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Leopold Trepper was born to a Jewish family on February 23, 1904, in Nowy Targ, Poland (part of Austria-Hungary in that time). His family moved to Vienna, Austria, when he was child. After the October Revolution he joined the Bolsheviks and worked in the Galician mines. In 1923, he organized a strike in Kraków and was imprisoned for eight months.
Trepper moved from Poland to Palestine in 1924 as a member of the Zionist socialist movement Hashomer Hatzair. He joined the Palestine Communist Party and worked against the British forces in Palestine. He was identified as a communist agent and expelled in 1929. He went to France and worked for an underground political organization called Rabcors until French intelligence broke it up in 1932.
Trepper escaped to Moscow and worked as a GRU agent for the next six years, traveling between Moscow and Paris. He escaped the Stalinist purges with support from Soviet military intelligence, one of the few forces still relatively immune from Stalin's influence and where the influence of old Bolsheviks remained strong.
In 1938, Trepper was sent to organize and coordinate an intelligence network in Nazi-occupied Europe, based in Belgium. The Nazis named it the Red Orchestra (Die Rote Kapelle). Prior to the German attack on the Soviet Union, he sent information about German troop transfers from other fronts for Operation Barbarossa through a Soviet military attaché in Vichy France. Eventually, the Gestapo uncovered the network and Trepper fled to France.
In France, Trepper established another network, but eventually the Abwehr tracked him down. They arrested Trepper on November 24, 1942 from a dentist's chair. The Gestapo treated Trepper leniently in the expectation that he would serve as a double agent in Paris. It is disputed as to how helpful he was to the Nazis. In 2002 author Patrick Marnham suggested Trepper not only exposed the Soviet agent Henri Robinson but may have been the source that betrayed French resistance leader Jean Moulin. Trepper may have embedded secret hints within his communications that allowed the GRU to eventually deduce that he had been turned.
In 1943 Trepper escaped German custody and went underground. He emerged with the French Resistance after the liberation of Paris. He later claimed that he had contacted the French communist resistance during his imprisonment by Germans.
The Soviets took him to Russia but instead of rewarding him, they locked him up in Lubyanka prison. He vigorously defended his position and avoided execution for unknown reasons, but remained in prison until 1955. Before that, he was personally interrogated by NKVD chief Viktor Abakumov. After his release, he returned to Poland to his wife and three sons. He became a head of the Sociocultural Association of Jews in Poland.
After the Six Day War and the antisemitic campaign in Poland that followed Trepper wanted to emigrate to Israel. The Polish communist government promoted and encouraged the emigration of thousands of Jews at that time, but in the case of Trepper, who wrote a letter protesting the treatment of the Jews, permission was refused until international pressure forced the authorities to allow him and a number of other Jews in a similar situation to leave. He settled in Jerusalem in 1974. In 1975, he published his autobiography, The Great Game. A few years before, a book about the Red Orchestra containing interviews with both Soviets and Nazis had appeared, written by Gilles Perrault.
In the epilogue to The Great Game, Trepper wrote,
I do not regret the commitment of my youth, 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: that people understand the lesson of my life as a communist and a revolutionary, and do not turn themselves over to a deified party.
On Tuesday, 6 December 2011, former MEP Mark F. Watts organised a commemorative event in the European Parliament hosted by Peter Skinner, a senior British MEP, to mark the 70th Anniversary of the raid by the German Abwehr on the Red Orchestra Brussels HQ. The Red Orchestra was probably the most successful spy network in World War II. The raid led to the capture, torture, and execution of over 100 agents. The event included a seminar with Hans Coppi, Jr. an expert on the Red Orchestra whose parents were members of the RO, and were executed by the Gestapo, Natalia Narochnitskaya Ph.D., Prof., a doctor of historical science, an expert on international relations around World War I and World War II, and a prominent public figure in Russia, Rabbi Avil Tawil, Director of the European Jewish Community Center in Brussels, and Lital Levin, an Israeli journalist and relative of Leopold Trepper. Other experts and relatives of the Red orchestra and the Resistance also contributed to the seminar. There was a commemorative reception. The Russian Ambassador to the EU, H.E. Vladimir Chizhov, was guest of honour. The British Ambassador to Belgium, Jonathan Brenton, the Israeli Ambassador to Belgium H.E. Jacques Revah, and the German Ambassador to Belgium H.E.Eckart Cuntz attended.
- Leopold Trepper and H. Weaver, The Great Game: Memoirs of the Spy Hitler Couldn't Silence (New York, New York: M.W. Books Ltd., 1977), pages 171-172.
- Patrick Marnham Resistance and Betrayal: The Death and Life of the Greatest Hero of the French Resistance Random House ISBN 978-0375506086 (2002) in "Postscript"