“For me, going to Spain was closing a gap that had appeared in myself as a persona, which was tearing me apart.”
Abe Osheroff was born in Brooklyn in 1915 and grew up speaking Yiddish. Osheroff’s political activism began at the age of twelve when he participated in a protest against the executions of two activists, Nicola Saco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, accused of killing a shoe company paymaster and a guard. At the age of sixteen he joined the Young Communist League, an organization aiming to develop its members into Communists through the study of Marxism and Leninism. A carpenter by trade, Osheroff became a prominent figure in his neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn as a public speaker and for his activist organization of demonstrations and aid in resisting evictions in the neighborhood.
In 1931, Osheroff was arrested for moving furniture of evicted families back into their apartments. He was assaulted in prison by fascist-affiliated police officers that called him a "dirty Communist Jew bastard." "All of which was true," Osheroff said, "except for the bastard part." This event inspired Osheroff to officially join the Communist Party. Osheroff occasionally ran into members of the IWW and admired them for their idealism but viewed their cause as hopeless. He graduated from the City College of New York and then went to Pennsylvania and Ohio to organize steel and coal workers.
Osheroff resisted the call to take up arms in a fight for the Spanish Republic for some time and was content to live in Brownsville with his girlfriend. Finally, newsreel footage of the Nazi Condor Legion terror bombing the Basque city of Guernica convinced him of the importance of fighting for the Republican side. Leaving his girlfriend behind, he sailed for France in May of 1937. Because the French had closed their border with Spain by this time, Osheroff was forced to take a boat from Marseille to Barcelona. Near the Spanish coast, Osheroff’s boat was torpedoed by an Italian submarine. Osheroff managed to swim nearly two miles to shore on his own. Although most of the approximately 250 people on the boat had swam to shore or were picked up by anti-war Catalan fishermen, hoping that the submarine would not return to shoot them, approximately 80 of the passengers had drowned. By his account, Oshroff had no military experience before Spain except for hearing a revolver go off when he lived in a neighborhood with gang violence. Nonetheless, he claimed that it is conviction, not experience alone, that makes for a good soldier.
Abe served as a scout, an infantryman, and a mapmaker with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He fought in the battles of Qinto Lochita and Fuentes de Ebro. In September of 1937, he fought in the Battle of Belchite near the city of Zaragoza in Aragon. As he tried to save a company of soldiers that had fallen behind in the trenches, machine-gun fire shattered his knee. After his injury, Osheroff returned to base to teach for a short time. He even managed to get into a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway over food Abe admitted he had been stealing from the writer. Narrowly dodging a court-marshalling by his superior officers and sick with typhoid, Osheroff fled to France as Franco’s forces closed in. After returning to the US, Osheroff ran as a communist for New York legislature. During the height of the red scare and McCarthyism, he was forced to spend three years in hiding. On the outbreak of World War II, Osheroff enlisted in the army but was barred from going overseas based on his political views. “We all volunteered for World War II,” he said. “To us, it was the same war [as the Spanish Civil War].” Osheroff spent the war training troops in the South. He ultimately left the communist party in 1951 in response to persecution from the House of Un-American Activities and left New York at the same time and moved his family to the West Coast. After the war, he travelled throughout the South working on civil rights causes.
He continued to pursue activism throughout his life, going to Nicaragua to construct housing and to the campus of the University of Washington and to meetings across Seattle to rally opponents of the war in Iraq in 2003. He protested the military dictatorships and wars in Vietnam, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile and Panama. “When I’ve felt strongly about something, I’ve felt a terrible need to do something about it or suffer loss of self respect,” said Osheroff regarding his humanitarian work. Osheroff taught at the University of California-Los Angeles and at the University of Washington-Seattle and also traveled to other universities to deliver lectures. He had six children. In 1974, Osheroff made an award winning documentary film called “Dreams and Nightmares” in which he documented much of his youth and his experiences in Spain.
From his work as a fighter against fascism in Spain, a trainer of troops to fight fascism in the Second World War, a builder of houses in Nicaragua, a protestor of war and dictatorship, a teacher, and a documentary film-maker, Abe Osheroff spent most of his life fighting against injustices wherever he saw them. He died on April 6th, 2008 in his home in Seattle.
Abe Osheroff Home Page, www.abeosheroff.org/.
“Abe Osheroff.” Aber Osheroff Oral History, depts.washington.edu/labhist/cpproject/osheroff_interview.shtml.
ABE OSHEROFF: On the Joys and Risks of ... - Robert Jensen. robertwjensen.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Abe-Osheroff-interview-by-Robert-Jensen.pdf.
Bush, James. “NW Homage to Catalonia.” Seattle Weekly, Seattle Weekly, 9 Oct. 2006, www.seattleweekly.com/news/nw-homage-to-catalonia/.
Martin, Douglas. Boston.com, The Boston Globe, 13 Apr. 2008, archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2008/04/13/abe_osheroff_92_veteran_of_abraham_lincoln_brigade/.
Person. “Abraham Osheroff.” The Times, The Times, 1 Apr. 2010, www.thetimes.co.uk/article/abraham-osheroff-xghlklt7693.
Roberts, Gregory. “From Spanish Civil War to Iraq, Activist Abe Osheroff Looks Back.” Seattlepi.com, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 30 Mar. 2011, www.seattlepi.com/local/article/From-Spanish-Civil-War-to-Iraq-activist-Abe-1134367.php