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Murray Polner, veteran, pacifist, writer, dies at 91

Murray Polner of Great Neck, a longtime pacifist,

Murray Polner of Great Neck, a longtime pacifist, anti-war writer and activist, died on May 31, his family said. He was 91. Photo Credit: Rob Polner

Murray Polner captured the struggles of soldiers returning from the Vietnam War to readjust to American life in his book, “No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran.”

The 1971 book told the stories of men coping with what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome in a country convulsed by anti-war protests.

Polner, 91, died from an infection on May 30. His ashes were interred at the Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn.

The Brooklyn-born son of Russian Jewish émigrés would spend most of his life in Great Neck raising a family and pursuing his passions through the written word. The Library of Congress lists him as the author, co-author or editor of 19 books in which he explored baseball, education, Jewish culture, pacifism and the impact of war on American society.

“He was very upset about the Vietnam War to the day he died,” his son Robert Polner said. “He felt that the veterans were mistreated by their government.”

Polner served as a Navy reservist and then as an Army draftee in the Korean War. His knowledge of Russian — learned at home — kept him out of combat: He served in Japan translating Soviet documents for Army intelligence. He later came to see that war as a “misadventure,” Robert Polner said.

“He always took a very skeptical view of the U.S. military and sort of the consensus in Washington that we should have this huge military defense budget and a military presence around the world and be like the sheriff of the planet,” Robert Polner said.

Nearly two decades later Polner opened his home to potential conscientious objectors.

“They could be neighbors with kids that were draft age or they could be people that had contacted him and he would counsel them,” his son Alex Polner said.

“Murray Polner, more than any person I’ve ever known, shone a light on the sham that is the ruling class sending poor and working-class people off to fight their wars,” said Jim O’Grady, who co-authored “Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan” with Polner in the 1990s. That book profiled two priests who became national figures in the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

He was also the editor of Present Tense magazine, a liberal publication of the American Jewish Committee, a nonprofit advocacy organization, from its inception in 1973 to its closure in 1990.

Polner’s parents fled the Russian Revolution, settling in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn where the father scraped by during the Great Depression as a door-to-door salesman. Polner escaped the city at Jewish summer camps in the Catskills, where, as teenager, he worked as a counselor and met his future wife, Louise Greenwald. They were married for 68 years.

He studied history, receiving a bachelor’s degree from City College of New York and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Later in life he also studied Russian history at the institution now known as Harriman Institute at Columbia University and received a doctorate from the Union Institute & University.

After the Korean War, he returned to New York, first to Queens then to Great Neck in 1961 where the couple raised two sons and a daughter.

He taught at the Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn where he met Seymour Lachman, a teacher who became a lifelong friend.

Lachman, who later became president of the New York City Board of Education and a state senator, said Polner was a mentor.

“I came to him for advice,” Lachman said. “I knew the advice, whether I accepted it or not, was good and at least I had a broader picture when I had to make decisions.”

Polner later worked at the board of education where Lachman said he was responsible for drafting the city’s policy on rights and responsibilities of high school students. He also taught at Suffolk County Community College, Brooklyn College and Queens College.

At home he challenged his children intellectually around the dinner table.

“We never had light conversation,” his daughter, Beth Polner Abrahams. said. “He would have us memorize lists of presidents and he would say, ‘OK, who can, recite the first 15 presidents or who knows the capitals of these countries?’ “

“The only light conversation was about sports and it was always about baseball,” Abrahams said.

Polner’s opposition to war remained constant throughout his life. In December 2001, ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he told Newsday, “It’s one thing to go after Osama bin Laden and his crowd, but the real question is whether we can stop the war from being expanded everywhere under the guise of terrorism.”

Robert Polner said, in his final days, his father urged the editorial boards of several newspapers to stand against a potential war with Iran.

In addition to his wife, two sons and daughter, Polner is survived by six grandchildren.

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