The Murder of Ehrlich and Alter (1943)
The Murder of Ehrlich and Alter (1943)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses the details of the executions of Henryk Ehrlich and Victor Alter, both leaders of the Bund in Poland, by Stalin. Ehrlich and Alter were both arrested by the GPU when the Red Army invaded Poland, who would later execute them in secret as agents of Hitler's Gestapo. The chapter explains that, despite the fact that both men were fairly small-time socialists who operated within a localized setting, quite out international bounds, their attempts to organize resistance in Warsaw to the German invader and their general anti-fascist activity in the period leading to their arrest, led to their incarceration by the GPU. In addition, the chapter looks at certain inconsistencies discovered within Stalinist reports of their deaths, and considers further implications regarding their execution.
The New International represented an unusual perspective on the American Left. The journal, published by the Workers’ Party (founded in 1940), celebrated the Bolshevik Revolution and its leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, yet condemned Stalin’s Russia as a totalitarian country dominated by a new bureaucratic ruling class. One of the many Soviet crimes denounced by The New International—and by virtually all segments of the anti-Soviet Left—was the execution of Henryk Ehrlich and Victor Alter, leaders of the Bund in Poland.
The Stalinist crimes against the international labor movement have not ceased with Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Nor has the preoccupation with the greatest war in Russian history eliminated murder as a political weapon in the labor movement by the infamous regime of Cain Stalin. This was once more brought to light with the announcement, a few weeks ago, that Henryk Ehrlich and Victor Alter, leaders of the Jewish Workers Party of Poland,1 seized by the GPU when the Red Army invaded Poland, were secretly executed as agents of Hitler’s Gestapo!
The mystery of this case was cleared up when William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, announced to the press that, in response to his inquiries over an extended period of time, he was informed by the Russian Ambassador, Litvinov, of the execution of the two Jewish socialists. Green had, on the “advice” of the State Department, kept this information to himself. War exigencies, don’t you know!
Following Green’s announcement, many things were disclosed, all of them pointing to the utter perfidiousness of the Kremlin regime. A mere chronological detailing of the circumstances following the arrests are sufficient to properly assess the nature of this latest Stalinist frameup.
(p.265) Ehrlich and Alter were seized four years ago. Their arrest undoubtedly was one of the results of the Hitler-Stalin pact. They were “left” social-democrats who, throughout their lives, retained adherence to the general principles of Marxism. They were confused centrists rather than revolutionary internationalists. But, guided by their own concepts of the socialist struggle, they were in direct conflict with Stalinism and all that its reactionary nationalist doctrines signify. Ehrlich’s and Alter’s attempt to organize resistance in Warsaw to the German invader and their general anti-fascist activity in that particular period, led to their incarceration by the GPU. Furthermore, they were arrested as part of Stalin’s policy to destroy the whole pre-war Polish labor movement as inimical to his interests.
The announcement that Ehrlich, a member of the Labor and Socialist International, and Alter, a member of the executive committee of the Trade Union Congress, were arrested by Stalin, led to the formation of many international committees to seek their release. In this country, a committee headed by William Green, Philip Murray,2 Dr. Albert Einstein and Raymond Gram Swing,3 repeatedly intervened without result. Wendell Willkie,4 while in Moscow, pleaded in vain with Russian officials for their freedom. The intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt and countless other personages brought not the slightest concession from Stalin’s hangman.
Material aid was sent to Ehrlich and Alter, but there was no visible evidence that the food and money ever reached their proper destination. It was quite possible that they were already executed when this aid was sent. Certainly they were already dead while many pleas for their release were made. But the Kremlin, by calculated silence, gave no sign as to the fate of its prisoners.
The first release which announced the execution of Ehrlich and Alter stated that they were murdered more than a year ago. This was later denied by Litvinov, who volunteered the information that they were executed only four months previous to the information given in a letter to William Green. No one will really know exactly when the deed was done. But that can only shed light on the cynicism of the murderous regime as it is reflected in their particular case. The thing to be remembered is the deed itself.
The execution of Ehrlich and Alter followed the typical GPU pattern. According to Szmul Zygielbojm,5 one of the leaders of the Jewish Workers Party of Poland, and a member of the Polish National Council, they were kept in prison for nearly two years without formal charge and with no apparent disposition of their case. In July, 1941, six weeks after the German invasion of Russia, they were court-martialed under the charge of “working for (p.266) the forces of international fascist reaction.” It was under this charge that they were first sentenced to death. While awaiting execution in the death cells of Moscow and Saratov, they were informed that their death sentence had been commuted to ten years’ penal servitude.
But, in September, 1941, following the signing of the Polish-Russian pact, they were released with apologies of the government. A terrible mistake had been made, said the agents of the GPU. The charges against them were false! Ehrlich himself had described what happened following their release. They were given residence “in the best hotel and a complete set of clothes, and were placed under medical care. Most important of all, we were assured that the action taken against us was a mistake and that our collaboration in the fight against Hitlerism is a necessity both with regard to the interests of the USSR and to those of the Jewish nation and Poland.”
Following their release and the apology, the Kremlin sought their services. A Colonel Wolkowsky of the Commissariat of the Interior, proposed to them that they should organize in Russia a Jewish committee to fight Hitlerism on a world scale. Ehrlich and Alter agreed to this since, in general, they found themselves sympathetic to the Russian war against Germany.
According to their agreement with the government, Ehrlich was to act as a chairman of this committee, Alter as secretary, and a Russian artist named Nichoels as vice-chairman. The head of the GPU, Beria, invited Ehrlich and Alter to a special conference at which they discussed the work of this committee. The latter were then invited to send their material and proposals to Stalin, which they did. It was necessary to do this, they were advised, in order to get official sanction from the “good father” in the Kremlin.
But, according to Stalin, it was after their release that they began agitating for a peace with Hitler!—at the very time they were being wined and dined in Moscow and in the midst of the organization of the previously mentioned Jewish committee to fight Hitlerism! And at the very time that they were presumably agitating for this peace, they were evacuated, together with all other government officials and workers, to the temporary capital of Kuibyshev.
Last December, according to the latest evidence, they were called to pay a visit to the Commissariat of the Interior. They never came back!
Why then were Ehrlich and Alter murdered? The reasons are several, although it is impossible to know all the facts at this time. Stalin was taking revenge on two anti-Stalinist socialists! Stalin is preparing for the seizure of Poland if the United Nations are victorious in the war. Ehrlich and Alter, by their past, are committed to an “independent Poland,” which, whatever (p.267) its character, Stalin is determined to prevent. Their murder was, therefore, insurance for the future. It was a political murder.
In an effort to make the execution more palatable, it is necessary for Stalin to besmirch these two men, to create an amalgam. Thus, Ehrlich and Alter, two Jewish labor and social democratic leaders, are linked to Hitler and the German Gestapo! The Daily Worker, following the lead of its GPU master, called them “pro-Nazis.” One can expect almost any day that the “intuitionist” ex-Ambassador Davies, as William Henry Chamberlain called him, will include this incident in a revised edition of Mission to Moscow and in the motion picture version of the book. To complete the “realism” of this charge, he might even show that Ehrlich and Alter received money from the Gestapo in a synagogue. This is all that is needed to complete the Stalinist frameup against these two men.
Ehrlich and Alter, leaders of a movement and a people which have been butchered by the Nazi barbarians, opponents of fascism to their last days were murdered by Stalin on the charge that they were German agents. Need anything more be said?
Source: “Murder as a Political Weapon,” The New International: A Monthly Organ of Revolutionary Marxism, Mar. 1943, pp. 69–70.
(1.) I.e., the Bund.
(2.) Philip Murray (1886–1952), president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
(3.) Raymond Gram Swing (1887–1968), popular radio journalist.
(4.) Wendell Wilkie (1892–1944), lawyer and prominent member of the Republican Party.
(5.) On May 12, 1943, Szmul Zygielbojm (1895–1943) committed suicide in London in protest against the indifference and inaction of the Allied powers toward the Nazi extermination of the Jews.