VIKTOR (VICTOR, WIKTOR) ALTER (February 7, 1890-February 17, 1943)
Born in Mlave (Mława), Poland, the youngest son of fourteen children. His father, Yisroel Alter, traced his pedigree from a multi-branched, wealthy Hassidic family. Victor was orphaned in his youth. With the death of his father, his mother made her way with her children to Warsaw where she married a maskil (enlightened one) from Kutno (Poland) and a “lover of Zion” [early Zionist]: Yisroel-Volf (Israel Wolf) Gliksman. Victor was sent to a secular high school where he excelled in mathematics and languages. When he was fifteen years of age (1905), he heard about a revolutionary student group and for a short time was even arrested for running a student strike in Warsaw, and he thus lost his right to remain in the high school. He was then sent off to Belgium to study. He arrived at a polytechnic school in Liège, and he completed his studies in 1910 as an electromechanical engineer. He soon married a Belgian woman, Melanie Lorraine (who continued to live in Belgium into the 1950s). He became active in the Belgian Socialist Party as well as in Bundist student circles throughout the country, and he published his first articles in the French socialist press in Belgium under the pseudonym of “Vik Fort.” In 1912, Alter returned to Warsaw where he worked in the Jewish Cultural Organization (YIKO), and simultaneously he discreetly carried on his Bundist work, becoming the Bund’s representative in a joint committee of the Bund, Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy (Social-democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, SDKPiL), and the Polska Partia Socjalistyczna (Polish Socialist Party, PPS)—“Lewica” (Leftism, socialism), which in 1913 conducted an election campaign for workers’ insurance in Poland. He was arrested and imprisoned for several months before being exiled to Siberia (Narimskii krai). He soon escaped from there abroad, spending a short time in Belgium. When WWI broke out, he departed for England and worked—first as a laborer and later as an engineer in a factory. He was active in London’s Yiddish socialist organization and in the union Veker, as well as in the anti-militarist British Socialist Party. In the spirit of this party, he ran a propaganda campaign among Jewish workers in England and wrote articles for Arbeter-vort (Worker’s word), organ of the London Jewish socialist organization (Bund). Following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he went back to Russia, remained in St. Petersburg for a short time, and took part in the Southern Conference of the Bund in Kiev (August 1917) at which he appeared as a proponent of the “Internationalist” group. In December 1917 at the eighth congress of the Bund in Petrograd, he was selected to the central committee, right after which he moved to Minsk where he joined in the work at the office of the central committee and wrote for the daily central organ of the Bund, Der Veker (The alarm). On the eve of the German army’s march into Minsk, he left for Moscow where he took part (July 1918) in the anti-Bolshevist “workers’ conference.” Arrested with other participants at the conference, he faced the danger of being shot, but thanks to the intercession of leading Bolsheviks he was released. He lived for a certain amount of time in Moscow, devoting himself to translating from English and French into Russian, writing for Yiddish publications of the Bund, and he published an essay (later appearing as a brochure) entitled “Marks un di visnshaft fun geshikhte” (Marx and the science of history) in the Bundist anthology, Zum ondenk fun karl marks (To the memory of Karl Marx) (Moscow, 1918). In 1919 he returned to Poland.
In June 1921, Alter—using the name “M. Lorman”—took part in the third congress of the Comintern in Moscow as one of three delegates who came from Warsaw to conduct negotiations concerning the joining of the Polish Bund with the Communist International. The majority of the Polish Bund supported this. The minority, led by Noyekh Portnoy, B. Mikhalevitsh, H. Erlich, and V. Alter among others, were opposed (in fact, the majority was not completely in support: of the twenty-one conditions of the Comintern, they were prepared to accept nineteen and one-half, while the minority only sixteen). The Bolsheviks for their part conducted an intensive propaganda campaign against Alter. He was arrested on August 5, 1921. The pretext to it was that Alter took a letter in Moscow from an activist of the left Socialist Revolutionaries with a description of Bolshevik terror in order that he deliver it to the English Communist Fannie [probably an error for “Sylvia”] Pankhurst. He declared a hunger strike in prison which lasted nine days and brought about his release. Alter then returned to Poland. This arrest sobered up a great many of the Communist supporters in the Polish Bund.
He was a permanent contributor to the Warsaw newspaper Folks-tsaytung (People’s newspaper) and other Bundist periodicals in Yiddish and Polish. He was a leading figure in professional and economic activities for Jewish workers in Poland, from 1923 a member of the central commission of trade unions, chairman of the national council of Jewish unions, and he participated in all of the congresses of the unions and served as the deputy of the Bund to the congress of the Socialist International. Alter was also a director in the Arbeter-kredit-tsentrale (Workers’ credit headquarters) in Poland, and a member of the “Joint Foundation” for Jewish credit institutions in Poland. From 1919 to 1934, he was a member of the Warsaw City Council, and from 1927 also of city hall. From 1936 he was an elected head of the Warsaw Jewish community administration. In 1929 he made a trip to the United States on assignment from the Bund, and to Spain in 1937 at the time of the Spanish Civil War.
In September 1939 he left for the East with the entire human wave, but two days later (September 9) he learned of the decision of the central committee to return to Warsaw and defend the city; he and a group of Bundists decided to go back, and because of military decrees they had to make a detour via Lublin. Under frightening conditions, with continuous German bombardments, he issued there (September 14) a one-time publication, Lubliner shtime (Voice of Lublin). A few days later the German army was extremely close to Lublin, and Alter was forced to run farther to the east. He arrived in Kowel on September 17, the same day that the Soviet army marched into Poland. On September 26, he was arrested in Kowel and dragged through the prisons of Kowel, Łuck, and Moscow from September 26, 1939 through September 13 (or 14), 1941. During a period of twenty months, he carried out hunger strikes and endured painful interrogations, but he never signed any confessions at all. On July 20, 1941 he was sentenced to death, and ten days later his death sentence was commuted to ten years in a work camp. On September 13 (or 14), 1941, he was unexpectedly freed from prison and brought together with his friend and comrade, Henryk Erlich, to Moscow (Erlich was freed from prison two days previous). The Soviet government proposed to the two of them that they take the lead in a Jewish anti-fascist world committee to fight against Hitler. Both men plunged into the work of this committee and engaged in correspondence regarding their plans with Stalin and Beria, but right in the middle of their work (this would already have been in Kuibyshev, the place to which the Soviet governmental institutions had evacuated on December 3, 1941), they two men were arrested and shot that same month. News of their executions became known to the world for the time fourteen months later, when Litvinov, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, answered in an inquiry (February 23, 1943) from William Green, president of the A.F.L., and let it be known that they were both shot in December 1942, and in a second letter to William Green at the end of April 1943 “corrected the error” and made it known that Alter and Erlich were executed in December 1941—shortly after their arrest.
Writings by Victor Alter in book form include: Marks un di visnshaft fun geshikhte (Moscow, 1918); Grunt-printsipn fun der proletaritsher kooperatsye (Base principles for proletarian cooperation) (Warsaw, 1921), 50 pp.; Di profesionele bavegung in poyln in 1922 (The trades movement in Poland in 1922) (Warsaw, 1923); Der emes vegn palestine (The truth about Palestine) (Warsaw, 1925), 66 pp.; Der sotsyalizm in kamf (Socialism in struggle) (Warsaw, 1927), 126 pp.; Tsu der yidn-frage in poyln (On the Jewish question in Poland) (Warsaw, 1937), 164 pp.; Der mentsh iz der gezelshaft (Man is society) (Warsaw, 1938); Di naye fizik (The new physics), written in prison in Moscow, 1940-1941, and published in the anthology, Henrik erlikh un viktor alter (Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter) (New York, 1951), pp. 434-58. In Polish: Socjalizm walczący (Militant socialism) (Warsaw, 1926); Jak Zwalczyć Bezrobocie? (How to fight unemployment) (Warsaw, 1931); Gdy socjaliści dojdą do władzy ...! (When socialists come to power…!) (Warsaw, 1934); “Jedność” i “Plan” (“Unity” and “plan”) (Warsaw, 1935); O Żydach i Antysemityzmie (On Jews and anti-Semitism) (Warsaw, 1936), 61 pp., an anthology together with Zygmunt Zaremba, M. Azher, Adam Prukhnik, Z. Artur, and L. Honigvil; Hiszpania w Ogniu (Spain on fire) (Warsaw, 1937), with Julius Deutsch; Antysemityzm gospodarczy w świetle cyfr (Economic anti-Semitism in numbers) (Warsaw, 1937); Człowiek w społeczeństwie (Man in society) (Warsaw, 1938). In French: Comment réaliser le socialisme? (Paris, 1932); Esquisse d’un programme économique socialiste (Paris, 1934).
Sources: Pinkes mlave (Register of Mława) (New York, 1950), pp. 98-100, 141, 287-92; Y. Hart, Henrik erlikh un viktor alter (Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter) (New York, 1943); José Horn, Henrik erlikh un viktor alter (Buenos Aires, 1943); Henrik erlikh un viktor alter, anthology (New York, 1951); Algemayne entsiklopedye (Paris, 1936), vol. 3, pp. 199-200; Dr. Ruvn Feldshuh, ed., Yidisher gezelshaftlekher leksikon (Leksikon of the Jewish community) (Warsaw, 1939), vol. 1, pp. 487-88; Bernard Goldshteyn, Finf yor in varshever geto (Five years in the Warsaw ghetto) (New York, 1947), pp. 77-83, passim; P. Shvarts [Pinhas Shwartz], Dos iz geven der onheyb (That was the beginning) (New York, 1943), pp. 28-47; Y. Sh. Herts (Jacob Sholem Hertz), Di geshikhte fun a yugnt (The story of a youngster) (New York, 1946), pp. 84-85; R. Abramovitsh [Raphael R. Abramovitch], In tsvey revolutsyes (In two revolutions) (New York, 1944), vol. 2, pp. 50, 126, 236-41; K. Poselis, Vi azoy der bundist lorman iz arestirt gevorn in moskve (How the Bundist Lorman was arrested in Moscow) (Warsaw, 1931); Mayus, “Historishe teg in Lublin” (Historical days in Lublin), Undzer tsayt (New York) (September 1941); D. Eynhorn, in Forverts (New York) (March 6, 1943); M. Novogrudski, in Undzer tsayt (New York) (April 1943); Sh. Gilinski, in Undzer tsayt (New York) (May 1943); Faroys (Mexico) (May 1943); G. Aronson, in Veker (New York) (June 1943); Jerzy Gliksman, Tell the West (New York: The Gresham Press, 1948); New York Post (March 4, 1943); William Henry Chamberlin, in The New Leader (New York) (March 13, 1943); Alexander H. Uhld, in P.M. (New York) (March 18, 1943); Dziennik Polski i Dziennik Żołnierza (London) (May 10, 1946); P. Garin, in Sotsialisticheskiy vestnik 10 (March 8, 1943); “U mogily druzey” (By the grave of my friends), in Novyi put’ 10 (April 4,1943). Documents and correspondence from the Franz Kutsky Archive of the Jewish Labor Movement [now at YIVO]; Foundation Archive, YIVO, file “alef-dalet-resh-peh” (33), 1923-1925.