My father, Alec Waterman (as he eventually came to call himself) was born with the surname Nasibirski in Blonie, outside Warsaw, 1907. Nasibirski, I was given to understand, was actually a Russian curse: 'To Siberia!' The main effect of the French Revolution, or Napoleonic invasion, on the Russian Empire seems to have been the idea that everyone should have a registered surname. Jews (like contemporary Icelanders) had only patronymics. Alec's family name was of the kind supposedly given to Jews who failed to pay Czarist officials adequate bribes. Alec's father was a small-holder, a bone-crusher and carrier (carter?). Alec later recalled the smell of human shit the family had to use to fertilise its piece of land.
His peasant background was revealed to us during the war when he cut a potato in four, planted it, and grew whole potatoes from the plants. From the age of Alec attended cheder (Hebrew religious school). When 15 he joined the Polish Communist Party. He worked, presumably in Warsaw, as a baker and jeweler. At the age of 19, in 1926, he was working in Danzig (since 1945 again Gdansk) as a docker. In this same year he stowed away, with his friend, Alf Holland, intending to go to South Africa.
Arriving in London as an illegal immigrant, he had an introduction to the parents of the schoolgirl who was later to become his wife. Alec first worked as a cutter and machinist in the clothing trade. When he married Ray he was unemployed. (Editor’s note: Ray Waterman used the political pseudonym of Ruth Adler.)Later he got his own haberdashery. He adopted the name Wasserman (from distant family, more Western than Nasibirski?). During the 1930s-40s Alec was successively or simultaneously a member of the British Communist Party, of its National Jewish Committee, of the (Jewish) Workers Circle, of the Friends of the Soviet Union in Stepney, of the Yiddish Workers' Theatre Movement. He supported the creation in the Soviet Union of Birobidjan - the Jewish Autonomous Region - intended to be Stalin's final solution of the Jewish Question. There was an increasingly strong connection at this time between being Jewish, speaking Yiddish, being specifically working class or generally poor, trade union activism (in the clothing and furniture trades), having Stepney roots, being a Communist and, of course, being pro-Soviet (Srebrnik 1986, 1995).
He became a member of the ASSET union (managers and administrative staff) and wore its badge. A stateless person in the UK, Alec was registered as an alien during World War 2, required to report weekly to the local police. He did duty in the Auxiliary Fire Service. From 1942 to 1952 he was the General Manager of the best-known Communist bookshop chain in the UK, Collet's. When some serious dispute obliged his resignation, he attempted unsuccessfully to get a job 'in the movement' but had to settle eventually for a shop in Hendon, selling lamps and decorations. This at least permitted him to continue with his political activities and occasional foreign travel.
During the war Alec was involved with the visit to the UK of a Soviet Jewish delegation, making propaganda for the Soviet war effort. Amongst the visitors were Jewish cultural figures, later victims of Stalin's paranoia. After World War II Alec obtained a British passport. This registered his place of birth as Poltava, possibly because this was in Russia, Britain's wartime ally. From around 1948-9 he began to visit Eastern Europe, including East Germany/German Democratic Republic for the Leipzig Book Fair, Russia and Poland itself. As a Yiddish-reader and speaker he had contacts with Jewish Communist organisations, publications and friends in the Soviet Bloc, Western Europe, the US and Israel (where his two remaining siblings lived and which he visited around 1951). He was also one of the British delegates to a (Communist) World Peace Council conference in Warsaw.
Alec was heavily involved in the crisis that broke out in the British Communist Party, particularly amongst its Jewish members and its national Jewish committee following the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, 1956.
Whilst Ray and his close Jewish Communist friends, Professor Hyman Levy, Chimen Abramsky (previously a bookseller, later a professor of Jewish history) and others left the Party, and whilst yet others simply towed the party line, Alec spent the following period atoning for his previous acceptance of Soviet propaganda about the Jewish question. In this he was prepared to collaborate with people he would previously have dismissed as anti-Communists. Whilst Jews moved into the middle class and out of the East End, and the Jewish presence in the CPGB declined, Alec became a leading figure in both the Workers' Circle and the national Jewish committee of the Party. The Jewish Question continued to rumble within the CPGB into the 1960s. (My old friend Gavin Williams and I both insist that the other invented the notion that that a 'question' for Marxists is something for which they don't have an answer: the Jewish Question, the Woman Question, the National Question.)
But in 1966, and without any warning, he died on the spot from a massive stroke. He re-appeared in two semi-autobiographical novels, later written by Ray. He also appears, under his fictional name, Morris, in a interview she did for a collection of Jewish women's testimonies. (See below). I consider it something of a blessing that Alec did not live to see Poland made Judenfrei (Jew-free) by the Communists rather than the Nazis (Banas 1977).
Alec brought home from Collet's much 'proletarian literature' from the 1930s US, this being Communist-inspired, or New Deal-funded books and magazines dealing with the lives of workers, Negroes or 'Jews Without Money' (Gold 1930). We also had Emil and the Detective (Kästner 1971) from a mysteriously non-Nazi Germany, and Soviet calendars showing happy and heroic figures - the man in male-superior position - atop electricity pylons.
Alec sang:not only Yiddish but British music-hall, folk and international
Communist and labour-movement songs. Amongst the latter were those from the little red songbook of the Wobblies, the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (1973/1909). Written in the USA around the turn of the century, when the US working class was largely immigrant, often rebellious, sometimes pacifist, these songs were usually based on well-known tunes borrowed from the Salvation Army. They were also full of class-hatred, irony, disgust at popular religion's 'pie in the sky when you die', and utopian hope. Given the virtual disappearance of anarcho-syndicalism as a competitor with Communism, and given their easy singability, we could just as easily adopt them as part of our tradition and culture.
Alec never totally mastered English, mixing his vees with his wubbleyoos in speech, and getting Ray to check his occasional articles for the Communist press.He remained emotionally attached to Yiddish Language and culture all his life.From him we inherited a love for Jewish humour.
He hardly talked to us about his background or family, even before he knew for certain that both family and community had been removed from the face of the Polish earth. So I didn't know what a shtetl (Jewish village) was till I read Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Alec was a convert from talmudic Judaism to talmudic Marxism. I was unable to handle my father's emotionally-violent Communism, even before I began to qualify my own attachment to it. It was therefore as a conscious act of personal reconciliation, as well as out of a sense of political responsibility, that I joined him in yet one more unsuccessful campaign to get the British CP to take a clear public stand against Soviet anti-semitism in the early 1960s.
Editorial note: This is a draft extracted from a larger work that the author is engaged in, he would welcome comments to:
The following notice appeared in the Daily Worker on Saturday 23rd April 1966
The death of Mr. Alec Waterman in a motor accident was announced yesterday. He will be mourned by many in the British and Polish Communist Parties and in the Jewish circles in which he was mainly active.
A long-standing member of the Communist Party, he was a member of its Jewish Committee for many years until his death at 60.
He was a member and former chairman of the Jewish Workers Circle in London.
A founder member of the Memorial Committee for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he helped organise the pilgrimage to Poland on its anniversary.
During his early years he worked in the illegal Communist movement, in Poland. He was the general manager of Collets, the progressive booksellers, for a number of years.
The funeral will be at Golders Green crematorium on Tuesday. No flowers, by request, but donations to the memorial committee.
Ray and Alan Garner Ray Garner and his identical twin brother Alan were born fifteen minutes apart on the 5th June 1929 at the Bath Road Nursing Home, Wolverhampton. They were easily distinguishable to […]