Radical Humanist. Working Class Intellectual. Filmmaker. Carpenter. Abe Osheroff is all of this and more. Born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1915, first arrested at 16, and fighting in the Spanish Civil War at 21, he now lives in Seattle, basking in the glow of a lifetime of social activism. He continues to travel the country though, speaking at schools and universities and to show his film “Dreams and Nightmares,” which is featured at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival this Sunday, March 11, at 2 p.m.
This study of the Spanish Civil War and its long-lasting effects on the world — made when he was 60, it was his first film — exemplifies the philosophy on which Osheroff has built his life. His activism started in his childhood neighborhood, where socialist thought was unavoidable. Across the Williamsburg Bridge from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Osheroff lived in a community of Jews who had left Orthodoxy behind and forged a Socialist community that looked out and cared for its neighbors no matter what. “In the depths of the Depression,” he told me, “we never permitted homelessness.”
His arrest at 16 was for helping return an evicted family to their home. It was a common risk for him to take at the time. He started the Brownsville Athletic and Cultural Club, where they usually “listened to music and pumped iron.” But from time to time people would run to them and tell the group about a family put out of their home in the neighborhood “…and we’d hustle down there and we’d put the furniture back. My first arrest took place when the cops stood in my way.”
In 1936 military forces overthrew the democratically elected government in Spain and Osheroff was at City University of New York. There he was exposed to the most radical thoughts of the day, but his first reaction to the civil war that erupted was one of disgust. He wanted nothing to do with Spain. All he saw was a country that had butchered Jews during the Spanish Inquisition and had not been friendly towards them since. But his views changed as he realized what was really happening: a fight between those who had run the Inquisition and the ordinary people who yearned for change.
Later that year he volunteered to fight because of a fervent belief that people have a right to the government they elect. As the People’s Republic forces started winning, Osheroff saw the forces of Hitler and Mussolini rush to Franco’s aid in a darkened theatre on a grainy newsreel. Right away his youthful liberalism kicked in with a vengeance and he raced to sign with the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.
Though an international force made up of volunteers and the heart of the fight against Fascism, the Brigades were illegal to join as an American. Still, of the American troops, 35 percent were Jewish. Twenty percent of all other soldiers were also Jewish. The common language across the brigades was Yiddish, and without the heroism and beliefs of Jews, Franco’s Spain would have been created without a fight.
It was a noble cause, to be sure, but some might ask why, with his country and home in the middle of the Depression, Osheroff went to Spain illegally to fight in a war that had nothing to do with him. Today he explains the desire as he explains his life’s work too: “[There] are the three components of human life. Thinking, talking and doing. And there are moments in a person’s life when they have an opportunity to integrate all three, and they become an authentic person. Going to Spain for me was reaching out for my authenticity.”
Thirty years later, in 1972, on a return trip to Spain, when he found it still ruled by Franco with covertly placed American military bases dotting the landscape, Osheroff wondered the same things about his part in the war: What had he fought against? Had it even been the right enemy? He was forced to prove that he had been correct in his actions in order to justify them.
With “Dreams and Nightmares,” Osheroff exposed for the world what was happening in Spain even into the 1970s. Oppression and repression, unlivable wages, and police strikes against workers trying to organize were par for the course. We see man-on-the- street interviews with people afraid to speak candidly. It is a Spain living in fear and poverty right in the middle of Western Europe. But he also showed the world a story of heroes from all over fighting a war that their governments tried to ignore.
Now, 25 years later, it is the young Jewish volunteers that moved Osheroff to enter his film in SJFF. This part of the tale has given him an opportunity to explore a different side of the story. Normally taking his film to speaking engagements to educate children and students about the young, liberal activists fighting for what they believed in, he sees SJFF as an opportunity to combat a popular myth in the world. He thinks “the film opens up a subject which anyone involved in Jewish life should pay attention to.”
Until Israel created its army, “the mythology was that Jews went to the slaughter like sheep,” according to Osheroff. But to him, the Brigades are just one example showing Jews to be formidable foes in modern times. He even talks about their bravery in Spain in the same tones he uses when speaking of the Warsaw Ghetto. His film, and his talk afterwards, he hopes, will remind viewers of our people’s history and bravery. “If things go bad, they go particularly bad for the Jews,” he says. “[So] historically, wherever there were Jews, a lot of them participated in [leftist] revolutions.”
Osheroff sees American Jews as living an extremely safe life. This has made us forget that we, as a people, are often there, fighting, when social upheaval is present. His powerful beliefs and his powerful delivery will send viewers home on Sunday with this point in mind.
For more information about the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, call the American Jewish Committee at 206-622-6315 or visit www.ajcseattle.org. Descriptions of all festival films are available on the Jewish Transcript Web site, www.JewishTranscript.com.
Charles Redell is a Seattle-based freelance writer. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org