Thursday, April 10, 2008

An Honest Radical

Abe Osheroff, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade raised in Brooklyn, died Sunday in Seattle. He was a long-time member of the Communist Party who eventually saw through its flaws and left it, but he remained an independent radical for the rest of his life. He's gone now, but his good example remains.

Abe's ability to leave the Communist Party yet sustain his radicalism was something he shared with two other New York veterans of the Lincoln Brigade--Irving Weissman and George Watt. I was closest to Irving, who introduced me to Abe and George at reunions of the Brigade.

Abe was a great bear of a man, a college-educated carpenter with an earthy sense of humor and a keen mind. During the days of the civil rights movement, he once built a community center in the deep South. He got word that white supremacists were after him, but he worked on with a pistol strapped to his waist and a shotgun in his toolbox. And he got the job done.

He made two documentaries about the Spanish Civil War, and he never flinched from asking tough questions about the war. Anyone who went to Spain, he once told me, saw some shit. And it was important, he added, to be honest about that. His passion, integrity, humor and strength were unforgettable. He was an activist to the end, protesting the war in Iraq.

My most vivid memory of him brings me back to a Lincoln Brigade reunion that I attended with my wife and then-infant son when we were very new parents.

Abe, with gusto, told us how to tell when a baby is grown up: kiss his feet. When they're babies, he explained, their feet smell great. Only when they grow up, he said, do their feet start to stink.

I don't think I ever got around to kissing either of my children's feet. But the next chance I get I'll be sure to tell them the story of Abe Osheroff.

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