My Memorable Seven Mentags: Vietnam;Holocaust;Death Penalty; Kahane; Mississippi;Polner
This post is by Murray Polner, a blogger, writer and HNN Book Department editor.
At the close of every year editors like to list the previous year’s most famous crimes, deaths, scandals, and never-ending political and military battles. So allow me, at age 87, to offer my own list of six heroic people, four of whom I knew. I want to remember them because in different ways they refused to surrender to the liars, frauds and chicken hawks that manipulate and distort our lives.
1. Ronald Boston and His Family. Ronald was a student in the high school where I taught during the sixties. I remember him as a shy, intense African American boy, curious and interested in my subject, Social Studies. After graduation he was drafted. Months later, my ailing and Alzheimer-afflicted mother was in a nursing home where her attendant ironically turned out to be Ronald’s mother. One day, while visiting my mom, she called me aside. My sister had told her that I knew her son. “I had a dream last night,” she began, “and I dreamed Ronnie was dead.” Nonsense, I assured her, most soldiers, as I had, return safe and sound. Not long after news arrived that Ronald had been killed in Vietnam. Much later I wrote a short piece about him and several years after that I received an unexpected reply from his sister.
“My name is Cathy R. Boston,” read her email. “I am the sister of Ronald Boston. Our niece found your piece on the web so I decided to write you a short email to say thank you for writing and remembering.
“My mom and dad never recovered. In fact, the family never recovered from Ronald’s death. The subsequent ‘wars’ have been protested in this household and will continue to be protested. Please do not give up the fight as I have not.”
2. M.L. Rosenthal. Mac was a poet, critic, NYU professor of English and Present Tense’s poetry editor, a magazine I once edited. He brought a sharp eye and fiercely independent mind to modern poets such as Yeats, Frost, Pound, Eliot and William Carlos Williams but also to his own work as well. Raised in a Yiddish-speaking Chicago household, he never genuflected before wrongheaded authority. Here is a poem he brought to the magazine by Dan Pagis, an Israeli poet, a poem which in very few words summed up the effort to eradicate the Jews of Europe.
Here in the carload
I am eve
With Abel my son
If you see my other son
Cain son of man
Tell him i
And Mac’s even shorter version:
Near the Wailing Wall
An old women standing in the sum
And then this gem by Mac at his angriest, saddest, most frustrating and yet still hopeful.
Dear God, whose existence has yet to be determined, let alone justified. We’ll forgive you only if You’ll show Yourself and admit that Creation's out of hand. You’ve tried it all-- Christianity, Judaism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, Islam, deism, antidisestablishmentarianism, what not—and nothing has worked. Or, alternatively, could you just cause all the pompous chatter to vanish? Could you, please, let us start all over again with, say, antibiotics and a few cures for cancer, AIDS, religious and nationalist killers and the madness of creeds and ideologies?
And finally this closing of his poem referring to the senseless deaths of soldiers and “the orators extolling the silent, sacrificed dead.”
A blackout of the heart undercuts all reasons
The ceaseless death-avalanche paralyzes pity
O, presidents, ‘leaders.’ All fighters for ‘justice.’
That is the ‘political problem’ behind all others.
3. Henry Schwarzschild. I knew Henry well. He reminded me that “Jews are defined by neither doctrine nor credo but by task. That task is to redeem the world through justice, here and now, in our own city, our own state, our own country, not because our well-being depends on it, but because Judaism does.”
He was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, taken to Berlin by his parents after Kristallnacht because they thought it was safer and then they reached the U.S. in 1939 when he was 14.
He organized the ACLU’s program for amnesty for Vietnam War refuseniks. A razor-sharp polemicist, he berated the hypocrisy of a Congress and White House eager to absolve the men who led us into an unnecessary war but would not extend the same generosity to those who refused to serve. Before a congressional committee he ridiculed the politicians whose sons never wore a military uniform but who opposed amnesty for those who refused to fight. Who really broke the law, he would ask anyone and everyone, prominent and obscure? “Amnesty, he said, “would be a noble act. We have not had many noble acts from our government in a long time.”
He despised the death penalty. I once asked him how he found the strength to visit and fight for doomed men on death rows. He had heard this question asked many times. Someone had do to it, he said. In New Hampshire during a presidential primary campaign he learned that Bill Clinton, then the Arkansas governor, had left New Hampshire to authorize the execution of an inmate with a 68 IQ. Henry encountered Clinton at a tree planting/political ceremony while another execution in Arkansas was pending and approached him. “You won’t remember the tree but you’ll remember the people you executed.” Henry said he didn’t oppose the death penalty because he liked alleged murderers but because after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, he was against granting governments the license to execute its citizens.
In 1961 he was arrested for taking part in an early Freedom Ride (his wife was a southerner) but returned South regularly and formed a group of pro bono lawyers to defend blacks and whites arrested and imprisoned for daring to demand the right to vote and protest. He never gave up.
4. Henry Spira. When I first met this genial, ferociously autonomous animal rights man I quickly understood why he had chosen to devote his life clashing with humans and institutions numb and indifferent to the brutalization and exploitation of animals. Or as the great Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “For animals every day is Treblinka.” Henry Spira so loved the quote that he read all the Singer books I sent him. When Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature I threw a party to celebrate the writer. With Henry in the audience I asked Singer why he was a vegetarian. “Because I like chickens,” he answered.
I first met Henry outside the Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Henry was leading a long parade of men and women demonstrating against the museum’s twenty year practice of experimentation on cats — he preferred calling it torturing and mutilating— to study their sexual lives. On that day Henry was my picket partner and we spoke about his campaigns against corporate America and how he was dedicated to informing people how many of their everyday products, cosmetics, for example, were using animal ingredients. He relied on picket lines and nonviolent pressures on manufacturers. In time, many companies simply gave up, accepting Henry’s mantra that their businesses would be best served by not alienating large numbers of its customers. Another of his other successful campaigns – he had failures too, such as protecting the billions of animals raised and killed for food –was persuading public opinion that the toxic Draize and L-D 50 not be used on helpless animals.
He arrived as a young man from Belgium and joined the Merchant Marine. A union man, he soon turned rebel union seaman, editing a newspaper battling union corruptors and their thugs. Sturdy and confident, physically and mentally strong enough to fend off threats, the experience taught him how to resist the bosses and their sycophants and how to organize the opposition.
He also began looking at animal rights groups who’d been competing for attention and money for decades and decided that it only doomed them to small, transient victories. For him, some half-way victories could bring faster relief to the sufferers. He allied with Temple Grandin, who had devised less painful, less stressful, means of slaughter. She couldn’t stop the mass killing any more than Americans could be persuaded overnight to become vegetarians. People, they argued, wanted to eat meat but did the slaughter have to be so appalling, so agonizing? With Henry’s full support, Grandin, a true humanitarian, convinced large abattoirs to adopt her less excruciating methods. Some long-established animal people took exception to his half-way approach and thought Henry was on a fool's errand. But not Peter Singer, the Australian ethicist and Princeton teacher of moral philosophy and author of the seminal book “Animal Liberation” who wrote an admiring biography of Henry.
When Henry came to my 70th birthday party he was dying of cancer. I told the guests how honored I was by the presence of so brave a voice for the voiceless.
5. James Kutcher. I saw him only once and that was inside a bookshop. We did not talk but I knew who he was. I never saw him again. Even so, he was hard to forget. He’d been a member of the miniscule Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. Drafted during WWII, he lost both his legs in the Italian campaign. When he was fitted with prosthetics he returned home to live with his working class parents in their federal low-cost housing project in Newark. The VA then hired him for $40 a week.
Then his troubles began. In 1949 the VA fired him because he and his party were “subversives,” a word with no legal meaning but a favorite weapon of governments eager to do away with dissent and dissenters.
No easy mark, Kutcher fought back. In his book, The Case of the Legless Veteran, which was originally published by a small British house in 1953 because no mainstream American publisher would dare touch it during the fevered wave of anti-Communism that swept the Republic lest its appearance on their lists bring the Inquisitors down on them? The book opened with Kutcher’s modest disclaimer: "In most respects I am an ordinary man. I have no special talents. I never showed any capacity for leadership.” Maybe so, but he was no Casper Milquetoast. He was tougher and braver than his craven pursuers.
He chose to go public about his firing. Harold Russell, his onetime hospital buddy who lost his hands in the war and had played the wounded returning sailor in the popular postwar film “The Best Years of Our Lives” came to his defense as did a few non-communist unions and civil libertarians like Murray Kempton in the pre-Murdoch, once liberal New York Post. He would eventually win back his job with the VA.
During his long ordeal he and his family received another gift from their landlord, the public housing authority. It ordered them to sign a loyalty oath swearing that no-one in the family had belonged to any of the 203 groups on the U.S. Attorney General's list of “subversive” organizations—a list compiled without any of the groups allowed the right to defend themselves in a court of law or even challenge the “evidence.”
Once again, Kutcher would not give in and he recruited the ACLU, which then persuaded a court to issue a restraining order saving the Kutcher and eleven other families’ apartments, all of whom had refused to swear they were loyal Americans.
Kutcher, who quit the SWP in 1983, set his sight on three targets. The U.S. Government, opportunistic and scurrilous profiteers of the anti-Red crusade, and the Communist Party. When the U.S. used the Smith Act to indict and imprison eighteen SWP leaders in 1943, the Communist Party cheered since Trotsky and their beloved Stalin had been implacable enemies. But when their own leaders were sent to prison for violating the same infamous Smith Act they denounced the charges as a profound challenge to civil freedom. In 1969, a west coast Communist newspaper returned to the old wars and again turned on Kutcher. “What is being touted as the ‘case of the legless vet’ as a real test case for civil liberties hadn’t the remotest connection with the defense of civil rights.” No matter their moral dishonesty. James Kutcher, a genuine Cold War hero, was a better man than all his enemies.
6. Robert Friedman. I was in my office when the building’s security chief phoned. A young man had left a parcel for me and since the building owners and its insurers were careful about unsolicited packages he asked if I wanted it. I did, and found an article typed on loose-leaf, lined school notebook paper.
The writer was Robert Friedman, a Jewish kid from Colorado (many of his subsequent critics said he couldn’t be a Jew because he wrote so critically about certain Israeli policies). He had studied and worked in Israel and later wrote a biography of Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League—once declared a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel. Both baseball fans, Robert and the American-born Kahane had developed an odd relationship. Visiting and reporting from Israel, Robert predicted early on that with the election in 1977 of the Jabotinsky devotee and Likkudnik Menachem Begin as Prime Minister, Israel would begin moving to the right, which of course it has under Netanyahu. For his labors, Robert was severely beaten one or more times by Israeli right-wingers.
But the Greater Middle East was his territory too. He wandered about Palestinian areas on the West Bank and East Jerusalem and witnessed and wrote about the corruption and paralysis of its leaders. He traveled widely, often accompanied by his wife Christine Dugas, a USA Today reporter. In Syria he learned about the savagery of Assad senior, the current Syrian leader's father. Back home, Robert was unwelcomed by the organized Jewish community because he dared to question many aspects of Israel at a time when relatively few American Jews did but at the same time was welcomed by the once-vibrant Village Voice, New York Times, New York magazine and Present Tense.
I asked him about his sources and he smiled at my naiveté. “I know people, even in the FBI and intelligence groups,” he said, mysteriously. It paid off when he broke the story of the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and then cautioned that the country wasn't paying enough attention to more serious threats ahead. He next turned to the Russian mobsters who had arrived claiming to be political refugees. He said his Italian Mafia sources had initially given him some contacts but warned him that the Russians were too dangerous, too brutal, even for them. Still, he forged ahead, visiting their haunts in Brooklyn and Miami and environs, but always tense when dealing with them. The Russian Mafia put out a $100,000 contract on his life, which he detailed in his subsequent book, Red Mafiya.
In 1996, on assignment in India trying to expose sexual slavery, which he believed had helped produce and spread AIDS, he was infected with a rare blood disease, which eventually killed him. On 9/11, we called off a lunch date at a restaurant in the World Trade Center. A few days before, though terribly weakened by his ailment, he told me he had helped a cop chase down a robber.
7. Rabbi Charles Mantinband, Southern Rabbi. In the mid-seventies I was roaming the puzzling state of Mississippi (at least to Blue staters) doing research for a book I was writing. Before heading south I read W.J. Cash’s Mind of the South. Cash, a non-Jew, wrote that Mississippi Jews were considered “aliens even when their fathers had fought in the Confederate armies … a butt and a scapegoat as old as Christianity.” In a region intensely zealous about their religion, many Southerners still believed Jews had killed Jesus.
On the way down I visited the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and found a memo by a student rabbi in a Mississippi synagogue. He had been to Starkville, where Mississippi State University was located, and watched as thousands of students and townspeople were cheering on the hanging of a Confederate flag on the main flagpole. Nearby, from the limbs of two massive oak trees he saw JFK and James Meredith hanging in effigy. The student rabbi wanted to write about the chilling scene he had witnessed. “I saw hate, destruction and the will to kill,” he wrote. Moreover, his part-time congregation, racial “moderates” in those years, was badly frightened by the possibility of violence.
It was in this strange world that I wandered about until reaching Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I learned about its onetime rabbi, Charles Mantinband. “Jewish life is pleasant and easy in Mississippi,” he wrote. But then came Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Riders, black and white.
Mantinband grew up in Virginia and served small Jewish congregations in Florence, Sheffield and Huntsville, Alabama, and finally, Hattiesburg, until he was fired because he publicly supported the civil rights movement. He died in 1974, blind, almost eighty, forgotten.
Here is vintage Southern-born Mantinband:
“From the very beginning I had to make up my mind what I would do. I vowed that I would never sit in the presence of bigotry and hear it uttered. And when they would say to me, 'God is a segregationist because the Bible is full of it' I always ripped out a Bible and I’d open it to wherever the opposite is stated and say, 'you mean here? Or do you mean there? Or do you mean some other place?’ ”
It’s easy to dismiss his approach as mere talk. But the lawless ran the state. “A closed society,” wrote the intrepid James Silver, an Ole Miss historian. Hattiesburg in the’50s and ‘60s was Klan and Citizens Council country. One hundred and seventy-five Jews lived there, having risen from peddler-storekeeper to the upper middle class and even merchant prince status. Mantinband was quite aware of their dependence on the goodwill of whites and understood their fear of rampaging white mobs. Yet when asked to join the Citizens Council, he said no.
During those dangerous and turbulent years he was a different breed from virtually all the state’s Christian and Jewish clergy (save the Jackson and Vicksburg rabbis): Outspoken, unafraid, a man of deeply-held ethical standards who refused to be comfortable with the bigotry that came so easily to many of Hattiesburg’s respectable white citizens. More than any other southern rabbi Mantinband publicly took the side of the oppressed. He called Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney “innocent martyrs” and praised “my good friend Medgar Evers.” When a synagogue board member asked him why Black people were welcomed in his home he answered, “we have things in common.” And shortly after the 1958 bombing of the Atlanta synagogue, he was threatened. The head of the local Citizens Council, a former Hattiesburg mayor, an active Presbyterian and banker, told the Citizens Council that he was the trouble maker. “And I know his habits, where he lives. If you want to get him….” Mantinband's recollections of this incident are in his papers in the American Jewish Archives where he says he told the ex-mayor he would write out exactly what was said to him and send it to the FBI “and say you threatened me. If anything happens to me in the next ten years I’m going to call for your arrest for creating the climate [of hate].” He happily noted: “That fellow never looked me in the face again because I had called his hand.”
In February 1963, after his dismissal, Rabbi Leo Bergman of New Orleans’ Touro synagogue was sent by the Conference of Christians and Jews to speak at a final dinner in Mantinbad’s honor, an affair most Hattiesburg Jews skipped,. “Later,” commented Rabbi Bergman in a sermon at Touro, “I was told they [the town Jews] feared Rabbi Mantinband’s religious honesty endangered their business interests.”
And, finally, “Courage,” by the poet Margaret R. Saraco.
How does it feel to be a lone wolf walking
Through a green forest on a dark silhouetted night
Wolf, do you hear your own footsteps sound
Or, do you bristle at slight tremors
Made from other creatures who watch
Waiting for you to falter
Fall, lay down and
Die, will you
Keep to your
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