Commentary Magazine

Henryk Erlich un Viktor Alter, compiled by Victor Shulman

Two of Stalin’s Victims
Henryk Erlich Un Viktor Alter.
Compiled By Victor Shulman with the assistance of an editorial committee.
New York, Farlag Unser Tsait, 1951. 472 pp. $4.00.


Sometime in the middle of September 1941, an NKVD colonel named Aron Arkady Volkovsky, right-hand man to Lavrenti Beria, visited Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter in their hotel room in Moscow. Both men, leaders of the Jewish Socialist Labor Bund of Poland, had been released from prison only a few days before, after two years under sentence of death. Volkovsky urged them to look upon their years in prison as only an “error”; he spoke eloquently of the common struggle against Hitlerism, and finally he proposed that Erlich and Alter become the heads of a worldwide Jewish committee against fascism. The two Socialists agreed to draft a plan for such a committee.

Early in October, upon completing their memorandum, they were invited to meet Beria. After examining the memorandum, Beria informed them that since their plan involved action outside the borders of the Soviet Union, only one person could pass on it—Stalin. Accordingly, Erlich and Alter wrote a letter submitting their memorandum to the head of the state, and soon after went to the temporary capital of Kuibyshev to await his reply. At midnight on December 3, 1941—just ten years ago—a telephone call summoned them from their hotel; they left, saying they would return in an hour. They never came back. In 1943, Soviet Ambassador Litvinov informed William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, that Alter and Erlich had been executed in December of 1941 “for active subversive work against the Soviet Union . . . including appeals to the Soviet troops to immediately conclude peace with Germany.”



The present volume, published in Yiddish by the Jewish Labor Bund, contains biographies and personal memoirs of the two men; the last two letters they wrote; the texts of their memorandum and accompanying letter to Stalin about the proposed world Jewish committee against fascism; an account of the futile attempts made to free them and of the protests that followed the news of their murder; a complete bibliography of published items on this international cause célèbre; and over two hundred pages culled from the writings of Erlich and Alter between 1923 and 1939.

All this material enables one to see more clearly why the Russians had to give up hope of making political use of the two Socialist leaders, and why they decided that they had to be killed. From their point of view, Erlich and Alter were dangerous men.

The memorandum to Stalin on the proposed Jewish committee against fascism is the most significant piece of evidence. In Erlich and Alter’s view, this committee was to concern itself with three major tasks: making contact with and helping the Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland; taking care of the needs of Polish Jews in the Soviet Union; making contact with Jews abroad, especially in the United States. As a general principle, it was stated that the liberation of the Jews in all countries from oppression, from Nazi persecution in particular, was inextricably bound up with the liberation of all national groups living in the same countries. The “true liberation” of the Jewish people was conceivable only if social justice motivated the governments of the countries in which they lived. The Jewish masses in all countries should therefore fight together with their Gentile fellow citizens for social and national freedom.

Even in these generalizations, certain phrases hinted at a direct criticism of the Soviet Union itself. In particular, the phrase “true liberation,” coming from such men as Alter and Erlich, could readily be interpreted as questioning the “social justice” known in the Soviet Union.

In addition, the memorandum called for the closest cooperation with Jews in the United States and Great Britain in order to obtain the maximum of aid for the Soviet Union. In a letter to the Bund in New York, on September 27, 1941, Erlich wrote: “Officials of the NKVD dance attendance on us. The reason is they hope to be able to make use of our connections in America. We, for our part, want to make use of them in order to get in touch with [the underground in] Poland. . . .” As we know, the NKVD did not long “dance attendance.” The Russians could not risk leaving any organization that had relations with the outside world in the hands of men who, after two years under sentence of death, still dared speak of “national” and “true liberation” for the Poles and other peoples of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union had different plans for those nations, and so Stalin decided to rid himself of these troublesome associates early in the game. He may have reasoned that the Allies, delighted at the strength of Russian resistance to Hitler, would hardly bother about the fate of a couple of Polish Socialists; and he was quite right.

Did Erlich and Alter, on their side, seriously believe that the program they drew up would receive Stalin’s favorable consideration? From the selections from their writings given in the present volume, we can see that neither of the two men had many illusions about the Soviet government. Perhaps they did hope a little that because of its new allies in the West the Soviet regime had softened its attitude, and was willing to make certain concessions. More likely, however, they framed their program as they did because they were unable to compromise what they considered fundamental political and moral principles.

This same refusal to compromise had been responsible for their first arrest by the Russians. Both men refused to heed urgent pleas from Bund comrades to go into hiding. Erlich even refused to shave his beard and change his way of dress. Alter, together with other leaders of the Polish trade-union movement, addressed a petition to the Soviet occupation authorities in Kovel the very day the Red Army entered the city, expressing the hope that the Soviet Union would help free the people of Poland from Nazi enslavement; the Soviet reply was to arrest all the signatories. Throughout the “administrative hearings” they endured under arrest, Erlich and Alter never lost an opportunity to put on record their real convictions. It was as though they had lost all concern for personal survival. Given the circumstances, given the era of political barbarism in which they lived, the openness and sincerity of these two men, their rectitude and high-mindedness, could only have had fatal results for themselves. And the same applies to the movement they led.



Certain facts not mentioned in the present book may throw further light on the story.

During the week in which the two Bundists were arrested for the second and last time—which was also the week in which Stalin was entertaining General Wladyslaw Sikorski as representative of the Polish government-inexile—it was announced in Kuibyshev that a Union of Polish Patriots had been set up. This Soviet-controlled organization became the germ of the present government of Poland and later served as the pretext and agent for the suppression of the claims of the Polish government-inexile upon the latter’s return to its homeland.

It is more than likely that Alter and Erlich were summoned from their hotel, on the night they were last seen, in order to discuss their possible participation in the Union of Polish Patriots, one of whose ostensible concerns was the “welfare and education” of Polish refugees in the Soviet Union. It is also likely that the two Socialists, immediately grasping the purpose of the new organization, refused to join it, and that this refusal sealed their fate. For the existence of such a Union of Polish Patriots would have been unthinkable with Alter and Erlich still alive in the USSR—and outside it.



On April 23, 1942, in Kuibyshev, it was announced that a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee had been founded on August 24, 1941—fully eight months before! No one explained why it had taken so long to make this fact public or what the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee had been doing in the interval. Also unexplained was why the announcement was not made by a representative of the Committee itself, but by a Soviet propaganda agent. In any case, the first issue of Aynikayt, the official organ of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, appeared on June 17, 1942, reporting that the first appeal to world Jewry by Soviet Jews had been issued at the beginning of April 1942. Subsequently, official Soviet propaganda set back the date of this first appeal to August 1941. The Committee was headed by the poet Itzik Feffer and the actor and director Solomon Michoels; Michoels had been originally chosen by the NKVD as the man to work with Erlich and Alter.

Míchoels and Feffer visited the United States in the spring of 1943 in order to organize American Jewish support for the Soviet Union. This was soon after the victory of Stalingrad and the subsequent Soviet offensive, and Michoels and Feffer were received very cordially. The pure flame of anger that had burned at a mass meeting called in New York on March 30, 1943 to Protest against the murder of Erlich and Alter suddenly died down in May under jubilant panegyrics to the Jewish people’s “greatest friend and savior—the Soviet Union.” (Let it here be recorded that of all the Jewish organizations, the socialist ones alone actively boycotted the receptions for Feffer and Michoels: namely, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Workmen’s Circle, the Jewish Labor Bund, the Jewish Social-Democratic Federation, the Labor Zionist Organization of America, and the National Jewish Workers’ Alliance of America.)

Since 1943 Americans have learned to understand better the nature of the Soviet regime, which is responsible for the deaths of more socialists and more Communists than any other government in the world—not excluding that of Nazi Germany. The publication of this book offers the basis for a further re-evaluation of Russia’s professed love of “democracy,” “socialism,” and “peace,” as well as her avowed concern for the welfare of oppressed peoples and persecuted minorities.



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