Dedicated to the cause

Seniors: Retirees opposed to the war in Iraq continue their weekly peace demonstration, now in its ninth month.

November 15, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

At noon yesterday, the Rotunda bells chimed, and a group of white-haired, determined regulars began a sidewalk peace vigil across the street from the North Baltimore shopping center at West 40th Street and Elm Avenue.

They first gathered there in spring as war began in Iraq and Saddam Hussein was being ousted by U.S. forces. They continued the hourlong Friday ritual at the same time and place through the heat and rain of a Baltimore summer and as autumn winds led to winter overcoat weather. They say they see no reason to stop now.

Sidney Hollander Jr., an 89-year-old native Baltimorean, said yesterday's vigil involving about a dozen people was fruitful in producing public reaction. He counted an all-time high of 67 signs of support during the hour, mostly horn toots or waves from motorists.

In general, said Hollander, a retired opinion and market researcher, "There is more expression of support than expression of opposition."

The group's persistence sets it apart, and so does something else -- the members' ages. Two 93-year-old women are the oldest, and all live in Roland Park Place retirement community, a brief walk from the vigil site. And all remember the wreckage of World War II.

They say the rising casualty toll in Iraq is not an auspicious way for the 21st century to begin. It's certainly not one of the last chapters of history they hoped to witness.

"We're here because we've lived through enough wars," said Edith Furstenberg, 93. "I think the war will last a long time. I see the names of young people who died -- what for? It's a most futile thing."

Her younger brother, Hollander, spent some of his youth as president of the Liberal Club at Haverford College in the 1930s. He also served in the Army Air Forces from 1944 to 1946. As he donned a "Veterans for Peace" hat and held a "War is Not the Answer" sign aloft yesterday, he displayed the practiced ease of someone who has weathered his share of civil rights marches and anti-war protests.

The vigil keepers, he said, form an ad hoc group that has sustained itself, week in and week out, though it has lately lost a few faithfuls to sickness or death. They began holding the Friday vigils after participating in a citywide "peace path" protest on North Charles Street before the outbreak of war in March.

Usually, the group is joined by a handful of members of "Women in Black," an international peace organization that led the "peace path." Yesterday's gathering included Sally Sullivan, 85, a Roland Park Place resident who was in her wheelchair beside her daughter, Sally Robinson, 56, a member of "Women in Black."

"No one comes here [to Roland Park Place] to learn to be a social activist," Hollander said. "But this is some visible way of showing or speaking our conscience. It's small, but it's something concrete for one hour a week."

Hollander said he supported the Persian Gulf war a dozen years ago because it involved a large coalition of nations defending against aggression. Walter Ehrlich, an 88-year-old doctor born during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, also says he is no pacifist. He was wounded in France as a soldier and tank driver in a Czech unit of the British army in World War II and later immigrated to the United States.

"I am not against war. I am against this war," Ehrlich said. "I thought the creation of the United Nations meant no aggressive wars anymore."

German-born Marga Smolin said nightmare girlhood memories of the 1930s and 1940s in the shattered Rhineland made her a sidewalk peace activist in her 70s. "I know what war can do," she said. "This is something we can do."

Both Ehrlich and Smolin said Germans were widely criticized for not doing more to resist the Nazis. Knowing that gave them a sense of obligation, they said, because they will never forget the lessons of that time.

"Germans couldn't protest," Ehrlich said. "Here, if I don't agree with what the president does, I must show it. You have to fight to defend your country."

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