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.
Peter Wright, a senior figure in MI5, explained in his book, Spycatcher (1987) that Trepper was one of a group of "great illegals" that included Ignaz Reiss, Walter Krivitsky, Theodore Maly, Arnold Deutsch, Richard Sorge, Dmitri Bystrolyotov, Henri Pieck, Hans Brusse and Alexander Radó. "They were often not Russians at all, although they held Russian citizenship. They were Trotskyist Communists who believed in international Communism and the Comintern. They worked undercover, often at great personal risk, and traveled throughout the world in search of potential recruits. They were the best recruiters and controllers the Russian Intelligence Service ever had."
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.