A man who set an example for all of us
A little over seven years ago, a plaque honoring the New Hampshire veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade came down from the State House wall the same day it was put up.
The defenders of the Spanish Republic were not victorious in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) but the struggle against fascism alone made the effort worthwhile. On March 30, 2008, at the dedication of the first national monument to the Lincoln Brigade, the Spanish ambassador to the United States thanked the vets for their sacrifice in defense of freedom against Franco’s tyranny that was to follow.
Lincoln vet Abe Osheroff spoke from his wheelchair at the ceremony. He died one week later.
Though not (yet) in history books, Abe Osheroff was a moral leader, a role model for generations to come. Today his obituary is traveling around the world.
Abe gave seven decades of uninterrupted political activism and lived to see his words immortalized in onyx on the San Francisco Embarcadero: “If you look out the window and see a hungry, emaciated child and do not feel – not just pain, but a desire to do something to make the world a little better – then you’re not a complete human being.”
Before volunteering to fight in Spain, as a teenager in Brooklyn, Osheroff helped families evicted from their homes in the Depression, enduring police beatings in the process. After seeing newsreel footage of Nazi planes bombing the undefended town of Guernica, Abe went to defend Spain with the Lincoln Brigade, men and women, black and white together, not because of any self-interest. It was simply the right thing to do.
Osheroff wrote of the resistance of the Spanish people, “Madrid glowed like a beacon in the darkness of appeasement and surrender and became the conscience of the world.”
Somebody had to do something, that’s why Abe and 2,800 other Americans, with at least a dozen from New Hampshire, put their lives on the line.
So in violation of the U.S. neutrality law (which let the Nazis know we wouldn’t stand in their way), he sailed for Spain. His boat torpedoed and sunk, Osheroff swam the two miles to Spain. He shared drinks (and later fought) with Ernest Hemingway (the writer eating well in nice hotels, Osheroff starving in trenches). Then in the McCarthy period, Osheroff was labeled a “premature antifascist,” as if that was a bad thing.
His left leg smashed by machine gun fire, Abe returned to the U.S. in 1938 and then, after Pearl Harbor, joined the U.S. Army.
In 1964, the night he arrived for Freedom Summer in Mississippi Abe’s car was firebombed. If you went to Nicaragua in 1985, you’d find the skilled carpenter building a village there. “As my mother would say, ‘If there’s trouble, that’s where he’ll be.’”
In 1971, he went back to Spain and made an award-winning documentary, “Dreams and Nightmares,” which gave him a new career: traveling to universities and high schools to lecture and show the film.
Right until the end, he really connected with kids. In 2002, Abe sent me a note (with a campaign contribution) in which he mentioned, “Only yesterday, I addressed my youngest audience ever: Two classes of kids 8-11 on the subject I call ‘The Good Life,’ which went well. Came away tired but happy.”
He said to them, “We all have a choice: We can choose to be made by history, or we can choose to participate in making history.”
Abe Osheroff made history in some of the most important political and social moments of the 20th century. He and all of the Lincoln Brigade deserve to be etched in memory.
Someday New Hampshire also will recognize those brave, idealistic Granite Staters who put their own self-interest aside to take on fascism and fight the good fight, along with Abe. In honoring them, we honor our own best nature.
State senator from 1990 to 2004, Burt Cohen now hosts a radio talk show.