The American government and its agencies are currently dealing with the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread surveillance of US and foreign citizens’ communications.
While many earnest people have been perturbed by this perceived infringement of their civil liberties, other countries’ governments’ declarations of shock may be less sincere for a simple reason: States have always spied on one another.
Spying comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, depending on time and place and, of course, who is spying on whom. An aspect of the Snowden leaks that was considered scandalous was that the US was spying on allies with whom it is on good terms—indeed in some cases, alongside which it wages wars.
The act of spying is a quite different matter between enemies at times of war. This most dangerous type of espionage was what a Jew by the name of Leopold Trepper orchestrated throughout Europe during the Second World War.
Trepper wasn’t simply a spy; he was the head—the conductor, if you will—of the Red Orchestra: a Soviet anti-Nazi spy network that operated in Nazi-controlled Europe during the war.
In so doing, Trepper was a kind of communist Daniel in a Nazi lions’ den, operating deep within enemy lines where he was doubly endangered as both an active enemy spy and a Jew.
How did the son of an unsuccessful Jewish businessman from a small town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire wind up managing a spy ring in Belgium, France and even Nazi Germany? He must have had quite the high school guidance counselor.
Leopold Trepper was born in a town called Nowy Targ in what is today Poland to a Jewish family that had in its way attempted to assimilate into the broader, non-Jewish world around it.
“My name, Trepper, shows no trace of my origins. My friends—the Trauensteins, the Hamershlags, the Singers, and the Zolmans—also had Germanized names,” he wrote.
“One day, preoccupied by this question, I consulted the teacher who met with us once a week to give us an hour’s lesson in the history of the Jewish people. At the end of the nineteenth century, he explained, the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been authorized to change their names. German surnames, it was thought, would enable the Jews to be more easily integrated into the Austrian population; even first names were changed.”
Despite efforts to integrate, Trepper and other Jews in Nowy Targ were what Jewish organizations would today describe as “Jewishly engaged:” they participated in youth movements such as Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist-Zionist group, of which Trepper was a member.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Trepper’s family would be interested in socialism and economic justice given the fact that when his father died when Trepper was 12, he and his nine siblings and mother were left almost destitute.
Yet despite the family’s financial woes, Trepper’s mother scraped together sufficient funds to send him to an expensive school in Lvov convinced as she was of her child’s genuine genius.
“It was as if survivors of a shipwreck, floating on a raft in the sea, would give their small food rations to one of their sons, so that he would have the strength to climb to the top of the mast,” the historian Gilles Perrault explains of the family’s decision.
Trepper excelled at school but he was broke and had to work. He took a job as a miner. He also took inspiration from the Russian Revolution and joined the Polish Communist Party. Soon he organized a strike. This political activism was not well received and he found himself imprisoned for eight months. It was like a Communist bar mitzvah: He was officially a political activist.
With Israel today sometimes vilified on the political left, and indeed the political left sometimes vilified by supporters of today’s Israel, it’s easy to forget how closely linked socialism and Zionism once were. But Trepper was both a committed Communist and a passionate Zionist.
“I became a Communist because I am a Jew,” he explained. “I found in Marxism a pragmatic answer to the Jewish question, which had bothered me from an early age. I thought that only a socialist society could put an end to racism and anti-Semitism, and would make the complete cultural development of Judaism possible.”
On his release from prison, Trepper immigrated to pre-state Palestine with Hashomer Hatzair. There he joined the Palestine Communist Party and agitated against British colonial rule. Again, his actions did not go unnoticed. Once more, he was punished: this time, the British authorities expelled him.
Back in Europe, Trepper went to work in France on behalf of another underground leftwing political group, until—no prizes for guessing—the French authorities busted him and broke up the organization.
From France, Trepper traveled to Russia (and remember, this is in the days before frequent flyer miles!) where he joined the Soviet foreign military intelligence service, roughly equivalent to a Russian CIA or Mossad.
In 1938 Russian intelligence sent him to Belgium from where he directed underground operations in Germany, France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland, and organized the anti-Nazi network the Germans themselves called the Red Orchestra.
It was the eve of World War II and the globetrotting Trepper was posing as a Canadian businessman looking at industrial opportunities around Northern Europe. As part of the ruse he set up real but spurious companies in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere, which he used as a cover and source of income by selling products on the black market.
The network had agents throughout Europe and was gathering plenty of good intelligence. Indeed as early as 1940, the Red Orchestra warned Moscow of Nazi plans to invade the Soviet Union—plans that would become Operation Barbarossa in summer 1941—warnings that Stalin ignored. “Week after week, the heads of Red Army Intelligence received updates on the Wehrmacht’s preparations,” Trepper explained.
The group provided information on German military fortifications and troop movements on the Western Front as well as the East. And Trepper himself acquired information on the morale and attitudes of German military figures, troop movements, and military plans by posing as a German businessman and schmoozing well-connected Germans at social events.
At other times, Trepper—a Jew operating in Nazi-occupied Europe, let’s not forget—went about what was ostensibly the day-to-day life of a Canadian industrialist in the midst of a world war.
One day, in late 1942, he went to the dentist in Paris. Sitting in the dentist’s chair, the story goes, although he might have been leafing through an old copy of French Reader’s Digest in the waiting room, Trepper was arrested by the Germans.
The Germans had figured out that the Red Orchestra, as they called it, was an important network and that Trepper was a key figure—as evidenced by the fact that none other than Hermann Goering personally interrogated and tortured him.
The Nazis imprisoned Trepper and tried to turn him: to enlist him as a double agent that would provide Moscow with misinformation from prison.
However through subtle hints embedded in his communications Trepper succeeded in letting the Soviets know that he had been turned. Not only that, but in 1943 he managed to escape from prison and flee to a retirement home in the suburbs of Paris, where he hid out. He was 39.
“I noticed that many of the pensioners had difficulty, no less than I, maintaining their role as unfortunate old people,” Trepper recalled. “There were definite signs which attested to their real age and situation. All of us—and this never ceased to worry me—were forced to evade the curiosity of the Germans…indeed, it was a very strange ‘old-age home.’”
The Nazis put up posters of Trepper with the heading “most dangerous escaped spy;” meanwhile he hid out until Paris was liberated in August 1944. His worked apparently successfully completed, he returned to Moscow—whereupon he was arrested as part of the Stalinist purges.
Trepper was imprisoned on nebulous charges. He remained in jail once more—having already been imprisoned in Poland and France, he could’ve written a rough guide to Europe’s prisons—for 10 years, only barely avoiding execution, the fate of countless others.
On his release, Trepper returned to the Poland of his youth where he headed up the Jewish Cultural Society and helped published Jewish books. Although his life was financially comfortable, it was politically tenuous—especially after the resurgent Polish anti-Semitism after the 1967 Six Day War.
Trepper once more decided to immigrate to the Middle East, to make aliyah to Israel almost 40 years after he had first moved to Palestine. But the authorities obstinately rebuffed his efforts. Only after significant international pressure were Trepper and his wife allowed to join their children in the Jewish State.
He finally arrived in Jerusalem in 1974, having travelled via London and Denmark. The following year, he published his autobiography. A few years later, in 1982, Leopold Trepper died in Israel aged 78.
“I do not regret the commitment of my youth,” he wrote. “I do not regret the paths I have taken. In Denmark, in the fall of 1973, a young man asked me in a public meeting, ‘Haven’t you sacrificed your life for nothing?’ I replied, ‘No.’”
“‘No’” on one condition,” he added: “that people understand the lesson of my life as a Communist and a revolutionary, and do not turn themselves over to a deified party.”