beat the shit out of us. They ran through us like a fuckin' hot knife goes through butter. I just thought to myself, if the full German army had hit us we wouldn't have made it.
NIGEL: My sister has a question. She would like to know who was your best friend in the army?
This is so fascinating. Okay, briefly, one of the guys that volunteered for the Lincoln Brigade became a guy that nobody wanted to talk to because his last job had been with the FBI. And he went from FBI to the Lincoln Brigade and people treated him like he had leprosy. I got to know him, talked to him, and his story was this: He was a true FBI guy and he was assigned to keep an eye on a certain particular girl who worked in Washington. She happened to be smart, beautiful...
NIGEL: One thing led to another and he fell in love with her and...
Yup, one thing led to another. And so we became buddies. The funny thing about it is he became so left-wing and everything that when I quit the Communist Party in 1956, at a big convention, and I had to explain what I was doing. So I got up and told them that the same thing that got me to join the Communist Party forces me to leave it. Namely, I joined it because when I did it was the only thing I saw around which had elements of radical humanism; and now I cannot live with it because it is neither radical nor humanist. So I quit. And I had tears in my eyes when I was talking about it. And he walks up to me, this guy, spits in my fucking face, and says "you have abandoned the working class!" He never worked a fucking day in his life. And then he never talked to me for about 25 years. And he still found out that I was one of the more activist of the Lincoln guys. You name it, I've been there. Literally, you name it and I've been there; civil rights movement, I was down in Mississippi working. Nicaragua? Down in Nicaragua working.
NIGEL: You were down in Nicaragua doing what exactly?
The problem with Nicaragua was, in 1985 was when I went to Nicaragua, and the president of this country was Reagan. And we had to find ways of making an Anti-Reagan statement. How do you get attention? This (gestures to protesters) gets you some attention but not a lot.
NIGEL: So you were making an anti-Reagan statement?
So I did what I did in Mississippi. I undertook to build a village for a bunch of campesinos. Do you speak Spanish?
NIGEL: un pocito.
Un pocito, okay. They lived in very primitive conditions, very primitive. So I took on the assignment of building them a village with 30 houses with some water supply. It wouldn't be adequate by our standards, but it was drinkable water. And I got a lot of attention for doing it. And the attention I wanted was anti-Reagan attention so it was my way of making a statement.
NIGEL: And the people in your village, were they Sandinistas or Sandinista sympathizers?
I think most of them were, not all of them.
NIGEL: So they were just local people who didn't have access to water and shelter and you gave it to them?
Well the power to do it for them was in the hands of the Sandinistas. You see it was a Sandinista government at the time. Ortega's made a comeback. He's full of shit.
NIGEL: Because he's sold out now?
Well, he was full of shit then and he's full of shit now. But then he was full of shit and power. Then he was full of shit out of power. And now he's full of shit back in power.
NIGEL: What happened to your village once the contras took over?
Ortega and the Sandinistas were defeated in a democratic election whereby a small majority, the majority of Nicaraguans, said they're sick and tired of fighting and war so they voted in a new regime and the Sandinistas lost power. Now they've made a comeback but the design of their program, it's not leftist at all. Dead center.
NIGEL: Question from my Dad: How did your family feel about you serving in the military as well as serving in the Abe Lincoln Brigade?
My family? When I went to Spain I didn't tell my family. There was nothing that they could do to stop me and all it would do was cause them a lot of aggravation. They were progressive people. But between begin progressive and seeing your son go off charging into that kind of position; and my mother particularly was disappointed because I was a very promising student in college and she saw me as having a career in science and becoming a professional - you know the normal dream that parents have for children. And she knew that I was off on a path away from that; she knew that. But I made a decision. I was a very skilled carpenter, that's how I made a living, but my main activity was activism.
And I'd like to tell you a couple of words about it. The wonderful thing about activism is 1.) you never run out of work.
NIGEL: Definitely not!
There's always enough greedy bastards to give you plenty of work. It's been that way for centuries and will be that way for a long time. 2.) In the activist field you meet some of the nicest people. I don't know (gesturing at the crowd again) everybody here, I know half of these people. But the man who organized this, Joe Colgan, he's out in the street there with a pink shirt out talking to the cop; his son was killed in Iraq about two and a fraction years ago. What's fascinating is he's a devout Catholic and I'm a devout atheist and we're very good friends. Like REALLY good friends. He said to me, "Abe, you're the nicest Catholic I've known."
The third thing is it's the highest paying - that's the hard thing to understand. It's the highest paid profession you can be in. I'm 92 years old and here I am sitting and I'm telling you what's what. You won't listen to any fucking professor as much. Mainly because I'm more interesting.
NIGEL: You ARE more interesting. That's for sure, man. 'Cause you've lived an awesome life. And after 92 years you're still an activist which is great!
What else can I be? You gotta be stupid not to be! Unless you like to sleep a lot with your eyes open. That's what most of life is for most people.
I have friends all over the world, good friends. Do you know Eduardo Galeano? Ring a bell? He's the most beloved poet philosopher in Latin America. He came to visit me about eight months ago. So naturally when he comes a bunch of people come with him. Cameras and that shit from Venezuela and all that. I got sick of that shit so at one point I said "Get the fuck out! I want to talk to Galeano." I said "you heard me, you can stay in the house and we're gonna go out." And we went out in the garden. And there's a reason for that, when you really want to talk to somebody make it one to one. The moment there's another person there's a certain amount of self censorship because you worry about the effect, particularly with your girl around. I can't have a philosophical discussion of marriage with my wife there, because she'll get very upset. I don't believe that it's sick to love more than one person. But in our society are penalties attached to loving more than one person.
NIGEL: So I guess my last question is, you know it's 2007 now, we have a new breed of young activists and neo-fascism is still very alive and kicking in this world. So what would be your best piece of advice for young people to fight fascism in this day and age?
Well it's fascinating because tomorrow seven or eight young people are coming to my house. I don't move around very well. And that's the question that they ask me. I already told you I can't think of a better employment! I could have done other meaningful work. I probably would have made a fairly good scientist...I would not have been a good businessman, I know that. Not because of my politics, but because I'm a lousy businessman! I made a film that won prizes all over the world and it fucking didn't make me shit. I let them show it in Sweden, prime time - twice! - $500.00.
Now I'm okay. I eat well. I got a nice house, good companion. I got wonderful friends.