After a childhood in the Hebrew National Orphan Home and a youth spent as a labor activist and merchant marine, Harry Fisher volunteered to fight fascism in Spain as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He later served as a B-26 bomber turret gunner in WWII. Married to Ruth Goldstein in 1939, they worked together for nearly 50 years at the Soviet News Agency, TASS, he in telecommunications, she as a research librarian and office manager. They shared an office, a daily walk to work, and a passion for life. They dedicated their lives to each other, their children and grandchildren, and to making the world a better place. Ruth died in 1993 after convincing Harry to write a book about his extraordinary experiences in the Spanish Civil War and helping get the project started. Published in 1998, his memoir Comrades led to speaking tours in the US, as well as Spain and Germany in response to great interest prompted by Spanish and German editions of the book. Just a week before his death, Harry finished the manuscript for his second book, Legacy. Negotiations are under way for the US edition. He is survived by his son and daughter and their families, including three grandchildren, and a still-growing number of fellow activists and loving comrades. After collapsing at the antiwar demonstration, he was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital, where he briefly regained consciousness and recalled being in the same hospital 70 years earlier to receive stitches after being beaten by police on a union picket line. Harry was truly an inspiration to everyone he met. He will be sorely missed by his family and the incredible number of people he touched in his short 92 years. Harry Fisher, 92, soldier, pacifist, writer, and lifelong activist, died Saturday, March 22, 2003 after participating in an antiwar demonstration in New York City.
- Submitted by Fraser Ottanelli
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How I Became An Atheist
by Harry Fischer
I was very, very religious as a young boy, having been raised in an orthodox, extremely religious Jewish orphanage.
We said prayer before each meal, after each meal, always wearing a hat ordained by Jewish law. We went to the synagogue twice a day, in the morning and in the evening to pray. On Saturday mornings, we spent the four hours before noon praying in the synagogue and on Jewish holidays, we spent from six to eight hours in the synagogue, praying.
There was one problem with all this: we never knew what we were saying when we prayed. You see, we prayed in Hebrew. We spent an hour and a half daily in Hebrew school — mainly learning how to read Hebrew — so that we could say our prayers in Hebrew from the prayer book. We never learned what the words meant, but we became very proficient in reading our prayers. And I must say that I said those prayers with feeling, with emotion, beating my chest and bending the upper part of my body, swaying back and forth. For a while, for many years actually, I felt good praying to God, even though I didn’t know what I was saying to Him. After all, I was doing something good — I was saying my prayers.
One winter day, something happened in that synagogue that changed my whole life. On this particular day, on a Saturday, I woke up feeling lousy. My throat was sore, my body ached, my head ached. I must have had a high fever, but I didn’t know what fever meant as I never had my temperature taken in the 13 years of my life. I couldn’t eat breakfast and I went to the synagogue for the four hours of prayer.
My head ached so bad that I couldn’t read the prayers that day. I looked upwards and asked God to forgive me, because I really believed in Him. But I had to go through the motions of praying, or I would be punished. So while standing at one point during the services, I looked at a page in the book, rocked back and forth, beat my chest and counted quite loudly — too loud — “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.” Over and over again, I counted. Even doing that was difficult, as I felt so bad.
Suddenly, I felt a rabbit punch on the back of my neck. I saw stars dancing in front of my eyes and my head pained me so much. Rabbi Chafetz, better known as “Kid Fritz,” or “two-foot-nothing” — was standing in the pew behind me, and he heard me counting.
“You filthy goy,” he shouted. “You dirty Christian.” He dragged me by the collar into the aisle, threw me to the floor, stomped me, kicked me in the head and all over my body, until I felt that I would die. During all this, the praying by the rest of the boys became louder and with more feeling. They were scared.
Then he chased me out of the synagogue, saying something to the effect that I had sinned enough for one day and that I better pray to God for forgiveness.
I went to the empty gymnasium, lay on a bench, wiped the blood and tears from my face, and in spite of my pain and anger, I began to think. First of all, didn’t the Rabbi sin? After all, beating up a person so viciously was work, and work on the Sabbath was a sin.
But the thing that bothered me the most, the thing that I thought of the most, was what in the world was so evil, so sinful, about not praying? Of not saying words that I didn’t know the meaning of anyway? What was so bad about that? I said those prayers hundreds — nay, thousands of times. At least, when I counted, that was in a language that I understood.
Since then, I began to hate the Rabbi and everything he stood for. I spent the rest of my two years in the orphanage sneaking out of the synagogue every chance I had, and I never, never prayed again, not in the orphan home and not even in the trenches in Europe where I spent some time in two wars.
But I really should thank Rabbi “two-foot-nothing.” He helped me to think — to really think for the first time in my life. ¥¥