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Alter, Wiktor

(1890–1943), leader of the Polish Bund, and of Poland’s Jewish trade union movement. Wiktor Alter was born in Mława to a Hasidic family. His father, a wood merchant, died when Alter was a year old; subsequently, the family moved to Warsaw. Alter was educated in a public school, as his stepfather wanted his children to receive a secular education. When Alter was 15, the 1905 Revolution broke out. He and other students at his Warsaw gymnasium organized a students’ strike to protest the fact that studies were conducted in Russian rather than Polish.

Alter studied engineering in Belgium from 1906 to 1910. He established close ties with the socialist student organization there, as well as with the exiled Bund leadership, which during those years had its headquarters in Geneva. He married Mila Lorin, a Belgian woman who was active in the local socialist movement.

In 1912, Alter returned to Poland, where he continued to conduct illegal activities for the Bund. He devoted much effort into trying to find a basis for cooperation between the Bund and the Polish socialist parties—the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and the Social-Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). His illegal political activities led to a jail sentence for a number of months. After his release, he left Poland and returned to Belgium.

In March 1917, Alter made his way to Russia. A year later, however, he shared the conclusion of many of his colleagues in the Bund, that the Bolshevik Revolution would not bring about the social and political reforms they had hoped for, and that the new regime would not put into practice the policy of national–cultural autonomy that was one of the central planks of the Bund platform. Alter consequently left Russia for Poland, where he very rapidly rose to the leadership level of the party, as did Henryk Erlich.

In Poland, Alter immersed himself in what for many years would be his most important political and partisan undertaking: Jewish trade unionism. As a member of the secretariat, and then as the general secretary of the General Council of Jewish Trade Unions in Poland, Alter had a decisive influence in shaping Jewish labor practices during the interwar years. As early as 1922, he expressed the view that Jewish trade unions had a role beyond merely offering professional protection or conducting struggles for decent working hours, better wages, medical insurance, and improved working conditions. In addition, Alter felt, the unions were the Jewish workers’ instrument for social mobility, providing a framework for acquiring universal values, modern education, and the tools necessary for meeting the challenges of an industrialized world. Alter’s influence was a significant factor in the decision of the Bund to become a member of the Labor and Socialist International, at the beginning of the 1930s.

A week after the outbreak of World War II, Alter left Warsaw, as did many leaders of Jewish political parties in Poland. His criticism of the Soviet regime intensified in the 1930s as a result of the show trials staged by Stalin. On 26 September 1939, he was arrested by the Soviet police and was subsequently interrogated for months by the Soviet Internal Security police. Both he and Erlich were accused of multiple offenses, chiefly involving anti-Soviet activities and links to international agents working for the downfall of the Soviet regime. On 20 July 1941, Alter was sentenced to death, a punishment that was subsequently commuted to a 10-year prison term. To his surprise, however, Alter was released from jail on 14 September 1941.

Alter’s release (as well as Erlich’s) was related to the Soviet government’s campaign to enlist the support of Western public opinion in the war against Nazi Germany. Both men were involved in organizing the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, initiated by Russian authorities to foster pro-Soviet opinion among Western Jewish organizations; another aim of this committee was to deal with the problem of Polish Jewish refugees in the USSR. Shortly before his release from prison, Alter had written to members of the Bund’s branch in the United States and to trade unionists in Britain; his letter harshly criticized oppressive conditions in the Soviet Union. Alter and Erlich were subsequently rearrested on 4 December 1941. For more than a year no reliable information about them reached the West. At the beginning of 1943, a military court reissued his death penalty, and he was executed by firing squad on 17 February 1943.

Suggested Reading

Daniel Blatman, For Our Freedom and Yours: The Jewish Labour Bund in Poland, 1939–1949 (London and Portland, Ore., 2003), pp. 69–89; Lukasz Hirszowicz, “NKVD Documents Shed New Light on Fate of Erlich and Alter,” East European Jewish Affairs 22.2 (1992): 65–85; Gertrud Pickhan, “‘That Incredible History of the Polish Bund Written in a Soviet Prison’: The NKVD Files on Henryk Erlich and Wiktor Alter,” Polin 10 (1997): 247–272; Samuel A. Portnoy, ed. and trans., Henryk Erlich andViktor Alter: Two Heroes and Martyrs for Jewish Socialism (Hoboken, N.J., and New York, 1990); Isabelle Tombs, “Erlich and Alter: The Sacco and Vanzetti of the USSR; An Episode in the Wartime History of International Socialism,” Journal of Contemporary History 23.4 (1988): 531–549.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 226, Franz Kursky, Papers, 1939-1942; RG 277, David Einhorn, Papers, 1914-1940s.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler