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1943: Polish-Jewish Socialist Wiktor Alter Executed in Russia

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Jewish cemetery in Warsaw: symbolic grave of Wiktor Alter and his colleague Henryk Erlich.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On February 17, 1943, the Polish-Jewish socialist Wiktor Alter was executed in Russia, on the order of Joseph Stalin. At the time, Soviet authorities announced that Alter – respected longtime leader of the social-democratic Bund both in Poland and internationally – was a spy for Nazi Germany, but it was nearly half a century before his name was cleared of the absurd charge.

Wiktor (also spelled Victor) Alter was born on February 7, 1890, in Mlawa, then part of Russian Poland. His father, Israel, was a prosperous wood merchant from a Hasidic family, who died when his son was 1. The family moved to Warsaw, where Wiktor was educated at secular schools and became interested in political activism early. (In 1905, he helped organize a strike to protest the fact that classes were conducted in Russian, not Polish.)

In the years 1906-1910, Alter was in Ghent, Belgium, where he studied mechanical engineering, and also where he met Melina Lorain, a Belgian socialist who became his wife.

Back in Warsaw, in 1912, Alter became active in the Bund – the secular-Jewish, socialist political party, which was then illegal in the empire. In 1913, he was arrested by czarist authorities and sent to Siberia. Succeeding in escaping, he made his way to Britain, where he became active in the Labour Party.

Alter returned home during the Russian Revolution, but quickly became convinced that the Soviets would not allow Poland the cultural autonomy that the Bund platform demanded, and he was opposed to cooperation with the Communist Party. He became a member of the Warsaw city council and of the Bund central committee, and a writer and editor for several different political journals, including the Folks-Cajtung, the daily paper of the Polish Bund.

Alter was an idealist who saw the Jewish trade union movement not just as a vehicle for workers’ rights, but also, according to the Yivo Encyclopedia, as “a framework for acquiring universal values, modern education and the tools necessary for meeting the challenges of an industrialized world.”

In 1924, he visited Palestine, and on his return to Warsaw wrote a critical report on the Zionist movement. As Benny Mer, writing in 2011, noted, Alter was shocked that what was then a tiny Jewish minority presumed to rule over the Arab majority, and he also disapproved of the Zionists’ rejection of Yiddish. Jewish Palestine, he concluded, was destined to become no better than “an ordinary Diaspora.”

With the German occupation of Poland in September 1939, Alter, like many Jews, moved east, to the Soviet-occupied zone. And like 2 million other Poles, he was arrested by the Soviets. Tried for anti-Soviet activities, he was even sentenced to death, a sentence commuted to 10 years’ imprisonment. Instead, in September 1941, after the USSR joined the Allied cause, he was released.

Together with fellow Polish Bundist Henryk Erlich, Alter was one of the founders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which was charged with improving the image of the Soviet Union among Jews during the war. But he remained openly critical of Soviet repression, and his freedom was short-lived. In December 1941, both Alter and Erlich were rearrested. After two years’ interrogation, Alter was executed by firing squad on February 17, 1943. (It is unclear whether Erlich was executed, or if he succeeded in killing himself in prison.) This fate became known only in 1991, when Alter and Erlich both were rehabilitated by the post-Soviet government of Russia.

Today, a marker in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, Warsaw, commemorates the lives and deaths of both men.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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