An Old Warrior Continues His Battle on the Road to Nicaragua

Times Staff Writer

The same road that led Abe Osheroff to fight in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade now is leading him to Nicaragua.

"In 1937, I went to Spain to defend the right of a people to self-determination which was threatened by Hitler and Mussolini," he said, "and in 1985 I'm going to Nicaragua to defend the right of a people for their self-determination, which is threatened by my own country."

But this time, Osheroff isn't carrying a gun to battle for his political viewpoint.

Instead, the Venice resident will be taking construction tools, equipment and a crew of six volunteers to help Nicaragua build badly needed housing.

The project, for which Osheroff has drafted a special building design, will not cost the Nicaraguans anything.

Osheroff, a visiting history lecturer at UCLA, award-winning film maker, political activist and construction worker for the last 45 years, is trying to raise the $50,000 needed to cover the cost of the project. He said he has raised $20,000 so far.

The crew, which will include his sons, Nick, 25 and David, 23, is scheduled to leave for Central America in May. Osheroff is interviewing other volunteers, who will be asked to stay in Nicaragua for at least six weeks, where they may expect arduous living conditions.

In an attempt to be self-sufficient, the crew will take tools and medical and electrical supplies.

"We intend to be no burden whatsoever, and when we leave, we leave everything for the local people," said Osheroff, who is also known for his activities in Venice, where he led a successful civic battle that resulted in establishment of a children's park in 1972.

A burly, white-haired carpenter with twinkling hazel eyes, Osheroff in a recent interview talked about what is driving him to Central America, and he recalled a life of activism that was sparked when he was a boy.

"I've always been keenly aware of the fact that for many, many people, the world is not a fair place to live in," he said. "It's always been characterized by lots of poverty, injustice, racism, war and all this horrible phenomena. Not to react to them is to live something less than a fully human life.

"When I've felt strongly about something, I've felt a terrible need to do something about it or suffer loss of self-respect.

"My going to Nicaragua is cut from the same cloth. To me, it's the same good fight. I'm going to Nicaragua not simply to build houses but to register my protest against the Reagan policy.

(Last month, Secretary of State George P. Shultz suggested that U.S. troops might eventually have to fight in Nicaragua if Congress does not renew aid to contras opposing the Sandinista government.

U.S. Aid Cutoff

(Congress last year cut off aid but agreed to set aside $14 million for the contras , which will be available this month if both the Senate and House vote to release the funds.)

In October, Osheroff went to Nicaragua to size up the situation and decided that the best way he could help would be to share his carpentry skills and knowledge.

Cut off from American supplies and replacement parts, he said, "the Nicaraguans are being strangled. You can feel it. It's terrible."

Despite the shortages in Nicaragua, Osheroff is prepared for the project, having gained similar experience working under difficult conditions on another building.

In 1964, he raised $20,000 and recruited a construction crew for Mileston, Miss., considered one of the poorest black communities in the nation.

1964 Construction Project

With the collaboration of local black people, Osheroff and the crew built the Holmes County Freedom House, a community center that provided educational, health and social services.

Now, for the Nicaragua project, Osheroff has designed a wooden form that can be used to mold the basic shape of at least 50 structures, reducing the need for materials and labor.

Osheroff's design calls for a building that looks like a Quonset hut with front and rear facades, but, he said, the design and purpose may change according to the needs and culture of the Nicaraguans.

The curves of the structure will eliminate the need for more conventional roofing materials, of which there is a critical shortage in Nicaragua, he said.

Because Nicaragua has little cement, the crew will experiment with a new type of concrete consisting of pumice, which is plentiful.

New Building Material

It will be used to form a light-weight concrete that can be spread over the shell and allowed to dry before the form is removed and used again, Osheroff said.

Under the plan, which has been approved by the Nicaraguan government, the people will be able to buy the structures when they are completed.

Osheroff, who does not know exactly when the project will end, said he will remain there for as long as it takes.

But, he reiterated, "I'm not going to Nicaragua simply to build houses. I'm not in the charity business.

"I feel it's very important for the Nicaraguan people to know that there is another America that cares and is opposed to U.S. intervention."

The son of a Russian Jew who grew up in New York, Osheroff said his political activism began when he was 12, when he participated in a demonstration protesting the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, activists who were accused of killing a shoe company paymaster and a guard.

Moved by Famous Trial

(In the cause celebre , supporters worldwide contended they were sentenced to death because of anti-communism hysteria and not on valid evidence.)

"We had had bad relations with the Italian kids," Osheroff recalled. "And when I saw a lot of Jewish workers protesting for two Italians, it raised some questions. I was told that these were two people fighting for the rights of working people and that was the reason they were being persecuted. It was very moving."

Since then, Osheroff has continued to defend or help others in a variety of causes.

During the 1930s, he was arrested for helping evicted people put their belongings back in their homes. By the time he was 18, he was a labor organizer, working with coal miners in Pennsylvania.

Fought for Spanish Republic

When Hitler, Mussolini and Franco attacked the democratic Republic of Spain, Osheroff joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He was 21.

The brigade, composed of about 3,300 Americans, was part of an international effort involving 40,000 men from 50 countries who volunteered to defend Spain.

In 1974, Osheroff documented that historical period and personal experience in a film, "Dreams and Nightmares," which won first prize from the International Film Critics Society that same year. An indictment of Franco, the film was dedicated to the members of the Lincoln brigade, half of whom were killed in Spain.

Memories of that time are also captured in photographs that Osheroff keeps in his apartment, where a Picasso print hangs over a doorway.

Parallel With the Past

As he talked about the Nicaraguan project, Osheroff pulled up a chair and lit a cigarettes.

The man who not only lectures about history but has lived it once more looked at the past and the present, drawing a parallel between 1936 and 1985.

"It's been the same continuous thread," he said.

Hitler and Mussolini, Osheroff said, intervened to prevent the Spanish people from asserting their national independence and freedom.

"Today, a poor, small people in Nicaragua are trying in their way to assert their national independence, and this time it's my own country that's interfering. I felt required in the same way to protest and act against this policy."

"I'm going to stay until I finish the project, when I can turn around and say to the Nicaraguans, 'You can have it.' "

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