Obituary: Sam Lesser 1915-2010

Written By: Tribune web editor
Published: October 21, 2010 Last modified: October 20, 2010

International Brigade veteran and former Morning Star journalist Sam Lesser has died at the age of 95. He was chair of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and one of the last survivors of the brave British contingent of anti-fascist fighters in the Spanish Civil War.

Lesser wrote extensively for the Daily Worker and Morning Star  under the by-line Sam Russell, starting as a war correspondent in Spain and serving as a full-time staffer until 1984, sending reports from all over the globe.

He made an emotional anti-fascist speech at the Spanish Embassy in London in 2009 at a ceremony granting the eight last surviving British and Irish volunteers Spanish citizenship. Some members of the embassy staff were reduced to tears as Lesser, speaking in fluent Spanish, delivered a searing attack on racism and fascism, linking past struggles to the fight against the rise of the British National Party. He may have moved away from communism to become an admirer of Tony Blair, but this was the old Sam Lesser fire.

The son of Polish immigrants, he was born Manassah Lesser in 1915 in London’s East End and brought up as a practising Jew. He joined the Communist Party while a student at University College, London, seeing the party as the only organisation which was resolutely confronting the rising tide of fascism.

Lesser was studying Egyptology at the time and went off to Spain instead of going on a dig. He joined the first group of 30 British volunteers to go to Spain in 1936 and took part in a fierce battle at the Madrid University campus, which reduced the group to just six. He was wounded in January 1937 at Lopera and returned to Britain. He eventually went back to Barcelona to produce English-language radio programmes.  It was in Barcelona that he met his wife, Margaret Powell, who was serving as a British nurse. As the Daily Worker’s correspondent in Spain, he got out of Barcelona the day before it fell to the fascists in January 1939.

After working for the paper in Paris and Brussels, he came back to Britain following the outbreak of the Second World War. The wounds he had received in Spain prevented him from serving in the British Army, so he worked in an aircraft factory. After his return to the Daily Worker, Lesser flew as a reporter in an RAF bomber dropping food supplies to the starving people of the Netherlands in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation.

He was sent by the Daily Worker to cover the 1952 show trial of Czechoslovak Communist Party general secretary Rudolf Slansky and 13 other party leaders  – an experience which left a deep scar.

In 1955, Lesser went to live in the Soviet Union as the paper’s Moscow correspondent, witnessing the rise to power of Nikita Khruschev. When Khruschev made his secret speech to the 20th party congress in 1956 denouncing the Stalin cult of personality, Lesser and the British Communist delegation were excluded from the session. The contents of the speech only became known to the outside world sometime later.

Lesser struck up a friendship with spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had defected to Moscow He joined social evenings at Burgess’ flat, where he was entertained by the spy‚with the latter’s gay Russian lover playing the balalaika. Homosexuality was illegal in the Soviet Union, but the KGB turned a blind eye.
During the events in Hungary in 1956, Lesser was sent to report on the situation following the Soviet military intervention and the bloody street fighting. The Daily Worker also sent him to Cuba as the world held its breath over the 1962 crisis arising from American threats against the stationing of Soviet missiles on the island.

Lesser interviewed an animated and unrepentant Che Guevara, talking in Spanish together for fully five hours. Guevara was in full flow, declaring that if the rockets had been under Cuban control, they would have retaliated against any US aggression by shooting the Yankee boats out of the water and firing on United States cities. Daily Worker editor George Matthews decided to publish only a heavily edited version of interview.

By a quirk of fate, Lesser arrived in Chile as a guest of the Communist Party on the evening before the CIA-backed coup by fascist generals in September 1973. Following his eventual escape, his hard-hitting report of atrocities appeared in the Morning Star sunder the headline “I Saw Democracy Murdered”.  This was possibly his finest hour – a great testament to his reporting skills and
political commitment.