Sam Lesser: no regrets about Spain

Post date: 21/04/2022

Words from IBMT Chair Jim Jump in tribute to International Brigader Sam Lesser (1915-2010) at the launch of his memoir, ‘I Saw Democracy Murdered: The Memoir of Sam Russell, Journalist’, at the Marx Memorial Library, London, on 7 April 2022.

The opening remarks of the event are available to watch via the IBMT's YouTube page here. ‘I Saw Democracy Murdered’ is available from Routledge now.

IBMT Chair Jim Jump speaking at the launch of ‘I Saw Democracy Murdered’. IBMT Trustee Dolores Long, who chaired and spoke too, also pictured.

Sam Lesser was a founder member of the IBMT in 2001 and a trustee until his death in 2010 at the age of 95.

He was our Chair from 2006, succeeding Jack Jones, another veteran of the International Brigades when he became the IBMT’s Life President.

It said much about him that Sam declined taking the title of President when Jack died in 2009. Sam was a man of huge ability and character, yet with an abiding sense of modesty – and humour – about himself. 

He led an extraordinary life, and I greatly valued the many hours I spent in his flat in Dumbarton Road, off Brixton Hill, talking with him about Spain, the International Brigades and politics in general.

First off, he was a man of great cultural depth. He loved music. He introduced me, for example, to Benjamin Britten’s ‘Ballad of Heroes’, a heartbreaking and beautiful choral and orchestral tribute to the International Brigades, with words by WH Auden and Randolf Swingler. 

Sam would sit in his living room, reminiscing about his life, surrounded by shelves bulging with books. On gaps on the walls were prints by the St Ives artist Terry Frost. 

He’d met Terry in 2001 at the Spanish Civil War exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum and they hit it off. Terry, a working-class Brummie was captured at Dunkirk and learnt to pair as a prisoner of war. His mother would send parcels for her son to the Red Cross, wrapped in the Daily Worker. I like to think that Terry perhaps read some of Sam’s despatches then.

It’s no secret that Sam had a few regrets about his life, in particular the so-called Slansky trial in 1952, which saw the execution of 11 leading Czech communists, many of them Jewish, and some veterans of the International Brigades, on trumped-up charges of treason.

Sam was sent to Prague by the paper to report on the trial. In these final years of his life, he kept returning to the subject, asking himself how, sitting in the courtroom just a few feet away from these men, he could have believed they were guilty. He would sometimes be in tears.

On Spain, however, he had no regrets. His decision to join the fight changed utterly the course of his life – from being an Egyptology undergraduate at University College London to, within a few weeks, firing at fascists at Madrid’s University City.

It was in Spain that he met his future wife, nurse Margaret Powell, and, following injury, he became a correspondent for the Daily Worker – and assumed the pen-name of Sam Russell.

In our hours of discussions, we disagreed at times on politics, though always amicably. Sam had made a political journey. He was, in this final decade of his life, an ardent supporter of Tony Blair’s New Labour – unlike, it has to be said, Jack Jones, whom he looked up to so much in other respects.

Sam held huge respect for Jack, and they shared essentially the same world-view. But Sam would compare his life unfavourably with Jack’s, pointing to his many achievements outside the Communist Party.

I have a host of other vivid memories of Sam:

On receiving his Spanish citizenship at the Spanish embassy in June 2009, he announced in fluent Spanish to everyone present: ‘Hemos tardado un poco, pero creo que hoy podemos decir que hemos llegado a casa’ (‘We’re a bit late, but I believe today we can say that we have arrived home’). There weren’t many dry eyes in the house.

He and ambassador Carles Casajuana became a bit of a double act in those months, with media appearances about the granting of citizenship and then the unveiling of the IBMT’s Antifascistas exhibition at venues in London in 2010.

As you’d expect, Sam chaired IBMT Trustee meetings with great firmness, making good use of his walking stick, when necessary, to command attention.

His word was final. While the Trustees would often be inclined to discuss matters at great length and depth, Sam would come down firmly on one side or the other and end all debate. 

An example that comes to mind is the way he vehemently rejected the notion of the International Brigades being included in any way in Red Poppy or British Legion official remembrance – something which the IBMT respects to this day.

I can picture him in 2005 sitting in the blazing sun on top of Hill 666 near Gandesa for the unveiling of the memorial plaque to the 90 British Battalion dead at the Battle of the Ebro. Holding an umbrella over him is the British military attaché in Madrid, Capt Mark Rollo-Walker. He’d been brought along for the unveiling by Geoff Cowling, the British Consul General in Barcelona.

Sam boomed ‘About time too!’, when Geoff said he was representing HM Government for the first time at the unveiling of an International Brigade memorial.

There’s a lovely picture of Sam in 2010 in Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank in London, site of the International Brigade memorial, with Rodney Bickerstaffe. Rodney is showing him cuttings of his despatches from Spain in a scrapbook that Rodney’s mother, a young nurse in Yorkshire at the time, had kept during the war.

Then there was his unmissable presence and interventions at many of the monthly public seminars run by Paul Preston at the LSE’s Cañada Blanch Centre. Well into his 90s and whatever the weather, Sam would catch the number 59 bus from Brixton Hill on a Thursday evening to the Aldwych.

Finally, I can picture Sam surrounded by the admiring young cast of Goodbye Barcelona, the award-winning musical telling the story of a young Jewish East Ender, named, you guessed it, Sam, who joins the International Brigades.

In the musical – spoiler alert – Sam dies. Thankfully, the real Sam survived Spain, and all of us in the IBMT who have been inspired or touched by his life must be grateful for that.


Posted on 21 April 2022.

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