Sam Lesser: Veteran communist journalist who served with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War
Monday 01 November 2010
As a journalist with the Daily Worker and Morning Star for more than 40 years, Sam Lesser was a witness to many of the great events of the 20th century.
He was in Hungary in 1956 after the Soviet tanks moved in, reported from Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962, from Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Prague Spring of 1968, and was in Chile when President Allende was overthrown in 1973.
His politics were forged by the ideological certainties of the 1930s, when, as the young anti-fascist son of Jewish immigrants in London's East End, he joined the Communist Party. He remained loyal to the Party for most of his life, though he later told friends that he had nursed increasing doubts about its attachment to the Soviet Union and that he regretted his excessive loyalty to the cause.
He remained especially proud, however, of his record as an International Brigade volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that was to shape the course of his life, both personally and professionally. In Barcelona he met his future wife, Margaret Powell, a British nurse. And, when injury prevented him from continuing the fight against Franco, he launched his career as a journalist, reporting on the agony of the Republic's destruction and defeat.
Things might easily have been very different. In 1934 Lesser won a scholarship to University College, London, where he studied Egyptology. When the war in Spain began in July 1936, he was preparing to go on a dig under the supervision of Professor Flinders Petrie. Alarmed by anti-Semitic Blackshirt provocations in the East End and the presence of uniformed students at lectures, he had already joined the Communist Party. He decided to go to Spain rather than Egypt.
Assigned to a British unit in a French battalion, Lesser took part in the fighting around Madrid in November and December at University City and Casa de Campo where, with the help of newly arrived Soviet arms, Franco's advance on the capital was checked. At the end of December he joined a reconstituted British company that was sent south for an assault on Lopera, near Córdoba. Lesser was hit in the leg by shrapnel as the Republican advance came under heavy fire. "I didn't know at the time where I'd been wounded – in which part of my body – except that when I tried to get up I couldn't. I just fell down," he recalled. Eventually he was dragged to safety by a friend who had insisted on going to look for him and taken to hospital.
Repatriated to London for treatment, Lesser was soon in Paris, working at the International Brigades recruitment office. Later in 1937 he returned to Spain, but failed a medical examination. He was given an address to go to. "It turned out that this wasthe headquarters set up by the Spanish to broadcast on shortwave inGerman, Italian, Portuguese andEnglish, and I was going to be in charge of the English-language broadcasts. I said: 'I've never done anything like this before.' But they said: 'You'll find out, We'll take you to your room – there's the typewriter.'...That's how I became a journalist."
In Barcelona he also worked as a correspondent for the Daily Worker under the name of Sam Russell, a nom de plume he kept for the rest of his journalistic career. The city was being attacked mercilessly by Mussolini's bombers from their base in Mallorca. "They bombed our area of Barcelona, and I shall never forget the smell there when I went outside," he wrote. "There was one wonderful row of lime trees – a beautiful scent when they're in flower. The gutter was literally flowing with blood, and the smell of the blood of these poor people was mixed with the smell of the lime trees."
He escaped from the city the day before Franco's troops entered in January 1939 in a car driven by the Daily Herald correspondent Scott Watson. "The road to the frontier was crammed, mostly with women, children and old men trying to get out. It was something that would later be re-enacted in towns and cities across the whole of Europe."
Lesser became the Daily Worker correspondent in Paris and, after the Communist Party was banned following the Nazi-Soviet pact, relocated to Belgium, fleeing the country as the Nazis invaded in May 1940. For the next four years he was a foreman at the Napier aero-engine factory in west London, rejoining the newspaper in the final months of the war.
His next major foreign assignment was to cover the Prague show trial of Rudolf Slánský and 13 other independently minded Czech communists. Nearly all were Jewish, some were veterans of the International Brigades, but they were found guilty and most were executed. Lesser's reports followed the official party line, though many years afterwards he would admit that his apparent credulity at the time still troubled his conscience.
From 1955 to 1959 he was the Daily Worker's Moscow correspondent. From his contacts among delegates attending the 20th party congress in 1956, Lesser was fully briefed on Khrushchev's secret speech in which the Soviet leader denounced the crimes of Stalin. The sensational story was eventually broken by a Reuters reporter who travelled to Sweden to avoid the Soviet censors. Lesser was unable to make use of his potential scoop despite being a favoured correspondent of a communist newspaper who therefore did not have to clear his copy with the censors. He later said that he filed a 12-page report to his London newsroom – but all that appeared in the paper was a few anodyne paragraphs.
If this episode sowed any doubts in his mind, they were not to show later in that year when Lesser was sent to Budapest to report on the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising. He replaced Peter Fryer, who had resigned after his reports were rewritten or spiked by the paper for being supportive of the rebellion. Headlined "Kadar reveals the facts", Lesser's first despatch was the lead story for the paper's 20 November edition and faithfully reported a statement by János Kádár, the prime minster installed as the Soviet tanks moved in, that the counter-revolution, had it succeeded, would have endangered world peace.
Promoted to foreign editor, Lesser was based in London from 1959 until his retirement 25 years later. Colleagues remember an influential and powerful presence, who could deploy his irascibility and charm to great effect. He visited Nigeria to cover the 1960 independence celebrations, Havana in 1962, where Che Guevara granted him an interview at 2am, and North Vietnam in 1971, where he was appalled by the extent of the destruction wreaked by the US bombing campaign.
In 1968 he again followed in the wake of Soviet tanks, this time to Czechoslovakia, though, unlike the despatches sent from Hungary in 1956, his reports in what was now the Morning Star supported the Prague Spring reforms and were critical of the Warsaw Pact's military occupation.
In Chile in 1973, he witnessed the overthrow of Salvador Allende's government, having arrived on an Aeroflot flight from Havana on the night before the 11 September coup. His hotel room directly overlooked the La Moneda presidential palace where Allende was assassinated. Fearful for his safety, he posed as a visiting engineer and could only report the horror of what he had seen after he managed to leave the country. His front page splash on 25 September began: "I saw democracy murdered in Chile by a rabble of Rip van Winkle general and admirals recruited by the CIA to impose a savage military dictatorship on a people which had seen and welcomed the dawn of a new era."
In the 1980s the Communist Party of Great Britain was plagued by splits between the dominant Eurocommunists and a more traditionalist wing. The battles spread to the Morning Star, with Lesser, as the NUJ's father of the chapel, championing the revisionists in defiance of the editor Tony Chater. He took a similar position within the party itself, siding with the Eurocommunists and, following his retirement in 1984, contributing articles to Seven Days, the party's new weekly newspaper. The CPGB was dissolved in 1991 and, like many other former Eurocommunists, he joined the Labour Party.
Lesser was a founder member in 2001 of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and was its chairman at the time of his death. On 9 June 2009 he was one of seven Spanish Civil War veterans invited to the Spanish embassy in London to be awarded Spanish citizenship, thereby fulfilling a promise that the Republic had made to the International Brigades more than 70 years previously. Speaking in fluent Spanish, Lesser brought many of those present to tears as he declared: "We're a little late, but today I believe we can say that we have come home." He died leaving instructions for his ashes to be scattered by the International Brigade memorial at Montjuich in Barcelona.
Mannassah (Sam) Lesser, journalist: born London 19 March 1915; married 1950 Margaret Powell (died 1990; one daughter); died London 2 October 2010.
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