Leopold Trepper

Leopold Trepper

Leopold Trepper, the son of Jewish parents, was born in Novy-Tang, Poland, on 23rd February, 1904. His father, who was an unsuccessful businessman, died in 1916. Despite their difficult economic situation, Trepper’s mother sent her son to secondary school in Lvov.

In his autobiography Trepper recalled his childhood: "My name Trepper, shows no trace of my origins. My friends - the Trauensteins, the Hamershlags, the Singers, and the Zolmans - also had Germanized names. 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."

After leaving school he moved to Krakow to study history and literature, but he was force to leave because of a shortage of funds. Trepper worked as a miner. Inspired by the Russian Revolution he joined the Polish Communist Party. I n 1925 he organised an illegal strike at Dombrova. He was arrested and spent eight months in prison. In 1926 Trepper migrated to Palestine. He remained a member of the Communist Party and worked against the British until being expelled in 1928.

Trepper now moved to France where he worked for Rabcors, an illegal political organization, until it was broken up by French intelligence. Trepper escaped to Moscow where he was recruited by the NKVD. For the next six years he worked as a spy in Europe. In 1939 Trepper established the Red Orchestra network and organised underground operations in Germany, France, Holland and Switzerland.

Red Orchestra worked closely with the French Communist Party and succeeded in tapping the phones of Abwher in France. Trepper was also able to provide detailed reports on the plans for a German invasion of the Soviet Union.

In the spring of 1942 the first Red Orchestra agents were arrested in Belgium. Some agents broke under torture and the Germans were able to liquidate the network in Belgium, Holland and Germany. The Red Orchestra's headquarters were raided in November, 1942. Trepper managed to escape and remained in hiding until Paris was liberated.

Trepper returned to Moscow in January, 1945. Joseph Stalin ordered his arrest and was kept in prison until 1955. He moved to Poland where he became head of the Jewish Cultural Society. After many years of trying, Trepper was eventually granted permission to emigrate to Israel in 1973 where he published his autobiography, The Great Game.

Leopold Trepper died in Israel in 1982.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Leopold Trepper wrote about his Jewish background in his autobiography, The Great Game (1977)

My name Trepper, shows no trace of my origins. My friends - the Trauensteins, the Hamershlags, the Singers, and the Zolmans - also had Germanized names. 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.

(2) Leopold Trepper was brought up in Novy-Targ, a small town in Galicia that at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Jewish community in Novy-Targ, which was about three thousand strong when I was a child, had been in existence since the founding of the town in the Middle Ages. The district was inhabited by very poor peasants, who had to struggle to extract a meager subsistence from unproductive land. In the villages the people only ate bread once a week. The daily fare was potato pancakes and cabbage.

On Sunday, the peasants came to Novy-Targ by the hundreds to attend mass; they carried their shoes on their shoulders and did not put them on until they were just about to enter the church. The Jews who tilled the land were no better off- for them, too, a pair of shoes had to last a lifetime.

The number of people who left for the United states and Canada increased with every year. Hoping to find the new Eden, they prepared joyously for the long voyage. I can still see them, the collars of their shirts wide open over what passed for suits. They carried little wooden suitcases, and they looked proud in their magnificent bowler hats.

(3) Leopold Trepper, the head of the Red Orchestra, kept Joseph Stalin and the Red Army informed of the planned German invasion of the Soviet Union. He wrote about this in his autobiography, The Great Game (1977)

On December 18, 1940, Hitler signed Directive Number 21, better known as Operation Barbarossa. The first sentence of the plan was explicit: "The German armed forces must be ready before the end of the war against Great Britain to defeat the Soviet Union by means of Blitzkrieg."

Richard Sorge warned the Centre immediately; he forwarded them a copy of the directive. Week after week, the heads of Red Army Intelligence received updates on the Wehrmacht's preparations. At the beginning of 1941, Schulze-Boysen sent the Centre precise information on the operation being planned; massive bombardments of Leningrad, Kiev, and Vyborg; the number of divisions involved.

In February, I sent a detailed dispatch giving the exact number of divisions withdrawn from France and Belgium, and sent to the east. In May, through the Soviet military attaché in Vichy, General Susloparov, I sent the proposed plan of attack, and indicated the original date, May 15, then the revised date, and the final date. On May 12, Sorge warned Moscow that 150 German divisions were massed along the frontier.

The Soviet intelligence services were not the only ones in possession of this information. On March 11, 1941, Roosevelt gave the Russian ambassador the plans gathered by American agents for Operation Barbarossa. On the 10th June the English released similar information. Soviet agents working in the frontier zone in Poland and Rumania gave detailed reports on the concentration of troops.

He who closes his eyes sees nothing, even in the full light of day. This was the case with Stalin and his entourage. The generalissimo preferred to trust his political instinct rather than the secret reports piled up on his desk. Convinced that he had signed an eternal pact of friendship with Germany, he sucked on the pipe of peace. He had buried his tomahawk and he was not ready to dig it up.