In October this year, we will celebrate the round, 120th anniversary of the formation of the Bund. On this occasion, on our website we will try to bring back memories of some of its activists as well as of the crucial events in the history of the party and its affiliated organisations. Among others, on August 19 we will commemorate the patients and personnel of the Vladimir Medem Sanatorium in Miedzeszyn, in connection with the 75th anniversary of liquidation of this facility by the Germans.


Today, on the other hand, we would like to remember Wiktor Alter (07.02.1890–17.02.1943) – an eminent Bund activist – in connection with the anniversary of his death, or at least the “official” date thereof as stated by the Soviet authorities.


Let us go back to the time after the onset of World War II, when Wiktor Alter – much like many other political activists – has fled the advancing German forces to eastern Poland, where on September 26, 1939, he was arrested by the NKVD in Kovel. Having spent a substantial amount of time in various prison facilities where he was interrogated on numerous occasions, Alter stood trial in July 1941 and was sentenced to death, his sentence having later been converted to 10 years’ imprisonment. However, in September 1941, Alter was released from prison, although he was not allowed to leave the “inhuman land” in which he now found himself. Stalin wanted to keep both him and Henryk Erlich under his control. He wanted them to form and lead an organisation called the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. However, when Alter and Erlich wanted to renege on the promise which they gave to Stalin, they were arrested once again on December 4, 1941. As if by chance, this coincided with general Władysław Sikorski’s visit in Moscow and with his talks with Joseph Stalin, as a result of which a joint political declaration was issued, which pertained, among other things, to the evacuation of 25 thousand Polish soldiers to Tehran.



The very fact that these two Jewish socialist activists were arrested for the second time caused an outrage among the public all around the world. Through various appeals and actions, attempts were made to influence Stalin’s decision, to determine the status of the prisoners and to appeal for their release. According to the information obtained in January 1942 by professor Stanisław Kot, the Polish ambassador to the USSR:


“[...] insofar as the case of both of the arrested men [i.e. Alter and Erlich – editorial note] is concerned, I have made firm demands on three occasions. However, all I have managed to achieve so far was to get them some new underclothes – and nothing more than that. The authorities know that their fate is being closely watched by our embassy, and so I do not believe that anything drastic might happen to them. They are being kept in the local prison. When I made attempts to provide them with some food, I was assured that both inmates were given sufficient nourishment. The charges levelled at them are absurd, although the true cause of all this is surely the veiled hatred towards Jews, who are being accused of rallying the American public against the Soviet Union. A wave of arrests among members of the Jewish community is now sweeping across the USSR. Any attempts to leave the country are firmly denied under the pretext that these people are considered to be Soviet citizens, since in 1939 all of the allegedly downtrodden residents of the so-called Western Ukraine and Belarus were incorporated into the Soviet Union” [The YIVO Archives, file no. RG 1459 (Erlich-Alter Case), file 17, ambassador Kot’s letter of 26.01.1942 to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs].


On February 23, 1943, the public was informed of the death of “two Soviet citizens”, Alter and Erlich. Maxim Litvinov – the erstwhile Soviet ambassador in Washington – would at one time state the date of their death as December 1942, while on other occasions he would mention December 1941, which was shortly after their arrest. This terrible news spread like wildfire among the Jewish community (including also inside the Warsaw ghetto) as well as among the Polish politicians in exile. Over the years, the Bundist community would commemorate the subsequent anniversaries of their death, calculated from December 1941. The news of the death of Alter and Erlich has also spurred many Bund and Tsukunft activists to resume their activities in exile, deep within the Soviet territory, where they would meet and honour their memory. Various Bund organisations and Bundist activists in the West have also kept the memory of their persecuted comrades alive. Each year, various commemorative events were held, accompanied by numerous memorial publications a large portion of which would be dedicated to their final moments and martyrdom. Nobody could – or indeed, wanted – to believe the charges which they faced during their Moscow trials. Instead, these charges were treated as insults “thrown in the face of the proletarian public”.



Whereas in the West, the memory of Wiktor Alter was kept alive by the Jewish community, in Poland it was all but effaced – in fact, making any mentions of Alter became prohibited shortly after the war. In years 1944-1949, when the Bund was still active in Poland, very little was being said of Alter and Erlich, with only the silent portraits hanging on the walls in party offices serving as a reminder of their existence. It was only on April 17, 1988, owing to the efforts of Marek Edelman, a symbolic headstone was erected in the vicinity of the monument to Beynish Mikhalevich, commemorating both Alter and Erlich.


Source:


Commemorative articles on Wiktor Alter published in the New York “Unzer Tsayt” magazine in years 1943-2005.


Rusiniak-Karwat M., Nowe życie na zgliszczach. Bund w Polsce w latach 1944-1949 (A New life Among the Ruins. Bund in Poland in Years 1944-1994), Warsaw 2016.


More information on Wiktor Alter is available in our biographical note.


Martyna Rusiniak-Karwat

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