A Socialist and a War Resister

Willy died 39 years ago. He suffered from his personal flaws. He pissed away thousands of dollars betting on horses and dogs. Despite a photograph from the late 1940s of Willy holding me in his arms at the seashore, we had no significant relationship. My last memories of him are of us smoking cigars together in the lounge of the nursing home where he spent the last 22 years of his life. He loved cigars and perhaps this was a way of me finding a way to him. I don’t know. Because of the ravages of a cerebral hemorrhage, he spent those years in the nursing home mostly incoherent and unable to express himself.

Willy was a war resister from the Russian army in that part of Russia and Eastern Ukraine that moved from one nation to another, depending on the winds of war. Those who study history know that history does not precisely repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes, sometimes violently because of that part of humankind that denigrates human worth, subverting that worth through violence because of greed and power and status. This writing is not meant to assess the current war in Ukraine, but some of the same lethal forces that were obvious during the first quarter of the 20th century are, to a degree, operating today.

Empires in a multipolar world were at the brink of disaster when Willy faced the prospect of the Russian army. The spark of war took place in Eastern Europe. Now, the world’s only superpower, the U.S., has joined forces with others in its march of hegemony toward Russia. Russia launched a preemptive and illegal war (which war isn’t?) against Ukraine. We live in a world where hegemony almost always trumps diplomacy. 

Being a soldier in the Russian army during that epoch of part of the first quarter of the 20th century was the equivalent to death for a Jew. If death wasn’t the result, then slavery certainly was. Willy knew enough to get the hell out and he emigrated to the U.S., marrying, working, and raising a family in Rhode Island. He became the superintendent of a textile mill that dyed synthetics and produced lace. His brother owned several mills and Willy led one of them. 

Before he was the superintendent of his brother’s textile mill, World War I presented Willy with the reality of having to face the military once again. He chose not to become a citizen and avoided the draft. I do not know the exact details of his resistance to the military the second time, but he was fortunate enough to stay out of “the war to end all wars” and the war to make the world “safe for democracy.” It’s pretty ironic at how these pithy and grandiose phrases about war leave out the blood and death and destruction and profit, but are strong in pushing nationalistic and so-called heroic values and propaganda. 

Willy and his wife Ida sent their two kids to a well-known socialist summer camp in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, something very unusual for kids from Rhode Island. For all intents and purposes, the camps were Jewish socialist camps. The socialist values of economic and social equality predominated there. The admonition to repair the world was a common theme of Jewish life during that time and it was also reflected in their religious observances and lives during the first half of the 20th century. I can’t recall anyone from our small community going hungry or unemployed for an extended time. Those without financial resources were welcomed into the community and treated with respect, as were those of other faiths.

Willy took on a leadership role in the community’s synagogue as World War II began and placed at least one refugee from Europe escaping Naziism into a job and found a place for him to live. 

He fell on hard economic times, though, as textile mills moved to the U.S. South, seeking cheaper labor and heating costs. Willy opened a fabric shop, doing in a small way what he had done at the textile mill. Fabric shops sold cloth and sewing items to people who still made their own clothes and clothes for their families, a quaint notion in the contemporary throwaway economy where clothing is cheap and often poorly made.

Mills throughout the U.S. were sometimes scenes of violent clashes between workers, police, and the National Guard as workers struggled to raise the quality of their lives and the lives of their families through the collective association of unions.

His final work was in a luncheonette that I loved spending time in as a kid. It was a substantial place with all kinds of items that differentiated it from that usual run-of-the-mill kind of business. There was a camera display case near the entrance with state-of-the-art cameras. There was a pinball machine just past the vast counter space and an adjoining room past that machine with every imaginable kind of magazine. Willy also sold racing sheets that were a significant source of income and one shady character, a regular customer, with reported underworld ties, was generally regarded as a kingpin of betting in the area. That person had a huge antenna on the roof of his home that may have been used as a way of communicating about betting and races, but I don’t know that for certain. 

All these years later, I miss Willy even though we had only the most superficial of relationships. I do not know if we could have shared issues about war and peace and his resistance to war if he had remained healthier later in his life, but those opportunities never came.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).